Empower Your 2020 Political Direct Mail With These Tips

It’s that time again for political direct mail planning. Are you the one planning to win your election? Did you know that a USPS commissioned survey in 2018 found that 68% of voters believe direct mail to be the most credible source of political outreach?

It’s that time again for political direct mail planning. Are you the one planning to win your election? Did you know that a USPS commissioned survey in 2018 found that 68% of voters believe direct mail to be the most credible source of political outreach? (Opens as a PDF) You need to build a strategy that raises awareness, builds a following, and motivates voters. What is the best way to do that? Using a combination of direct mail, social media, Google ads, and YouTube ads to engage voters both offline and online will enhance your results.

Because 73% of Americans prefer the first contact to be by mail, you need to be in the mailbox before early voting ballots go out. Are you prepared with a realistic timeline? You should also know that 55% of voters use mail to decide how to vote. If you are not in the mailbox you are missing out on a huge opportunity. Yes, direct mail is expensive, but it more than pays for itself with big ROI.

So what should you include in your mail piece?

  • Stance on important issues
  • Contrast with an opponent
  • A list of endorsements
  • Important voting information, such as deadlines
  • A picture
  • Color
  • Personalization

You may think that the best way to win is to mail to every registered voter. But really, your best bet is to mail to only active voters. These are the people who will mail in ballots or show up at polling stations. You need to convince them to vote for you: Do not waste your money on the others. What size mailer should you send to them? Use a large piece, such as an 9 x 12, because oversized pieces have been shown to increase response rates by 10.4%. They really stand out in the mailbox.

As you are designing and writing copy, keep in mind that your text should be concise and easily scanned. The best designs use bolding, italics, color, and contrast to draw the eye to important content. The easier you make it for people to quickly understand what you are saying, the more effective your mail piece will be. Direct mail is better understood, remembered, and acted upon when you use best practices. After you design a piece, send a PDF to your mail service provider to review for potential postal regulation issues before you print. You do not want to waste money on postal penalties.

Remember, unlike a business that sells products or services, which has the ability to sell them over a long period of time, political mail needs to convince people quickly to either support or not to support a candidate or a proposition. You can also add texture to your mailers to give people a reason to hold your mail piece longer. A very popular one is the soft touch coating, which feels like velvet. People can’t help but pet the paper. Lastly, make sure that you use personalization on your mail pieces. It makes people feel more important and makes your message more personal to them. Are you ready to get started?

4 Ways to Cultivate an Effective Direct Mail Experience

What direct mail experience do your customers and prospects get when they receive your mail pieces? The first moment when they touch and interact with your mail piece is the moment when you either get a second look or get tossed into the trash.

What direct mail experience do your customers and prospects get when they receive your mail pieces? The first moment when they touch and interact with your mail piece is the moment when you either get a second look or get tossed into the trash.

How many of your pieces are going into the trash? Probably more than you think, especially if you are sending to prospects who do not have a history with you. How can you turn your direct mail into a positive experience for prospects and customers?

4 Ways to Improve the Direct Mail Experience

  1. Personalization — This is more than just using a name: your offer, images, and copy should all be tailored to each individual and their needs. This means your data is crucial to get personalization right. You need to capture as much information about customers as possible, beyond just purchases.
  2. Touch — Direct mail is a great way to engage people with touch. There are so many options to add texture. Now, you can really make paper feel like just about anything you want it to. Tactile experiences are powerful, so take full advantage of them: Because other marketing channels are unable to give that experience.
  3. Visual — This is more than just images, it is your color scheme, and layout, too. You want to draw attention and keep it consistent with your messaging. If you are unsure of what the colors mean and how best to use them in marketing, refer to our post on colors. You can now include special effects inks to really get a pop in visual appeal.
  4. Something Different — People crave unique experiences. When you can provide something new and build curiosity around it, you have natural engagement. Get creative here! This can be augmented reality, video, die cuts, special folds, or anything you can think of.

Keep in mind that creating an experience with your mail piece is not all about entertainment, it is about engagement. The longer they spend interacting with your mail piece, the more your message resonates and gets acted upon. It is also about enhancing your message, not distracting from it. Many times, we focus too much on snazzy concepts, which take away from the message, instead of using the concept to boost the message. When you are able to integrate the experience with your message, you drive an increase in response rates.

Be bold and try something new. It does not have to cost a lot of money, but it does need to drive engagement in order to work. To maximize your potential, try personalization along with one of the other three, you will see a lift in results. Are you ready to get started?

5 Messaging Tricks to Drive Direct Mail Response

We all need to reach ever-increasing direct mail response rate goals. This is a challenge. Although your customers and prospects really like to get mail, you need to make sure that what you send is relevant to them.

We all need to reach ever-increasing direct mail response rate goals. This is a challenge. Although your customers and prospects really like to get mail, you need to make sure that what you send is relevant to them.

Your design grabs attention, but does your mail piece drive enough response? So what can you do differently to increase your response rates? Sending your pieces to the right people is No. 1; but, your messaging is very important, too. How much time do you spend crafting your messaging?

