People are exposed to several thousand sales pitches, marketing messages, and advertising images every single day. Maybe it’s true that money makes the world go ‘round. At least that’s the basic underlying proposition of all these messages. We know this just as well as we know that these messages plastered and posted onto every surface we glance at are primarily working to play a part in that commerce. From the perspective of an audience — as opposed to a messenger — mass media, the internet, and mobile technology have, above all else, relegated the public sphere to a state of total immersion in commercial culture.
Morning Boys … How’s the Water?
The sales pitch, as the dominant form of social discourse, is the greatest cliché of our time. Indeed the pervasiveness of mass media has pretty much commercialized culture in general. And it’s a mistake to think the public isn’t aware of it. Just because we’re swimming every minute through a liquid matrix of commercial messages doesn’t mean we’re like those two fish from the famous David Foster Wallace parable who don’t know what water is. Plenty of us see it, just as well as we see through it.
In many instances seeing through marketing and advertising messages seems just as automated in the behavior of someone seasoned at browsing the web, as the algorithms, and behavior tracking bots that generate custom ad content on the web pages they visit. People are habituated to approve or reject messages they see without full awareness of their internal criteria. As marketers, we need to take this into consideration.
The Media IS the Message
The development and growth of the internet has turned most people into highly specialized media consumers who have developed pretty keen intuition for what their particular brand of content looks like, feels like, and sounds like, without having to dig too deeply into the language, the rhetoric and the layout of a piece. All these facts speak to the importance of respecting an audience’s BS filter by engaging with them in ways they find meaningful on very basic levels, rather than just spamming their inboxes regularly. Comparing email marketing to direct mail marketing illustrates this point pretty well. Since there are some solid statistics supporting the cost-effectiveness and high ROI with email marketing campaigns so it definitely deserves a place in the marketers toolbox. But according to direct marketing research when searching for “new” customers, study after study proves direct mail will generate more new customers than email, possibly as much as 10 to 30 times more. So, if building a long-term, loyal base of return customers seems like a good marketing initiative, then we may want to make postal direct mail marketing central to that foundation and hold off on email marketing until direct mail tells us who our audience really is. Here are a few more reasons why:
1. Postal is Far More Visually Impactful
Of course it’s possible to include photographs, vector graphics, creative typeface, colorful and/or graphic backgrounds, and any other visual design elements into an email marketing campaign. But the real appeal of email is, in many cases to reach mass audiences while incurring very low production and distribution costs. Allocating the resources of professional writers, designers, and web developers who would need to be recruited to produce that creative content starts to diminish the lucrative ROI of email marketing pretty fast, which is why a lot of email marketing campaigns show up with a bare-bones layout, and only the very basic elements of a persuasive pitch. Likewise, direct mail can also be done with a bare bones approach. But then next point explains why a marketing message delivered in the form of printed hard copy can get away with that better than electronic messages.
2. With Snail Mail, Tangibility Baked into the Message
Smartphones, and computers might be tangible objects too. But when comparing the existential differences between reading a piece of content on an electronic device, and reading a piece of content on printed material, the hard copy comes across as much more of a first-order interaction with the message, whereas electronic messages can only be delivered through the mediating agency of an electronic device. The message itself becomes second-order at best. It’s just not the same experience. Electronic devices may be taken seriously as business tools, especially by those who are using them to circulate messages to mass audiences quickly and easily. They may make checking tasks off a to-do list pretty easy. But great marketing content begins from a standpoint of taking the perspective of the audience into account, obviously. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that people just don’t take electronic messages all that seriously until there is an established relationship. And even then that relationship requires continuous support from other avenues. Just listen to how quickly people dismiss content they get from social media, email, or websites. The ease and cheapness of electronic messages has made the internet a haven for spammers and con artists, and it has made false information, cheap information, and misinformation too much the norm. And all of those have eroded social perceptions of the validity of email, at least as the first method of contact. The internet is a great marketing tool but in most instances, it should only play a supporting role in the forming of relationships between marketers and audiences.
3. Print Media has Dimension
Any good creative writing professor will constantly remind students to always attend to all five of a reader’s senses. It’s a technique that transforms abstract ideas into a concrete experience. The physical form of a printed piece of work is a great way to acknowledge customers as actual human beings, instead of just abstract identities floating in abstract space engaging in abstract forms of value exchange. And there are plenty of people out there who still find those physical dimensions of personal engagement more credible than the purely abstract kind. The dimensionality of print media leaves several options for accomplishing this. It can be as simple as a message written and structured in the form of a letter, or it can be a more robustly creative mail piece on high quality letterhead, or it can be a pamphlet or brochure complete with photography and creative layout. In the past poets, philosophers, and theologists spent most of their efforts calling attention to the more ethereal elements of existence, and away from the physical dimensions. Now however, the plugged-in, tuned-out state many of us live in has swung the deficit the other way. Far too many of us spend our day-in-day-out dwelling in abstract space and we long for more tangible experiences. Scarcity of direct interaction between people has raised the value. That’s the bottom line.
4. Different Shapes, Sizes, Colors, Smells, Texture
The fact is that the public is pretty savvy about knowing what mass media messages to disregard and which ones to take into consideration. Likewise, most people know what media sources to turn to for messages that reflect their own sensibilities. And we’re all too aware of the fact that Google and Facebook are even now equipped to track online behavior and populate sidebars of websites that people browse with customized banner ads based on that accumulated data. So even though there’s some good evidence supporting the cost effectiveness, and dramatically high ROI of email marketing, that does not mean email marketing is the best approach for every audience in every circumstance. It’s as Marshall McLuhan once wrote, and a few other media critics echoed in the decades building up to now; “The medium is the message.” And if your message approaches your audience from the cheapest, easiest, most risk free media platform, there’s a good chance the audience will treat your commercial voice as the cheapest, easiest, most risk free messenger to disregard.
5. Direct Mail Meets Customers Halfway
Simply put, the action, and effort it takes to send out a direct mail marketing campaign tends to generate a similar degree of action in response. Ironically, direct mail especially generates online action. According the the U.S. Postal Service 60 percent of direct mail recipients are influenced to visit promoted websites, especially first time shoppers. Direct mail shoppers tend to spend 28 percent more money, and they increase online revenues to 163 percent of what websites that are not supported by direct mail.
In the end, all the various media platforms are just tools, designed to do jobs. As with any other industry, the most savvy marketers make deliberate choices and pick the exact right tools for the specific job, and they know cheap is not always the best.