You’ve Got Mail: e-tailers Push Postal Mail

Powerhouse e-tailers push postal mail to break through and motivate

By Audrey Kalman

MailboxAs a Netflix subscriber, Land’s End customer, and habitual user of Amazon for everything from Mother’s Day gifts to ink cartridges, I receive regular e-mails from all three companies and visit their websites several times a month. By almost any measure, I’m a loyal customer.

Yet once every month or so (in the case of Land’s End and Amazon) and every few months (in the case of Netflix), I receive something so archaic from these companies that it actually was used for commerce 100 years ago: a piece of paper delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. As a 21st century marketer, I have to ask, “Why would they do that?”

Why would successful dot coms, whose businesses exemplify the efficiencies of Internet commerce, continue to use something as seemingly antiquated as mail as a marketing communications vehicle?

One reason has to do with the difference between push and pull marketing. The Web is, for the most part, a pull medium, requiring self-motivation on the part of consumers to initiate a visit. The Web must attract. Although marketers have come up with many creative ways around this, from pop-up windows to cursor-kidnapping, such attempts usually only irritate and alienate visitors. In contrast, push marketing, such as direct mail or e-mail marketing, reaches out to consumers to prompt them to take an action.

I make an analogy to the sales process. The cardinal rule of sales is “Ask for the order.” You can present benefits brilliantly and meet all objections, but if you don’t take the prospect through to the final step, you risk losing the deal. Similarly, simply giving prospects your Web address won’t necessarily entice them to visit your site. You need to close the loop with something that motivates them to type in that URL.

The Internet has given consumers unprecedented control over commercial interactions. No longer is a prospect stuck for hours with the encyclopedia salesman sitting at her kitchen table. Now she can, in an instant, click away to a competitor’s site. The issue for you as a marketer becomes how to recapture and re-engage the customer and motivate him or her to take action on your timetable.

In more innocent times, e-mail seemed like the marketing panacea. With a practically free and instantaneous medium, marketers could with a mouse click contact massive numbers of customers and prospects. But we now know the consequences. The overwhelming volume of commercial e-mail – both solicited and unsolicited – has led to both regulation and natural consequences. Consumers can’t adequately cope with the volume of commercial email. They might read an email, but they don’t recall it. They might filter all commercial emails and never even see yours. If your email does reach the inbox, the recipient is likely to trash it without reading it. And ultimately, the recipient may simply opt out of receiving commercial email messages at all.

To put a little push back into the marketing mix, major e-tailers turn to tried and true direct postal mail marketing. While it may be counterintuitive that a company such as – with its millions of page views daily – would resort to print, it has the effect of:

  • reaching consumers when they may have fewer distractions, allowing them to read at leisure at a different time;
  • arriving in a tangible format that appeals to different senses and gives substance to the brand;
  • finding new customers by allowing existing customers and prospects to share the information received with friends and other household members.

In the case of Land’s End, there is also a qualitative difference between the experience of browsing the company’s website and leafing through its clothing or home furnishings catalogs. I peruse the catalog over breakfast or at the kids’ soccer games, dog-earing pages with items that interest me. Later, I’ll visit the site and use the company’s “Catalog Quick Order” feature to instantly pull up the items I’m interested in and add them to my shopping cart. It’s a nifty example of the synergies of established and new-age marketing media.

Smart marketers look to mail and print to avoid the dysfunctionality of e-mail and to prompt consumers to respond on the company’s timetable. They rely on the well-established metrics of direct marketing: a certain percentage of people will respond to an offer, resulting in a predictable response rate. In an era when it’s getting harder and harder to stand out, print offers a wide range of possible solutions – from postcards to brochures to magazines – to reach customers when they are less likely to tune out or surf away. The ability to mail also represents a hurdle that differentiates the successful and experienced marketers from the myriad of small competitors.

So, next time you get a postcard, catalog, or magazine from a successful Web-based business, you’ll know why they do it.END

Audrey Kalman is a marketing communications consultant and a Terrella Media director. She is the former Marketing Communications Director of Gupta Corp. and Director of Marketing for Open Horizon, Inc. Before that, she was Research Director for MediaMap and editor of the influential MediaMap Alert.

Sidebar: Outward Bound — The Value of Print Media