The Bowels of the Mail Beast

While my duties have shifted (radically) over the past few months, I still review our giant mailbag (over 1,000 pieces a month) in order to uncover the trends in direct mail, along with finding intriguing new pieces or others that have stood the test of time. Recently, I took a look inside many of these increasingly colorful mailers to see what trends were popping up.

While my duties have shifted (radically) over the past few months, I still review our giant mailbag (over 1,000 pieces a month) in order to uncover the trends in direct mail, along with finding intriguing new pieces or others that have stood the test of time. Recently, I took a look inside many of these increasingly colorful mailers to see what trends were popping up.

First, just like the outside, the slimmed-down approach is also visible inside, with more 2-page letters instead of 4-page letters, for example. More reply cards are perfed to the letter, which usually means that the letter is only one page.

I’m also seeing fewer copy tactics like the Johnson box, bolded copy, subheads, margin copy, multiple P.S., etc. It’s almost as if the marketer no longer believes that prospects 1) have much time and 2) even remember what a letter looks like anymore! Apparently, prospects don’t want to read much, yet with the scarcity of long letters in the mailbox, perhaps the chances for long copy succeeding are actually better than ever today?

Funny enough, the letters — long or short — with shorter paragraphs and readable font (that’s large enough, even up to 14 pt.) still strike me as the most effective. The small, cramped copy in long paragraphs on a single page are a turn-off, in my opinion, compared to the letters that still take their time, lead with a great story, etc.

Of course, many mailers these days don’t bother too much with story and simply get right to the punch, with their offers, their missions, etc. They often start with the reply card as the first thing the prospect sees when cracking open the envelope. This seems ludicrous to me, but it happens more and more.

Component-wise, there are fewer of them. Buckslips are an endangered species, while brochures are holding steady, largely because they sometimes replace letter copy entirely, or at least in part. Freemiums are also disappearing, but when they do appear, they’re less bulky and likely to be simple things like a bookmark, decal, a certificate of appreciation, etc. Even address labels have decreased, while calendars have become rare.

Postal service in Finland tries an experiment that direct marketers will despise

Did you see this story about Finland’s postal service? They’re conducting an experiment with a small group of customers, in order to cut down on pollution and overall costs, in which all household mail is opened by postal employees in a “secured” location and then scanned and sent by email to the customer. I suppose, in the age of Facebook, that people don’t mind having other people eyeing their personal mail.

Did you see this story about Finland’s postal service? They’re conducting an experiment with a small group of customers, in order to cut down on pollution and overall costs, in which all household mail is opened by postal employees in a “secured” location and then scanned and sent by email to the customer.

I suppose, in the age of Facebook, that people don’t mind having other people eyeing their personal mail … and that it’s hard as hell to open an envelope by ourself. The UK Telegraph writer begins the story smartly, sounding the alarm bells: “Not even the most intimate love letters, payslips, overdue bills and other personal messages will be spared under the controversial scheme.”

Of course, few of us get love letters anymore, but that doesn’t mean we relish the idea of others checking out our credit card bills. One commentator on a forum called the experiment straight from the KGB play book. (KGB seems a little extreme; I’ll go with Orwellian, instead.) We like our privacy, and it’s why the U.S. Postal Service continues to get such high marks from Americans: Our mail arrives where it’s supposed to, and nobody opens it. Likewise, we receive mail that’s retained its seal. When that seal is broken, so is our trust.

For the volunteer Finns, they can actually get their mail pieces delivered to them, but after it’s been resealed … by a stranger. Creepy, methinks.

The direct marketing community, meanwhile, must frown on such an experiment. Reducing a well designed mail piece to a measly email? Now that’s a lousy deal.

For now, some private companies are offering such services to consumers, such as Earth Class Mail, which originally brought the idea to Swiss Post, and Zumbox, which also scans your mail and then puts it into your Zumbox email box.

But since marketers will be charged anywhere from 2 cents to 5 cents per mail piece on Zumbox, I don’t see that many companies wanting to foot that bill for essentially an upgraded email. Again, it simply robs direct mail of its true “landing” and “feeling” power. They’re acting like the recipient is the beneficiary, but we all know that it’s Zumbox … while customer and mailer alike have their relationship digitally reduced.

And like my colleague Hallie Mummert said to me, “Who’s going to sign up for yet one more inbox via which to receive non-targeted junk mail?” People still like mail, maybe even more so now because there are many ways to control the flow, but people are getting rather sick of email. So in some ways Zumbox, and certainly Finland, may even be behind the curve.

What’s In the Mail???

This is my first blog, ever. But it comes now, with a distinct purpose to posit my views about the exploding direct marketing landscape, including direct mail. The maxim “Change or Die” has never been more relevant, and being relevant has never been more alive.

This is my first blog, ever. But it comes now, with a distinct purpose to posit my views about the exploding direct marketing landscape, including direct mail. The maxim “Change or Die” has never been more relevant, and being relevant has never been more alive.

Over the past few years, I’ve limited my written opinions to my monthly column in Inside Direct Mail. Now that IDM is now online in an enewsletter format and DirectMarketingIQ has been launched, this blog is the place where I will more frequently opine, offer the occasional whine and try to entertainly cover the topics of the day. If anything, I hope to start a dialogue with some of you and give you something useful each time I write. I’m certainly not into wasting my time or yours.

My first entry is, logically, about the mail and what I’ve observed over the past year. Even though overall mail volume in down, I still review close to 1,000 mail pieces a month that spill into our Who’s Mailing What! Archive. It can be an exhausting but fun exercise to see what mailers are doing to stand out in the pack.

With squeezed budgets, I’ve definitely seen fewer oversize formats and, instead, many more slimmed-down mailers. The big Kraft envelopes are hardly seen anymore (a fact that makes them a good candidate to resurrect, of course!), magalogs have slipped in number, and the lumpy packages that nonprofits loved to mail have similarly dwindled.

In their place are more economical efforts that are using more 4-color, more with VDP, more attention-getting one-color outer envelopes in orange or yellow (or even black), strikingly more that utilize both sides of the outer, and certainly more self-mailers, especially postcards. Also, more windows are being employed, including full-size windows that showcase the copy inside, including even the back of envelopes. And along with more VDP, more personalized imagery is being employed to connect with the prospect. On the rare side, I’d place blind outers, shape mailers, formats that use obviously recycled material (such as bioplastic), reuseable envelopes and even the brown-bag mailer.

Staying with a discussion about the outer, copy hasn’t changed too much. Teasers are not employed as often, seemingly, with color and imagery getting more play. Mostly, when they do appear, they appear in the expected places — above the address on the front of the outer. Offers, of course, still shout from the many outers, giving prospects no choice but to open the envelope. A few efforts do push the envelope, pun intended, with more outrageous copy than in the past and sometimes using the back of envelope for part of the provocative message to get the envelope opened.

What will the rest of 2010 hold? More mail with personalized URLs, even more color, more variable imagery, shorter copy (alas), etc. I’m hoping to see more inventive efforts, using great DM tactics, and taking advantage of the fact that less mail crowds each mailbox. We shall see …