All’s Fair in Love, War, and Business — Addressing a Competitor’s Bold Moves

It’s no coincidence that Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, announced that his platform would ban political ads less than an hour before Facebook’s much-anticipated Q3 earnings call. It wasn’t the first time that a competitor made a business decision that forced a company to either follow suit or defend its position.

It’s no coincidence that Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, announced that his platform would ban political ads less than an hour before Facebook’s much-anticipated third-quarter earnings call. While this is a business decision, and Dorsey will forgo revenue as a result, his move had a broad-reaching marketing impact; especially given the timing.

Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t typically do well in the hot seat; however, he stood behind his policy, saying, “I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians and the news.”

I can only speculate, but it’s likely that Zuckerberg, his legal, marketing, PR, and investor relations teams held an eleventh-hour strategy session to prep and align on Facebook’s response ahead of the earnings call, and for the coming days.

Companies on the Defensive

It wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that a competitor made a business decision that forced a company to either follow suit or defend its alternate position.

In early October, Charles Schwab made a surprising announcement that it would eliminate commission fees on online stock, ETF, and options trades. Hours later, TD Ameritrade announced it would also reduce fees to zero. E-Trade did the same the following day.

All is fair in love, war, and business. When a competitor makes a bold move, business leaders must make tough decisions that have major ramifications — financial, moral, ethical, and otherwise. In order to address the competition’s news, a strategic marketing response is required.

Marketing and Communications Readiness to Counter the Competition

Whether or not your company plans to follow a competitor’s lead or chart your own path, marketing and communications readiness will ensure you communicate effectively with customers, prospects, and the general public surrounding the matter.

Close Alignment With Leadership

A response to the competition’s news is more successful if marketing has a seat at the table with leaders as they make any related decision. The marketing team can be a sounding board on the reputational impact of the business decision and can help with the planning and strategy for the response to ensure the company’s position relative to the competition is clear.

Real-Time, Multichannel Response

Following Charles Schwab’s announcement, the companies who reduced their fees in step with Schwab needed to move quickly to retain their customers and ride the news wave. Again, alignment with leaders is crucial, because marketing teams can only move quickly with marketing efforts if they have access to stakeholders and decision-makers.

Digital channels allow for the quickest turnaround for marketing efforts and a variety of levers must be pulled simultaneously to have the greatest impact. This requires a collaborative approach across marketing, sales, client relationship management, and other teams.

Strong PR Foundation

Well ahead of these circumstances, it is important to have a solid PR foundation, including approved subject matter experts who have been vetted, prepped, and coached.

Additionally, PR teams should be continuously building media relationships before there’s even news to share. Then, when it is time to participate in a relevant dialogue, the reporter knows your company and will be more likely return calls or emails.

Reclaim the Competitive Advantage

There’s no way to anticipate every move your competitor will make. However, if you’re strategic and prepared, you can use your competitor’s news to your marketing advantage.

When Marketing’s Not Working, Stop Trying So Hard

We see it all of the time. The most talented athletes who kill all records and expectations in their sport. During training. But when it comes to delivering during a high-pressure, high-stakes competition, they go cold, stiff and can’t come close to the potential they have shown sans pressure. When marketing’s not working, the story’s often the same as it is for athletes.

We see it all of the time. The most talented athletes who kill all records and expectations in their sport. During training. But when it comes to delivering during a high-pressure, high-stakes competition, they go cold, stiff, and can’t come close to the potential they have shown sans pressure. When marketing’s not working, the story’s often the same as it is for athletes.

As a mom of three elite ski racers, I’ve seen it for years — among athletes young and old. And when it happens, its labeled as “over-thinking” that gets in the way of a relaxed performance driven by passion and not results. In fact, the old adage in the ski racing industry is, “Focus on results, be disappointed. Focus on passion, be happily surprised.”

If focusing on passion vs. results can pay big dividends in sports performance, can it do the same for marketing?

Think about it. Marketers are rushing to push out more content, more emails, more ads — and we work long hard hours to do this faster and better than everyone else. And then so often we sit back to watch the results, and end up disappointed or even stunned at the lack of response, even from our best customers. This tends to be the pattern more often than not.