Consider the following when crafting your message:

  • Create Your Core Idea Core messages help people to avoid bad choices by reminding them of what is really important.
  • Uncertainty Can Paralyze Decisions The more we reduce the amount of information and choices in an idea, the more it will resonate.
  • Create Analogies Analogies make it possible to understand compact messages, because they are based on concepts people already know.
  • Create Surprise Unexpected ideas resonate more, because surprise makes us stop and think.
  • Avoid Logic Common sense messaging is not remembered. Why bother? We already know it.

Beyond the ideas above, there are other areas we can focus on that drive direct mail response. Human curiosity requires us to find answers, because it is a gap in our knowledge that we must fill. To get people to be open to our messaging, we need to provide a question that they can’t answer without the information we are about to give them. What people don’t know can be used to entice them to respond to your direct mail.

In order to create interest for a more complex idea or situation, you need to use a clear structure, vivid examples, and fluid language. You should then create a sense of mystery. This will grab attentio,n because people need closure; they will have to read your mail piece to solve the mystery. Make sure to provide clues to assure people they are getting close to the answer. When you do, it compels them to finish in order to get the answer.

Keep in mind that an abstract message is hard to understand and remember. Make sure your messaging is clear and concrete. Concrete language helps people understand new concepts and appeals to the senses. It should appeal to sight, smell, touch, taste, or hearing. The best messages are full of concrete words and images. Some examples are words like tart, cold, green, coarse, or fork. They are real and can easily be seen in the mind.

To make your message even more effective, shift from a “provide information” tactic on your mail piece to a “what questions can I ask” tactic. What do we mean by this? You need to create questions that get people thinking and questioning their own knowledge. You want them to need you to help them. The choice is clear, they need you. Of course, you also need a sense of urgency to get them to respond right away and a call to action that resonates.

Are you ready to get started driving a better direct mail response rate?

4 Factors That Cause Google Ads Campaigns to Fail

Google Ads campaigns can be a very effective way to generate leads if you know what you’re doing. The problem is that many people jump into Google Ads blindly. They figure Google will lead them through the steps and instantly, they will start getting sales and phone calls.

google ads campaigns
Creative Commons license. | Credit: Pixabay by lukasbieri

Google Ads campaigns can be a very effective way to generate leads if you know what you’re doing. The problem is that many people jump into Google Ads blindly. They figure Google will lead them through the steps and instantly, they will start getting sales and phone calls.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Google Ads can be a lot like riding a bull. You jump on the bull, and you think you got it. But all of sudden, it starts jerking around, and you immediately see that it really isn’t as easy as it looked at on TV. After a few close calls, the bull flings you off and you hit the ground. All you can do is look up at the bull and think, “What just happened?”

Some businesses spend thousands of dollars on Google Ads every single month and don’t see nearly enough return on investment. Many businesses vow to never use Google Ads again because it’s “a waste of money.” The reality? Often the campaign failed because of common mistakes many beginners make.

Knowing what factors contribute to failing campaigns is important for success. Learn them now, so you can get back on the bull, and take it by the horns next time.

1. Using Too Many Keywords

Don’t get greedy with keywords. You only need the ones that will reach your target audience interested in your products and services. Adding other keywords will not lead to more business, but instead, drain your budget.

Some key takeaways here are:

  • Focus on “buying-intent” keywords, not “research-intent” keywords. Ask yourself, is the person more likely to be searching this keyword in order to make a purchase or to do research?
  • Use Phrase and Exact match keywords. By default, Google will use Broad match keywords which means your ads will show for any search Google thinks is related to your keyword. Don’t let Google decide how to spend your money!
  • Let your conversion data guide your bidding decisions. Bid more aggressively on the keywords that are driving leads and sales and lower bids on keywords that are not converting.

2. Bad Ad Copy

Once you’re targeting the right keywords, then the next area to focus is your ads. People have limited attention spans, and if those ads don’t spark their attention, they will move on. As Seth Godin would say, “Be Remarkable!”

Plus, focus on benefits. People always want to know how something will benefit them. So, ask yourself: How does my product or service benefit customers? It’s the benefit that you want to market — not the product or service.

Lastly, make your ads congruent with the keywords and website landing page. Ultimately, this means you’ll need different ads for all the different keyword phrases you want to target. If your ads are not congruent, or relevant, then your prospective customers are not likely to click. Even worse, if your ads are not congruent with your landing page, then the prospective customers who do click are going to quickly leave, because the message on the website doesn’t match the message in the ads.

3. Insufficient Ad Budget

With Google Ads, there is no minimum budget. However, depending on your industry and the keywords you want to target, the cost per click for your ads can vary from $1 to $10 or even $50 or more. If the cost per click for your keywords is on the lower end at $2, then you can generate 500 clicks for $1,000 per month. But if your keywords cost $20, then that same $1,000 budget will only generate 50 clicks per month.

Fifty clicks are not going to give you much data to work with in order to optimize your campaign month after month.

