For Millennials, Direct Marketing Books Aren’t Catching Up

Lucy and Ethel on the Chocolate Factory conveyor belt faced a daunting task. That’s what it must like to try to create a current direct response marketing book.

direct marketing books
Direct marketing books | Credit: Chuck McLeester

Lucy and Ethel on the Chocolate Factory conveyor belt faced a daunting task. That’s what it must like to try to create a current direct response marketing book.

I’ve been teaching as an adjunct for more than 10 years — mostly advertising research and marketing courses. But only recently have I had the opportunity to teach a class devoted entirely to direct response. When I began to put the course together for Rowan University, I was looking for a general direct marketing book that students could acquire inexpensively (used on Amazon or another used book site) that I would supplement with additional resources. I came up empty.

The available direct marketing books rely heavily on mail as a medium with a lot of content about lists and crafting direct mail letters. I could only imagine the eye-rolls I’d be looking at standing in front of a group of Millennials talking about direct mail lists.

The standards I’ve relied on for years, Ed Nash’s “Direct Marketing” and Bob Stone’s “Successful Direct Marketing Methods” (updated by Ron Jacobs) haven’t been revised since 2000 and 2007, respectively. Lisa Spiller and Martin Baier had published a textbook for Pearson, but the third and most recent edition from 2010 is out of print. Some books, like Dave Shepherd’s “The New Direct Marketing” (1999) and Arthur Hughes’s “The Complete Database Marketer” are focused on database and response modeling, the precursors to algorithmic targeting. Richard Tooker’s “The Business of Database Marketing” is very practitioner-focused, and other titles are specific to subsets of direct marketing, like “Managing Customer Relationships” by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers (2011).

The newer online marketing books focus on driving clicks, web analytics and retargeting, but they don’t address the fundamental principles of allowable acquisition cost and customer lifetime value.

There’s nothing that brings together online marketing with traditional direct response principles.

I combed through my library of DR books, reached out to publishers and even purchased a few things on Amazon.

For a moment, and just a moment, I considered writing one. Then I realized that with the amount of new information coming at marketers every day, I would be stuffing chocolates in my mouth and under my hat — like Lucy and Ethel.

Direct, Data-driven Marketing Increase Brand Equity

I may be a ripe heretical candidate to be barbecued at the stake by my more conservative direct marketing colleagues, but I’ve come to the conclusion that communications which enhance brand equity should be accounted for as such, and that this value must be part of and added to the data-driven marketing equation.

Opening Keynote - Dinosaurs & Cowboys: Direct Marketing Secrets Every Marketer Needs To Know Whether You Are Selling Online, Offline or Both
Direct marketing may be an older technique, but it’s relevant and adds to brand equity
Check out even more about personalization and artificial intelligence with FUSE Enterprise.

Back when direct marketing was a tribal affair and its warriors and their acolytes were constantly on the field of battle against the trendy “mad men,” it was a heresy to even consider that any marketing action that didn’t have a measurable call to action was anything but pure waste. The image purveyors had a monopoly on all of the glamor and all of the money. And they could laugh off that eternal question attributed to Lord Leverhulme: “I know half of my advertising expenditure is being wasted, but no one can tell me which half.”

Long before we had computers to churn all of the numbers, our DM tribe boasted that we could exactly determine whether the advertiser was getting his money’s worth by dividing the total advertising expenditure in each medium, or even each specific ad, by the number of measurable sales generated. When a campaign was running, the first place to stop when one got to the office in the morning was the mailroom, because that’s where the orders were.

Until the last decade of the 20th century, the concept of valuing “brand equity” didn’t exist. If you owned Coca Cola or Nescafe, what the brand was ‘worth’ was measured almost totally by the sales and profits generated in the marketplace. In 2006, “The Journal of Consumer Marketing” published an important academic article, “Measuring Customer‐Based Brand Equity” which made a compelling argument that “brand equity positively influences financial performance.” Even the most hidebound direct marketing professionals had to recognize this reality, even if they found it convenient to ignore it in their own work.
Recently, working on a project to present the results of a broad multi-media campaign to a company with the recommendation that it be expanded, one of the factors arguing for that expansion was an analysis of the return on the marketing investment (ROMI). The combined press media and digital campaign invited the reader/viewer to an attractive homepage, which both told the advertiser’s story and offered the next step in the journey — registration to receive a free series of ‘content’ publications and videos.

