The Direct Mail Virus

Recently, I saw a cartoon depicting a couple in spacesuit-like outfits opening a letter. The caption read, “Thank God. It’s a lovely bill!”

The cartoon reflects our growing fear as malevolent, powder-tainted envelopes appear on desks and in mailboxes all over the world. In response, most direct marketing companies have realized that a once-attractive customer communication tool has become a pariah. People don’t want to open mail from anyone they haven’t heard of or didn’t expect mail from. We are witnessing the spread of a virus infecting direct marketing in a way not unlike how viruses carried by unsolicited email infect computers.

Viruses of all kinds, including the email-borne variety, threaten us all. In addition to the fears we share over uninvited snail mail and email, over the past month a side effect has been unprecedented damage inflicted on the direct marketing industry. The results have been mind-blowing.

Hallmark, the renowned greeting card manufacturer, reported a record drop in sales. Almost every European country has reported hundreds of anthrax threats and subsequent post office closings on a daily basis. Postal traffic has dropped almost 50 percent in some countries, and several thousand companies in the U.S. alone have banned the use of postal services as a communication medium. This crisis is threatening the well-being of an entire industry which, over three decades, successfully built itself on direct mail.

Will the global postal trauma kill direct mail as we know it? Presumably, the letter as a communication tool will never disappear. But the way we use letters, their form and content, is likely to change. It’s important that all brand builders considering the use of the letter as a marketing tool develop a communication plan in light of the current threat.

The days of being able to send anonymous letters to consumers in the hope that they would be read out of curiosity are over. Once, companies could lure the recipient with advertising material, freebies, and other gimmicks. No more.

Is this universally true? Has the day arrived when an unsolicited letter from one of the world’s most respected brands won’t be opened? Will a recipient’s fear overcome long-time trust in a brand? What justifies the risk of opening an uninvited letter?

My feeling (and my hope) is that this crisis of consumer confidence will be temporary — as, hopefully, the vicious threat of anthrax will also be. Right now, damage to the direct marketing industry increases day by day, forcing its adherents to reconsider marketing plans, messages, and their medium. The Internet might, for a while, be the best available direct marketing tool as a replacement for traditional postal channels. Short messaging service (SMS) might do the trick. Both channels would ensure a brand’s message is being promulgated, read, and understood by consumers.

No matter what medium you use, there’s no doubt that the choice of channel, message, and timing of delivery is more important to branding success than ever.

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