Another way to look at this is to calculate your daily budget. If your monthly budget is $1,000 and you want your ads to display every day of the week, then your daily budget is about $33. Again, if your keywords cost $20 per click, then you would only be able to generate one click per day! That’s just not enough; you’ll need to increase your budget and/or limit the days your ads will run during the month.

4. Not Spending Enough Time Managing the Campaigns

Google Ads campaigns aren’t like Crockpot meals. You can’t set it and forget it.

Your campaigns need attention. They need nurturing. This is true whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned veteran.

A lot can change in just a day or two. New competitors can start advertising and increase the cost per click of your keywords and steal impression share. Alternatively, competitors may leave or run out of budget, which gives you an opportunity to lower your bids to get the same amount of traffic for less! Unless you’re closely monitoring, you’ll miss these important changes that affect the profitability of your campaigns.

Conclusion

OK, let’s review what we’ve learned here.

Don’t try to attack every keyword you can find for your campaigns. Instead, use the best buying-intent keywords for your target audience. When you create ads, be sure to highlight the benefits of your products and services. Don’t over-promise anything, and match the message of the ad to the keyword and the message of the landing page. Make sure to test out different times to run your ads, as well, if you don’t have enough of a budget to run them all day and night. Finally, manage your campaigns by paying close attention to what works, what doesn’t work and the moves of your competition.

The Smart Marketing Strategy of Direct Mail Psychology

The strategic use of psychology in direct mail can drive amazing results. Did you know that our brain is doing most of its work outside of our consciousness? If we are able to create a good direct mail psychology strategy that enables us to tap into subconscious decisions, we can generate a greater response from prospects and customers.

The strategic use of psychology in direct mail can drive amazing results. Did you know that our brain is doing most of its work outside of our consciousness? If we are able to create a good direct mail psychology strategy that enables us to tap into subconscious decisions, we can generate a greater response from prospects and customers.

How can this work?

  1. Emotional Triggers — Both men and women need emotional engagement for direct mail to work. This requires the use of both good emotional copy and imagery. Segmentation can really help you target the right people with the right emotional copy and images.
  2. Overload — When there is too much clutter of messages, either copy or images, the brain cannot process it. Make sure that you leave white space and use concise copy so that the brain can easily process your message.
  3. Interesting — The brain likes puzzles and humor. Keep them simple for easy understanding. They are effective, with increased engagement.
  4. Women and Empathy — If your audience is women, you need to tap into empathy. Women engage with images depicting faces and direct eye contact. Women also respond to group/community activity images and, of course, babies, too. Some women will pay attention to messages that make life easier, celebrate her or allow her to do multiple things.

A complicated mail message will most likely be ignored by the brain. There are ways to simplify your copy and images to capture attention.

How to Capture Attention

Novelty — This is the No. 1 way to capture attention. Our brains are trained to look for something new and cool. A novel message or layout can really help you stand out in the mail box.

Eye Contact — Humans are social beings. Images of people or animals making eye contact with your prospects or customers grab attention and draw them into the mail piece.

When you are able to integrate a multiple sensory experience into your mail piece, you create a richer and deeper engagement with your audience.

How to use the senses:

  • Vision — A quarter of the human brain is used for visual processing. It is the strongest sense we have. Great images can compel high response rates for your direct mail.
  • Smell — Our sense of smell is hard-wired directly to our memory and emotions. Smells can invoke immediate reactions. This can be harder to do with direct mail, but when used correctly, it is powerful. If you do decide to use a scent, make sure it fits your branding and message.
  • Taste — Although it is possible to make edible direct mail, getting people to actually try it is another story. This is a good sense, but smell can trigger what you need without trying to get people to eat your mailer.
  • Hearing — Adding sound to your mail piece can be a bit costly, but depending on what you are selling, it may be just what you need. For instance, a casino that wants to drive more people to slot machines can send a mailer with the sound of coins dropping.
  • Touch — This one is, by far, my favorite besides vision for direct mail. With our fingertips being the most sensitive to how things feel, adding special textures and coatings can really make your mail piece pop.

As you can see, the brain is powerful and is very good at ignoring messages. Taking the time to consider all of these psychological factors can really help you drive your response rates up. As always, focusing your messaging with targeted segments to really reach the right people with the right message will increase the success of your mail campaigns. Are you ready to get started?

Auto Responders That Knock Your Socks Off

I’m a believer that personality plays an important role in selling. I’m a super Type A person, so I prefer to buy from people and companies that are organized, detailed and competent. But I also like people and companies who have a healthy sense of humor. Silvercar is a great example. A few years ago, my friend Chris and I went to breakfast at a conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. He pulled up in his Audi A4 rental car. “Great car,” I said. Where’d you get it?”

emailI’m a believer that personality plays an important role in selling. I’m a super Type A person, so I prefer to buy from people and companies that are organized, detailed and competent. But I also like people and companies who have a healthy sense of humor. Silvercar is a great example. A few years ago, my friend Chris and I went to breakfast at a conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. He pulled up in his Audi A4 rental car. “Great car,” I said. Where’d you get it?”