Peter's media response analytsis
(Note: In Brazil, where this article was written, in the templates, commas denote decimal points and ‘.’denote the commas used to separate thousands.)

Using the standard media response template, it was easy enough to put costs against each of the site visitors and registrants. For the advertiser’s $60,000, he received 5,300 visitors; and of these, 2,060 people registered to receive the additional content. Although it had been established by the client that the lifetime value of a purchaser would average $250.00, because there was no direct sale of the product (although one could have been promoted with an incentive coupon, etc.), the problem was how to show the advertiser what he had gotten for his money.

To value the campaign, we had to start with the concept that only a percentage of the registrants would be “buyers.” So we built a simple “sensitivities” table, ranging possible conversion percentages Peter's blog post chartand established the sum of all of the costs that would be necessary to effect the conversion, had the client wished to promote a direct conversion. Looking at the number of likely sales from the sensitivities table, even being conservative and saying that only 40 percent or 824 would become buyers, the cost per sale at $54.88 would be acceptable: a lower cost would be better.
There is an old saying that: “The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next.” If it were a direct marketing heresy in the past to ascribe any value to the frequency a consumer came in contact with a brand message if this could not be traced to a measurable sale, perhaps we ought to revisit this and, in our new digital age, this might be transformed into orthodoxy. That said, how can we reasonably and fairly determine the added brand value: What price should we put on each head?

Another Peter blog post chart

Economics teaches that the value of something is what a willing buyer is prepared to pay for it. If the willing buyer is prepared to pay $5 per thousand to send out email messages, then is it really a heresy to say that these communications have a positive value in conveying the brand message — adding to the brand equity — to the analytically selected audience? Note that in the campaign results summary above, we have valued the 20 million brand impressions at $60,000, almost the entire amount the advertiser paid for the campaign. Adding this to the hypothetical $206,000 of revenue earned from sales means that the ROMI is 3.9 times.

I may be a ripe heretical candidate to be barbecued at the stake by my more conservative direct marketing colleagues, but I’ve come to the conclusion that communications which enhance brand equity should be accounted for as such, and that this value must be part of and added to the data-driven marketing equation.

Learn even more about the convergence of technology and branded content at the FUSE Enterprise summit. Artificial intelligence and personalization will be featured among many other techniques and technologies.

Direct Marketing: An Rx for Medication Non-Adherence

Direct-to-patient communications are an effective tool for overcoming barriers to adherence. Educating patients about how their medication works in simple language can go a long way to helping them realize how and why to take it.

healthcare marketingCiting a review in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine, the New York Times recently reported that people do not take their medication as prescribed. “This lack of adherence is estimated to cause 125,000 deaths, and at least 10 percent of hospitalizations, and to cost the American healthcare system between $100 billion and $289 billion a year.”

This news was not surprising to me. I know from professional experience that many prescriptions are never filled (20 to 30 percent according to the article), and that regardless of the condition for which the medication is prescribed, after three months only about 40 to 50 percent of those prescribed long-term medications are still taking them. I also know from controlled testing that direct marketing techniques can improve patient adherence with medications by 20 to 25 percent.

There are many reasons why people don’t take their medication. Forgetfulness is not significant among them. So medication calendars, special pill bottle caps and refrigerator magnets can have only a marginal effect. Refill reminders from pharmacies and Rx brands are not effective, because the most significant reasons for non-adherence are psychological:

  • Medications remind people that they are sick, or have a medical condition; many people would rather ignore or deny that. They see taking medications as a sign of weakness.
  • Medications are viewed by some as chemicals that are bad for the body in contrast to “natural” remedies, like fish oil or vitamins.
  • Medications for silent conditions, like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, don’t make people feel any different. So they see no benefit in taking them.
  • Many times people do not understand why they are taking a particular medication or how long they’re supposed to take it. Doctors do not have the time to adequately explain it. The standard physician visit is scheduled for 15 minutes, and according to another Annals of Internal Medicine study cited by Forbes, “even when in the examination room with patients, doctors were spending only 52.9 percent of the time talking to or examining the patients and 37 percent doing paperwork. In other words, shrink that 15 minutes to under eight minutes.”