Yet, when we launch campaigns that do not follow the rules of skills, tactics and techniques we have learned over the years, and just let go of the boundaries and set loose our passion for our brand, category or the purpose our products enable us to fulfill, we quite often experience something very different: customer engagement, response and ROI levels that exceed even our basic expectations. Much like when an athlete quits thinking of results and plays his/her game for the love of it instead of the glory, marketers quite often achieve personal bests.

Take a look at the brands that are more movements than profit centers:

  • Tom’s Shoes is one of the pioneer brands in this area. Instead of organizing and operating to make rich shareholders richer, founder Blake Mycoskie started an organization to put shoes on the feet of children living in poverty in third-world countries in which he had volunteered. His business reached $23 million in revenue in just three years, because his mission and his passion were contagious. That made his product that much more attractive, even when it was priced well over the cost of goods equation.
  • Another great example is Newman’s Own, a line of natural food products from which all profits are donated to charity. Its mission is “Newman’s Own Foundation uses the power of giving to help transform lives and nourish the common good.” And since starting in 1982, it has donated more than $530 million to charity. Giving back was a passion of founder, Paul Newman, whose personal mantra was, “What could be better than to hold your hand out to those who are less fortunate?” His products are top sellers at grocery stores nationwide, because they are good, and because the company creates good — both of which are contagious and inspire people to engage or purchase time and time again.

While many might call the above brand examples cause-related marketing models, others might join me in calling it Passion Marketing, which I define as: Building products and business models around a cause about which you are passionate, and working hard to engage others in your cause in order to make a powerful contact.

Like the athletes or performers who operate for the joy of doing what they love, and the passion to share their talents or gifts with others, when brands operate toward this higher purpose, they do better. Achieve more. And attract more people to their tribe, based upon like values and goals.

At some point, you — the business owner, marketing executive, operations lead — need to ask yourself a key question: Why do you do what you do? What about your job gives you joy? And why should others join your cause?

If you still have passion for what you do, your product, your brand, shift your focus and efforts to passing forward the joy you receive vs. the profits you are expected to increase.

If you are not getting the results you want. Stop trying so hard. Chances are, you’re over-thinking and not communicating with contagious passion or sharing the joy that keeps you doing what you do. Like the athlete, your efforts could be so routinized that they are just stiff and ineffective, even at the most basic level.

Instead, build campaigns around furthering the cause that you’ve aligned with your brand, and building a community around your cause that makes people want to be part of your brand. When you can do this, like Tom’s did with his mantra to give a pair of shoes away for every pair he sold, you will surprisingly see your profits grow in ways that routine, expected marketing efforts never will.

Marketing Success Metrics: Response or Dollars?

It’s tempting to ask about whether marketing success metrics should be response rates or money. But you don’t need to ask marketers what they want. Basically, they want everything.

It’s tempting to ask about whether marketing success metrics should be response rates or money. But you don’t need to ask marketers what they want. Basically, they want everything.

They want big spenders who also visit frequently, purchasing flagship products repeatedly. For a long time (some say “lifetime”). Without any complaint. Paying full price, without redeeming too many discount offers. And while at it, minimal product returns, too.

Unfortunately, such customers are as rare as a knight in white armor. Because, just to start off, responsiveness to promotions is often inversely related to purchase value. In other words, for many retailers, big spenders do not shop often, and frequent shoppers are often small item buyers, or worse, bargain-seekers. They may just stop coming if you cut off fat discount deals. Such dichotomy is quite common for many types of retailers.

That is why a seasoned consultants and analysts ask what brand leaders “really” want the most in marketing success metrics. If you have a choice, what is more important to you? Expanding the customer base or increasing the customer value? Of course, both are very important goals — and marketing success metrics. But what is the first priority for “you,” for now?

Asking that question upfront is a good defensive tactic for the consultant, because marketers tend to complain about the response rate when the value target is met, and complain about the revenue size when goals for click and response rates are achieved. Like I said earlier, they want “everything, all the time.”

So, what does a conscientious analyst do in a situation like this? Simple. Set up multiple targets and follow multiple marketing success metrics. Never hedge your bet on just one thing. In fact, marketers must follow this tactic as well, because even CMOs must answer to CEOs eventually. If we “know” that such key marketing success metrics are often inversely correlated, why not cover all bases?

