Tech Line

Direct Mail for the Digital Age, Part 1:

The Power of Engagement

Recently, PFL hosted a virtual event featuring PFL CMO Jennifer Bellin; VP Customer Experience Kara Trapp; and Forrester Research’s VP and Principal Analyst Laura Ramos. This roundtable discussion was based on the findings of a PFL-commissioned Forrester Consulting report titled, “Direct Mail for the Digital Age.” What follows is the first of a series of articles highlighting insights from the webinar.  

Forrester’ Research has, for several years, been looking at how buyers—especially B2B buyers—prefer to engage with content and messages from businesses. 

In a 2021 Forrester content-preference study, the researcher found that most content that buyers are seeing from sellers fails to deliver what they need or what they value. Forrester’s VP and Principal Analyst, Laura Ramos, put it this way: “The majority of buyers say they are getting too much material from vendors and that they get what they need from other sources. What’s more, it's focused on style more than substance. Most agree that what they get is not very useful to them.” 

What are the implications of all of this? “Well, if you understand what customers and prospects think of your content, you can see that it has a real impact on sales, on slowing down the sales process,” explained Ramos. “When it's all part of the ‘sea of sameness,’ it really fails to attract the right buyers.” 

When people make decisions, they are often influenced by what sticks in their memory. But for something to be memorable it must stand out. Well, it's not happening that way today, in many cases because of a lack relevance.  

According to Ramos, what buyers are saying is that “your message and content is not targeted at me, so I don't know why I should be take a meeting Mr. or Ms. Salesperson. That's when sellers really start to struggle, and the sales process starts to expand.” The result, she said, is often a lost opportunity. “Buyers don’t recognize themselves in your content, your message, or your outreach because it just doesn't stand out enough in their minds,” she said. “It’s simply not important and relevant.”  

It was observing this situation that prompted Forrester to try to determine what is it that makes content stand out? What’s more, what is the role of physical, dimensional content in the equation?   

What’s Going on in the Market 

Many agree that the first place to start is by simply understanding what's going on in the market. We see, as a result of the pandemic-induced shutdowns, that both marketers and sellers really oriented themselves toward digital experiences. The fact is the pandemic forced us to realize that this digital change has been happening for a while now.  

Buyers have been saying that they get most of their information from other sources, noted Ramos. But what are those sources? Most are online. These digital experiences had become favorable for marketers and sellers because they were able to be measured and directed in the right way.  

But things change. Now we're at the point where “our cup runneth over,” she said. Everything had moved in that direction, and all that buyers see are digital touchpoints. “So, the messaging din has gotten really loud in the digital channels,” pointed out Ramos, “and, as a result, customers and prospects are starting to tune out. They're ignoring all this messaging as part of an overall digital fatigue.” 

Among the reasons for this digital fatigue, according to many, is that most people are spending more time online than ever. Some say digital fatigue has more to do with interacting on Zoom, Webex, etc., for all kinds of meetings via purely digital channels. This makes people feel as if everything's the same. We do our meetings, and we do events, and we do phone calls all through one digital channel now.  

But when it comes to buyers, it's not that they're fatigued by the content. It's that their attention is being drawn elsewhere. In fact, people are actually spending more time looking at content before making decisions. The number of touchpoints reported by the buyer's journey survey has increased from 17 or so to around 27 over the past couple of years.  

Turning You Off 

But that doesn’t mean all is well. The bottom line,” suggested PFL CMO, Jennifer Bellin, “is that if your content isn't standing out, isn't giving prospects and customers an experience that's out of the ordinary, isn’t relevant or personalized, they are really good at turning you off. Getting customer and prospect attention is, in many cases, the most important challenge marketers need to overcome.”  

Bellin noted that, in her experience, one great way to rise above is by taking a multi-channel approach to marketing. Email, phone calls, digital advertising, webinars, events, and direct mail. She pointed out that many marketers are seeing diminishing returns from email, in particular.  

“All of us are hit with emails every day—tons of emails,” Bellin said. “But there are filters and bots and other ways to prevent marketing emails from ever seeing the primary inbox. And it appears to be only getting worse. Not good news for digital-only marketing." 

Another issue is that, today, many emails are so templated—they look like a robot has written them, which is also unfortunate. With the coming of AI-based writing it might become even more so. Most recipients can tell immediately, just by looking at a few of the words, whether the email is from a human or is a templated auto-produced marketing email. 

