Which innovative techniques are results‑driven direct marketers using for optimum response in 2009?

Twitter and Facebook might make for captivating marketing headlines, but the same savvy chief marketing officers (CMOs) who are embracing social media are also quietly reinventing a less-buzzy marketing technique: direct mail.

As evidence of the crucial role targeted direct mail plays in the CMO's portfolio, consider this fact: Targeted-direct-mail volumes in the US have nearly doubled in the last decade.

Smart direct marketers are obtaining dramatic lift in results with "the new direct mail," which uses new relevance technologies to deliver digitally generated, one-to-one messages to prospects through the mail that link to a corresponding Web component. The new direct mail moves away from batch-blast campaigns—where every recipient gets the same mailer—and instead delivers customized, relevant offers to each customer, driven by customer relationship management (CRM) data systems.

Creating a relevant dialogue with digital direct mail works. Response rates for relevant mailers are typically two to four times higher than they are for nonrelevant mailers. And when customized direct mail is combined with interactive elements such as personal URLs (PURLs) that host relevant online variable video, triggered follow-up emails, and personalized outbound sales calls, response rates can climb to 10 times that of batch-blast mailers.

"The accelerating shift from 'mass' to 'targeted' direct-mail programs has been enabled by an increasingly powerful array of marketing automation technologies, many of which are making their way into the toolsets of marketers both large and small," according to a recent Winterberry Group report.

One of those technologies, the "marketing engine," allows marketers to create, manage, and customize direct-mail campaigns on a one-to-one basis. Deploying this type of one-to-one direct-mail nirvana is much less complicated, and less costly, than you think. Direct marketers already have all the data they need in their CRM and data-analytics systems to segment customers and deliver relevant messages that fit customers' preferences, but many have lacked an efficient way to leverage that data in practice.

Interested in how to leverage your CRM data and jump-start your direct-mail campaigns? Here are five simple steps to get you started.

1. Automate, automate, automate

Using a hosted marketing engine allows you to create, manage, and automate integrated direct-mail campaigns based on your data. The engine should enable you to automatically and cost-effectively send millions of customized print mailers and corresponding emails (each with a link to a PURL with relevant offers and recommendations), and then, depending on the customer's actions, automatically send a timely follow-up via targeted emails, print, or outbound sales calls throughout the purchase process.

2. Figure out what to say to whom—and the best medium for delivering your message

Knowing who to send a mailer to is different from knowing what to say to that person.

Most CRM marketers have scored their data with RFM (recency, frequency, monetary) analysis to select who is worth mailing to, but to drive relevant messaging it will take different data-mining strategies, such as propensity-to-buy modeling and purchase analysis that identifies life interests such as health, green issues, or parenting.

That type of data segmentation plays a crucial role in delivering the right message. Just as important is the media via which you communicate. Some communications are challenging to get across with just static pictures and words. Integrating PURL links with variable video can deliver an educational, engaging experience, which can be much harder to get across in traditional direct mail.

3. Think like a magazine editor

An editor of a gourmet-food magazine has the challenge of re-engaging readers each month on the same general topic. She achieves success by creating a theme and tells the story through topical articles; new recipes; and fresh, tempting images that appeal to the magazine's "foodie" audience.

Marketers can take the same approach to marketing campaigns that leverage propensity-to-buy modeling. For example, an apparel company that knows its customers include those with a propensity for running can keep communications inventive by maintaining an editorial calendar of seasonal running topics and current events in those customers' communities and offering running-related product selections.

Having a monthly theme to track is a simple technique to ensure that propensity-to-buy models can be leveraged in a way that delivers relevance with a fresh voice and gives the recommended products more life and color.

4. Enable an ongoing conversation with your customers

Good customers need nurturing. Communicate with them regularly at timed intervals with automated print and email touches, and with PURLs that have engaging advice and recommendations, guiding your customers through the purchase process at every step.

Make sure your marketing engine is rule-based, allowing you to deliver data-driven messages and "trigger" new touches or activity based on interactive customer feedback.

The following is an example of such rule-based marketing: "Use a customer-data event, such as an inquiry or a key purchase, to trigger a timely follow-up mailing directing the customer to a PURL that contains a relevant video. If the customer doesn't visit after two weeks, send a follow-up mailing. If the customer visits and then phones the call center but doesn't close within five days, send a second follow-up print touch offering an alternative video recommendation."

With each additional touch, keep it fresh by updating the PURL to reflect the new offer or product recommendation communicated in the touch.

5. Accept the limitations of your data

Of course, sometimes you don't have enough data to be truly relevant. But that shouldn't leave you out of the game. An "interactive advice experience" is an innovative application of the traditional face‑to‑face conversation that the best sales representatives have in person.

For example, Sears offers the Refrigerator Advisor, an advice experience hosted by TV personality Ty Pennington that asks customers a few simple questions about their needs (e.g., Why are you shopping? What styles do you prefer?). This information is then used to tailor a relevant video with specific product recommendations that best fit customers' needs.

By putting such an "Advisor" on a PURL and driving people to the advice experience through emails or postcards, you can deliver progressively more targeted communications to your customers and begin the data collection that will extend over time.

* * *

By providing relevant offers, personal service, and customized advice, you'll engage in a one-on-one dialogue with your customers that increases loyalty, response, and conversion rates. And the upside of a deeper relationship with your customers—as small-town shopkeepers have known for hundreds of years—is a dramatic boost in sales.

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Randy Spurrier is CEO of Nimblefish (www.nimblefish.com), provider of a leading marketing-engine platform.