Case in point: I’ve seen many not-so-great campaign results where marketers and analysts just targeted the “best of the best” segment — i.e., the white rhinoceros that I described in the beginning — in modeled or rule-based targeting. If you do that, the value may be realized, but the response rate will go down, leading to disappointing overall revenue volume. So what if the average customer value went up by 20%, when only a small group of people responded to the promotion?

A while back, I was involved in a case where “a” targeting model for a luxury car accessory retailer tanked badly. Actually, I shouldn’t even say that the model didn’t work, because it performed exactly the way the user intended. Basically, the reason why the campaign based on that model didn’t work was the account manager at the time followed the client’s instructions too literally.

The luxury car accessory retailer carried various lines of products — from a luxury car cover costing over $1,000 to small accessories priced under $200. The client ordered the account manager to go after the high-value target, saying things like “who cares about those small-timers?” The resultant model worked exactly that way, achieving great dollar-per-transaction value, but failing at generating meaningful responses. During the back-end analysis, we’ve found that the marketer indeed had very different segments within the customer base, and going only after the big spenders should not have been the strategy at all. The brand needed a few more targets and models to generate meaningful results on all fronts.

When you go after any type “look-alikes,” do not just go after the ideal targets in your head. Always look at the customer profile reports to see if you have dual, or multiple universes in your base. A dead giveaway? Look at the disparity among the customer values. If your flagship product is much more expensive than an “average” transaction or customer value in your own database, well, that means most of your customers are NOT going for the most expensive option.

If you just target the biggest spenders, you will be ignoring the majority of small buyers whose profile may be vastly different from the whales. Worse yet, if you target the “average” of those two dichotomous targets, then you will be shooting at phantom targets. Unfortunately, in the world of data and analytics, there is no such thing as an “average customer,” and going after phantom targets is not much different from shooting blanks.

On the reporting front — when chasing after often elusive targets — one must be careful not to get locked into a few popular measurements in the organization. Again, I recommend looking at the results in every possible way to construct the story of “what really happened.”

For instance:

  • Response Rate/Conversion Rate: Total conversions over total contacted. Much like open and click-through rate, but I’d keep the original denominator — not just those who opened and clicked — to provide a reality check for everyone. Often, the “real” response rate (or conversion rate) would be far below 1% when divided by the total mail volume (or contact volume). Nonetheless, very basic and important metrics. Always try to go there, and do not stop at opens and clicks.
  • Average Transaction Value: If someone converted, what is the value of the transaction? If you collect these figures over time on an individual level, you will also obtain Average Value per Customer, which in turn is the backbone of the Lifetime Value calculation. You will also be able to see the effect of subsequent purchases down the line, in this competitive world where most responders are one-time buyers (refer to “Wrestling the One-Time Buyer Syndrome”).
  • Revenue Per 1,000 Contacts: Revenue divided by total contacts multiplied by 1,000. This is my favorite, as this figure captures both responsiveness and the transaction value at the same time. From here, one can calculate net margin of campaign on an individual level, if the acquisition or promotion cost is available at that level (though in real life, I would settle for campaig- level ROI any time).

These are just three basic figures covering responsiveness and value, and marketers may gain important intelligence if they look at these figures by, but not limited to, the following elements:

  • Channel/Media
  • Campaign
  • Source of the contact list
  • Segment/Selection Rule/Model Score Group (i.e., How is the target selected)
  • Offer and Creative (hopefully someone categorized an endless series of these)
  • Wave (if there are multiple waves or drops within a campaign)
  • Other campaign details such as seasonality, day of the week, daypart, etc.

In the ultimate quest to find “what really works,” it is prudent to look at these metrics on multiple levels. For instance, you may find that these key metrics behave differently in different channels, and combinations of offers and other factors may trigger responsiveness and value in previously unforeseen manners.

No one would know all of the answers before tests, but after a few iterations, marketers will learn what the key segments within the target are, and how they should deal with them discriminately going forward. That is what we commonly refer to as a scientific approach, and the first step is to recognize that:

  • There may be multiple pockets of distinct buyers,
  • Not one type of metrics will tell us the whole story, and
  • We are not supposed to batch and blast to a one-dimensional target with a uniform message.

