by Heather Westgate, Chief Executive, TDA

It’s widely acknowledged that many direct marketers are earmarking greater portions of their budgets for online activity. The relatively low cost of digital media, combined with a capacity for more detailed measurement, makes it an attractive option in many ways.

However, anyone who thinks that their business can survive on search marketing and banner ads alone will probably be disappointed.

Digital marketing brings many opportunities for enhanced engagement, but you need to get people to visit one of your spaces – whether it’s your website, Twitter profile or another online hub – before interaction can begin.

Much of the time, offline channels remain the most effective acquisition tools and they play a valuable role signposting existing and potential customers online.

Direct mail, with its ability to engage one-on-one with customers, can play a particularly powerful part here. In some cases, it can actually be more appropriate and lead to greater cut-through.

It’s true that you might not always be able to prove exactly which press ad or which piece of direct mail prompted an online visit. Despite your carefully crafted easy-to-remember campaign URL, a potential customer may still have ultimately arrived via Google.

But you can’t attribute all the success – or the entire budget for that matter – to that last click. Successful marketing involves many touch points and chains of connectivity.

Axing your offline budget and diverting it all to digital would be like trying to run a car without an engine.

When developing a marketing communications strategy, it should never be about adopting an ‘either/or’ approach. It’s about customer insight, intelligent targeting and applying the best combination of channels, and the role of imagery and visual creative has a fundamental part to play here.

Some, for example, may prefer to read a physical rather than digital copy of a magazine – not only is it more portable, its ability to bring content to life with imagery and colour leads to a more stimulating and engaging experience for the reader.

Equally, a well-thought out direct mail campaign can drive online traffic and convert customers. The direct mail pack is, after all, tangible and can therefore create longer-lasting impressions on the recipient.

Direct mail’s ability to bring content to life with imagery and colour leads to a more stimulating and engaging experience.

Direct mail’s biggest strength is probably its ability to personalise a message. It’s also often more likely to spark an online visit than other forms of advertising such as press ads, as people who receive mail at home have instant access to their personal computers.

According to recent reports, neuroscience experiments support the theory that direct mail creates significantly longer-lasting impressions on certain areas of the brain compared with digital marketing, and could therefore have a bigger impact on a brand’s bottom line.

This has been backed up by research commissioned by Royal Mail, which showed that a physical piece of direct mail is significantly more multi-sensory than an online version, due to the increased number of senses which are triggered by simply holding something, rather than seeing it on a screen.

It’s important to remember too, that whilst the ultimate goal might be to sell, the more traditional offline tools can enable you to achieve steps such as building a brand, acquiring leads, or deepening an existing relationship.

A great example is an integrated campaign which we created recently for Cancer Research UK, so it could thank its regular donors for their support and show them the difference their help had made.

The mailing was designed to deepen relationships with supporters and inspire them to continue giving. It focused on personal stories about people local to each donor’s area who have battled with cancer, and on donors’ own motivations for giving.

Recipients were invited to visit the Cancer Research UK website to share their own stories. More than 2,000 recipients responded with their own stories, showing that the key aim of engagement had been achieved.

Many think that visual creative-based campaign marketing is living on borrowed time, but this denigrates the concept of integration.

When combined effectively with a digital strategy, the use of imagery and visual creative in direct mail can lead to a more compelling customer experience and more effective customer acquisition.

It should still be considered as a key component in any campaign strategy, but be reinforced with a significant presence across other channels, in order to shape the customer journey with maximum effect.

The secret to creating effective customer journeys – and therefore better ROI – is finding the right balance between push and pull marketing.

There isn’t a one size fits all solution, the ideal ratio ebbs and flows in line with the audience, the proposition and the business need.

Direct marketers need to embrace this approach with increased confidence and panache. Rather than thinking in terms of online and offline ‘matching luggage’, ROI should be the starting point, and how effective integration can help deliver it.

This in turn should spark a return to some of the core values and techniques of direct marketing – targeting, proposition development and strategic timing.

Over the next year or so, I expect to see a rise in sophisticated ‘test and learn’ activity exploring new and exciting ways to manage customer journeys across platforms.

The best direct marketers are those who are not tied to one approach and who communicate with today’s consumers, not at them.

Heather Westgate is Chief Executive of leading direct marketing agency, TDA.

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