Review: The Private Life of Mail

Review The Private Life of MailTraditionally, mail has been seen as a direct response channel, best suited for delivering rational activation messages, promotions and offers. However the recent report by Royal Mail MarketReach, The Private Life of Mail, reveals that mail has a broader range of effects than most marketers think, and that the way people respond to mail is changing.
A neuroscience study by Neuro-Insight, included in the report, shows that typical direct mail provokes a powerful positive emotional response in recipients with commensurately impressive long-term memory encoding.
The report appears to show that this effect is more powerful than TV, but in fact is comparing a single TV break with the opening of a day’s worth of mail. Nevertheless the observed long-term effects of mail are impressive. Moreover, they are boosted when used as part of an integrated multi-channel campaign and when the sensory experience of the mail is enhanced with more stimulating formats and production values.
Most users of direct mail simply ignore this potential of the medium for brand building. Recent mailings by EE, The National Trust and Compare the show what can be achieved when brand-building is combined with sales activation.
review 5EE printed its letter on a screen-cleaning cloth to remind consumers in an engaging way of the data allowances offered by the brand. Meanwhile, the National Trust mailing featured a phosphorescent poster that revealed different wildlife when viewed in the dark or in the light, to remind kids and their parents that outdoors can be an adventure day and night.
Compare the used a card ‘peek-a-boo’ toy to remind prospects of the popular baby Oleg toy offer on purchase and reinforce the engaging meerkat brand campaign.
So direct mail has the potential to span both activation and brand-building roles. The marketing community is becoming increasingly aware of the crucial role that “System 1” effects have in building strong, profitable brands, but until now the brand-building effects of mail have largely been ignored, and hardly ever quantified.
review 6This report has major implications for the way we research and evaluate the effects of mail. Firstly, it is clear that the time has come to start taking the brand effects of mail seriously. That means going beneath the surface of what people say about mail (which is often hostile or dismissive) to understand how mail actually makes them feel and how they actually behave as a result.
Linear attribution methods have always been flawed, since they fail to take account of the interactions between channels. But in the case of mail, they are becoming increasingly useless. These days, people rarely respond to mail by sending back a coupon or ringing a dedicated phone line – the natural response is to go online.
So if marketers are to exploit the full potential of mail in a digital world, they need to measure its indirect effects. They need to look at how mail affects response rates in other channels, particularly the way mail gets people searching for brands online, but also how it affects behaviour in the retail environment.
Marketers should stop evaluating mail in isolation, and start looking at the multiplier effects of mail in conjunction with other channels. Controlled tests are a good way to do this, and when test grids are well designed, the results can be startling.
An award-winning IPA paper for Cravendale Milk is a good example. Regional tests showed that direct mail and TV advertising both increased sales significantly when used in isolation, but that the combined effect when they were used together was more than doubled.
Finally, the Royal Mail report draws attention to the longer-term effects of mail. People not only keep, but also remember mail far longer than many of us realise. And when mail does have brand-building effects, we can expect those to play out over the longer term. Traditional evaluation purely in terms of short-term responses is no longer appropriate.
The Private Life of Mail report presents valuable new research evidence at a critical time for direct mail. The potential exists for a new golden age of direct mail, so long as marketers raise their game in mail and adopt appropriate evaluation metrics and techniques.

Les Binet is head of effectiveness at Adam & Eve DDB, and Peter Field is a marketing consultant for the IPA. This critique was part of a presentation for Ad Week Europe on the future of direct mail

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