Direct mail, deconstructed

I was sick on Monday and took the day off, so I knew there would be a lot of e-mail messages waiting for me in my inbox. But here’s the thing: the walk from the elevator to my desk involves passing by the trays where our regular mail piles up, and this morning I found a courier envelope. Since

it takes my computer a minute or two to boot up, opening the envelope became my first official task – and its contents subsequently became the first thing to get my attention.

The letter was from a very well-known company that provides business intelligence software to major Canadian corporate enterprises, including banks. It was addressed to me (mistakenly identified as a customer) and outlined a recent addition to its product line. It is signed, in actual blue ink, by the firm’s CEO. Not a press release, not a brochure; this is direct mail in its most classic sense, even if it’s being used to describe a highly complex set of applications.

Everyone knows the beauty of direct mail. Unlike e-mail marketing, it can’t be deleted with a single keystroke. It has to be opened, glanced at and chucked in the garbage, which occasionally takes enough time that it will be given more consideration than an electronic document. Unlike e-mail, it can be doctored up to look like more than it is. The legal-sized envelope and its light weight suggested actual correspondence, not something that was stuffed with flyers. Unlike e-mail, direct mail has also been the preferred method of dealing with the C-suite, which may be why business intelligence vendors, among others, are turning back to it as a way of addressing a more senior executive decision-maker.

The letter I received did a pretty good job of covering off its product’s latest features, but still managed to squeeze about 500 words onto one single-spaced page. A great deal of this could have been edited down, particularly the concept about “listening to our customers” that was repeated three times (sometimes, it seems, vendors are so busy listening they don’t realize customers are listening too, and that they heard your message the first time). The signature suggests personal intimacy, but this was offset by the “Dear Shane Schick” salutation that confirmed to me (as if there were any doubt) that this was a form letter.

If nothing else, direct mail offers a more conversational way to talk to customers. The letter reads like a real letter, avoiding jargon and putting the product’s enhancements in context with real business situations. At one page in length, it can be glanced at without the scrolling that an e-mail message would involve. It also highlighted three words that the vendor thought might be pertinent to a time-pressed senior executive. These words were “architecture,” “integration” and “simplicity.” These weren’t headings but part of sentences that effectively sold the merits of the technology.

Direct mail, of course, offers little to no interactivity for the recipients. There might be contact information, but there’s no way to link electronically to more information, or a e-commerce page. Like a resume, these letters will provide a good starting point for follow-up phone calls from the vendor’s sales staff, or for in-person meetings at the firm’s upcoming user conference. With the volume of e-mail marketing on the rise, now may be the time to use direct mail to stand out. The question is whether firms can successfully expand this approach from their installed base to new customers. You can sign it, and you can seal it, but if a company follows up on your letter they’ll be expecting you to deliver more than an envelope.

[email protected]

Shane Schick is the editor of IT Business Pipeline.

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