Everyone is talking about it, but what is it? Is triggered direct mail a new trend? What is the buzz all about? Triggered direct mail is driving unprecedented results in marketing campaigns. When done right, it can enable marketers to make a truly meaningful connection with their prospects and existing customers, giving them the nudge they need to make a purchase.What is Triggered Direct Mail?
Triggered direct mail is a hot topic today. At a recent conference I attended, more than 80% of the attendees asked about it. But, is triggered direct mail really something new, or has it been around for a while?
The answer…it has been around for a while. Depending on which historian you believe, the first direct mail sent out in the United States was sent by either Ben Franklin or Aaron Montgomery. Now triggered mail is not quite as old, but it's by no means new. Back in my very first job in direct marketing at Bloomingdale’s By Mail, we ran a very large lead generation campaign with a budget of about half a million dollars (back when half a million dollars was a lot of money) to generate catalog requests, and back then we even got people to pay for the catalogs, believe it or not. That was a very early version of triggered direct mail.
There are other ways that direct mail can be triggered, but they're always based on an action by consumers. Triggered direct mail is always on and it only takes a specific action for it to get sent. Catalog requests, sample requests, magazine renewal series, birthday mailings ...all are great examples of how the trigger can be activated. Remember when you would always look forward to getting a postcard from Baskin Robins right before your birthday?
Another type of triggered direct mail from the past was the Reminder Program at Day-Timers. Customers were mailed 6 months, 3 months and 30 days prior to the expiration of their current product, and it was the most profitable direct mail program I've ever seen. And there are other examples of triggered mail: dental appointment reminder, car service notices, because all of those things are really triggered direct mail and triggered direct mail is almost always more responsive than batch and blast campaigns.
How have triggered programs evolved in the digital marketing space?
Interestingly, if you were to ask the fifty or so marketers at that recent conference how they think of triggered direct mail, they likely would describe it similarly to how I have above. This represents the roots and history of tried and true direct mail. But, when most marketers today think about triggered programs, they're really thinking about online programs.
Let’s start with email. Certainly, in the very early days of email, it was batch and blast, which still exists (way too often) today. A marketer will send their entire list the same email promotion, and hope for the best. But, early on in email's history, people got the idea of, “Hey let's try to send out an abandoned cart email”. Now people who had visited a website and left without completing a purchase would be sent an email to entice them into coming back and making that purchase. This was wildly successful. In the early days it did phenomenally well. These abandoned cart triggered emails responded 10X what marketers would get from batch and blast. That really set off this whole discussion of “How can we develop more types of triggered emails?”. More emails focused on transaction confirmation, welcome series, shipping confirmation, in fact a whole industry of companies grew up that did nothing but focus on triggered emails. They did that, because frankly, these triggered emails continued to produce much higher response rates and much more profit than batch and blast.
But in the online space, triggered is not limited to email alone. In fact, if you think about what a Google paid search ad was in the early days, it’s really a triggered marketing program. As a marketer, you'd decide that if someone searched for a particular phrase, you would show them a text ad. It’s no different than designing a trigger-based email.
Since paid search came along, the next kind of triggered program was digital displayed retargeting ads. This is when people who had visited a website left, and could then be followed around the web with a particular ad. Those programs became just as sophisticated as the triggered email programs. In fact, there is a whole industry of companies that focus on website retargeting and online retargeting ads. The reason why companies developed around both of these concepts is there are so many data signals available online, so many things with browsing data that you can use to trigger and customize an online ad, much more than you could even do in those direct mail programs that you had before. It’s the wealth of data online that really caused triggered programs to be much more important today than they previously were in direct mail.
We have talked about triggered programs both online and offline, but let’s focus on triggered targeting through direct mail. What happened to allow marketers to do this effectively?
In the early days of digital display ads, ads were really targeted based on the website somebody visited. For example, nearly twenty years ago, if a marketer wanted to do a campaign on Yahoo, they would spend $45,000 to have banner ads appear on a particular part of the Yahoo content area, and then trace a single order to that $45,000. That experience was not unique at that time; there was a lot of inventory in digital display ads. In 1999, 2000, 2001…there were a lot of eyeballs looking at online content.