“Silvercar. The best rental car company. I use them exclusively now.”

“What makes them so good?”

“Working with them is so easy, and they have a great personality.”

So, I gave Silvercar a try, and they have been my go-to rental car company for the past three years. You may ask, “How does a company have a personality?” Good question. Everything they do is hassle-free, technology-based and fun. My last reservation took one minute and 33 seconds (yes, I timed it). When I got to the lot, I scanned my QSR code on the window sticker, got in and drove away. Easy peasy. No lines. Ever. I actually look forward to getting their marketing emails. They are short, to the point and funny.

Silvercar has taught me the importance of making sure my personality shows through in everything I do, even the way I write my out-of-office emails. I travel a lot for work. I turn on “auto response” before each trip, even if I’m not going to be disconnected much. This messaging is a great opportunity to make someone smile and remind them of my spunk and creativity.

I’ve created a repository of responses that I can choose from based on the time of year and what’s happening in our business. Here’s my latest:


Howdy,

At home working by the fire in slippers and comfys? I wish. Rain check for the week of 12/12 when I return from Texas. I’m going to the birthplace of jazz, casino central (Vegas) and to Dallas to find my friend, a tall cowboy with a six-pack (he’s in need of a hot holiday party date).

If my email has not put you to sleep yet, and you are still in need of things to do to make yourself look busy at work, check these out:

  1. Read the book “Never Eat Alone.” I’m reading it for the third time. Top five on my list of great sales books.
  2. Buy yourself one of these holiday suits. It will help you feel better about yourself and might win you Two-Buck Chuck at your neighbor’s Christmas party. NOTE: They hide curves and fat well.
  3. You really want those new Lululemon pants for hot yoga class, but they are $118. You just don’t have that in your budget. Sounds like you need a raise. Use your boss’s feedback to get promoted. You’re welcome.

BONUS: Do you buy print? Does your team buy print? Want to free up their time so they can focus on other activities? Want to look like a hero? Consider outsourcing your print buying to us. We are pretty cool for being in such a boring industry (at least we like to think so).


Since I’ve started writing fun auto email responders, I’ve been surprised by the increased number of responses. Here’s my favorite response from a prospect, “You are funny. I like the culture you’ve created at your company. It really stands out and makes me want to do business with you. PS: You’ve inspired me to rewrite my out-of-office messages.”

I challenge you to write down five things that make you unique. (Think about your hobbies, activities, books you like to read, etc.) Then, incorporate them into an out-of-office message. After you’ve crafted a message that gets positive responses and motivates prospects, I suggest encouraging each person on your team to write his or her fun and poignant auto responder. I know each team member’s unique personality will shine through. In my humble opinion, that is much better than having one company-wide response. Snore, snore.

The art of people buying from people is not dead.

Caution: You and your team members may knock someone’s socks off.

Is Your Direct Mail Misunderstood?

Are your direct mail pieces engaging with your audience or are you talking over the audience? Do you use lingo that only people in the industry understand?

Are your direct mail pieces engaging with your audience or are you talking over the audience? Do you use lingo that only people in the industry understand?

Acronyms can quickly get you into trouble when people do not know them; especially in the age of texting, your acronym may be misinterpreted. What is obvious to you will not necessarily be obvious to them. This is a big problem if your audience is confused; the chances of you getting your important message across are significantly decreased. Basically, you have turned your direct mail piece into trash.

For the best results, create direct mail that is clear and concise. You have just a few seconds to be understood and engage them to read more rather than toss your mail piece in the trash.

So how can you be sure you are creating the best message?

  1. What Is Your Goal? Do you need to sell so many widgets or get so many phone calls? Clearly define your goal and how you will track results before you start writing.
  2. Write a List About Your Customers: What is their biggest problem? Who are they? What makes them happy? What makes them mad? Again, you need to be specific about them in order to create an actionable persona.
  3. Pick One Main Message: You should theme your entire message around one key idea. It needs to be easy to grasp quickly and be relevant to your audience.
  4. Benefit: Get specific on ONE benefit that they are in desperate need of. Consult your list about your customers to find which benefit will work best. The benefit sells your product or service, not features.
  5. Guarantee: Offer them some type of guarantee to alleviate any buying concerns. This shows buyer that you stand behind your product or service, because it really is the best and they should buy it.

We strongly suggest that you test message versions with different groups of your list. In order to test correctly, you will need to group like people together to get the right message. A benefit that works well for one group may be a dud for another. So take your time in creating the groups and which messages should go to which group. Make sure you can track your responses to see which ones are working best. You can make changes to the ones that had less traction.

Okay. Now you are ready to put it all together and write your messaging. Most of the time, there is still fluff in the message after the first couple of drafts. Go back though everything and eliminate any word that is not necessary. No extra words and no acronyms should be in your final copy. Make sure to have someone outside of your organization read your final copy. You need to see if they understand what you are saying, in the way you meant them to. Usually there is a need for a few more edits.

