Improving outlook signals better DM weather ahead

By Simon Creasey, Monday 22 May 2017

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Evidence that print is making something of a comeback, in the marketing sphere at least, continues to grow more and more convincingly.

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Feedback from printers and marketing industry experts suggests that volumes of printed promotional items and targetted direct mail are steadily rising as marketers are increasingly using print at the heart of cross-media campaigns. 

So what’s driving this surge in demand? Is it just a case of digitally fatigued consumers turning their back on blanket email campaigns, or are other factors at play?

The revival in fortunes of printed messaging over the past few years is nothing short of extraordinary. At one point print was the lowest cost way of mass marketing, which led to carpet bombing mail drops and the vilification of direct mail, or ‘junk’ mail as some people preferred to call it. 

The demise of blanket direct mailers was hastened by the rapid rise of the internet and email marketing campaigns during the mid-2000s, which many people argued were cheaper and easier to track in terms of ROI. As a result, printed direct mail spent many years in the wilderness, before reinventing itself – thanks largely to technology improvements – as a premium media. The industry shifted from offering “dumb print” mass mailings to what Simon Biltcliffe, chief executive of Webmart, describes as “smart print” – contextually relevant and data-rich printed communication. But there is more to it than that, believes Biltcliffe. 

“Print is cooler than it was before,” he says. “People like the tactility and feel. Print has also got browsability; I suppose if you look at it from a millennial perspective it has got a retro intrigue about it and it is reassuringly tangible.”

Clearly volumes haven’t returned to anywhere near the levels they were at when the direct mail industry was in its pomp, but Judith Donovan, chair of the Strategic Mailing Partnership, says they are bouncing back. 

“It is a trend that we’ve been noticing for some time,” says Donovan. “It goes at different speeds depending on which sectors you look at. You have some sectors like financial services that never really gave up on paper, whereas others bonfired paper and they are now regretting it. You also have new sectors, like fintech (financial technology) – that are starting to use direct mail for the first time.”

Case proven

The key appeal of printed direct mail to clients either returning to, or using it for the first time as part of a cross-media marketing campaign, is its proven effectiveness, adds Donovan.

“If you’re trying to do cold acquisition you’re not going to get very far with cold email opening rates of under 10%, so direct mail can be a much more credible medium for acquiring customers,” she says. “It has got tactility, it has got targetability and it has got quality.” 

This is the message that Graeme Smith, director at Cyan Group, PrintWeek’s Cross-Media Company of the Year in 2015, is working hard to communicate to current and potential customers. 

“We’ve been educating our clients that using print or promotional merchandise at the centre of a campaign can act as an effective trigger to gain access to further information for both sides – so we’re giving consumers something, but we’re also collecting information from them,” he explains. “To make it work you’ve got to have a big enough hook and add value so the trigger has got to come from a printed branded piece. This approach also protects the campaign because it doesn’t allow anyone to have access to it. You can target the recipient and the designated viewers so that they can really interact with it.”

The challenge Smith faces is persuading some clients about the value of starting the campaign ‘journey’ with print. 

“Digital seems to have its journey. You have an email that directs people to a PURL and a direct mail piece comes out. That’s been done for many years. But what we are trying to do is to engage with the digital agency sphere to get them to see the value of using print or promotional merchandise as the trigger for a campaign,” says Smith.

Part of the problem that the likes of Smith face in terms of educating marketers is that a lot of younger members of the marketing agency world didn’t grow up with direct mail and therefore don’t know its value. However, Biltcliffe says that he’s noticed these barriers are slowly starting to come down. 

“A lot of younger people don’t know a lot about print and they want help and advice to bring this channel back into their mix, or into their mix for the first time,” he says. “We’re finding quite a lot of people who have never used print before and they now want to understand how they can get into this reassuringly expensive media.”

These barriers have come down at some agencies quicker than at others. One company that fully understands the power of print is MC&C. Mark Jackson, managing director at the London-based agency, says the company uses print as part of its integrated media plans for a number of the agency’s ‘performance’ clients.

