Direct marketing is now widely recognised as an effective medium, but commentators attack it for failing to reach the creative levels of other media. Paradoxically, I would argue that this is true, but mainly because DM hasn't needed to punch above its weight creatively ... yet.
Direct communication has an unfair advantage over mass-media techniques.
By its nature, the message DM carries can be more relevant to the recipient, counting for a great deal in terms of grabbing attention and capturing the imagination.
No wonder it has been such a growth industry - it often generates greater return on investment than advertising. But to believe this will continue is, frankly, naive. Current trends suggest the next decade will require a rethink of our approach to creativity in the direct arena.
Direct mail is becoming a victim of its own success. Fifty-seven per cent of the population now receives more than three pieces of DM each week, compared with 22 per cent in 1993. At the same time, the proportion of DM that emanates from a small number of industries is steadily increasing.
More than 50 per cent of DM comes from financial service providers or charities. In addition, the proportion aimed at the most targeted group is also increasing, so a core phalanx of the population (less than 30 per cent) now receives around 70 per cent of all the DM delivered.
So as the same mail boxes become congested with more communication from a variety of similar brands, it is hardly surprising that we are witnessing a decline in response rates. Reliable data here is patchy, but the Direct Mail Information Service suggests that only 43 per cent of DM is now opened and read compared with 63 per cent in 1991.
The upshot? To get noticed, we must get more creative.
In a difficult politico-economic climate, some people in the industry argue for a back-to-basics approach to DM. I disagree, and would argue that refining the existing paper-based format will generate small incremental increases in ROI, at best.
Instead, we should be transforming direct marketing from its traditional guise as a private medium (the piece of communication read in isolation, at home, by an individual - if it's read at all) and moving it into the public arena.
On a basic level, DM can be made public simply by making it controversial.
The recent "sick bag" mailer for the Food Standards Agency generated press coverage before and during the mailing. This created a buzz among the target recipients in the catering trade that in turn made them more likely to pay attention to the mailer when it arrived.
Generating PR-able DM is relatively easy. It's not difficult to be shocking for the sake of it. The risk is negative publicity and potential damage to your client's brand. Hence this solution must be chosen carefully and handled appropriately.
A second solution is to generate wider saliency through the use of paid-for public media before or during the direct campaign. Of course, this will inevitably require a redistribution of some direct mail spend towards advertising or other channels. Our experience is that, although as a result the volume of the through-the-letterbox messages may be smaller, total response will often be higher.
A recent campaign for The Guardian's special report on National Health Service issues demonstrates this. Provocative "healing plaster" posters were put up around Enfield, concentrating on National Health hospital sites. This created public awareness of the issue and the creative idea, and also achieved coverage in local news media. The subsequent through-the-letterbox communication, a door drop mirroring the poster creative idea with money-off coupons for subsequent purchase, generated response above that which could have been achieved by a solus DM piece.
However, I would argue that it is new technology, not old media, that provides us with the most significant opportunity to create direct communications that break through to the public arena. Location-based information - knowing when a consumer is physically close to a purchase - can be used to target personally relevant messages. So too can real-time usage information - knowing a consumer is at this moment using or seeking a similar product or service. Understanding these factors can be more potent than knowing someone's name and address or previous purchasing behaviour - and, critically, more predictive of a possible response or sale.
Far fetched? Well we're almost at the point where location-based technology will tell a brand owner where a customer is at a particular time (or at least the location of his mobile phone, iPAQ or car).
"But this is not direct marketing," I hear you scream. Well, it's not beyond the wit of data to link these location or usage flags with personal profiles to generate a genuinely personalised message at exactly the right time and place. Sounds pretty direct to me.
And it happens in a public space. This matters because it facilitates collective, memorable experiences even if a direct "response" isn't immediately forthcoming. For example, texting an individual in a concert queue with a suggestion and electronic incentive for a nearby restaurant open after the show is not only an interesting response opportunity, it's likely to be shared by friends or talked about. This example is as relevant and personal as traditional DM, and so likely to generate high ROI. But it also carries brand-awareness-building and peer-group-endorsing qualities, which are usually associated with more public, traditionally broadcast media.
All three of these public scenarios open up broader creative opportunities.
They retain the principles of DM by delivering more personally relevant messages. But they open our minds (and data files) to how, where, when and by what means we deliver our message. They can generate higher ROI and their public and surprising nature can create positive brand effects beyond the immediately responding audience.
Compare this wide-open, relatively unexplored canvas with the important but difficult-to-achieve task of squeezing out an extra percentage point of ROI through creative use of your favourite origami manual.