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The Renaissance of Mail


New Year, new predictions, new levels of nonsense. In a world of exhaustingly relentless tech innovation, each new one eking out yet more ways for us to communicate with one another, it may sound like the latter to suggest that, in 2018, we should be getting re-energised about mail. But bear with me…

One of the major issues with our relatively new ability to create new tech at such a pace is that regulation cannot possibly keep up. The experience of the User is sacrificed in order to make money through advertising and/or selling data. People are then spammed within an inch of their sanity day in, day out. In short, as an industry, we abuse every new opportunity we have to connect with people. Facebook could have been great, but brands could not bloody shut up about themselves and so now we find ourselves operating a very traditional ad model albeit with decent targeting but laughable dwell times. A similar story with email; we get access to a database of people who are, or could be, customers and more often than not we act like a clueless singleton and bombard them with desperate messages until they block us. The less said about digital display the better.

Finally, though, something is looming on the horizon (May to be exact) that looks set to provide the system with the checks and balances that are so needed. GDPR kicks off across Europe later this year with the primary aim of improving the security, integrity and safety of individuals’ data. In terms of direct and digital marketing, it should curtail the misuse of data held by organisations. This impacts everyone from ad tech businesses, publishers, platforms, brands and so on. The inversion of trust in society now means people are their own gatekeepers more than ever before. Get people to opt in by earning their faith or be cast off into obscurity and oblivion.

And this is where mail comes in. Out of all of the channels affected by GDPR, mail comes out best. In terms of processing people’s data, direct marketing has been confirmed in the regulations as being a ‘legitimate interest’, in other words it is one of the five bases for using data under GDPR. According to industry experts, if legitimate interest is your chosen basis for processing data, then direct mail seems to be the best channel for undertaking your direct marketing. The reasons for this aren’t entirely clear to me yet, but I predict they include:

  1. It’s easy to opt-in and opt-out with an existing and trusted industry-managed scheme (the Mailing Preference Service).
  2. As a media channel mail is expensive so you’d have to be lazy/stupid/rubbish to use it to bombard people with useless spam.
  3. It has a trusted distribution network which makes ‘phishing’ extremely unlikely.
  4. There also appears to be greater emphasis on the balance of interests i.e. make it worthwhile.

Apart from these ‘sexy’ legislative reasons for mail making a comeback, there are some key societal and emotional triggers that also add weight to the argument. Firstly, digital fatigue may well just be a reality of living in a modern society but right now there is a clear sense that there needs to be a re-balancing of how people consume information. With increased awareness of ‘headline anxiety’ and fake news perpetuated by screen based viewing, printed content is rapidly regaining its authority as the considered and trust worthy option. You also cannot ‘multi-screen’ printed content so in the battle for attention, chalk one up for mail.

Secondly, the ringtones, clicks, vibrations and blue light aren’t going away so the value of real-world haptic perceptions experienced by touching and engaging with something that is beautifully crafted, becomes increasingly important. We appreciate things we can actually touch and feel on a different level to what we read and scroll through on a screen. It’s what makes us human.

At the other end of the process, this a great time to embrace the ‘maker culture’ bubbling up across the country, both from a creative and a utility perspective – long form copy writing and creating physical things are, or should be, aspirational to any creative.

Regarding the people on the receiving end, we should only be distributing creative that adds actual value to their lives. That could be something that helps them in their day-to-day grind, navigate mortgages simply, learning tools for kids etc. but whatever it is, let’s not make it a waste of paper and postage.

My main point here is that there is still considerable potential in this channel providing it is used in the right way. As mentioned further up, we tend to lose our cool and try and cram as much ‘brand out’ information on to a piece of paper/email/post as possible. That will not cut through. To make mail cost effective (cost per thousand, it’s the priciest medium), we need to focus on audience value above everything else along with doing less (environment as well as cost) and doing it better.

I am a firm believer in the sentiment of Jeff Bezos’ quote about focusing on what won’t change in the immediate future: “I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time…”

Given that the postal system has been around since the Pharaohs ran Ancient Egypt, its stability in time is unquestionable. Unlike other channels, like TV, which are coasting into irreversible disruption, we should perhaps be taking a fresh view on methods with proven resilience to change.

We’re going to be exploring this over the next few weeks so welcome all thoughts and discussion.

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