Get Your Junk Out of My Mail
by Chad Rueffert

"The paradox of our industry is that even as direct marketing is more and more attractive to us as marketers it has become less and less appealing to consumers.  In spite of our stepped-up efforts to address consumer needs and preferences, response rates are declining."

That's a quote from an article by J. Walker Smith and Craig Wood of Yankelovich, a marketing consultancy specializing in lifestyle trends and customer targeting solutions.  But what they describe is not truly a paradox.  Rather, direct marketing is less appealing to consumers specifically because it is now so attractive to marketers.  New marketing approaches have success in the beginning in part because they are new.  But success breeds imitation, and familiarity breeds contempt.  We now have so many direct mail pieces in our mail each day that offer nothing new, nothing exciting and are destined to line the walls of our trash receptacles unopened an unnoticed.  Yankelovich may be stepping up their efforts to address consumer needs and preferences, but most of the people using direct mail marketing are not.

I doubt you can remember the first time you received an envelope in the mail and opened it to find an actual, bona fide credit card with your name on it and the words "You're Approved!" in big, bold type on the enclosed letter.   It was effective and impressive then.  Now, I sometimes get several credit card offers in the mail in a day, none with an actual card in it, and most with so much legal and financial wrangling in them that I can't tell if it's a good offer or not.

Here's the true paradox:  according to Yankelovich, 85% of consumers believe they get too much unsolicited mail, but 40% admit to having purchased something through a direct channel in the past six months.

Despite declining response rates, I can still say wholeheartedly that DIRECT MAIL WORKS.  Look at the results, even though people think they get too much junk mail, they are still responding to it.

There are several reasons response rates are tracking downward.  First, the sheer number of offers the average consumer gets is going up.  You can only buy so much stuff, no matter how many offers you get. 

Second, competition has increased in direct mail.  If your company used to be the only one marketing by mail and recently a competitor got in on the act, it only stands to reason that your response rates are going to go down.  In reality, the amount of your type of product purchased through the mail may have actually risen – you just have less of the direct response market share. 

Third, the pioneers of direct mail had novelty and creativity on their side.  Now it seems everyone is in on the act, and the creativity of the average direct mail piece and the quality of the offer it is making has declined severely. 

Companies entering late into the direct mail game are doing so because someone told them they could expect average response rates of 1-2 percent.  But what too many don't realize is that it is not the direct mail campaign that is getting a 1-2 percent response, it is the quality of the product and the offer being made that generates the response.  The letter or postcard is simply the information vehicle.  Simply sending 100 letters will not guarantee you 1 or 2 new customers!

"Consumers aren't looking for an end to direct marketing per se so much as they are looking for an end to bad direct marketing…The old strategy of ignoring consumer objections and just muscling our way into view doesn't work as well or as profitably any more," say Smith and Wood.

Direct marketing, especially for certain types of companies and products, is still one of the most effective ways to communicate with your prospects and turn them into customers. Peter Webb, chairman of Response Direct Publishing, defended in an interview the proliferation of junk mail by saying, "No one objects to newspapers containing hundreds of different ads or if the same ads appear repeatedly.  However, if the same approach is taken with direct mail, sections of the DM community frown on the mass mailers."

Ah, there's the key.  Early newspaper advertising looked much like our current classified sections – simple text announcing a product or service for sale.  As more and more ads filled up the page, some creative types began adding bold letters, drawings, photos and color.  My mailbox is now a tubular, metal advertising vehicle, full of advertisements competing for my attention.  Credit card offer with an interest rate that jumps from 0 to 18% in one month?  Junk.  Non-descript white envelope with no return address and my name spelled incorrectly?  Trash.  Victoria's Secret catalog?  Quick glance at the pictures and then into the trash. 

But what about a colorful postcard featuring a mouthwatering photo of a cheesy pizza and a 50% off coupon when my fridge is empty?  Bingo.  Send me something I want, in a format that catches my attention, and give me a good reason to buy it right now, and you've made a sale.  Try to trick me, insult my intelligence, sell me something I don't want or need, then your direct mail gets smashed down in the bag next to the coffee grounds and egg shells.

If you're planning a direct mail campaign, keep this in mind: if you send out junk, it will be treated as junk.  As response rates drop, junk mail will soon become a thing of the past.  Savvy, successful marketers will begin narrowing their lists to include only people who meet their target profile.  Mail pieces will be creative and engaging, perhaps even entertaining!  Offers will be sincere, easy to act on and provide a true benefit to the consumers who receive them.  And the companies who do these things will continue to find success with direct mail.