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Guest Comment: Purls of wisdom — direct mail for online shoppers

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While it may seem a obvious that if consumers are going to purchase online they should be contacted via the internet, the reality is much more complex. As research by Response One uncovered last year, consumers are far more likely to be driven to an ecommerce site by an item of targeted direct mail than by an email. In addition to this the DMIS DM and Online Report found that 60% of consumers prefer a combination of mail and online communications to one channel alone.

Furthermore a survey by Abacus Trend Report in 2008 revealed that multichannel buyers contribute 69% of all retail revenue and spend nearly twice the amount per household as single-channel purchasers, indicating that the route to efficient communications that lift response rates and purchasing volumes may well be a suitable mix of online and offline promotional messages. This suggests thatthe last curtain call for direct mail is still a distant prospect.

A number of factors, however, can affect the rate of response and conversion to sale enjoyed by your latest direct mail campaign. Considerable skill is required to manage the subtle mix of factors that determines a customer's reaction to when the direct mail piece arrives, how relevant the product offer appears and how strong the competitive offering is.

Insightful research into response rates and conversion to sale motivators is, however, still very scarce. To shed some light on the matter CDMS commissioned research amongst British consumers, asking them what factors were the most likely to entice them into opening an item of direct mail, respond to it and actually turn that interest into making al purchase. The results revealed that the remarkable clear winners are:
  • The ability to respond online

  • The time at which the campaign reaches the consumer

  • The degree of personalisation of the item of direct mail


This research clearly indicates consumer attitudes to media consumption and usage have reached a turning point: While consumers still clearly like to receive direct mail and have not abandoned offline communication channels, the ability to respond online makes them a full 20% more likely than average to produce the desired effect. The internet is evidently not just an additional or alternative means to contact customers, but also a means for them to respond to targeted offers.

In this context, it is worth dwelling on a relatively new online technology singularly useful for integrating personalised direct communications — personalised URLs, or pURLs. By using pURLs, marketers are able to generate a unique and personalised landing page for every client in their marketing database. This typically takes the form of www.domain.com/name. When the recipients of a direct mail piece type in this personalized URL, they are directed to their own personalised dynamic microsite containing the mailings, offers, products, and/or services specifically tailored to their profile.

In the online environment the activity of respondents can be minutely tracked. This allows an organisation to record click-though information related to the campaign and gauge an individual's content appreciation to ensure that flaws in design and targeting which led the customer to abandoning a commenced basket, for example, are corrected in future communications.

Personalised URLs can also be sent via offline channels such as direct mail or SMS, connecting online and offline data, allowing two of the factors rated as most important by consumers — a high degree of personalisation and an online response mechanism — to be combined.

Significantly, the second most effective factor at driving response and purchase, at 17% above average, was identified as appropriate timing. To provide time-sensitive 'event triggered' messages which are sent to customers only when they behave in a particular way, it is important to register customer attitudes from all touch-points. By taking an integrated view of customer communications across media, these become a closed loop process. Messages go out to a customer; their response is then recorded and acted upon by the organisation, whatever the channel, just like a real one-to-one conversation.

Automatic event triggers can be anything from abandoning a purchase deemed to take too long to despatch to clicking through a particular series of images. Tracking which content drives the customer towards making a purchase and which turns them away not only provides long term insight into likes and dislikes which are valuable for targeting efforts, but also specifies a time-frame in which to refine the message by offering something more relevant.

With so much information available online and offline, marketers who ignore the data offered by individuals and fail to deliver accurate personalisation are delivering a mighty slight to their customers and their own finances. 'Accurate personalisation' in fact ranked at 14% well above average as a driver of response and purchase, and third in the top three factors identified by this survey.

Integrating online and offline data with techniques such as pURLs also allows organisations to refresh their information from anything like a monthly to a near real time basis and allows them to react to changes in customer behaviour almost immediately. It should also be remembered that this information can help enrich the less frequently updated information in the profile of each customer.

Finally this survey shows evidence that we have finally reached a watershed moment for the ecommerce industry, where online and offline integration is an absolutely essential factor in generating sales. Appropriate timing and accurate personalisation are also clearly considered by UK consumers to be significant drivers of response when applied to direct mail campaigns. Although the three factors are related, and all represent forms of tailoring to the individual profile of the customer or prospect, they each point to the use of technologies like personalised URLs which can combine offline data with online to create attractive offers for the campaign.

• Richard Higginbotham is the marketing manager at marketing services provider CDMS.
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