Put Web 2.0 trends to work for your direct mail

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New privacy restrictions are coming for our lifeblood, direct mail. And these limits will surely cripple your business, provided that you're irresponsible enough.

The tide of public anger against advertisers has been rising. This tends to happen when a hundred million people are constantly badgered by junk phone calls at dinner, junk faxes printing out on their own paper and spam e-mails about male enhancement disabling their computer. The national Do Not Call list and the CAN-SPAM Act provide consumers outlets to prohibit calls and e-mails. And now, there is the looming specter of a possible Do Not Mail list.

If you sense I'm irritated at my own industry, you're right. To me, all this public mutiny isn't some unavoidable tragedy. Instead, it's only happening because some in our business are doing their jobs artlessly. Blasting people out of their dinner chairs with a ringing phone because you know they'll be home isn't just unscrupulous - it's stupid. You're unconditionally guaranteed to honk them off.

As proof, a major political group was shrewd enough to recognize this reality in last fall's elections. It sent a blizzard of automatic-dial telemarketing messages whose recorded message began as if they came from the opposing candidate. Furious voters shut it off before they heard the real author and proceeded to vote for the offender.

It's the same story in the mail, only less so. The most indiscriminate mailbox polluters have been somewhat sheltered by the fact that mail is inherently a less obnoxious medium than telemarketing or spam. It only crowds your mailbox and fills your hand. You can choose to open it or not.

Even so, it's not exactly an efficient long-term marketing strategy to see if you can set up a race between driving your ROI down to zero or entirely stripping the nation of trees. This is ultimately a marketing mistake: misusing a targeted medium as a mass medium. Mail is not television. If you want to reach everybody, get on the Super Bowl and fulfill on the Web.

As for regulation, if we wait for the government to do it for us, the fly on the customer's wall is going to get killed by an atom bomb. We should voluntarily take the lead in letting people tell us what kinds of mail they don't want. The whole point of today's Web 2.0 world is that consumers are taking control of how we reach them. This is an opportunity for our industry to make customers our active partners - not our angry victims.

Smart e-mailers have learned when you give people more choices of how to opt out, fewer of them opt out entirely. They just change their preferences. We could apply this learning, for example, with a Web-enabled service that lets mail recipients sign up for specific product categories.

For example, if Joe Splotnik puts himself on the Do Not Mail list for the car category, and then takes himself off that list, what does that tell the smart marketer? Exactly. That information isn't an annoyance. In fact, it's worth a lot of money. By the same token, we can talk to those who do opt out and find out why. They've essentially self-selected your focus group of category resistors.

Direct mail is still a lucrative business, and it still delivers the healthy response rates and ROI to prove it. But to keep it that way, we need to make sure our mailings continue to be viewed as a good thing.

As direct response professionals, we've always boasted that our medium is unique in putting control into the consumer's hands. Let's practice what we preach. We'll make more money, and we won't have to worry about regulatory threats.

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