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Fine Print: Direct mail marketing is far from a dead letter

A few examples of direct mail printed by Inkworks.

A few examples of direct mail printed by Inkworks.

(page 1 of 3)

When Scott Andersen opened Artisan Dental with his wife, Dr. Nicole Andersen, in January of this year, he wanted to get the business off to a successful start. People tend to stick with their dentists and doctors like old men cling to their favorite beer brands, so it was important that the practice’s introduction to the neighborhood be both memorable and — absolutely vital for a small business with a limited marketing budget — as economical as possible.

Luckily for Andersen, the digital age has opened dozens of marketing portals that simply didn’t exist in those bygone days when many of us were choosing our dental professionals. Unfortunately, the brave new cyber worlds that have become the darlings of marketing mavens have, to some degree, turned into cluttered, forbidding wildernesses where it’s hard to get a word in edgewise.

So when Andersen put together the marketing strategy for the business, he went out of his way to explore every option. Ultimately, he decided to use a mix of mass emails, mobile display advertising, and traditional direct mail. To some degree, the results surprised him.

“In terms of actual calls to the office, direct mail has been one of our most successful tactics,” says Scott Andersen, co-owner, Artisan Dental.

“It’s been interesting,” said Andersen. “In terms of actual calls to the office, direct mail has been one of our most successful tactics.”

Andersen says he likes the potential of email marketing as well as mobile display advertising, which is showing tremendous growth. He notes that Artisan, which opened in the new Constellation building on East Washington Avenue in Madison, got an impressive volume of click-throughs to the company website through its email and mobile ads, but its direct mail pieces outperformed his expectations.

“Yeah, it has surprised us in terms of being near the top as a tactic in terms of generating real patient calls,” said Andersen. “I would have imagined it would have been maybe mid-level in terms of effectiveness. I was expecting maybe more efficacy from digital advertising, just because of the sheer number of impressions you can invest in for the dollar. It just hasn’t turned out that way.”

Still kicking

While many business owners have probably assumed direct mail marketing was on its way to a death by a thousand paper cuts — or perhaps more accurately, millions of tiny bytes — industry observers tell a different story.

In its 2014 Statistical Fact Book, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) notes that direct mail is enjoying something of a renaissance these days, with several metrics seeing an improvement even since the ’80s, when the Internet was barely at an embryonic stage.

“Some marketers, such as retailers, are seeing dramatically higher response to their direct mail than in the 1980s,” writes Laurie Beasley, president of the DMA of California, in the DMA’s fact book. “Another bright spot is higher income households, those earning $65K per year or more. Their ‘find it useful,’ ‘will read’ and ‘will respond’ evaluations are up virtually across the board compared to 1987.”

While the DMA Fact Book, which covers trends in email and other digital marketing strategies as well, acknowledges that response rates to direct mail are down from the pre-Internet days, the organization recognizes a continued important role for the medium. Indeed, statistics show that direct mail is at the very least holding its own when it comes to return on investment. In fact, one recent DMA study found that $1 spent on direct mail yielded $12.57 in sales.

Beasley also notes that, particularly when it comes to costs per order (CPO) and costs per lead (CPL), direct mail is still a viable option:

“We’ve found that CPO/CPL costs for direct mail are in line with print and pay-per-click, and not all that more than email, and significantly less than telemarketing. It’s not that the days of other media are over. But as online and email audiences become saturated, the cost of an incremental lead or sale is higher and direct mail is once again appealing.”

The key takeaway, according to the DMA, is that with innovations like variable printing giving companies better options, and with a heavier reliance on digital marketing creating something of a backlash among consumers, reports of the death of direct marketing have been greatly exaggerated.

“As direct mail becomes more targeted and efficient, the myth that this medium is ‘expensive’ is debunked,” notes Beasley. “To a modern marketer weaned on email and pay-per-click, direct mail postage and printing costs may seem high. You wonder how you can possibly make that investment back in results — but statistics say you will.”
Of course, while Andersen was enthusiastic about the results his business has achieved through direct mail, it’s telling that he hasn’t put all his marketing eggs in one basket.

Had he and his wife opened the practice in 1980, he may have been forced to spend far more on direct mail or other media, and his opportunities for creating a potent mix of advertising messages on a startup dental practice budget would have been far more limited.

So while direct mail is indeed hanging in, with a slight increase in growth since 2009, it’s clearly been pressured by digital advertising. For instance, while direct mail spending ticked up modestly from 2012 to 2013 — from $44.3 billion to $44.9 billion in the U.S., according to the DMA — it can’t compare to the massive growth of global mobile ad spending, which ballooned 105% during the same period.

That said, there’s plenty of reason to believe direct mail will remain a key part of businesses’ marketing buys for the foreseeable future. Some of these reasons relate to better printing technology, while some experts cite the sheer volume of digital messages consumers receive and the impact a good printed piece can have when it lands in a potential customer’s hands.

From Gutenberg to variable printing

While digital media have continued to capture hearts and headlines over the past two decades, traditional printers have hardly sat on their hands.

Thanks to improved technology, direct mail pieces have become increasingly sophisticated, allowing businesses to personalize and target their messages with greater and greater refinement.

So-called variable printing has been around for some time — think of those blurry renderings of your name awkwardly inserted in crisply printed mailers sent directly to you instead of “Occupant” — but it’s become far more effective in recent years.

“Absolutely it’s more sophisticated,” said Fred Schulze, vice president of sales and customer care for A.M. Mailing Services in Edgerton. “Today’s four-color digital presses allow you to personalize even more. If you’re a hunter, we can put a hunting image on your piece, and if I’m a fisherman, we can put a fishing image on my piece, and the two pieces don’t have to look the same. That just increases the personalization and the targeting.”


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