I am not at all saying that all of the popular metrics for digital marketing are irrelevant; but remember that open and clicks are just directional indicators toward conversion. And the value of the customers must be examined in multiple ways, even after the conversion. Because there are so many ways to define success — and failure — and each should be a lesson for future improvements on targeting and messaging.

It may be out of fashion to say this old term in this century, but that is what “closed-loop” marketing is all about, regardless of the popular promotion channels of the day.

The names of metrics may have changed over time, but the measurement of success has always been about engagement level and the money that it brings.

Why Direct Mail Is the Rodney Dangerfield of Media

If you’re in control of marketing and you’ve ignored the direct mail channel — you may be making a mistake. And yet, like the famed Energizer Bunny, the mail channel keeps performing. For most of our clients, their direct mail program reliably brings in more leads than any other single channel. By a lot.

If you’re in control of marketing and you’ve ignored the direct mail channel — you may be making a mistake. Easy to dismiss, for its role as a dinosaur — direct mail is the Rodney Dangerfield of media. I’ll admit that’s an almost extinct reference — but the comedian’s famous “I don’t get respect” act truly fits here. Great direct mail campaigns lead to big time sales — which — ultimately yield respect. Years ago, after starting a career in advertising, I fell in love with direct mail for the oh-so gratifying value of measurement. Now with so many options for measurable media, that tangible benefit is no longer limited to the mail.

Somewhere along the line though, gradually people began to doubt the power of the direct mail channel. Smart people. For well over a decade we have had doubters question and condescend about the dinosaur that is mail.

It’s easy to see why. After all, do people really read their mail anymore? And the cost per impression is high.

Get ready to be surprised.

And yet, like the famed Energizer Bunny, the mail channel keeps performing. For most of our clients, their direct mail program reliably brings in more leads than any other single channel. By a lot. In all of our Medicare Marketing work, the direct mail reliably drives more members and responses than any other channel. The list goes on.

There was a time that no one thought using offline media to drive online results made sense. Think again.

In fact I’d say, the best way to think about direct mail is as a sales channel. You can identify your target universe and work back from the point of sale to determine the metrics. A true cohesion among sales and marketing teams.

It’s not old news. And it’s not the only news. The really exciting part is that your mail performance can and will be enhanced by other channels

Here are some rules for determining how and when to use direct mail as part of your marketing mix:

  1. Do the math — Whether it be on the back-of-a-napkin, or via a comprehensive pro-forma spreadsheet, finding out in advance whether you can afford the cost of a direct mail lead is the best first step. At our agency, our teams are trained in direct mail math – those basics are “job one”!
  2. Start with a test — If you walk around the office showing people your mail, I can already tell you how that will go. Pretty much no one will like what could turn out to be the best performing direct mail package. Nothing beats the value of “in-market” testing.
  3. Feature an offer — An offer is something that goes above and beyond the product features. While an offer is not mandatory, it really helps.
  4. Hire an agency — This is a deceivingly detailed business. Any agency that has been in business for a number of years (with a specialty of direct mail) has faced problems. Lots of obstacles big and small that you’d rather avoid. But, beyond the value of smooth-sailing, you’ll likely get a better performing piece from a group that lives and breathes direct mail best practices. I promise it will be more than worth it.
  5. Hire a proofer — See No. 4. This is an area where you’d rather not make a mistake. It’s expensive.

Experienced direct response (and also sales) professionals honor the channel that is direct, because it’s proven itself as a valued part of the plan.

Once it works for you, you too will find yourself committed to the mail. Even if, like me, you never check your own mailbox!

How Are Your Direct Mail Response Rates?

There are so many marketing channel options now it can be hard to decide where you should invest to get the most bang for your buck. According to the DMA’s 2017 “Response Rate Report,” direct mail continues to provide the best response rate. The cost per acquisition rate is higher than other channels, but it is worth it.

direct mail
Creative Commons license. | Credit: Pixabay by Alexas_Fotos

There are so many marketing channel options now it can be hard to decide where you should invest to get the most bang for your buck. According to the DMA’s 2017 “Response Rate Report,” direct mail continues to provide the best response rate. The cost per acquisition rate is higher than other channels, but it is worth it.

Keep in mind that the best marketing is done through multiple channels, so make sure you are able to track each channel’s results. Use the ones that work best for you.

