The Direct Approach: Return on involvement

Traditional direct mail used in conjunction with narrowcast methods, such as e-mail and virals, triggers a greater number of responses - but it doesn't keep your mum happy. Peter Riley says.

When I got bored with writing TV ads, I became a direct marketing creative. I always thought direct marketing was the sharp end of creativity in the ad world. "Oh Peter - not junk mail?" my mum screamed a few years ago. She now hides her embarrassment by telling her coffee circle I'm a gay porn star.

Direct mail has to be creatively inspired and, above all, "personal" for the best return on investment. It is now time for DM to clean up its "junk mail" past. The idea is as simple as it is radical: DM is just not working as well as it used to. There is so much of it. People have learned to ignore it. Then there is the rise of the new media. Gone is the tacit acceptance that we have the right to disturb and interrupt consumers with intrusive postings. The annoyance level is too high and the legislators are poised if self-regulation does not prove to be more effective.

Consumers have learned to switch off to direct marketing they don't want - they toss it straight into the recycling bin. So it's no surprise to read that direct marketing is no longer as effective as it once was. Yet budgets are increasing as a proportion of total marketing spend, largely at the expense of above-the-line marketing. Given that marketing departments up and down the land are allocating more spend to this area, we are responsible for delivering much more effective direct communications and results.

Direct marketing - including digital - is an intelligent and engaging way to communicate with buyers in today's world. Rather than the mass marketing of a huge cross-section of potential business, you can minimise wastage and achieve the highest likelihood of effective response.

It's pretty appalling that the direct marketing industry thinks it's OK to settle for a 2 per cent response rate. I see that as a 98 per cent failure. Playing the volume game is dangerous and damaging. Brands should not mail their whole database with the same cheap 20p mailpack.

People say: "Well, we have one million on our database, so we can't spend more than 20p per contact." This is brand suicide. With more direct media channels at your disposal than ever before, the ability to analyse your customer data, segment and target has never been greater.

Intelligent marketers are recognising that narrowcast digital methods - e-mail and viral - are best deployed in conjunction with traditional direct media. My agency calls this "media triggers media" and we believe it is incredibly effective. When you get an e-mail asking you to visit a website, you only receive the direct mail after you have engaged with the site. From a unique URL in the e-mail, one can track who visits the website, see the level of involvement and then decide who gets the follow-up direct mail.

Evidence shows that by allowing people to opt in to receive the direct mail, you guarantee a greater effectiveness for a medium that now looks expensive compared with the per-unit hit rate possible with e-mail or text.

Direct communication should not be limited to uninspiring and unwanted paper that lands on a doormat. By the time a physical brand communication lands on someone's doormat, they should already have engaged in a rich, branded experience.

This experience is as much a manifestation of the brand itself as it is a marketing campaign, blurring the boundary between the brand and the marketing. Adopting this approach means consumers will not feel that they are being sold to in a cold, clinical environment, rather that they are buying into a space where their attention and their custom will be recognised and rewarded in equal measure.

Less is more: go for quality not quantity. The quality will give you much better response rates - I believe that at worst it will give an initial response rate of 12 per cent, which is still six times better than the industry average, and at best it will give you 50 per cent. More importantly, the ambassadorial role these engaged individuals will undertake on behalf of your brand is immense - each respondent will recruit numerous like-minded consumers to engage with your brand. That's something traditional DM can never give you.

Those who succeed may be left with an overall response rate that exceeds the initial mailing list - this is infinitely preferable to a paltry 2 per cent response rate. What's more, the resul-ting cost per respondent can often be a lot less than 20p and, by definition, you will be investing your marketing in the people who are engaged. So it is definitely money well spent.

We call this process "return on involvement". As for junk mail? Believe it or not, one of our mailpacks recently sold on eBay for £66. Maybe it was my mum that bought it.

- Peter Riley is the founder and the creative partner of 20:20 London.