Direct-to-patient communications are an effective tool for overcoming these barriers to adherence. Educating patients about how their medication works in simple language can go a long way to helping them realize how and why to take it. The stakes are high, and the stakeholders who stand to benefit most from increased adherence (besides the patients themselves) are insurers, healthcare providers, pharmacies, and pharmaceutical manufacturers. Each of the stakeholders has their own roadblocks for mounting an effective program, which I’ll explore in a future post.

The Elements of Great Direct Marketing

The elements of great direct marketing have mostly remained unchanged. Target an audience, make an emotional connection, offer them what they want, make it easy for them to order, measure response and learn from the experience so you can do it better next time. The “All About Direct Marketing Virtual Conference” is built to show the elements of great direct marketing in today’s marketing environment.

There was a time when the term “direct marketing” pretty much only meant direct mail, because that was the only addressable channel out there. Then, of course, came direct space ads, radio and TV, telemarketing, and finally, the Internet.

Throughout them all, the elements of great direct marketing have mostly remained unchanged. Target an audience, make an emotional connection, offer them what they want, make it easy for them to order, measure response and learn from the experience so you can do it better next time.

Always be improving, optimizing, expanding the audience while better targeting what you send them.

These ideas are no less essential today than they were 50 years ago.

What is a little different is how to employ them.

Audiences online are easier and cheaper to reach thanks to all the digital channels. But they’re less defined by their demographics than their interests and self-perception. Getting them to engage and trust you is a totally different challenge; one that often has to be met by proving the authenticity of your brand more than offering a simple satisfaction guarantee.

All About Direct Marketing

The “All About Direct Marketing Virtual Conference” is built to show how the elements of great direct marketing are still essential to succeeding in today’s marketing environment.

Targeting an audience: The show kicks off with our reigning Marketer of the Year Windsor Hanger Western, who’s built her empire on connecting with college-age women — she’ll talk about how to connect with the upcoming generation Y and Z audience. And the show closes with Julie Rezek, President North America for the Hacker Agency, sharing her world-renowned insights about how marketers should be connecting with women today.


Making an emotional connection: “5 Emotions That Fuel Sales and How to Tap Into Them” (with Mandy Marksteiner) and “Color Psychology and How It Can Make or Break Your ROI” (with Jeanette McMurtry) will show you how to connect with your audience.

Offer them what they want and make it easy to order: That may be very specific to your audience, but Gary Hennerberg’s “10 Ingredients for Your Video to go Viral” and Summer Gould’s “Bring Direct Mail to Life With Interactive Elements” will show you how to make direct marketing that breaks through the clutter and demands a response.

But perhaps the best part about attending All About Direct Marketing is that it’s entirely free and online. You can watch it right from your desk, couch, coffee shop or wherever you want, as demonstrated by Melissa Ward:

I guarantee John Wannamaker was never able to do that!

The elements of great direct marketing may be timeless, but the environment you market in is constantly changing. Join us on May 4 to learn how to bring those elements together and market better today.

How to Overcome Resistance With Direct Mail

The biggest challenge for marketing, no matter what the channel, is driving response. One of the best benefits of direct mail is that it has an easier time overcoming the resistance to responding. Of course, not all direct mail works. How can you get your direct mail to drive a better response? Let’s look at four tips.

The biggest challenge for marketing, no matter what the channel, is driving response. One of the best benefits of direct mail is that it has an easier time overcoming the resistance to responding. Of course, not all direct mail works. How can you get your direct mail to drive a better response? Let’s look at four tips.