Many report that, over the last 10 years or so, the open rate for B2B prospecting emails has dropped from 25 percent to about 10 percent; click-through rates have dropped from about 3 percent to 1 percent. So, while there are techniques to improve these numbers, it is obviously getting harder and harder to rely on digital prospecting emails for engagement. Digital provides easy reach, but limited, engagement, unfortunately. The fact is, customers and prospects who used to be responsive to emails are tuning them out. It’s the “sea of sameness” and lack of novelty, creativity, and personalization at work. 

Did You Email Us? 

Bellin noted that she recently spoke with the customer advisory committee at Artemis Health (her previous company) about a much-loved customer conference. “And the group said, ‘Oh, we haven't seen the invite to the customer conference. Did you email them to us?’ she said. 

“I was floored by that” admitted Bellin. “The group clearly said, ‘don't email us. That's the worst way to reach us.’ That just goes to show that even happy customers who want to hear from you are so bombarded by email that it's just not reaching them anymore.” 

Experts believe that what we're seeing is marketers and sellers realizing that their prospects’ and buyers’ appetite for information is not being met by a digital diet alone, and that is really starting to burn them out. And email is the most egregious example. So, what can be done differently? Well, even though there might be an age-old and misplaced bias against it, the alternative is physical mail. The fact is, most marketers missed direct mail’s arrival into the digital world. 

Experts believe that these biases need to be overcome, because modern dimensional mail fits into a campaign structured to include both digital and physical touches. This can be well-orchestrated and measurable so it’s possible to see exactly what's happening.  

With all this ignoring going on, sellers are really at the risk of treating their customers' attention as if it were cheap and always there—well, it's not. You need to treat your customers like the precious commodity they are, roundtable participants agreed. The pandemic and other factors have caused many organizations to increase reliance and investment in digital marketing touchpoints. Yet buyers have become less likely to engage with digital, which creates a conundrum: Marketers know they are using digital more, but they also know that their buyers aren't engaging with it.  


The flip side is that many of the marketers we surveyed for the report said that, when they receive a package while at work, they are likely to open it, which begs the question: Are we using every channel available to break through the barriers buyers have put up and find a way to gain their attention?  

There is still general agreement that marketers prioritize digital marketing touchpoints because they are measurable and optimizable. What’s not totally understood yet is that dimensional, physical mail can be measured and optimized as well. This is borne out by our survey, which reported that many said they would use more direct mail if they could do it in an engaging and differentiated way, in a way that wasn't cost prohibitive.  

Set It and Forget It 

Savvy marketers know that this is all possible today, as was pointed out by PFL’s VP of Customer Experience, Kara Trapp: “Direct mail done well is quite the opposite of cumbersome and difficult and not measurable. Smart direct mail really allows for automation, which removes the manual component and room for error caused by guessing.  One of the things you hear about today’s automated direct mail is the phrase, ‘set it and forget it’—yet you must engage at scale to the right audience at the right time.” 

“In a way, some believe that modern direct mail can be even more actionable,” continued Trapp. “Many customer success managers can’t get people to open emails—period. Yet, many will go to a webinar or open a package that made them feel special. By running direct mail with technology, you’re adding the ability to have real-time delivery alerts. That means I can call the recipient right away. I can be in the moment, and I can engage right there. You can't do that with email.”  

All of which points to why adding direct mail to digital efforts is of growing importance for marketers. “Modern marketers are waking up to the idea that physical mail is a hybrid type of experience,” concluded Ramos. “That it is a great complement to programs that are intended to not only attract new buyers, but really serve the needs of your customers throughout their lifetime. Recent research shows that those who currently using direct mail in their marketing are applying it successfully across every stage of the customer lifecycle.”   

Deeper Brand Relationships 

In sum, the experts on our panel, as well as many others, believe that it really helps to foster deeper brand relationships and encourage customers to reciprocate because they've gotten something of value from the brand. They can then be encouraged to perform advocacy motions, such as write reviews or speak at a conference or participate in a webinar.  

All those activities are really enhanced when you have a communication motion to customers and to your buyers that is reinforced with both a combination of tactics that provide value and are something they are interested in. The sending of a physical or dimensional item by way of direct mail really helps make all this possible.   

Parts 2 and 3 will explore the Power of Personalization and The Power of Action.