Mail Withstands BTB's Online Shift

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Business-to-business direct marketing budgets may be shifting toward online initiatives, but marketers recognize that mail still packs a powerful punch.

In fact, some plan to make mail a cornerstone of their BTB efforts in the coming months.

"More [BTB DM] money is going toward new technologies like RSS feeds and Webinars -- even small businesses are using them more than ever," said Matthew Rosenblatt, senior vice president of creative services at DM agency Harte-Hanks, a company based in San Antonio. "[However], mail remains very powerful, particularly when used in conjunction with online strategies."

Mail will feature prominently as a warm-up in upcoming Harte-Hanks BTB campaigns to inform recipients that a white paper or other information relevant to their needs is available online.

Mail also is often a better driver than e-mail when C-level executives are the target audience, Mr. Rosenblatt said. At this level, the best types of communication are either dimensional pieces or very simple personal letters.

Recent examples of dimensional pieces from Harte-Hanks include one for a client that wanted to make appointments with C-level executives by mailing them an iPod accessory and promising to bring the actual iPod to the appointment.

Another involved mailing a silk napkin embroidered with the target's logo, a set of silverware and a menu of the sender's services in a box along with an offer to bring a catered lunch to a scheduled appointment.

At the other end of the spectrum is a personal letter from one CEO to another.

"CEOs will respond to like members of other organizations," Mr. Rosenblatt said. He noted that Harte-Hanks has had success with a letter bearing its CEO's name, personal telephone number and a brief description of what the company offers.

Surprise and Delight

Another direct mail trend is the "surprise and delight" campaign, which involves mailing an item like a gift card to existing customers. This type of campaign is particularly popular in very competitive categories like telephony.

Harte-Hanks recently won an award from the Philadelphia Direct Marketing Association for a surprise-and-delight campaign it created for BellSouth and aimed at all its small business customers this past holiday season.

The self-mailer was designed to look like a holiday card, and inside was a calling card with a certain number of calling minutes. There were no strings attached to activate the card. Recipients simply had to call a BellSouth representative, who would ask whether they had any other needs.

The campaign's response rate exceeded 30 percent as well as the client's goals, Mr. Rosenblatt said.

While online budgets are swelling, there is a trend away from e-mail, said Rich Carango, vice president of creative services at marketing agency Schubert Communications, Downingtown, PA.

"There is a souring of the feeling about how well e-mail is working, mostly because of spam filters," he said.

As a result, Schubert's clients are investing more this year in newsletters, postcards and any type of hard copy that is "nicely designed, colorful and has a simple message," Mr. Carango said. "Just using a hard-copy mailer seems unique and different."

Often, the direct mail piece aims to drive recipients online. Another popular use for direct mail is to promote a company's attendance at an upcoming trade show.

"Direct mail is a great low-cost, high-impact way to hit an interested market" about a show, Mr. Carango said.

Targeted Communication

There is a groundswell of very targeted communication this year, said Rich Dettmer, senior vice president and chief technology officer and director of digital strategy at BTB marketing agency Slack Barshinger, Chicago. BTB companies want to reach specific titles in a corporation and expect an increase in ROI as a result.

One such targeted campaign designed by Slack Barshinger was for client International Truck and Engine Corp., which wanted to target a new audience of small businesses with a new series of commercial trucks.

Slack Barshinger analyzed the truck market and refined and narrowed the available mailing lists to create a targeted list of prospects. It then developed a three-step direct response campaign that included a die-cut direct mail effort and a sweepstakes. The lead generation campaign drew a 3.5 percent response rate.

From getting the sales department's input to doing primary research about the buying cycle, a lot is involved in understanding exactly who the potential buyers might be in a targeted BTB campaign, said Joan Ritter, senior vice president of direct and relationship marketing at Slack Barshinger.

Pay-per-click Ads

One new technology that could be the next big thing for BTB direct marketers is pay-per-click advertising, said Ken Robbins, president of online marketing agency Response Mine, Atlanta.

"It's efficient, and the cost to get a customer is so cheap," he said.

Business-to-consumer marketers already have caught on, he said. Response Mine is running a pay-per-click campaign for EarthLink for its Web hosting service targeting small businesses.

One reason pay-per-click and search engine optimization are attractive to BTB marketers is these efforts give marketers control over the lead generation process, Mr. Robbins said.

Until recently, "a lot of the leads that were generated came through aggregators," he said. "There's a trend now for companies saying, 'We should be generating leads to our own Web site because that way we can control the message and we're the only one getting the lead.'"

This is happening now because it's taken many BTB companies awhile to get up to speed on the technology involved in generating and managing online leads.

"Those that dedicate themselves to the analytics and being good direct marketers will benefit immensely," Mr. Robbins said, thus taking control and lowering new-customer costs.

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