Almost all business types currently use direct mail and benefit from it. So, let’s get into the details the DMA found in its report of what they are doing that is working.

  • Postcards — A house file had a 5.7 percent response rate with an ROI of 29 percent and prospect file had a 3.4 percent response rate with an ROI of 23 percent.
  • Letter Sized Envelopes — A house file had a 4.37 percent response rate with an ROI of 29 percent and prospect file had a 2.5 percent response rate with an ROI of 23 percent.
  • Flat Sized Envelopes — A house file had a 6.6 percent response rate with an ROI of 37 percent and prospect file had a 4.9 percent response rate with an ROI of 30 percent.

They do not track rates for self-mailers or booklets, I am not sure why. The two most common uses for direct mail are direct sale and lead generation, and no matter the use, a flat size envelope wins. So how are companies tracking their direct mail results?

  1. Online 61 percent of companies are tracking online with the use of PURLs, landing pages and more.
  2. Phone  53 percent of companies track phone calls to either a call center or designated location.
  3. Code or Coupon  42 percent of companies use coupons or codes to track.

They also use, at much smaller rates, matchback, linked sales transactions, list coding and others. There is no right or wrong way to track, do what works best for you. The most important thing is that you are tracking your results.

Now, are you curious about volumes of mail? Based on monthly volume, companies are doing the following:

  • 50,000 or less = 39 percent for a house list and 36 percent for a prospect list
  • 50,001- 150,000 = 21 percent for a house list and 15 percent for a prospect list
  • 150,001 – 250,000 = 16 percent for a house list and 12 percent for a prospect list

Finally, let’s look at cost per format:

  • Letter: $22.55 for a house list and $39.75 for a prospect list
  • Postcard: $14.60 for a house list and $29.70 for a prospect list
  • Flat: $29.30 for a house list and $31.90 for a prospect list

As you can see from these numbers, direct mail can really be a benefit to your marketing. If you have done direct mail before but not recently or if you have not used direct mail before, you need to make sure that your final designs meet postal regulations. There is no reason to pay extra postage when you don’t have to. Your mail service provider can help you navigate the regulations and facilitate your direct mail campaigns. Are you ready to get started? Your prospects and customers are waiting to hear from you.

Creative Direct Mail for 2018

Direct mail has been around for a very long time. If you continue to do the same old pieces you have been mailing in 2017 you will see a drop in your response rates. You must create new, fresh and engaging direct mail pieces to get the results you need. Why should you continue to mail with all of the other channel options?

Bring Direct Mail to Life with Interactive ElementsDirect mail has been around for a very long time. If you continue to do the same old pieces you have been mailing in 2017, you will see a drop in your response rates. You must create new, fresh and engaging direct mail pieces to get the results you need. Why should you continue to mail with all of the other channel options? Here are two stats from the DMA 2017 Fact Book: Direct mail customer response rates increased year-over-year by 43 percent and prospect response rates increased year-over-year by 190 percent.

How can you best leverage these response rates for your 2018 mail campaigns? Know what your audience wants so you send that to them and use the tips below:

Engaging

There are so many creative ideas to get people to engage with your mail pieces. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. So we have a few ideas that have worked really well for others. They do not have to be expensive:

  1. Paper — Look at the paper you are using, consider adding texture with either different stock or adding a coating to it. Using the sense of touch is a great way to draw people in and it can’t be done with digital marketing.
  2. Folds — Have you considered using creative folds? Folding requires interaction; your audience must open the folds. You can have short panels, multiple folds within a mailer and even endless folds, where you just keep unfolding panels with different messaging on each one.
  3. Technology — There are so many different technologies available now to enhance your direct mail pieces. Mobile devices are with us all of the time now, incorporate ways for people to use them with your mail pieces, such as augmented reality or near field communication. You can also add video screens to your mail pieces so they would not need a mobile device to launch your video message.

Eye-catching

Through the use of images, color and creativity, you can grab attention.

  1. Images — Don’t use boring stock images. Find fun images that stick with your brand and messaging, but are out of the ordinary. You want to make people curious and draw them into the copy.
  2. Color — There are so many color options you can really find ones that stand out in the mail box. This is not a time to be boring; grab attention right away.
  3. Creativity — Unique designs work best. Think of mail pieces you have done in the past and spice them up with new creative changes. You can use die cuts, metallic ink and so much more.

