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Avoid Mail Fail

Key Takeaways:

  • Direct mail is a unique channel. What works in digital channels may not translate into DM success.
  • Without proper testing methodologies and a multi-drop roadmap, mailers risk expensive failure and limited learning.
  • Focus on key response drivers early on in your testing.
  • Set up attribution and analytics before you mail to ensure that you can read results.
  • A comprehensive Leap and Repeat test plan is often the fastest path to rollout and profitability.
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Eight killer mistakes that can threaten the success of any DM program

Thinking about testing a direct mail program for your company, but not sure what to test first — or how to test at all? Or maybe you stuck your toe in the water and ran a program that you thought would work, but it didn’t — and you’re not sure why it failed, or what to do next.

Direct mail is a unique channel in terms of how we think about both creative and data sets. Translating winning strategies, targets, and content from other channels can help guide a test, but tests often fail because the test plan and execution didn’t account for the uniqueness of the channel.

When clients eager to break into the channel come to Gunderson Direct, we often start by debunking some direct mail myths. This helps them think differently about the channel and its potential. We also make sure to establish what it takes to win at direct mail, and that often leads to a conversation about what we know doesn’t work.

1) Unreal expectations

Direct mail is more of a marathon than a sprint. Small wins turn into big wins over time, so the first attempts need to be more about learning than profits. Unlike digital channels — where you can start very small and grow incrementally — direct mail requires a different mindset. You need to test multiple formats, offers, and data sets early on in order to find the combination most likely to pay out over time.

2) Trying to learn too much at one time

Overly ambitious first mailings can cost a lot and yield little — both in terms of financial returns and learning. Test what you believe to be the most important response levers first. Make sure your test design and segment size allow you to read statistically significant results. Plan for multiple mailings, so you can prioritize and build momentum.

3) Tracking the wrong success metrics

Direct mail is a top-of-funnel channel. The end goal of an ROI based on conversions is important, but in the early stages the goal should be to generate leads.

4) Poor (or biased) attribution

Think through data collection and what will be matched to a mail file before the mail goes out. That includes how response data is collected, and your attribution rules. Direct mail data sets are based on physical addresses. If you’re not collecting addresses, you need to plan some additional steps.

A last touch bias — common in digital marketing — does not properly account for the influence of direct mail, which often results in an online search or website visit even when vanity URLs and 800#s are offered. Think through fractional attribution for responders who got mail but chose their own response channel.

5) Rushing the process

Direct mail lead times, from conception to mailing, are 8–10 weeks and, depending on complexity, can be longer. First-time mailers need to appreciate the time frames required to analyze data, research data sets, build models, and process data for mailing. Likewise, direct mail creative takes generally longer to develop and finalize than online initiatives.

Roughly three weeks of that timeline is for production — to accurately proof, print and personalize a mailing — none of which can start until final data and creative files are delivered to the production facility. Don’t compromise the likelihood of success by rushing the upfront data and creative work.

6) Focusing on the wrong things for the early tests

We start with data. Since DM data sets are unique, testing into multiple segments based on modeling — or a single factor response analysis of your database — is really job one.

When it comes to creative, most companies coming to the channel already have an established brand and value proposition, plus creative in other channels that has successfully driven response. Copying and pasting other channel content into direct mail is seldom successful, but we can certainly learn from it. Of greater value is testing formats and creative exploration that gets the mailing opened and read. We’ll test postcards versus letters versus snap packs with similar overall messaging to see which works best to generate a lead.

7) Missing out on DM response dynamics

Direct mail is the only channel that combines a physical aspect (eye–hand engagement) that can be highly personalized and accommodate messaging of practically any length. Due to this unique engagement dynamic, once we dial in what works, conversion rates are typically higher than in other channels.

Direct mail creative needs to focus on the benefits that pull readers through to valuable offers and clear calls to action. Consider that, in practically every case, a mail recipient has to be motivated to respond through a channel other than the mail — usually by going online or calling. Successful direct mail carefully balances information with actionable content.

8) Short-term planning

A ‘one and done’ planning process typically leads to failure. A test plan should be a map of what to test, how, and when in multiple drops — with flexibility built in to reflect ongoing learnings. There is a natural latency in direct mail between conception and learning. The goal is to roll out an effective and efficient mail program that continues to iterate — and improve — over time. 

Avoid ‘Mail Fail’ with Gunderson Direct’s Leap & Repeat

Leap & Repeat is a multi-disciplined approach we’ve developed for clients either new to direct mail, or who want to take their program to the next level. It’s designed to help you learn faster — and make smarter decisions — with the goal of maximizing channel effectiveness and learning while minimizing the timeframe to rollout.

Interested in trying out direct mail and adding it to your marketing mix? Then drop us a line. We’re standing by to answer any questions you might have, and most importantly, to help you get your mail opened.

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Jeff spent 5 years running the account group at Gunderson Direct before becoming the agency’s first COO in September 2021. He’s played a significant roll in the growth of the agency client base and in helping to manage growth across agency departments.

He is a 25+ year veteran and strategic thought leader in direct marketing who headed up two independent direct response agencies prior to joining Gunderson Direct, including Wayfinder, which he founded and ran for fifteen years.

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