Direct mail redux?

Back in those far-off, ancient days before the internet, there used to be something called ‘direct mail’. Think of it like a physical version of email; a “letter” and a “brochure” were put into an “envelope” and sent to the customer. If your data selections were good, your copy compelling and your offer attractive, the customer would respond and you’d make a sale. You’d then tweak the variables and set up another direct mail campaign, wait for the results, and so on. You could get a reasonable degree of personalisation and, if you spent a lot more money, the personalisation could be increased through things like digital printing (think of it like dynamic content – because that’s what it was).

With the advent of the web and email and online marketing the degree of personalisation has increased and the cost of doing it has fallen. We know more about our customers and their preferences and we can tailor their experience of our site or communications to match what they’re interested in (or what we believe they are – the two aren’t always the same). And because the cost of doing this stuff is fixed rather than incremental, we can set something up and leave it to run; the variable costs come in getting people to our site in the first place, or in generating leads.

This is all background to this piece that appeared in the Guardian today: “Royal Mail’s online shopping trial sparks fears of junk mail deluge“. There are two responses to this: 1) that’s interesting (the concept) and 2) FFS (the response).

The concept is pretty straightforward. If you abandon a basket during a transaction a physical letter can be triggered. This is simply an extension of current abandoned basket emails or retargeting ‘stalker’ ads. It’s obviously only going to work if you’re an account holder of some sort and logged in, or if there’s data matching done between your email address and a database of physical addresses. Presumably a digitally printed letter showing the product that I’ve abandoned will be sent to me, or I’ll receive some form of standard communication with a pre-printed brochure. It’s going to be considerably more expensive than digital retargeting, but for big ticket items I can see that it would be well worth a trial.

The response though. First the Guardian headline of “junk mail deluge”; this is too expensive for most products so the pool of companies that are likely to even trial it is very limited. I suspect that even among those that do there will be very few that get it to pay its way. Then we come to the ludicrous quote from Daniel Nesbit of Big Brother Watch “These plans mean that not only will people be bombarded by targeted adverts, they could also be deluged by letters, often with no knowledge of why or how Royal Mail have got hold of this information.”

If I get a birthday card from my mother (10 July by the way, if you want to buy me a present) I don’t ask how Royal Mail came by my address, nor does this question arise if First Direct send me a bank statement, nor even if Virgin Media send me yet another of their tedious solicitations to take their cable service. I’m aware that the person who sends me the letter is responsible for it and that my postman is simply the delivery mechanism. I don’t think that my privacy has been invaded by said postman walking up to my front door.

Or as the Royal Mail spokesman clearly states: “Royal Mail is carrying out a direct marketing trial with a retailer, based on its contacts with existing customers who have given their permission to be marketed to.”

Daniel, with so many other invasions of our privacy, generating cheap headlines about a small marketing test should be beneath you. FFS.

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