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I hate to say it but I may be about to eat my words.  Having spent years encouraging organisations to “go digital” and change from snail mail to e-mail… I may be changing my view.

It’s true that business really seem to be embracing the benefits of email marketing and communications.  In fact, we are sending over 25% fewer direct mailings by post than we were this time last year. Is this is a sign of the recession and the need to save costs or a vision of the future?  Are we attempting to move with the times and communicate in a more efficient way?

Whatever the motive it can be easy to overlook the value that a tangible item can have, over an email… or, indeed, the benefit of thinking imaginatively and combining the mediums within one campaign.  In essence, is there any need to do one rather than the other and are we throwing the baby out with the bath water?

Some key questions…

As with all marketing, before you do anything you need to review your communications and ask yourself some questions:

  1. Who are you mailing to – are they someone who naturally communicates via email or are they more likely to dismiss it as junk mail? What effect will the format of the message have on this person? Do you have an accurate database that will support email or postal mailings?
  2. Do you have to pick one or the other – leading on from the last point you may be able to afford the luxury of doing both. Some receivers might like it as an email version and other might prefer a hard copy. It’s worth considering doing both to ensure that you actually give people what they want.
  3. How quickly do you need to send it out – is it a long-planned mailing or a topical bulletin?  Is it a quick note or a formal document? Sometimes the turnaround time can rule out a hard copy mailing… but if you have longer to play with, perhaps taking the time to produce a high quality publication would be worth it?
  4. What impression do you want to give – are you communicating about something personal and quality-focused? Or are you talking about something quick and efficient and modern? Consider the impact that something tangible, held in the hand can have… over a smart, slick email that drops into the inbox.
  5. What do you want their first impression to be – leading on from the last point, do you want their first impression to be a visual one or a tactile one? All to often we agonise over the imagery, formatting and copy and forget that, with brochures and hard copy materials, the receiver’s first sensation is that of touch… and their first impression is either “ooooh that feels lovely” or “urrrrggggh that feels cheap and nasty”. This can really impress quality on the receiver… but that said, a smart, slick email can also impress a sense of being efficient and modern, so this needs consideration.
  6. How generic is your offering – are you trying to send a generic update (like a newsletter) or a personalised letter? How well does what you want to do fit within what you want to achieve?
  7. What’s your budget – do you have some money or spend or nothing? The reality is that, often, sending an email is free and sending a letter costs (as a minimum) paper + printing + collating + postage. Do you have to send it out on a budget or not?
  8. Where does your talent lie – whether it’s outsourced or internal there is little point attempting to send out an eye-catching email if you don’t have the ability (or resources) to create it. Similarly, if you haven’t got a competent designer then don’t bother trying to “whiz up a flyer”. Whatever you send out must be the very best you can do and the format should support this.
  9. Is the IT beating you – have you got the IT infrastructure to send out a load of emails or is this going to cause a problem? There are a host of good email marketing tools out there but they are not for everyone. Similarly, are your receivers likely to receive it in the right format, or will it end up as spam? If you are sending emails out that go in the bin it might be worth considering going back to snail mail in preference.
  10. Is your mailing a one off or part of a series – is this it or is it part of a sequence? By this I mean, might there be scope for using more than one form of communication?

A case study

To demonstrate my point (and partly where my thinking came from) I want to tell you about a new client of mine.

They aren’t a professional services firm but they do certainly provide a service.  For them, communicating values and “impression” is really vital.  They are young, innovative and fresh but also pride themselves on only ever providing the best of the very best service.  They are a very emotions-led offering and have made a real splash in the market, since their launch in February 2010.

They wanted to conduct some B2B marketing with a view to linking up with organisations that “stood for similar values”.  Their hope was that they could work together to market to their client base and employees.  The intention was that we would pick our dream team of strategic partners and contact them to see if they liked us back again! And trust me… the sky was the limit with some of the brands we picked!

After agonising about it for quite some time the plan we came up with was as follows:

  1. Tuesday afternoon – send a quick email to the company CEO of no longer than a paragraph.  Say who we are but not go into any detail about what we do.  The primary focus was to say that we liked what we’d read about them and they way they do business… that we saw a lot of ourselves in this and would be interested to discuss working together.  We’d be sending them some ideas in the post but for the time being, if they were interested then they could click on the website.
  2. Monday morning – a letter detailing a bit more about who we are and 3 partnership ideas would arrive with them.  This would be wrapped around a beautiful brochure with loads of photos.  Printed on soft, un-coated paper… a real delight to unwrap.
  3. Thursday afternoon – a quick email just to say that we hope they received it and we’d be calling them the following week to see what they thought. If they wanted to speak sooner then give us a bell… very punchy, very informal.
  4. Tuesday morning – follow up calls/emails start (and we were armed with a pdf copy of the brochure/letter for those that had lost it).

In this campaign we really used emails in the way in which they were designed to be used… as quick, punchy, shocks of information.  Neither of the two emails went over 3 or 4 sentences and they were written in a confident, tempting style.

The hard copy mailing, however, really played on the quality end of the spectrum.  It was beautifully designed and produced and felt wonderfully luxurious.  It managed to put across so many emotion-led things that we would have missed in an email. Importantly it left something tangible with them, sitting on their desks to remind them of us (and what they would be missing if they didn’t get in touch).

The results were wonderful.  We had instant responses from some major brands, all saying that they loved the approach and wanted to talk more.  My client has now partnered with two of them and we are launching joint communications campaigns to almost a million potential clients.  A further 10 major brands have “put themselves on the waiting list” to work with us.

Now translate this to professional services and think what a refreshing approach something like this would be if used for B2B communications?

So, in conclusion…

Perhaps we might have been too rash in the past when we extolled the virtues of email marketing over snail mail.  Yes, postal mail costs more and there is always the chance that it will get put in the bin but there is also the chance that your email will get cast into the spam folder.

The reality is that different needs require different solutions.  We are lucky that we have a wealth of communications tools to choose from… more than ever before.  We have ways of getting to people immediately and with levels of information we could only ever have dreamt of.  We can use marketing communications to interact with people and to start up a relationship even before we get their first piece of work.

But the moral of this story is that just because something different has come along, doesn’t mean that the old ways are redundant.  The more opportunities we are presented with the more we marketing people need to inject a little imagination.  Perhaps our job is to work out the BEST tool for the job rather than, necessarily, the NEWEST/CHEAPEST/EASIEST tool for the job?