Response

For 2018, you need to offer many ways to respond. When you make it easy for people to respond, in the way they prefer, you get more responses.

  1. Phone — Provide a phone number for people to call. If you are able, use a special number to track your responses, if not, give them a response code that they will need to provide when they call in.
  2. Web — Create a special landing page just for this campaign. You can track who has looked at it, as well as who actually filled out the form.
  3. Email — Provide an email address that they can respond to.
  4. Text — Allow people to text to respond by providing a text short code.
  5. Come In — If you have a location, give people the option to come in and see you; provide an address for them to do just that.

Your 2018 direct mail should really pop if you use these tips. Of course this does not address your list and any information you may have on your customers and prospects. You of course need to send the right offers to the right people to get the response rates you want. Taking the time to set goals, get creative and track responses will help you create the best direct mail for 2018. Are you ready to get started? Have you had good success with a fun mail piece? Tell us about it.

How Your Data Can Make or Break Your Direct Mail Marketing

In this digital world, marketers have access to more data than ever before; which could be great or disastrous. Which has it been for you? We will take a look at some common data problems and ways to avoid them, as well as the great things data can do for your direct mail.

Data mining
“Big_Data_Prob,” Creative Commons license. | Credit: Flickr by KamiPhuc

In this digital world, marketers have access to more data than ever before; which could be great or disastrous. Which has it been for you? We will take a look at some common data problems and ways to avoid them, as well as the great things data can do for your direct mail.

Data issues:

  • Compiled: Sometimes when data is compiled from multiple sources, it can become corrupted or just flat-out wrong. For instance, when compiling data where multiple adults live in the same household, there can be crossover between people. This can come from one person’s buying habits combined with another’s, or one person fills out a survey for another. It is easy to crisscross. How can you mitigate this? Make sure to verify your data sources before you combine them with your in house data. Use only the most well-vetted files.
  • Duplication: Depending on how you wish to dedupe records, you may end up with only one person in the house to send to — who is not the best contact. You want to reach the person most likely to respond to your mail piece. How can you avoid sending to the wrong one? First, run a dedupe — one per person — that way, no one gets two. Then, if you have purchase information or other information that shows you who your targets are, make sure to include that information in a report to look at dupes-per-address. Pulling per address will grab all people in that home in your data. You can then look to the information field to see which records have the key targeting words and keep them while dropping the others.
  • Wrong Address: When people move, they fill out a form with the post office to notify them. Whenever you are sending a mailing, you are required by the USPS to run a form of move update on your file. There are several acceptable ways to do this. One problem that happens is when only one person in a residence moves and the others stay, you can get a false match that others moved, too. Then you end up sending your mail piece to the wrong address. This is frustrating for the person getting the wrong mail piece, as well as to you. The best way to check moves is to verify it with your customers. There are many creative ways to do it.

Are you ready for some data greats?

  • Targeting: Good solid data gives you the opportunity to get very targeted with your direct mail messages. When you know who someone is, what the person likes and what the consumer can’t resist, you have the ability to create a powerful mail piece with a very impressive response rate.
  • Specials: You can use your data to create specials for birthdays or other occasions throughout the year based on information you have collected. The more specific you can get, the more likely you are to get a response.
  • Information: The best part about your data is that it can give you clues about who your best customers are. You can then use that information to find more people like them to send your direct mail to. When you are able to reach the right prospects, your response rates will be much higher.

As you can see, your data can help enhance your direct mail or thwart it — depending on how good it is. You must guard your data from cyber threats, as well as using the three tips above. Your data is your lifeblood in marketing. The more accurate the data you have, the better off you are. So who do you have in charge of your data?

Note to Airlines: Don’t Follow the Cable Companies’ Lead

There’s no disputing that 2017 has gotten off to a tough start for the airlines. Consumers were already frustrated with seats that seemed inspired by medieval torture devices, proliferating fees, and yield management algorithms that manage to pack the planes to the gills, forcing tense games of seat-rest elbow chicken. Oh, yes, and there was that thing about dragging a doctor off a flight, bloody and unconscious.

Peter Horst is chair of the Fusion Financial Services event later this year. Click here for more details. The event is free to qualified attendees (including travel and lodging) but seats are limited, so apply today!