Your direct mail piece to should be easy to understand, targeted to the right people and with a clear call to action. Never use acronyms on your mail piece, they are too easily misunderstood. Remove long explanations and fluff from your message. You can provide links on the mail piece for them to look up more information if they want to, but most people prefer concise, straight-to-the-point benefits that make them want to buy. Are you ready to get started?

Direct Mail: Remember Me?

How often do your direct mail results end up not meeting your expectations? Does your direct mail resonate with your prospects and customers or fall flat? Do they understand and remember what you said? If not, you have a big problem. In order to avoid this, you need to be creating direct mail that resonates. Let’s take a look at what you can do to reach your maximum potential.

direct mail memory
“When you realize #sunday is almost over & monday is around the corner,” Creative Commons license. | Credit: Flickr by Pink Rhino

How often do your direct mail results end up not meeting your expectations? Does your direct mail resonate with your prospects and customers or fall flat? Do they understand and remember what you said? If not, you have a big problem. In order to avoid this, you need to be creating direct mail that resonates. Let’s take a look at what you can do to reach your maximum potential.

First we will start with the four types of memory, because they are the key to understanding how to improve your direct mail:

  1. Early Bias — These are people who best remember the beginning messaging in a direct mail piece. It is important to get right to the point for these people.
  2. Recency Bias — These are people who best remember messaging that they most recently read at the end of your mail piece. It is important to restate your message at the end without calling it a summary. People skip over summaries.
  3. Repetitive Bias — These are people who best remember direct mail messages that are repeated. It is important to restate what you want them to remember at least three times.
  4. Outstanding Bias — These are people who best remember the part of your direct mail message that is different or stands out in some way. It is important to make the effort to reach these people by using out-of-the-box language.

Where do you think you fall with these four memory types? I will reveal a secret; you should fall in more than one. So how can we use these memory biases to increase direct mail response?

  • Main Point: State your main point right away and end with your main point. Repeat it throughout your message copy. Then find a quirky way to state it that really stands out. This is what you want people to remember.
  • Bullets: If you make a list of bullets, make the most important first, second, second to last and last. You should repeat them in your copy, as well.
  • Stories: Use real stories to show how great life will be when they buy your product or service. People read and remember stories. Just make sure you use the story to highlight your main point and get them to take action.
  • Call to Action: This is another one that should be repeated across the direct mail piece. This is how you get people to respond. Give them more than one way to respond.
  • Images: They should be intriguing and relevant to your messaging. You want to draw attention and help state your message.

When you can bring all of these together cohesively, you have a great direct mail piece. Then it is just up to you to send to the right list of people. By considering your prospect and customer’s memory types, you create a way to really reach each of them in a truly memorable way. If you do not create a mail piece that is compelling it will end up in the trash. Don’t waste your marketing budget on bad direct mail. Your mail service provider can help you spice up your next campaign and increase your response rates with these tips. Are you ready to get started?

5 Direct Mail Messaging Tips

Direct mail marketing has many areas of focus, so sometimes not enough time is spent on messaging. Too many times marketers are quick to try something while not thinking it all the way through. Just as the designer took time to lay out the art, you need to take time to lay out the message.

Direct mail marketing has many areas of focus, so sometimes not enough time is spent on messaging. Too many times marketers are quick to try something while not thinking it all the way through. Just as the designer took time to lay out the art, you need to take time to lay out the message. Thoroughly vetting WHAT you say and HOW you say it, is essential. In order to have your direct mail messaging be effective there are some things you should consider.

Here are five tips for better direct mail messages:

  1. Not Too Wordy: The easiest way to get your mail piece thrown in the trash is to put too many words on it. Think of ways to convey your message using less words. Bullets, color text, bolding and italics can all help to highlight the most important words. The KISS (keep it simple stupid) method is best.
  2. Repeat the Message: The more times a recipient sees the same message the better it is remembered. They are then more likely to respond. Another benefit of repeating the message is that the more often they hear or see it, the more they trust the message.
  3. Focused Theme: In direct mail it is very important to coordinate your message, your artwork, your design and your audience together to form your theme. When any of these is out of alignment it detracts from your message, confuses the recipient and your direct mail ends up in the trash.
  4. Rhyme: People enjoy rhyme. It’s easy to remember and fun to read. When your message rhymes it resonates more with recipients. Have some fun with your messaging. The best part about rhyme is that you can subliminally coax people with your message.
  5. Brand: Your brand is how people identify you. If your message conflicts with your brand people will not believe it. They will not trust your message and may even get angry about it. Take the time to craft your message to your brand.

Think about the last direct mail piece you received and really looked at. What about that messaging was intriguing for you? Usually you can pin point a few key words that stuck out to you. Using that information, how can you tailor your message to do the same thing? What words will grab attention and stand out to them?

All the words you place on the mail piece need to work together toward your goal. Is your goal for them to visit your website? Come to your store? Call you? Or something else? When you have a clearly defined goal it makes it easier to craft your message. Not every mailing will have the same goal, so make sure that when you carry messaging over from other campaigns that you carefully edit it to fit your new goal.

