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E-Mail or Direct Mail? It’s No Contest

Fast, cost-effective and easy to test, e-mail has long since proven an essential part of the marketing package. In the 10 years since commercially produced e-mail marketing software became widely available, marketers have embraced e-mail as a powerful tool not only to promote products and services, but also to build brand equity and one-to-one customer relationships.

Despite its advantages, however, e-mail’s merits still are often held up to those of direct mail as if the two methods were in competition. Studies and reports compare the campaign metrics of each medium. Experts weigh in on one side of the fence or the other based on the latest batch of quarterly data and complex industry trends.

Yet most real-world marketers have never viewed e-mail and direct mail as an either-or proposition. After more than 10 years of using both methods to drive sales, some have uncovered a series of powerful affinities between the two.

Here’s how marketers are using e-mail to boost ROI on traditional direct mail campaigns and vice versa:

E-mail can generate advance buzz for a direct mail piece. When a paper mail-order catalog contains a large number of products, e-mail can be the perfect medium to highlight one of them, especially if it’s new or noteworthy in some way.

Many large catalogers send e-mail about the new product a few weeks before the paper catalog is due to reach the recipient’s mailbox. This not only helps build anticipation for the catalog, it also generates early orders, gets the product into use and produces a bit of brand buzz.

When a traditional campaign is falling short, e-mail can take up the slack. It is inevitable that some campaigns will outperform others, but when one is really missing the mark, e-mail can be the perfect way to boost sales. Tim Wade first put this strategy into play in 1998 while working for a leading publisher of telecom catalogs. Paper catalogs plus e-mail, he said, packed a great one-two punch.

“Our paper catalogs went out several times a year,” said Wade, who is now direct marketing manager of real estate site HomeGain.com. “If one area of the catalog wasn’t performing so well and needed a sales bump, I’d send out an e-mail offering customers a discount, and bang – we’d hit our number.”

This strategy also works for gourmet food vendor Berries.com. Major holidays bring in the company’s heaviest catalog and telephone orders. But when sales figures need a boost, Web marketing manager Karen Garcia relies on e-mail.

“If we need more orders, then we’ll do a targeted e-mail campaign to one of our bigger markets, like California,” she said. “We get fantastic results.”

E-mail can be the slam-dunk at the end of a direct mail campaign. For high-ticket products or services, a series of mail pieces can build interest while a personalized e-mail at the end of the series can spur the recipient to action. Wade used this strategy to promote a series of high-end educational seminars and said it was his most successful combination of direct mail and e-mail tactics to date.

“I started by sending two event brochures in the mail a few weeks apart,” he said. “Then, I’d follow that up with an e-mail one month prior to the event saying, ‘Don’t forget to sign up!’ That resulted in some really amazing returns.”

New channels decrease dependence on old ones. When mail-order cataloger Williams-Sonoma started opening more retail stores in the mid-1970s, one unexpected benefit was that the business became less sensitive to cost changes for paper.

For DMers, a thoughtfully executed e-mail marketing plan can have the same effect. The Sundance catalog, Robert Redford’s collection of Southwestern goods and apparel, once relied almost exclusively on mail-order catalogs. Now the company runs two or three e-mail campaigns monthly to highlight the catalog’s seasonal items.

“Looking at a single recent mailing,” Sundance network administrator Cory Sumsion said, “we increased sales volume by 65 percent on the items we promoted.”

It works the other way around, too. When a 100 percent online company like Snapfish starts gathering more postal mailing addresses from customers, the company’s bottom line becomes less hampered by the unexpected ISP outages and blacklisting that can interfere with e-mail delivery. Also, Snapfish now has the option of customizing e-mail content based on the new postal information.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Spam-weary consumers, it seems, are showing a new interest in direct mail pieces. At The B-to-B Marketing Conference in Scottsdale, AZ, held Sept. 21-23, Russell M. Kern of Kern Direct reported that the past 12 months have shown a strong jump in response rates for direct mail.

At the same time, a new generation of e-mail marketing software is helping marketers create more personal, relevant e-mail campaigns with better results than ever. Conversion rates and campaign ROI are holding steady. Filtering technology is growing more sophisticated about spam, as are consumers, and e-mail marketing’s future looks bright.

For DMers, this is all good news. Rather than being just another channel by which to circulate offers and content, e-mail has enhanced the entire medium of traditional direct mail and vice versa. Thoughtfully executed, a campaign that uses both e-mail and direct mail will produce stronger ROI than one that relies exclusively on one or the other.

Or, as Wade puts it, “Sometimes, one plus one equals three.”

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