There’s no disputing that 2017 has gotten off to a tough start for the airlines. Consumers were already frustrated with seats that seemed inspired by medieval torture devices, proliferating fees, and yield management algorithms that manage to pack the planes to the gills, forcing tense games of seat-rest elbow chicken. Oh, yes, and there was that thing about dragging a doctor off a flight, bloody and unconscious.

If people are comparing your airline to he people on "The Walking Dead," a TV show about a zombie apocalypse where the people are even worse than the zombies, you've made some mistakes.
One example of the reaction United received on social media after the incident.

Helping keep temperatures at a boil, social media made it so seamlessly easy to publicize every instance of crabby crew behavior, ticketing injustice, and righteous passenger indignation. Little wonder that an actual riot broke out in the Spirit Air terminal at Ft. Lauderdale’s airport after pilots expressed their displeasure with management by not showing up for work.

A Tone-Deaf Airline Industry Response

In a recent article, I argued that the soul of a brand is really the best prevention against ending up in such a tough spot — building an explicit promise and strong cultural commitment to a set of customer values. But in response to this gloomy atmosphere in their industry, Airlines for America appears to be taking a different tack.

The trade association seems to have brought back a TV ad campaign from last year. It’s an upbeat, peppy piece that stars one of those iconic, yellow-vested guys with the red flashlights and the emphatic directional gestures. With magical red flares in hand, he guides a surprised office-worker from her drab, gray cubicle to a tropical paradise, complete with the requisite flower girl, mai tai boy, and galloping horse on a beach.

The tagline is, “We connect the world”, and it emphasizes all the flights to all the destinations that airlines provide in order to help people get where they want to be.

While it’s a nice enough spot, I think it misses the mark in a few important ways. The first miss is in tone. The cheery focus on the joy of getting away from it all seems a little tin-eared in the context of the meaningful angst surrounding the topic of airline customer experience. If indeed this re-airing of the spot is an attempt to restore some good feeling, the spot risks reinforcing a perception of clueless ignorance of the present feelings of their customers. We’re emotional creatures, and the airlines’ marketing challenge is a deeply emotional one, so hitting the wrong note at this high-pitched moment seems clumsy. Effective empathy requires that marketers show they appreciate their target’s feelings.

A second miss is in the underlying insight. I passionately believe that all great marketing sits on a rigorously true, powerful insight that reveals some aspect of tension within the target’s life. In this respect, I think Airlines for America picked the wrong perch.

I’d bet my house that a core sample of the average air traveler’s brain would not reveal the most relevant insight to be, “Gosh, I just can’t wait for someone to sweep me away from all this!” A less cheerful, but more relevantly true, insight would likely be, “I’ve really come to dread getting on a plane. They just don’t seem to care about me.”

Does Flat Design Forsake Response?

When I first became aware of the Internet, I was running the Toronto office of direct marketing agency Cohn & Wells (later purchased by EURO RSCG). I had met a young guy (with purple hair) who worked down the hall and when I asked what he did, he introduced me to the World Wide Web. It was 1995.

Converting Website Visitors to Sales OpportunitiesWhen I first became aware of the Internet, I was running the Toronto office of direct marketing agency Cohn & Wells (later purchased by EURO RSCG). I had met a young guy (with purple hair) who worked down the hall and when I asked what he did, he introduced me to the World Wide Web. It was 1995.

Our largest client, Bell Canada, was launching a campaign to defend itself against telecommunications deregulation and I wanted to include a website as a response mechanism in order to support their position as an innovative industry leader.

The URL? http://www.belladvantage.com/save/2c.html — not exactly easy, intuitive or consumer friendly but the page itself took advantage of known visual cues that would stimulate response: Skeuomorphism.

Skeuomorphism is the idea that early computer interfaces would be more intuitive to users if an object in software mimicked its real world counterpart. For example, a “trash can” and “file folder” are two of the most recognizable skeuomorphic objects.

As the web matured, designers spent hours on designing and testing skeuomorphic buttons, adding curves and drop shadows as non-verbal cues to indicate that, yes, this is where you should click to take the next action. In fact, if you Google “best color of button for conversions” you’ll get over 1.3 million results. Article after article about not only colors, but shapes, sizes and shadows, and how they’ve been tested and refined for maximum response. For our Bell Canada landing page, the buttons were indeed large, colorful and action-oriented.