Remember that recycling the message from previous campaigns is good for recognition, so you want to do it. Just make sure that when you do, you are integrating it into the new campaign well. Some wording will need to change and you may need to highlight different key words. Crafting your messaging can be really fun, so take some time and get inspired to be creative.

Don’t Do It Just Because You Can

Don’t do it just because you can. No kidding. … Any geek with moderate coding skills or any overzealous marketer with access to some data can do real damage to real human beings without any superpowers to speak of. Largely, we wouldn’t go so far as calling them permanent damages, but I must say that some marketing messages and practices are really annoying and invasive. Enough to classify them as “junk mail” or “spam.” Yeah, I said that, knowing full-well that those words are forbidden in the industry in which I built my career.

Don’t do it just because you can. No kidding. By the way, I could have gone with Ben Parker’s “With great power comes great responsibility” line, but I didn’t, as it has become an over-quoted cliché. Plus, I’m not much of a fan of “Spiderman.” Actually, I’m kidding this time. (Not the “Spiderman” part, as I’m more of a fan of “Thor.”) But the real reason is any geek with moderate coding skills or any overzealous marketer with access to some data can do real damage to real human beings without any superpowers to speak of. Largely, we wouldn’t go so far as calling them permanent damages, but I must say that some marketing messages and practices are really annoying and invasive. Enough to classify them as “junk mail” or “spam.” Yeah, I said that, knowing full-well that those words are forbidden in the industry in which I built my career.

All jokes aside, I received a call from my mother a few years ago asking me if this “urgent” letter that says her car warranty will expire if she does not act “right now” (along with a few exclamation marks) is something to which she must respond immediately. Many of us by now are impervious to such fake urgencies or outrageous claims (like “You’ve just won $10,000,000!!!”). But I then realized that there still are plenty of folks who would spend their hard-earned dollars based on such misleading messages. What really made me mad, other than the fact that my own mother was involved in that case, was that someone must have actually targeted her based on her age, ethnicity, housing value and, of course, the make and model of her automobile. I’ve been doing this job for too long to be unaware of potential data variables and techniques that must have played a part so that my mother to receive a series of such letters. Basically, some jerk must have created a segment that could be named as “old and gullible.” Without a doubt, this is a classic example of what should not be done just because one can.

One might dismiss it as an isolated case of a questionable practice done by questionable individuals with questionable moral integrity, but can we honestly say that? I, who knows the ins and outs of direct marketing practices quite well, fell into traps more than a few times, where supposedly a one-time order mysteriously turns into a continuity program without my consent, followed by an extremely cumbersome canceling process. Further, when I receive calls or emails from shady merchants with dubious offers, I can very well assume my information changed hands in very suspicious ways, if not through outright illegal routes.

Even without the criminal elements, as data become more ubiquitous and targeting techniques become more precise, an accumulation of seemingly inoffensive actions by innocuous data geeks can cause a big ripple in the offline (i.e., “real”) world. I am sure many of my fellow marketers remember the news about this reputable retail chain a few years ago; that they accurately predicted pregnancy in households based on their product purchase patterns and sent customized marketing messages featuring pregnancy-related products accordingly. Subsequently it became a big controversy, as such a targeted message was the way one particular head of household found out his teenage daughter was indeed pregnant. An unintended consequence? You bet.

I actually saw the presentation of the instigating statisticians in a predictive analytics conference before the whole incident hit the wire. At the time, the presenters were unaware of the consequences of their actions, so they proudly shared employed methodologies with the audience. But when I heard about what they were actually trying to predict, I immediately turned my head to look at the lead statistician in my then-analytical team sitting next to me, and saw that she had a concerned look that I must have had on my face, as well. And our concern was definitely not about the techniques, as we knew how to do the same when provided with similar sets of data. It was about the human consequences that such a prediction could bring, not just to the eventual targets, but also to the predictors and their fellow analysts in the industry who would all be lumped together as evil scientists by the outsiders. In predictive analytics, there is a price for being wrong; and at times, there is a price to pay for being right, too. Like I said, we shouldn’t do things just because we can.

Analysts do not have superpowers individually, but when technology and ample amounts of data are conjoined, the results can be quite influential and powerful, much like the way bombs can be built with common materials available at any hardware store. Ironically, I have been evangelizing that the data and technology should be wielded together to make big and dumb data smaller and smarter all this time. But providing answers to decision-makers in ready-to-be used formats, hence “humanizing” the data, may have its downside, too. Simply, “easy to use” can easily be “easy to abuse.” After all, humans are fallible creatures with ample amounts of greed and ambition. Even without any obvious bad intentions, it is sometimes very difficult to contemplate all angles, especially about those sensitive and squeamish humans.

