Everything Old Is New Again
- by Rich Feldman , Yesterday
I can still hear the echoes of pundits claiming the imminent demise of print catalogs, direct mail, and direct response television (DRTV) as e-marketing ascended to dominance.
Yet, the exact opposite happened. These direct channels are playing essential roles in drive-to-web strategies. To understand why, let’s take a stroll down memory lane:
In 1897, with the help of a new, functioning postal service, the Sears Catalog was born. Among the first mail order vehicles, it made a broad range of goods accessible to rural customers. The catalog would grow to sell live chickens, and even pre-fab homes — “do it yourself” structures that made putting together a Kallax bookshelf from Ikea look like child’s play, and — of course, spawned a world-famous retail store.
Today, the web is a new form of access that has facilitated shopper engagement and direct sales. And print catalogs are driving customers to them. According to the Data & Marketing Association (DMA), in 2016 9.8 billioncatalogs were mailed. That may be significantly less than in 2007 (19.6 billion) — but think about it: 9.8 billion catalogs despite the fact that virtually all the merchants sending them are selling online.
For DRTV, one of the first known “informercials” came in 1949 when William G. “Papa” Barnard created his long-form spot for Vitamix. In it, he exhorts, “The most vital subject that concerns you and your family is health. With health we have wealth. Without health, you’re a miserable failure!” Ouch.
Watch the Vitamix informercial and see for yourself how “breadcrumbs [could be made] by electricity” – while imagining just how “disruptive” this must have been on TV in 1949.
DRTV, of course, has had a love/hate relationship among consumers and marketers. But the fact remains: carefully constructed appeals that present compelling demonstrations with can’t-refuse offers and, ultimately, an attractive cost per lead/cost per sale will always have its place. And, as a new frontier of “DRTV” takes shape, with addressability, OTT, programmatic TV, etc., similar principles of measurability will continue to prevail.
There isn’t consensus on when modern-era direct mail — or, as conflicted insiders call it with Valdermort-like withdrawal, j--k mail — was born. There’s no debate, however, that there was a time when the sales letter loomed large.
One of my favorites begins this way: “Good Friend – This invitation isn’t for deadbeats, rip-off artists or “gentlemen” who hate to get their hands dirty. It’s for the rest of us.” It then goes on to talk about the average guy who isn’t afraid to stick his hands in a toilet tank or get down under a sink with a pipe wrench.
This masterfully targeted subscription appeal, an enduring “control” piece for Popular Mechanics magazine, ran four-pages long. Nowadays, people don’t read four-page letters, at least so they say. (Perhaps there aren’t as many good letter writers.) Yet, the fact remains, if you have a good story to tell, and you tell it well, people will engage.
Today, DM is being used by virtually all types of merchants and manufacturers to bring their best prospects online — where they can tell a “four-page story” (or more) in video, graphics and reviews. And perhaps the greatest irony of them all, is that they’re turning to it because there can be less clutter in the mailbox than there is in the inbox.
Most interestingly, all of these channels, whether in their infancy or re-imagined for our digital times, have relied on the exact same drivers of success:
- Start with precise targeting founded on an intimate knowledge of your customers as told by data.
- You need an offer, something that helps overcome decision hurdles and drive immediacy.
- And, of course, you need to tell your story with drama and purpose. That’s what it means to be creative.
So, what’s old is new again. Catalogs, DRTV and DM are driving prospects to the web and to the store, and phone. And the goal is still the same. As Papa Barnard might have said if he were still alive today, If you don’t inspire a response, you’re a miserable failure!