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Pinpoint-accurate print cuts through the digital noise

The strength of printed marketing collateral is in its ability to target a very specific audience and make them take notice, unlike so many digital rivals

The health of the print industry as a whole can, some say, be measured by the health of one of its largest sectors: direct marketing. Unfortunately for print, the figures for DM are, at least on the surface, not exactly encouraging.

According to the Direct Marketing Association’s annual door-drop report, published in September, the overall volume of direct mail decreased from 7.9bn items in 2010 to 6.9bn in 2011. Despite a small rise during 2009, volumes have declined by more than 40% since 2005. The total mass of door-drop material similarly fell by about half over a 12-month period, from 222,000 tonnes in 2010 to just 108,000 in 2011.

And yet, as any politician will tell you, figures can be misleading. The trouble with numbers is that they are often supplied without the contextual information that would make sense of them. These figures for printed direct marketing are a good case in point: they don’t tell anywhere near the whole story – for printed direct mail is actually more efficient and more necessary than perhaps it ever was.

The headline-grabbing falls are thought to be partly a result of growing pressure on direct mail to become more efficient in a tougher economic climate, with tightened belts meaning resources increasingly being focused on the specific types of retailers, customers and products for which a print campaign is going to deliver most value.

“I think now, instead of just thinking digital or print, marketers decide which communication is best to achieve their objectives, whether that’s email, pay-per-click advertising, direct mail or any other form of communication,” says Ann McLaughlin, business services director at the print-services supplier APS Group.

For campaigns that do stick with print, it has meant having to change with the times. “The way we see it, the industry is very different to where it was 10 years ago,” says Fraser Church, head of marketing at DST Output UK, a direct-mail printer that sends out up to 4m items a day. “Ten years ago, it was big carpet-bombing campaigns. Everyone gets everything the same, and it was numbers that counted. You’d sometimes not be able to get through your front door because of the amount of marketing material. What we’ve now found is that, with the economy, people are looking at the best use of marketing expenditure.”


Competing messages

Church points out that ours is an age in which people consume multiple media all at the same time – whether watching TV, working or playing with a laptop or tablet computer or texting friends on a mobile phone. Having so many demands on our time dilutes the amount of attention that we pay to individual messages – among a cacophony of competing media, it becomes harder for any of them to force their way through. Print, however, can still cut through the noise.

“Many marketers are finding that electronic communications don’t get the response rate that a well thought-out print campaign can do,” says McLaughlin. “People are deluged with email mailouts and just delete them, while website banner ads are so easily ignored. Both emails and banner ads have very low click-through rates, which confirm this. However, a beautifully designed quality piece of print can really stand out in a marketing campaign, or for business cards or invitations. You can’t beat print for pure quality, and something that you can physically hold.”

Print is not so easily ignored. Whereas emails can get caught in a spam filter or be deleted at the click of a mouse, householders have to go out of their way to opt out of any unwanted unaddressed mail such as flyers. Equally, not only is personalised DM more likely to cross the householders threshold, once it’s on the doormat its physical presence ensures brand and consumer interaction – even if the later decides not to open the envelope.

“Print performs the ‘physical’ role,” explains Alistair Ezzy, the business development director at GI Solutions Group, a DM manufacturing house whose output includes one-piece mailers for brands such as Tesco Clubcard. “It gets through a letterbox, which most people only have one of, people go and pick it up; they open it, and they keep it on the side to be used straight away or for use later on. And there’s not the easy ability to push a delete key, so it can carry a strong marketing message on the outer envelope. You get the best of both worlds: you get to put across your brand, and also to put across a direct marketing message to engender a response. You can bring in personalisation, with digital technology, that relates to that person’s demographics, location and purchase history, so it’s a very relevant piece of paper.”

Far from replacing print marketing, the easy information-gathering that the web provides is allowing marketers to do more with less. “If you’ve spent some money buying a product with a retailer or an online store, then the marketer knows a bit about you. They know where you live; they know a bit about your lifestyle; and they can actually create communications customised for those people,” says Ezzy. “So I can see the huge-volume acquisition stuff reducing, but the one-to-one communications increasing. So the value’s just going to move across into a different product.

“We still run a lot of million-plus campaigns for acquisition, because people still want to acquire customers; they still don’t know a lot about them, so they need to send out a relatively low-cost message to a specific set of people, but when they get them on board, they then want to communicate with them in a more targeted way and make it a more relevant communication. And the ability to process data and the ability to get that information on paper has increased. So they’re getting a more cost-effective result than previously, because technology has come on quite a lot over the past three or four years.”

The aims of direct mail print campaigns vary, and effectiveness depends on both product and audience. Door-drops such as the Clubcard are used to drive footfall in-store, getting customers into the shop and spending money – without having to print out an emailed voucher themselves and then take it into a bricks-and-mortar retailer. But print can also be useful for online services, simply by alerting people to their existence. “Netflix, for example, used a lot of door-drop communications, as well as TV advertising, when it launched in the UK. That meant people could actually read about it and then log in online to take up the offer and to see what it’s all about,” explains Ezzy.

For big, expensive buys, such as cars, kitchens or holidays, print still dominates. Although a customer might visit a website or showroom, most turn to printed brochures to properly consider such large purchases at their leisure.

Much the same is true of university prospectuses: although 80% of them are requested online, those orders are being made to be sent traditional paper booklets – it’s understandable in the case of such a life-changing decision to want to thoroughly examine the available options, and print allows that to a greater degree than the web.


Teen test

It’s possible that items such as university prospectuses are aimed at parents – a demographic that, having not grown up with electronic gadgetry in every pocket, may be more accustomed to having things down on paper. But perhaps surprisingly, teenagers may be more receptive to print than they are to email or text-message marketing, simply because of its rarity – they tend to receive little mail.

“Younger age groups really value print,” says Church. “When something arrives for them it’s like the most wonderful thing, whereas they’re bombarded with hundreds of electronic messages every day. What we’re seeing is that younger age groups are kind of embracing it because they not used to receiving it – it’s something that does stand out in an age of multimedia.”

Getting a handle on the intended audience and their needs is what will enable print to thrive in a predominantly digital age. “It’s understanding the customer, the end-user,” says Church. “It’s important not only in the age profile but also where in the purchasing cycle they are, and where in that customer journey a piece of print has relevance.”

And relevance is really the story behind the figures mentioned at the start of the feature. Volumes of direct mail have gone down because, quite simply, a lot of what was being produced was not relevant. What we have now is a smaller volume that works harder and hits the right people.

And yet by smaller volume we are still talking a massive slice of marketing budgets and that tells its own story – print remains not just a valued medium for marketers, but increasingly it is an essential one, as in the hail storm of digital communications, print is proving an umbrella of difference that grabs the attention.

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