4 Ways to Overcome Resistance to Your Marketing With Direct Mail

  1. Emotion: Start by addressing the emotions people have about making a purchase. They have fear about the unknown. Give them some testimonials from people like them that loved your product or service. They have some anger about having to deal with this now and the urge to procrastinate about it. Provide benefits for them to see how great it will be after the purchase and give them a deadline to respond by. Finally, you need to address the self-doubt they are having. Are they making the wrong decision? Will it work? You can help reinforce them with compliments and positive messaging.
  2. Experience: Use the direct mail piece to create and experience for your customers and prospects. There are many ways you can do this such as adding video, augmented reality, texture and so much more. Hands-on experiences are powerful. The most important part here is that the experience is relevant to your product or service and is engaging and fun.
  3. Trust: People buy from companies they trust. Your direct mail needs to be trustworthy. In order to do that you need to be clear about what they can expect from your product or service. You need to be very open and honest with your messaging while keeping your tone optimistic. This is another place where testimonials really help. People believe other people like them. Another factor is repetition. It really does take eight to 10 touches with prospects before they feel comfortable buying from you. Keep in mind that multi-channel marketing can help you here. In many studies over the years direct mail has been the top trusted marketing channel so use that to your advantage.
  4. Focus: The focus of you direct mail piece should be on converting the people who are ambivalent into buyers. They are the quickest way to increasing your response rates. They are not a full on “no,” they are a “maybe.” Find out the ways to reach them specifically to address the three ways above. When you are able to address all their concerns you can get them to act and buy from you.

Keep in mind that you are asking people to make a change when they buy from you. Many people do not like change and that is why your messaging is so important. Grab their attention with your design, but get them to buy with your message. The four ways discussed above will help you drive your response rates up, but the only way to sustain growth over time is to be driven and consistently changing what you are doing. Yes, you should be sending mail to people multiple times, but not the same thing — you need to change it up.

The real power of direct mail is targeting. When you add variable data messaging to your highly targeted list, you are tapping into a persuasive method. Make it easy for them to respond by providing them an offer that is relevant, a web address they can make a purchase from that is mobile friendly, and any other ways you want to provide a phone number they can call. The easier it is the more response you are going to get.

Top 3 Questions I Hear About Direct Marketing

Clients and friends who are traditional marketers often seek my advice on direct response. Here are the answers to the three questions I hear most frequently:

Unknown peopleTraditional marketer clients and friends often seek my advice on direct response. Here are the answers to the three questions I hear most frequently:

Question No. 1: What Kind of Response Rate Should I Expect?

There are response rate benchmark studies published by the DMA and others, usually organized by industry and type of offer (lead generation, free information, cash with order, etc.). These reports can provide you with some guidance in setting your expectations, but they can just as easily lead you astray. How? If you’ve seen one campaign, you’ve seen just that: one. But some marketers fall into the trap of applying previous results to various campaigns.

Your response rate is driven by three factors, listed here in order or importance:

  • Media: If you don’t get your message in front of the right people, your response will suffer. It is the single most important driver of response, so choose wisely.
  • Offer: What’s your value proposition to the prospect? Simply stated, your offer says, “Here’s what I want you to do, and here’s what you’re going to get when you do it.” If your offer is not appealing or relevant to the prospect, the response — or lack thereof — will reflect that. Also, keep in mind that soft offers, which require little commitment on the part of the prospect (e.g., get free information, download a whitepaper, etc.), will generate a higher response than hard offers, which require a greater commitment (request a demo, make an appointment with a sales rep, payment with order, etc.).
  • Creative: It’s hard for traditional advertisers to believe that this element is lower in importance than the first two, but it is. And the biggest driver of response from a creative standpoint is a clearly stated prominent call to action.

Question No. 2: We Have a Strong Campaign Coming Out of Market Research. My Client/Management Wants to Get This Out As Quickly As Possible. Why Do I Have to Test?

