When Direct Response Television and Direct Mail Collide

We know television has tremendous sales power, with its unmatched ability to demonstrate and its rich array of persuasion tools. But it's expensive — and never more so than now, thanks to the media blitzes of the dot-coms. Worse, it's sloppy because you're paying for all those eyes that will never be interested in your product. And once your beautiful spot has rolled off the screen, it's gone — no second look, off in the ether forever.

What if a direct marketing medium had all of TV's plusses, none of those problems and all the precision of today's database marketing? Well, there is such a medium. It's the videocassette — the humble, ubiquitous videocassette, as technologically glamorous as a No. 10 envelope. Videocassettes are instantly playable in 99 percent of the 100 million homes in America.

The videocassette has undergone an exciting transformation. A new generation of cassettes is amazingly light and delivers state-of-the-art picture and sound while retaining the ruggedness necessary to survive handling by the U.S. Postal Service. These videocassettes feature labels that cover nearly the whole top surface and can be filled with graphics and information.

On top of the lightweight technology, the tape duplication industry has vastly expanded its capacity. This has resulted in cutthroat competition, and duping costs are at an all-time low and still dropping. Not surprisingly, the best costs kick in at the larger quantities, like 50,000-plus. Bottom line: You now can think about dropping a video at costs comparable to other high-end pure direct mail.

How did we come to believe the videocassette had so much untapped potential as a direct response medium? We come from the world of “long-form” DRTV. We realized that “video in the mail” could have all of the same advantages that the broadcast infomercial has over the spot: the potential to tell a compelling product story in exactly the form and length it needs to be and to give a complete explanation and demonstration of a product, expert endorsements and consumer testimonials.

Why haven't we seen more videocassette-driven mail programs? We looked at a lot of samples of successful and not-so-successful programs. There were more of the latter, and upon examination, a pattern emerged. We found that the medium does not look friendly to television folks or direct mail people. Neither group feels comfortable with the other's medium, and frankly, they are not equipped to take full advantage of the other medium's powers. On top of that, most television people are oriented toward spots and are inexperienced in the expanded storytelling techniques available at five-, 10- or 20-minute lengths.

So we sat down with a couple of direct mail experts and looked at the medium's potential. We discovered that we had to clear some hurdles before using the potential of a video mailing to the maximum. Direct mail and TV use different creative approaches, different production sequences, different measures of success, even different languages. It takes great skill and care to integrate the disciplines. However, one of the first things we realized is that the medium is not television; it's direct mail, but with the multifaceted impact of television.

It's the mail aspect that conveys the big advantages. The first big deal is the media equation: You don't have to buy those expensive cable network half hours. Using the techniques of modern database marketing, you mail the TV-driven message to precisely the market segments you want to reach. In effect, you can create a “virtual network,” targeting a tightly-defined interest group. And critically important is your ability to structure a test program more precisely than with any television buy.

Then, of course, because it's direct mail, you have myriad possibilities for collateral material. A video mailing can go out dressed in anything from the simplest shrink-wrap to the most elaborate packaging. Unlike TV, this message can include business reply cards, coupons, catalogs — literally print in any form. Additionally, the videocassette is viewed by consumers as having real value. It's harder to throw out a video than an envelope. It jumps out from the rest of the mail and shouts, “This message is important, and you are important enough to receive it!” They will watch it when they decide to, when they are most receptive, not when it is on TV. The medium is still fresh: The average household has received less than one video mailing.

We have given a name to the embodiment of our group's philosophy about this medium: VGRAM. Our multidisciplinary team has produced our first group of VGRAMs for a major direct marketer. The success of this first program and the experience we have gained confirm our belief that the medium has room for tremendous growth.

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