The real innovation in advertising came when marketers began tying a cookie on the device to an identity, and with that they were able to append attributes like visitor demographics, lifestyle characteristics, and purchase history. This reshaped digital advertising with a focus now on the site being visited. Marketers could now build audiences of unique individuals…today’s DMP. Through DMP's marketers can purchase and advertise to audiences whose underlying state is based on the knowledge of who that individual is and what their characteristics are.
So how are marketers beginning to use those browsing signals in direct mail?
When you think about the development of direct mail audiences, the last major innovation in that space was the co-ops. Abacus came first, and there were others that followed and all the audience building in direct marketing, or most of it at least, was driven from previous transactions. For example, if a customer bought something a year ago, or six months ago and spent X amount of dollars, or had purchased three times from a particular company, it was very valuable information. But it is a bit of a history lesson; it doesn't tell us much about what people are intending to do going forward. The ability to use website browsing behavior to select audiences, and send specific content based on what people are looking at on the site, has really allowed marketers to get into a different type of audience selection and targeted messaging.
Marketers are now applying this data to offline campaign ads and have had very good success with that. Triggered postcard programs can be really effective, not only because visitors can be identified who are more likely to purchase and are deserving of a direct mail piece, but the advent of more efficient digital presses, more efficient image storage, now allows marketers to target messaging based on what somebody visited on the website. It's not only the ability to identify the best candidates but also to identify what offer or content to send them.
It’s not just postcard programs. There are legacy triggered direct mail programs that exist out there, and this new browsing signal can actually become a great data feed into existing triggered direct mail programs. There are a lot of companies who take these triggered mail programs that have always been very successful for them but expand them substantially because now they have a new data source and a new way to actually apply that browsing signal. There is a big difference though, that particularly people who are more accustomed to digital marketing should be very careful of. When these browsing signals were being applied into email and into digital display retargeting, you didn't have to worry so much about who it was you were selecting, because the cost per exposure is much lower when you're talking about email and display advertising.
Direct mail, while it can get substantially higher response rates, is also more expensive. So, we know for a fact that if most marketers used direct mail to apply to everyone who visited their website, they'd get crushed. Direct mail is just too expensive to be used in that fashion. You're much better off continuing to use digital display advertising for those folks who are not yet ready to receive direct mail. A big part of how you apply this browsing concept into direct mail is to be very sensitive to how engaged somebody is with your brand.
People are giving marketers a lot of clues, and the good news is they're giving enough clues to determine things like, are they likely to be direct mail responsive or not? What is the right image or message to show them that's really going to drive a response? You know that old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words? We've seen getting that image right can double response rates, and so that's just free money waiting out there for marketers.
But in addition to browsing behavior, how else can direct mail be made more effective?
There’s a lot of activity now around applying this digital browsing behavior to existing CRM files. One application is high ticket items with long repurchase cycles, especially those where it's difficult to predict when a visitor is going to come back in to make a purchase. This is perfect for those folks. For example, if there is a customer who has traveled with a vacation tour company, and has a great experience, but just hasn’t been back for a web visit for a while, if the brand missed a signal that the customer was on their website looking at trips to Italy, that is a huge opportunity cost for them. They're not taking advantage of the ability to reach out and say, “Hey, we saw that you're looking at this trip and we want to help you get there because we'd love to have you with us!”. This is just one example of how this data can be extremely effective in a direct mail campaign.
While triggered direct mail has been around for some time now, the evolution of it is making direct mail smarter. With the right data interpretation and consumer privacy guidelines, the matching of those visiting a website or clicking on relevant emails to their postal address brings intent data to life, and direct marketers can reach out with an individualized approach to their content and offer. This provides the consumer the best experience possible in their journey to making a purchase, while still protecting the anonymity of website visitors. What a concept! Leveraging the clues that online visitors are leaving behind with their intent to purchase a product and making a timely and relevant connection with them via Direct Mail. Isn’t evolution incredible?