Three reasons:

  • You may have a well-researched creative position but it can be executed in a variety of different ways (see the third bullet under Question No. 1, above). Furthermore, your market research couldn’t predict the response rates from different media. But knowing whether email lists, websites or social media fare best for your audience and offer will be crucial to generating the highest response rate.
  • You want to be able to optimize the three factors above to determine which combination gives you the most qualified leads at the lowest cost per lead.
  • Most importantly, you want to avoid a potentially catastrophic result if you’ve gotten one of the three key elements wrong. It’s better to do that with a small quantity rather than a full-scale effort. It’s always disconcerting to hear people say, “We tried direct. It didn’t work.” Keep in mind that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen one. Previous successes and shortcomings won’t apply when you tweak the context.

Question No. 3. How Big Should My Test Be?

Your test should be large enough to produce statistically significant results. There are two parts to this: the confidence level of your results and the variation you’re willing to accept.

There are statistical formulas for calculating sample size, but a good rule of thumb to follow is that with 250 responses, you can be 90 percent confident that your results will vary no more than plus or minus 10 percent.

For example, if you test 25,000 emails and get a 1 percent response rate, that’s 250 responses. That means you can be 90 percent confident that (all things held equal) you will get between 0.9 percent and 1.1 percent in a rollout.

A smaller number of responses will result in a reduced confidence level or increased variance. For example, with a test size of 10,000 emails and a 1 percent response rate at a 90 percent confidence level, your variance would be 16 percent rather than 10 percent. That means you can be 90 percent confident that you’ll get between 0.84 percent and 1.16 percent response rate, with all things being held equal.

Remembering Herschell Gordon Lewis, Master of Marketing and Gore

We found out yesterday that Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away in his home in Florida. He was 90 according the The New York Times … 87 according to the BBC. It’s fitting that two such reputable news organizations on different sides of the world can’t agree on when he was born, because reputable people often saw entirely different sides of Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Herchell Gordon Lewis, president, Lewis Enterprises
Herschell Gordon Lewis

We found out yesterday that Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away in his home in Florida. He was 90 according the The New York Times … 87 according to the BBC.

It’s fitting that two such reputable news organizations on different sides of the world can’t agree on when he was born, because reputable people often saw entirely different sides of Herschell Gordon Lewis.

There was the “Godfather of Gore” Lewis eulogized in those articles above, who revolutionized film making by proving that the bloody spectacle could carry a film and bring out audiences for low overhead and high ROI.

That Lewis inspired the likes of Clive Barker, Wes Craven and Quentin Tarantino.

And there was the Lewis who was the “Godfather of Direct Marketing.”

The Lewis who wrote dozens of direct marketing books, gave lectures and seminars all over the world, and was recognized as one of the industry’s greats by just about every marketing/advertising/copywriting association in existence.

Lewis’s work in movies may be more widely known, but in terms of economic impact, I think the New York Times and BBC are burying the lead. Lewis’s real legacy is in the what he taught companies about how to talk potential customers; how to get their attention and convince as many of them  as possible to follow through on the purchase.

The Intersection of Marketing and Art

To me, Herschell Gordon Lewis — more than anyone else in the industry — embodied the nexus of marketing and pop culture.

Copywriting was the thread that tied his movie and marketing career together, of course. The same leap that allowed him to identify what audiences wanted in a cheap exploitation film also allowed him to identify the USP, benefits and essential offer of the products he wrote for. The same copywriting that got kids to the drive-in to watch the gory spectacle of Blood Feast could get any target market to buy just about anything he was selling.

Herschell Gordon Lewis, The Godfather of Gore
Herschell Gordon Lewis, The Godfather of Gore

About his films, Lewis used to say, “If you live long enough, you become legitimate.”

But in the world of marketing, Lewis didn’t need a lifetime to become legitimate. His work as a copywriter was so well crafted and targeted than anyone with their eyes on the bottom line could vouch for his legitimacy.

My start in magazines came from covering pop culture — mostly games, comics and anime. Moving from that world into business publications and marketing, I realized early that there’s a magic business people can do when they meld their passions into the elements of a seemingly bland career.

In that sorcery, Lewis was our Merlin.

