To E or Not to E? That Is the Question

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You're embarking on a business-to-business DM campaign: You need to reach a limited audience of niche manufacturers, targeting the plant manager. The goal: qualified sales leads that prime the sales pump.


The Web designer says, "Let's do a Flash-based, video streaming e-mail series." The sales team says, "How about a direct mail kit loaded with tchotchkes?" Finally, your team asks you, "Will it be e-mail or print?"


Deciding which format to use is not a matter of tossing a coin. Rushing the decision can doom your efforts before you even start. Consider these five factors before you commit to any campaign format:


Establish the campaign's objectives. Are you trying to generate qualified leads for your sales force or do you need to capture many leads for your distributor network? Are you introducing a new service or trying to get prospects to trial a new product? Are you inviting customers to a special event or simply making a corporate announcement?


Direct mail accommodates a variety of objectives in BTB, not just to generate orders as typical consumer direct mail. Frankly, BTB direct campaigns rarely result in a sale without at least minimal sales rep intervention. So, with as much detail as possible, clarify what action you want recipients to take.


For example, an East Coast chemical company wanted to introduce a new mortar cement additive to an extremely small market of potential buyers. The company used our agency to create a targeted direct mail kit that included technical literature, a gift and a sample of the additive. The product solved a major customer problem, so we knew that if we could get people to try it, they would buy it. It worked. The company met its production trial target, and the sales force continued to receive calls months after the mailing.


In this case, a dimensional mailing was most effective for multiple reasons: the list was unusually small so the per-piece budget was greater; the goal was to get recipients to try the product; and, possibly the biggest reason, and the mailing had to get past a tough gatekeeper, and dimensional print is harder to ignore than e-mail.


We needed to introduce this product with fanfare. A dimensional mailing, with its bells and whistles, tends to be more memorable and usually includes some small gift that can sit on a person's desk to maintain mind share. Dimensional mailings also offer more possibilities in terms of design. And though e-mail can be enhanced with streaming video and motion graphics, these features may alert spam blockers and prevent the e-mail from reaching the recipient.


Set a campaign lead conversion-to-sale goal. In BTB, where direct marketing most often is used to generate sales leads, it's important to assess what return you should expect from the campaign. How many leads? How many leads should convert into orders? If you're working within thin margins or with lofty profit goals, the style and format of your campaign must match up.


To start, look at previous campaigns. Did e-mail bring more leads than print? How did the quality of leads compare? Not every company has a vast database of tracking data to refer to, but analyzing any information from past campaigns can help set realistic expectations.


Next, look at the numbers. E-mail campaigns generally cost very little relative to other media. GartnerGroup estimates that e-mail costs $5 to $7 per thousand versus printed direct mail, which can range from $500 to $700 per thousand. But these numbers don't factor in the list costs. BTB e-mail lists, according to Worldata's recent index, remain the most expensive of all lists despite some decreases in 2004. Worldata shows permission-based, BTB e-mail lists have an average base cost of $281/M versus $131/M for postal lists. Quality opt-in e-mail lists also are hard to find. The CAN-SPAM Act has made it challenging to locate legitimate BTB e-mail lists that can be rented for commercial purposes.


Another factor to consider is postage. Of course, in electronic campaigns this equals $0. But with print, at 37 cents per piece (or more if your mailing is a nonstandard size or weight), the costs can add up quickly.


Determine your company's relationship with the audience. Knowing your audience is critical in any format, but understanding how your direct mail audience views your company can help you determine the format to use. Is your audience very familiar with your company, just getting to know you or unaware of who you are?


Typically, e-mail is wise when targeting an audience partially familiar with your company. Recipients are more likely to stop and read your subject line instead of trashing your e-mail along with all the other spam. Studies show that business people get an average of more than 250 unsolicited commercial e-mails every workday.


To save time, they scan the "sender" section of their inboxes, automatically deleting e-mails from an unknown entity. And studies also show that when they recognize the sender, they are more likely to read an e-mail than a printed piece simply because e-mail's so quick and easy to open.


But familiarity presents a conundrum. When targeting top customers or special-interest groups like key distributors and vendors with whom your company already has a congenial relationship, e-mail may be too cold. Many still see print as a more intimate communications vehicle.


Develop a killer offer. Direct marketers know that the offer must be dead-on to ensure campaign goals are met, regardless of whether the campaign is electronic, print or both. Even if you can't afford to implement carefully orchestrated focus groups or widespread surveys before launching a campaign, conduct some guerilla research.


Here's where electronic and print can be ying and yang. Use e-mail to test a few different offers by attaching them to other electronic communications with customers and prospects. For example, tack on a test offer to your next e-newsletter, an affiliate's e-newsletter or an industry e-newsletter or Web site. Post various offers on your corporate home page. Also, send a few test offers to a short list of hot prospects and/or existing customers to see which draws the greatest response.


Thankfully, some research has been done. A survey by YesMail in July 2002 revealed that response rates rise drastically with an increase in the number of personalization elements. The offer is a perfect element to personalize. As such elements increase from one to seven, the click-through rate soars from 4.7 percent to 14.8 percent. And at a recent Webcast, JupiterResearch presented BTB case studies involving dynamically generated, personalized campaigns. Jupiter concludes that dynamically generated campaigns yield results four to eight times better than those of static campaigns.


If your campaign aims to generate response, consider how you might add personalization elements. E-mail makes it easier and cheaper to personalize content: greeting people by their first name, providing information relevant to that individual's job function, making a different offer based on their gender, etc. This level of personalization used to be very costly in print direct mail. But new digital printing technologies such as variable data printing make it more affordable.


Decide on the frequency of your campaign. The low cost and ease of execution make e-mail ideal for a widespread and/or high-frequency campaign. E-mail campaigns often can be run over seven to 10 days, where it generally takes four to six weeks to execute a print direct mail campaign. Just be careful of list burnout. Over-e-mailing your list can ruin relationships. If you determine that a high-frequency campaign, say, a new e-mail sent once a week for eight weeks, is the way to reach your objective, keep the content fresh and relevant.


When in doubt, do both. Many BTB marketers find that a campaign combining e-mail and print mail - personalized as much as possible - is the most effective. One way we've used both formats is by jumpstarting the campaign with a print kit and following up with a series of e-mailings, each with a different offer and various response mechanisms.


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