E-Mail and D-Mail Have Their Roles

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Is e-mail killing d-mail? Yes and no. Marketers have a fiduciary responsibility to exploit the most productive mediums for growing customer relationships. And for some, e-mail is blowing the doors off other mediums, including direct mail, in terms of cost-effectiveness.


In such cases, we all know the right thing to do. Save trees by killing off less productive direct mail, and max out that e-mail. But the complete answer is not that simple because a lot of profitable users of e-mail are mistaken if they think they can move all of their spending to the electronic side and emerge as heroes.


Both mail mediums have strengths and weaknesses. E-mail is dirt cheap, interactive, simple to test and roll out, growing fast in terms of list availability, a breeze to segment when doing internal e-mail programs, and coming into its own as a conceptual advertising medium. All of this adds up to the freedom to shift a hefty share of the budget from production to the knowledge side, and implement better ideas that transform more businesses.


But while direct marketers in some categories have a plethora of e-mail lists, others have found not one viable e-mail list. For the latter group, direct mail is the only option. Remember that even though millions of people have opted in to receive e-mail advertising, the total represents only a fraction of the buying public.


If you impulsively decide to acquire 50 fresh leads next week, e-mail may do the trick. But if you're launching a new product and want to reach the highest percentage of first-tier candidates, you're probably out of luck if you plan to rely exclusively on e-mail. And if you aim to make a splash with a conceptual presentation that involves graphics, some e-mail list owners allow HTML, but many of the most interesting ones still permit only textual presentations.


Direct mail, however, is not only an excellent canvas for conceptual campaigns, it's great for marketers with a detailed story to tell. As a dimensional medium, it's often far more intrusive than e-mail. You can leverage its physical advantages and send prospects something that really moves people.


We once sent an HO-scale train glued to a plaque inside a box. It stayed on the desks of some prospects for months, which says something about the shelf life of direct mail. Try deriving that kind of lasting impact from e-mail.


But e-mail is a fledgling medium with the ability to inexpensively deliver pictures, sound and even video to extraordinarily narrow market segments. As technologies evolve, e-mail is likely to become a more interesting platform for creative direct marketers. It is hoped direct mailers will answer the challenge with exciting innovations of their own.


Right now if you want to reach a small percentage of your market while minimizing costs,


e-mail may be your medium. But if you want to saturate a target group, direct mail is still the best way to go for many. Some mailing lists deliver nearly 100 percent of the members of a particular audience - a penetration level that's impossible to achieve via opt-in e-mail lists. And if telemarketing follow-up is part of the plan, you probably need to keep at least one foot in the paper realm.


How about response rates? That's a fuzzy area. E-mail purveyors prefer to discuss the percentage of people who click a link in an e-mail message that transports prospects to another place online. Let's get real. How does that help a marketer accomplish concrete business goals? Imagine if DMers bragged about the percentage of people who opened the outer envelope.


Working with clients using both mail types, my company is seeing e-mail often pull real response rates comparable to what marginally productive users of direct mail experience. This is good news because given the low cost of e-mail, many marketers don't even need a 1 percent response rate to be jubilant about e-mail advertising.


But what if you hope to hit it big and want, say, 5 percent of prospects to click, go to a jump page, and give you valuable feedback? So far, we're finding the high end of direct mail response rates are considerably higher than high-end e-mail rates. The inherent advantages of direct mail often outweigh its disadvantages as an offline medium.


A caveat: Our experience represents just a fraction of what's happening, and isn't necessarily germane to your business. Results to date have come from textual e-mail - our only option on many business-to-business lists - but we're now starting to do cool tests of HTML e-mail vs. direct mail for some clients, so stay tuned.


In your case, it may be better to start with business objectives and then rank the likely advertising mediums to achieve them. Once you've done that, run projectable tests and tally the dollar votes. From there, simply max out your new business sources in order of cost effectiveness until objectives are met. Now you have your optimal mail mix.


E-mail has already supplanted much direct mail because it deserved to in ROI terms. I'm certain that e-mail will increasingly represent a bigger piece of the mail pie. In the long run, logic will prevail. Direct marketers won't keep needlessly chopping down trees when they can earn more by marketing electronically. But I'm just as certain that direct mail will remain relevant to a lot of marketers for a long time.
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