A Curmudgeon’s Last Words

A few months ago, Lewis reached out to me about finding a new home for his Curmudgeon at Large copywriting and direct marketing column. I was honored, even a little worried that the blog space we had available for it wouldn’t be able to give him a satisfying vehicle for the piece. Herschell was, after all, a legend in our industry and obviously one of the best writers I’ve ever edited (an exclusive club that includes Bob Bly and the great Denny Hatch).

But we worked out the details, and I’ve been proud to have The Curmudgeon at Large blog running on our website and in our newsletter for a couple months.

As he described it:

“I’m sitting on a ready-to-go column that in my opinion — as unbiased as a self-generated opinion can be — is the most informative and most dynamic pile of logical motivational concepts I’ve ever excreted from the keyboard.”

I only wish it could go on longer.

We have one more post from The Curmudgeon scheduled to run on October 20. That will be our last goodbye to Herschel Gordon Lewis.

It’s weeks away, but still far too soon.

4 Ways to Push the Envelope

Remember that when creating your next campaign: Outer envelopes are your storefront. If no one enters, even the best salespeople inside — your well-written letter and brochure — can’t do their job. So how do you push the proverbial envelope creatively?

So you’re walking down the street, window shopping, but not looking for anything in particular.

One store is bland and uninviting. Another appears completely irrelevant to your personal lifestyle. Then you’re stopped in your tracks outside another place. Wowed. A colorful sign catches your eye. There are balloons too, and one of them has your name on it! A handwritten chalkboard out front invites YOUR family to come play a fun game inside. So you all do. Eagerly.

That store is OPEN for business. And if it was a direct mail envelope, it’d probably get opened too.

Remember that when creating your next campaign: Outer envelopes are your storefront. If no one enters, even the best salespeople inside — your well-written letter and brochure — can’t do their job.

So how do you push the proverbial envelope creatively?

1. Get Noticed

Kansas Postcard

Color. Unusual shapes. Stand out from the crowd, and overcrowded mailbox, with a little something extra. This postcard targeting Kansas college-age students isn’t just bright and sunny (literally COVERED in sunflowers). Any resident would also recognize it as the actual die-cut shape of their home state. Which connects instantly with the offer to attend nearby University of Missouri at in-state rates.

2. Get Personal

Get PersonalWith today’s variable data and imaging, one-to-one marketing should be your No. 1 tool. Far from simply inserting YOUR NAME HERE, you now have the ability to tailor every aspect of a mailing. How about offering a personal Web address, or PURL, to make ordering easier? Or creating artwork with their name on it that they just might keep awhile?

Good example: Thule Cargo Carriers sent out mailings to car owners. But not just any drivers; those who ski. Their data research not only identified recipients’ hobbies, but also what KIND of vehicles they had — which were then depicted on personalized outer-envelopes fully-loaded for a trip to the slopes. Smart.

3. Get Sticky

Get StickyNo, don’t try to catch more customers with flypaper. Involve them. With stickers, decals, stamps, Post-it notes or removable appointment cards. It might seem silly, but people like to peel, punch out, lick and stick, and have a little fun sometimes. Yet a lot of times, they work remarkably well for a wide range of marketers, from publishing and fundraising to high-end financial services.

4. Get Real. Or Not

CardsYep, that sounds like a contradiction. Many effective mailings get opened because they appear substantial. The real deal. They might have an actual membership card included, so your prospect just HAS to look because there’s something valuable inside. Or it’s printed on laminated card stock, not something flimsy. That must be important too, right?

FauxThe “Not-So-Real” approach that still gets real results? Faux Mailings, designed to look like official, time-sensitive documents — perhaps from a government office or express mail service. For B-to-B mailings, they can work particularly well for getting past office gatekeepers.

In closing, be open. There’s nothing wrong with a plain white professional-looking envelope. Until it gets ignored. Open yourself to all the options available, and you’re more likely to open wallets too.

Want to learn more and see more examples? Download the DMDays @ Your Desk 2011 slide deck that copywriter Pat Friesen and I presented together, chock-full of visual examples to get your creative juices running!