But now, the world has gone to flat design. For the most part, buttons are now no more than a simple rectangle. Some research suggests that rounded corners enhance information processing and draw our eyes to the center of the element, but that insight seems to have been tossed out the window.

Color seems to be optional as well — or color appears after you hover over the button. That seems counterintuitive to me, as the sole purpose of the button is to draw your eye to the action area and to click — if the button is lacking any color, it’s not grabbing my attention in the first place!

Other advice from experts is to clearly label the button with a message of what happens after the click/tap or indicate what it does using action verbs. As a dyed-in-the-wool direct marketer, I know buttons should be labeled with “Learn more” or “Add to cart” or “Download now,” but apparently others don’t find this the least bit important as I’ve spent many a confused minute or two unsure how to proceed on a website when the button was labeled “Awesome!” or “Got it.”

I’m also a strong advocate of the action arrow. That little “>” icon that is one more visual action cue. In my mind “Learn more >” is far stronger than just “Learn more” — especially when the button is flat.

For those of us who have grown up in the direct response world, we have studied, tweaked and tested our way to maximum direct mail response rates. Neuromarketers helped us study how the brain responded to various stimuli and we began to apply it to every aspect of marketing design from pricing to color choice. So why throw all that insight away and use a flat button?

I’m sure readers will tell me that it’s because everybody already knows it’s a button. But I beg to differ. “Everybody” doesn’t always include that older adult who may not be as web savvy as you are. And I, for one, don’t want to lose a single response. So with all of our energy spent on studying and testing conversion techniques, I would encourage someone to test a skeuomorphic button against a flat button and share the results with me. I truly believe there may be an “a-ha!” moment on the horizon.

Direct Mail: Know the Response

There are many times when customers reach out to us to help them increase response rates. When that happens, my first question to them is “What was the response rate on your last mailing?” Now you would think that after 24 years in the business the standard response to this question would no longer shock me — however, that is not the case.

There are many times when customers reach out to us to help them increase response rates. When that happens, my first question to them is “What was the response rate on your last mailing?” Now you would think that after 24 years in the business the standard response to this question would no longer shock me — however, that is not the case. When I hear “I am not sure,” I cringe. In 2015, how can you not know what your response rate was? You need this information. How can you execute a marketing plan without knowing your numbers?

So, let’s take a look at what the DMA 2015 Response Rate Report found:

  • The average response rate is 3.7%
  • The average cost per response is $19 which when compared to other channels is very competitive
  • Best performing style by category is an oversized envelope at 5%
  • The next best performing style by category is a postcard at 4.25%
  • The most expensive category to mail are dimensional pieces at $30 per response
  • The next most expensive are catalogs at $23 per response
  • The most common way to track direct mail response is online at 22%
  • The next most common way is through a call center at 19%

How do your numbers compare? One key takeaway is that direct mail response rates are higher than all digital media in the study. Direct mail can benefit your marketing mix, but you need to know your numbers so you can keep doing what works, and fix what doesn’t. One other note: most marketers now use more than one channel in order to fulfill campaign objectives. The study found that in most cases marketers were using three or more channels. When they were, the channels used most often together were direct mail, email and social media.

There is no way to predict exactly how well your direct mail campaign will perform, but knowing what the direct mail averages are helps. You need to know your average in order to set a baseline. From there you can work on making changes that could enhance your response. The three core components to focus on with direct mail are the list, design and offer. Keep in mind that when you create offers, free things are a better driver than a discount. This does not mean that you have to give your product or service away, you can give away a generic item such as a gift card for coffee.

When you decide to make changes — no matter what those changes are — keep a group of people separate from the change group. They will be your control group. You will use the control group results to compare with the changed group results to see which had a better response rate. You can test this may different times or further segment your list with a different change on each segment other than your control segment all at one time.

When you know your numbers, you are able to predict your results with more accuracy and continue to improve the quality of the direct mail you are sending out. When you are able to send the right offers to the right people by knowing your results, you decrease your cost per acquisition and increase your ROI. When you are just starting out, you can track your numbers in an excel spreadsheet. This will allow you to compare numbers from past campaigns as well as plan for the next one.