I talked about the social consequences of the data business last month (refer to “How to Be a Good Data Scientist“), and that is why I emphasized that anyone who is about to get into this data field must possess deep understandings of both technology and human nature. That little sensor in your stomach that tells you “Oh, I have a bad feeling about this” may not come to everyone naturally, but we all need to be equipped with those safeguards like angels on our shoulders.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but apparently, those smart analysts who did that pregnancy prediction only thought about the techniques and the bottom line, but did not consider all the human factors. And they should have. Or, if not them, their manager should have. Or their partners in the marketing department should have. Or their public relations people should have. Heck, “someone” in their organization should have, alright? Just like we do not casually approach a woman on the street who “seems” pregnant and say “You must be pregnant.” Only socially inept people would do that.

People consider certain matters extremely private, in case some data geeks didn’t realize that. If I might add, the same goes for ailments such as erectile dysfunction or constipation, or any other personal business related to body parts that are considered private. Unless you are a doctor in an examining room, don’t say things like “You look old, so you must have hard time having sex, right?” It is already bad enough that we can’t even watch golf tournaments on TV without those commercials that assume that golf fans need help in that department. (By the way, having “two” bathtubs “outside” the house at dusk don’t make any sense either, when the effect of the drug can last for hours for heaven’s sake. Maybe the man lost interest because the tubs were too damn heavy?)

While it may vary from culture to culture, we all have some understanding of social boundaries in casual settings. When you are talking to a complete stranger on a plane ride, for example, you know exactly how much information that you would feel comfortable sharing with that person. And when someone crosses the line, we call that person inappropriate, or “creepy.” Unfortunately, that creepy line is set differently for each person who we encounter (I am sure people like George Clooney or Scarlett Johansson have a really high threshold for what might be considered creepy), but I think we can all agree that such a shady area can be loosely defined at the least. Therefore, when we deal with large amounts of data affecting a great many people, imagine a rather large common area of such creepiness/shadiness, and do not ever cross it. In other words, when in doubt, don’t go for it.

Now, as a lifelong database marketer, I am not advocating some over-the-top privacy zealots either, as most of them do not understand the nature of data work and can’t tell the difference between informed (and mutually beneficial) messages and Big Brother-like nosiness. This targeting business is never about looking up an individual’s record one at a time, but more about finding correlations between users and products and doing some good match-making in mass numbers. In other words, we don’t care what questionable sites anyone visits, and honest data players would not steal or abuse information with bad intent. I heard about waiters who steal credit card numbers from their customers with some swiping devices, but would you condemn the entire restaurant industry for that? Yes, there are thieves in any part of the society, but not all data players are hackers, just like not all waiters are thieves. Statistically speaking, much like flying being the safest from of travel, I can even argue that handing over your physical credit card to a stranger is even more dangerous than entering the credit card number on a website. It looks much worse when things go wrong, as incidents like that affect a great many all at once, just like when a plane crashes.

Years back, I used to frequent a Japanese Restaurant near my office. The owner, who doubled as the head sushi chef, was not a nosy type. So he waited for more than a year to ask me what I did for living. He had never heard anything about database marketing, direct marketing or CRM (no “Big Data” on the horizon at that time). So I had to find a simple way to explain what I do. As a sushi chef with some local reputation, I presumed that he would know personal preferences of many frequently visiting customers (or “high-value customers,” as marketers call them). He may know exactly who likes what kind of fish and types of cuts, who doesn’t like raw shellfish, who is allergic to what, who has less of a tolerance for wasabi or who would indulge in exotic fish roes. When I asked this question, his answer was a simple “yes.” Any diligent sushi chef would care for his or her customers that much. And I said, “Now imagine that you can provide such customized services to millions of people, with the help of computers and collected data.” He immediately understood the benefits of using data and analytics, and murmured “Ah so …”

Now let’s turn the table for a second here. From the customer’s point of view, yes, it is very convenient for me that my favorite sushi chef knows exactly how I like my sushi. Same goes for the local coffee barista who knows how you take your coffee every morning. Such knowledge is clearly mutually beneficial. But what if those business owners or service providers start asking about my personal finances or about my grown daughter in a “creepy” way? I wouldn’t care if they carried the best yellowtail in town or served the best cup of coffee in the world. I would cease all my interaction with them immediately. Sorry, they’ve just crossed that creepy line.

Years ago, I had more than a few chances to sit closely with Lester Wunderman, widely known as “The Father of Direct Marketing,” as the venture called I-Behavior in which I participated as one of the founders actually originated from an idea on a napkin from Lester and his friends. Having previously worked in an agency that still bears his name, and having only seen him behind a podium until I was introduced to him on one cool autumn afternoon in 1999, meeting him at a small round table and exchanging ideas with the master was like an unknown guitar enthusiast having a jam session with Eric Clapton. What was most amazing was that, at the beginning of the dot.com boom, he was completely unfazed about all those new ideas that were flying around at that time, and he was precisely pointing out why most of them would not succeed at all. I do not need to quote the early 21st century history to point out that his prediction was indeed accurate. When everyone was chasing the latest bit of technology for quick bucks, he was at least a decade ahead of all of those young bucks, already thinking about the human side of the equation. Now, I would not reveal his age out of respect, but let’s just say that almost all of the people in his age group would describe occupations of their offspring as “Oh, she just works on a computer all the time …” I can only wish that I will remain that sharp when I am his age.

