Direct mail has come a long way from the days when we received a form letter typed in immaculate Helvetica featuring our names awkwardly and obviously stamped by a printer in a font probably best described as dot matrix. These days our names match, even complement, the rest of the pitch. But did you notice that the car being advertised just happens to be in your favorite color? Or that your name is also part of the company’s website?

Though it is a seemingly minor part of the overall advertisement in your hands, the color signals a marked shift in how companies are changing the look of direct mail marketing. And the web link is even more cutting edge. Marketers have known our preferences, tendencies, and quirks for years — everything from our buying habits to our favorite flavors — but they are just now able to tap into those signatures we leave whenever we respond to a questionnaire or load up our bags with groceries.

Rocco Iacobellis, CEO of the Nassau Street-based advertising design and marketing firm Verge 180, says that advertising that speaks more personally to individual consumers, rather than trawling the waters with a broad net, has changed the method (not to mention the scale) of direct marketing. It also has changed the results, which can, Iacobellis says, be significant.

If you know how to take advantage of it. To help spread the word, Iacobellis is hosting a free webinar entitled “A Way for Businesses to Spend Less and Make More” on Thursday, February 26, at 10 a.m. E-mail riacobellis@verge180.com or call 609-924-3838.

Born and raised in Michigan, Iacobellis earned his dual bachelor’s in economics and political science from the University of Michigan and cut his professional teeth in Detroit’s auto industry. He spent 25 years in the outdoor and billboard advertising industry before moving to Philadelphia to serve as president of Eller Media (now Clear Channel). He then joined Alan Brooks in helping to transform Alan Brooks Design into Verge 180. Over the years he has learned the importance of any advantages advertisers can get their hands on.

Gold or Silver? The difference between highly-personalized and generally targeted materials, to an outsider, might seem negligible. Iacobellis admits that standard direct mail campaigns only succeeds in luring a lowly 1 percent of its prospects on average. But more personalized materials have boasted a 1.3-percent success rate.

While this might not sound like much, that 0.3 percent means as much to advertisers as the 100th of a second that secured Michael Phelps a gold medal in the 100 meter butterfly in Beijing last summer. “It’s more than consequential,” Iacobellis says, especially as the mail-outs get larger.

Basic math bears this out. If you were to send out 3 million pieces and get a 1 percent response rate, you’d have 30,000 potential customers, Iacobellis says. But send the same amount of highly customized pieces — particularly those featuring a personalized web link — and you could see 39,000 potential customers. Even if an advertiser succeeds in converting only 4 percent of those responders (the industry average) the difference is 1,200 sales versus 1,560 sales. For a $50 product, that means an additional $18,000.

The power of PURLs. Personalized data, such as changing the color of the car you’re trying to sell from red to blue on the mailer, goes a long way. But, Iacobellis says, the big difference for advertisers comes in the form of personalized URLs, or PURLs. Personalized URLs are the latest weapon in the direct mail industry; a cross-media tactic that allows advertisers to add your name to a preset website, about which you are informed through regular mail. Akin to adding your name and address to mailing labels, advertisers can add your name to a web link that allows you to see the product, as customized for you.

One of Iacobellis’s recent success stories with PURLs was for a Volkswagen dealer. In its attempt to market the GTI, the dealer set up the ability to create variations on “www.NAMEsGTI.BuyMyVW.com.” On that page, the prospect encountered a page posing a few questions (the answers to which were collected for future marketing endeavors); and it took the customer through a tour comprised of elements of his or her personal taste. Say, for example, that Iacobellis’s favorite color is red and mine is blue. RoccosGTI will sport a red car, and ScottsGTI will sport a blue one.

Capitalizing on a different preference. Iacobellis cites a statistic from the Direct Marketing Association, the industry’s main oversight group, stating that 43 percent of Americans who respond to direct mail prefer to do it online. By tapping into that preference, PURLs allow potential customers to browse at their own pace without facing a salesman. The pitch, pre-made for his own tastes, goes a long way toward answering many questions in a non-threatening, non-pressure atmosphere, Iacobellis says.

Look familiar? Other forms of highly personalized mail exist as well. Iacobellis mentions a campaign to interest New York City residents who park their cars on the street. Parking garages, sorting by ZIP codes, mailed advertisements featuring photos of the garage that was closest to specific neighborhoods. The garages offers coupons for discounted parking and enjoyed huge success at drumming up new business.

Such ventures are due in part to lower-cost printing, Iacobellis says. Whereas printing costs once forced eager marketers to blanket thousands of homes with exactly the same materials, advertisers now can print smaller mailings more inexpensively. And when combined with online advertising, success can be dramatic. Such expanded capabilities, Iacobellis says, are encouraging to advertisers, who are expected to ramp up investment in direct mail based on recent success with PURLs. In 2007 direct marketers spent about $57 million getting the message out. By the end of 2010 that number is expected to be close to $3.5 billion.

The technology allowing advertisers to wed customized pieces with online resources is not exactly new, Iacobellis says. It’s just new in the hands of marketers. Printing companies were the first to develop and operate the cross-media system, but did not really know what to do with it. A few years ago advertisers began paying attention and the early verdict was encouraging. Whether it will remain so has yet to be seen.

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