E-mail Ain’t Direct Mail. Remember Where You Are

Nov 01, 2001 10:30 PM  By

The synergy between direct mail and e-mail not only exists; it sparkles with energy. █ Direct mail is the incestuous first cousin of e-mail. But too many “creatives” who regard a shift from direct mail to e-mail as nothing more than a title change on the copy sheet don’t seem to realize that it’s a first cousin, not a twin. Synergy doesn’t mean the two media are monozygotic. (Ha! Gotcha! You can use that word, which refers to identical twins, in a direct mail package — although I wouldn’t. Try it in an e-mail message and you’ll be clicked out of existence.)

Of course parallels exist. Direct mail comes unannounced…as does commercial e-mail. But direct mail lacks the cachet of the hot glamour medium. Not milking that cachet can be a curse when someone whose background in mailed offers tries to lift and glue one of those mailed offers, wholesale, onto your screen. The message goes to the same person, but Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde when that same person moves from letter opener to mouse clicker.

Parallels between direct mail and e-mail are obvious. Each of these two types of direct media depends on the exquisite LOCK mixture for success: List, Offer, Creative, and Know-how. A marketer needs some astuteness in choosing not only the lists, but also the list provider. And the offer has to match what the selected demographic/psychographic profile indicates should be buyer receptivity. Creative? Know-how? They’re more-advanced disciplines, psychology based.

Mechanical differences are equally obvious. Direct mail, with various components to write, produce, print, and mail, can require a month or more of lead time and weeks to evaluate response. E-mail can be written this morning and evaluated tomorrow.

Another obvious difference is cost. The dramatically lower cost of e-mail makes it an economical testing medium…which is why more and more smart mailers are reversing the usual procedure, which has been to use e-mail as a follow-up to direct mail. Instead, these marketers use e-mail to refine the appeal, then use the knowledge they’ve gleaned to structure the more expensive direct mail package. This helps bring response more in line, because direct mail, unhelped, usually won’t deliver as high a percentage of results as e-mail.

I hope we agree the creative approach may be parallel…but for maximum impact probably isn’t. Direct mail not only offers the opportunity to move back and forth between the elements but may actually encourage it. The linear nature of e-mail demands an arrowed buildup with multiple reminders.

Just by being there, finger on the mouse, your e-mail targets say they expect you. Do they welcome you? The “subject line” and first sentence answer that question quickly.

You can see the creative significance of the differential. One small example: If you just retype your direct mail letter for use as an e-mail message, you’ve ignored where you are. Direct mail may be delivered Monday or a week from Thursday. Except for overnight courier, the printed message can’t begin to match — therefore refer to — the immediacy of the e-mail message. (Nor can it begin to match the low cost.) So “You only have three days left” with a specified date (“midnight Saturday”) makes sense in e-mail but not in snail mail.

Yes, “You only have three days left” also retains timeliness in newspapers and broadcast media. But two deficiencies exist: First, the means of immediate response isn’t at hand. Second, the one-to-one aspect isn’t there.

The bulk of consumer response usually arrives within 48 hours. That’s faster than business response, because business recipients typically aren’t as likely to dedicate time for immediate response, especially on Mondays and Fridays. That’s a supreme advantage for the marketing planner.

Mud in the water

One reason so much mud is swirling around in the nervously choppy e-mail marketing waters is that suppliers — from Webmasters to software producers to consultants to researchers to technical message manufacturing companies — often report and quote opinions or self-serving advertising as though those opinions or advertising were fact-based.

The problem is compounded because in a field as gigantic and diverse as e-mail, invariably an e-mailer can find results justifying a claim. That the claim represents a lower percentage of overall success than a contrarian claim is, to the claimer, inconsequential. The procedure did work, for this project at this time.

The overriding consideration has to be that nothing is absolute, and the individual e-mailer has the best gauge at his or her fingertips — a test of one approach against another.

What kind of test? The most obvious is text vs. a “produced” message, and I’ll irritate a lot of Web technicians by suggesting that text has the edge in two circumstances: 1) when the message is tied to urgency rather than artistry, and 2) when the message is business-to-business, aimed at a target group whose knowledge of what you’re selling makes visual images redundant.

That may be another nasty parallel between snail mail and e-mail. How many “hot line” mailings have come to your own mailbox, losing impact because the “deal” is drowned in production?

The two rules of interactivity

A current buzz cliché is “interactivity.” E-mail certainly qualifies as one of the two interactive media. (The other is telemarketing, misused even more than e-mail.)

Consider the two rules of interactivity when structuring e-mail commercial messages. The first rule: Desire is linked to benefit. So emphasize benefit in the subject line.

The second rule: Perception of benefit decreases in exact ratio to perception of necessary effort — work.

That’s a nasty four-letter word in e-mail: w-o-r-k. We all have seen e-mails with wording such as “If you work hard, you’ll…” or “Rewards will come if you work to achieve them.” The statements may be true, but they don’t reflect a sense of salesmanship. A truth not limited to e-mail: People bear pain better if they have been preconditioned to see benefit after the pain. Without the preconditioning, they’re resentful, angry, or bewildered…none of which is a positive reaction.

Tailoring the message to the individual not only is easier in e-mail than in any other medium, but it’s also vital to maximized success. And the definition of maximized success is unconditional: conversion of visitor to customer, customer to advocate.

More than any other medium, e-mail depends on instant positive attention. Think like the message recipient, not the message sender, and the key to your subject line will become apparent.

E-mail know-how includes not only a working knowledge of technical and mechanical options and how to use them; even more significant is a knowledge of where we are — in a wild bazaar. Jupiter Communications reported that more than two-thirds of e-mail marketing recipients respond best to “promotions and value-related offers.” In my opinion, that percentage is low…but, accepting it, we have to conclude that safety lies in recognizable incentives for fast action — coupons and discounts with short expiration dates.

Lots of rules and tips to absorb here. Testing reveals many of them; logic reveals even more.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is president of consultancy Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. His 25th book, Marketing Mayhem, has just been published by Racom Books.