One day, Wunderman very casually shared a draft of the “Consumer Bill of Rights for Online Engagement” with a small group of people who happened to be in his office. I was one of the lucky souls who heard about his idea firsthand, and I remember feeling that he was spot-on with every point, as usual. I read it again recently just as this Big Data hype is reaching its peak, just like the dot.com boom was moving with a force that could change the world back then. In many ways, such tidal waves do end up changing the world. But lest we forget, such shifts inevitably affect living, breathing human beings along the way. And for any movement guided by technology to sustain its velocity, people who are at the helm of the enabling technology must stay sensitive toward the needs of the rest of the human collective. In short, there is not much to gain by annoying and frustrating the masses.

Allow me to share Lester Wunderman’s “Consumer Bill of Rights for Online Engagement” verbatim, as it appeared in the second edition of his book “Being Direct”:

  1. Tell me clearly who you are and why you are contacting me.
  2. Tell me clearly what you are—or are not—going to do with the information I give.
  3. Don’t pretend that you know me personally. You don’t know me; you know some things about me.
  4. Don’t assume that we have a relationship.
  5. Don’t assume that I want to have a relationship with you.
  6. Make it easy for me to say “yes” and “no.”
  7. When I say “no,” accept that I mean not this, not now.
  8. Help me budget not only my money, but also my TIME.
  9. My time is valuable, don’t waste it.
  10. Make my shopping experience easier.
  11. Don’t communicate with me just because you can.
  12. If you do all of that, maybe we will then have the basis for a relationship!

So, after more than 15 years of the so-called digital revolution, how many of these are we violating almost routinely? Based on the look of my inboxes and sites that I visit, quite a lot and all the time. As I mentioned in my earlier article “The Future of Online is Offline,” I really get offended when even seasoned marketers use terms like “online person.” I do not become an online person simply because I happen to stumble onto some stupid website and forget to uncheck some pre-checked boxes. I am not some casual object at which some email division of a company can shoot to meet their top-down sales projections.

Oh, and good luck with that kind of mindless mass emailing; your base will soon be saturated and you will learn that irrelevant messages are bad for the senders, too. Proof? How is it that the conversion rate of a typical campaign did not increase dramatically during the past 40 years or so? Forget about open or click-through rate, but pay attention to the good-old conversion rate. You know, the one that measures actual sales. Don’t we have superior databases and technologies now? Why is anyone still bragging about mailing “more” in this century? Have you heard about “targeted” or “personalized” messages? Aren’t there lots and lots of toolsets for that?

As the technology advances, it becomes that much easier and faster to offend people. If the majority of data handlers continue to abuse their power, stemming from the data in their custody, the communication channels will soon run dry. Or worse, if abusive practices continue, the whole channel could be shut down by some legislation, as we have witnessed in the downfall of the outbound telemarketing channel. Unfortunately, a few bad apples will make things a lot worse a lot faster, but I see that even reputable companies do things just because they can. All the time, repeatedly.

Furthermore, in this day and age of abundant data, not offending someone or not violating rules aren’t good enough. In fact, to paraphrase comedian Chris Rock, only losers brag about doing things that they are supposed to do in the first place. The direct marketing industry has long been bragging about the self-governing nature of its tightly knit (and often incestuous) network, but as tools get cheaper and sharper by the day, we all need to be even more careful wielding this data weaponry. Because someday soon, we as consumers will be seeing messages everywhere around us, maybe through our retina directly, not just in our inboxes. Personal touch? Yes, in the creepiest way, if done wrong.

Visionaries like Lester Wunderman were concerned about the abusive nature of online communication from the very beginning. We should all read his words again, and think twice about social and human consequences of our actions. Google from its inception encapsulated a similar idea by simply stating its organizational objective as “Don’t be evil.” That does not mean that it will stop pursuing profit or cease to collect data. I think it means that Google will always try to be mindful about the influences of its actions on real people, who may not be in positions to control the data, but instead are on the side of being the subject of data collection.

I am not saying all of this out of some romantic altruism; rather, I am emphasizing the human side of the data business to preserve the forward-momentum of the Big Data movement, while I do not even care for its name. Because I still believe, even from a consumer’s point of view, that a great amount of efficiency could be achieved by using data and technology properly. No one can deny that modern life in general is much more convenient thanks to them. We do not get lost on streets often, we can translate foreign languages on the fly, we can talk to people on the other side of the globe while looking at their faces. We are much better informed about products and services that we care about, we can look up and order anything we want while walking on the street. And heck, we get suggestions before we even think about what we need.

But we can think of many negative effects of data, as well. It goes without saying that the data handlers must protect the data from falling into the wrong hands, which may have criminal intentions. Absolutely. That is like banks having to protect their vaults. Going a few steps further, if marketers want to retain the privilege of having ample amounts of consumer information and use such knowledge for their benefit, do not ever cross that creepy line. If the Consumer’s Bill of Rights is too much for you to retain, just remember this one line: “Don’t be creepy.”