PennWell Uses Voice Broadcasting In Response to Mail Scare

Business-to-business magazine publisher PennWell has delayed some of its direct mail efforts in favor of voice broadcasting for subscription renewals because of slackening response rates for mail during the anthrax-by-mail scare.

Christine Poulter, circulation manager at PennWell, said she delayed a direct mail campaign for the company's Electronic Publishing magazine to December. It originally was planned for Sept. 18 and had been pushed back to October because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The latest move was prompted by widespread fears over reports of anthrax being transmitted via a powdery substance in envelopes.

Poulter's mail pieces were professionally made No. 10 envelopes bearing the return address of the company office in Nashua, NH, but that did not affirm her confidence in the campaign's prospects, she said. Consumers aren't mail professionals and won't know the difference, even though the envelopes containing the anthrax bacteria found by authorities so far have been handwritten.

“There's such a panic out there,” she said. “Unless you're someone who is in this type of business, I don't think someone can distinguish between the two.”

PennWell already has had one bad experience with the anthrax scare. Its magazines are packaged in polybags containing a powdery mix of cornstarch and wax to prevent pages from sticking. The powder generated concerns among readers and led some to call PennWell for an explanation.

Just before the Sept. 11 attacks, Poulter had success in testing a voice-broadcast campaign carried out by SoundBite Communications, Burlington, MA, for PennWell's Portable Design publication. The voice messages, transmitted automatically using dialer technology, enjoyed a 44 percent response rate in tests and outperformed live telemarketing, which normally generates response rates around 38 percent, she said.

The simple message asks subscribers whether they wish to renew their subscriptions, then confirms their personal information and identity for BPA International, which monitors circulation for media companies. PennWell plans to test whether readers respond better to a male or female voice and hopes to lift response even more.

PennWell has broadcast 8,100 messages in the test campaign for Portable Design since early September. The company expects to transmit another 40,000 for Electronic Publishing by the time it begins the direct mail campaign and may expand its use of SoundBite to other publications.

In the future, Poulter plans to use voice broadcasting in support of other direct marketing media. Voice broadcasts could be used to boost response to tip covers, which are sheets wrapped around the outside of magazines on which renewal offers are printed, as well as to convey assurances about the safety of direct mail.

“It may not be a bad idea to alert someone that something is coming,” she said.

PennWell had some success last spring with another voice-broadcasting campaign carried out by another provider for its Fire Engineering magazine.

“I think as more people use companies like SoundBite, more consumers will experience this type of call and are going to be more receptive to it,” Poulter said. “It won't end telemarketing and direct mail, but it will become an enhancement.”

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