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Shape Your Digital Media Buying Strategy: Lessons From Direct Mailers


Direct marketing goes all the way back to the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian empires, but direct mailers in the form we recognize today can probably be traced back to none other than the invention of the printing press in Europe during the 15th century. From there, it spread around the world. In the 1700s, even before the Revolutionary War, garden and seed catalogues were distributed in the American colonies. In the late 1800s, people like Richard Warren Sears (yes, that Sears) and Aaron Montgomery Ward revolutionized direct mail.


It’s not until after World War II and the advent of computers in the 50s and 60s that the direct mail industry really hit its stride. During this time, advertisers honed their practices, learning how to use colorful, eye-catching designs and shorter, concise language to market to people right from their mailboxes. To do this, they tested every component of their process from the copy to the audience and everything in between. For companies like Reader’s Digest, Time Life or Book-of-the-Month Club, they kept meticulous records on every piece of mail they sent out.


So, you might be asking yourself why we’re telling you so much about direct mailers. Well, first, you might be on a game show someday, and when you’re asked when the printing press was invented, now you’ll know. Second, we wanted to convey just how old the practice of direct marketing truly is. While direct mailers don’t hold the same place of importance for brands today, we shouldn’t just abandon the centuries of lessons this practice can teach us.


As you shape your digital media buying strategy, you’ll be surprised how much you can learn from this traditional media channel. Today, we can set up A/B tests in minutes and get real-time results instantaneously. Several decades ago, it took months to send out marketing materials, get responses and determine what did and didn’t work. That means they had to run a tight ship if they wanted to avoid the unnecessary loss of time and budget.


In these uncertain marketing times, we need to fall back on the lessons of our advertising ancestors to create a data-supported digital media buying strategy.


A Tale as Old as Marketing: Test and Learn


The Test and Learn principle comes from data science. Essentially, it allows marketers to convert insights into hypotheses and then test those hypotheses to determine their value. Prior to our current era of Big Data, direct mail practitioners grew very adept at the Test and Learn process.


Lesson One: Make a Hypothesis


The success of the direct mail industry is based on the ability to test and learn. They tested everything, even varying different room numbers, desks or department names on the address label to see who provided the best response rate. To test, however, you need to form a hypothesis. Something like: “Making [a change] will increase [KPI] because [reasoning].”


To receive actionable insights from testing a hypothesis, you need to attribute meaningful key performance indicators (KPIs) to your test. Determining your KPIs is a deceptively hard feat made even harder by the sheer number of potential candidates. You have conversions, website traffic, lifetime value, return on advertising spend (ROAS), etc. Some of these look nice, but don’t provide you much insight into the success of your marketing efforts.


In the past, direct marketers had to think very carefully about the KPIs they paid attention to since the technology and methods they used were less sophisticated than what we have today. For them, it was all about response rate. For digital campaigns today, conversions - however you measure them - should be your guide when allocating your budget.


Lesson Two: Creating a Structure for Testing Variables


Using response rates as their KPI, they would use the technique of split-run ads where two different pitches for the same product are tested against one another. This gave them the ability to isolate the key response points and see which has the highest response rate. In the absence of large sums of data, direct marketers developed an art to testing that we can learn from today, but that requires setting up a structure for testing each variable.


In digital marketing, your variables are even more numerous than those of direct mail. In addition to the message and creative, digital gives you many options. Which platforms or media channels are you utilizing - display, social media, SEM? What mediums do you plan to use - text, video, audio, sponsored ads?


As you test your variables, make sure the structure of your design will be large enough to accurately predict performance at a larger scale. While this means risking short-term revenue on a digital media buying strategy that may not be successful, it sets you up for longer-term gains once you learn what works best.


Lesson Three: Collecting and Analyzing all Data


During the post-War peak of direct mail, those marketers could never have imagined the incredible amount of data we would have at our fingertips today, but for all of our data, the ability to analyze it is much more difficult. According to the latest Nielsen Annual Marketing Report, fewer than 20% of marketers feel confident in their ability to measure their return on investment (ROI).


In each ad, there are countless elements to be tested and analyzed against the control. Direct marketers understood this, evaluating everything from the special offer itself to subtle changes in design. For example, a company may try out dozens of different phrases in the Jackson Box - a box on the outside of direct mail meant to grab the reader’s attention and contain the key message of a letter - to find what works best. A slight copy change can noticeably increase response rates.


Digital media buyers should follow their lead, creating and testing as many hypotheses as possible in order to collect and analyze the results. Even if a hypothesis fails, it can still yield useful data that will inform your next test. While this may generate massive amounts of data, we have the benefit of AI and machine learning that the marketers of the past did not have access to. You can feed data into machine learning algorithms to build a predictive analytics model that spots opportunities for further testing, makes recommendations based on your results and even predicts the outcome of a test.


Shape Your Digital Media Buying Strategy With The Ward Group


In some ways, traditional media is more dependable than digital. Compared to digital marketing, much more planning and analysis tends to go into creating a successful traditional campaign, because oftentimes, you have one shot to get it right. Before Reader’s Digest mailed 100 million pennies to consumers in their famous ‘Persian Poet’ letter campaign in 1957, they had sent that letter out several times, first sending fakes, then testing a few real pennies, then mailing 40 million pennies. Each time, the response rate was closely scrutinized to make sure the expense was worth it.


When you’re shaping your digital media strategy, imagine you’re mailing out real money, too, because in a way, you are. No matter what your digital media efforts are built around, you’re dedicating real ad dollars to the cause of reaching your marketing goals. If you’re starting to think you may need a little help with that, The Ward Group’s media planners and buyers are well-equipped to help. We treat each of your media dollars as if it were our own, and we will work diligently to ensure you see the highest ROI possible.


Contact The Ward Group today to meet your media stewards and get started.