“Performance media isn’t just about deciding what the audiences are consuming, it’s decoding the relevancy and efficiency of each channel to drive response,” says Jackson. “When you look at print through this lens, there’s no arguing that it is effective at driving a response amongst certain target audiences.”

He adds that the use of printed communication has proven to be particularly effective in the leisure and retail sectors to support a cross-channel strategy. 

“The retailer TM Lewin is a great example of how we use print as part of a cross-channel media plan as it is key to driving footfall to their stores and traffic to their site,” says Jackson. “Offer-led creative that targets specific stores is a vital part of its media plan. It’s a similar case with fitness and leisure group David Lloyd, which runs geo-fenced mail campaigns around different club locations in the UK. As an agency we utilise specific print solutions to support targeted campaigns as part of an integrated performance offering for these types of brands in particular.”

However, he’s quick to point out that what works for one brand won’t necessarily work for another. “Each brand needs to tailor their strategies to talk to the specific audience they want to reach,” says Jackson. “What is true, however, is the power of print media to drive one-to-one interaction with customers. Plus, the open rates of direct mail are phenomenal and when talking to a regional audience, no other channel comes close to the micro targeting of print – specifically mail.”

Fresh opportunity

The recent print revival clearly presents opportunities for the industry, but pulling together complex cross-media campaigns isn’t a skill that can be acquired overnight. 

“Anybody can write a cheque for a piece of equipment, but you’ve got to have the wherewithal to get the best out of it,” says Wesley Dowding, operations and technology director at Romax. “Some people in the industry think they can go out and get a piece of kit and everything will be fine, but that isn’t the case because to get the best out of an iGen like we have, you have to be able to interpret and use data to its best ability. Following on behind that you’re not going to get that sort of work from clients unless you’ve got things like ISO 27001, dedicated IT security teams and all of the infrastructure that would enable you to confidently allow you to go to clients or potential clients and say ‘we can handle that data, you don’t need to worry’.”

The good news for printers looking to move into this space is the price of digital presses and the software required to undertake cross-media marketing campaigns has significantly reduced over the past decade or so, but that’s not to say that this sort of equipment comes cheap. 

“A lot of software – even entry level software – is still quite pricy so you would need a couple of meaty projects lined up to justify the cost,” says Smith. “The return on investment would be there if you’ve got the right clients and returning clients, and once you’ve done it a few times you could recycle and go through the same process with a different brand or different industry sector, so you’re not treading on toes.”

In addition to the associated high cost of offering this sort of service to clients, a significant challenge to the future growth of the direct marketing sector looms large on the horizon. Next year the general data protection regulation (GDPR) comes into force which aims to give people back control of their personal data. 

There are conflicting views in the industry as to what the fallout from all of this will be. Dowding doesn’t think it will have a big impact on his current customer base.

“I think our clients are very geared up and savvy to the changing of the rules and I don’t think they will necessary inhibit what data they are able to collect,” he says. “They are just going to have to be very careful about how they collect it.”

However, Donovan thinks that there could be major problems if companies don’t have up-to-date permissions. This may mean they can send people direct mail, but not email or social media messaging, so print could potentially profit. Jackson also sees print benefitting from the new regulatory climate. 

“We will undoubtedly see GDPR have an impact on how we target audiences in the future, but the impact will be far more significant for digital than print. Businesses that don’t overlook print as part of a cross-channel strategy will therefore benefit long-term,” he believes.

It’s a view shared by Biltcliffe who says he is more optimistic about the future of print now than he has been for the past 20 years.

“If you combine this 500-year-old technology with the smartest data analytics you’ve got the best of both worlds,” he says. “You’ve got something with real integrity and comfort and that’s got brand values written through it – it’s got your name on it, it’s personalised, it feels great and it is relevant to you. Today, everything is auto spam filtered and everything is regulated to death and with GDPR it is going to get much worse from a digital marketing point of view. Print is a fantastic way of gaining those active opt-ins that brands will be needing next year and that is why I think print has got a fantastically exciting and powerful future ahead of it.” 

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