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Direct mail promotion in a time of anthrax.

No one in the general public is shedding any tears for direct marketers, but it has been a tough autumn. First, the fall-off in response following the September 11 tragedy, and now, as I write, the "anthrax in the mail" scare with which the public may not only be distracted from promotional messages but actually fearful of opening mail.

Now, in rational terms there is no reason for direct mail to be affected. The proportion of mail that has been contaminated is infinitesimal--small enough to make Bush's Florida vote margin look statistically huge. The chance that the recipient will be struck by lightning while at the mailbox has to be much higher.

Additionally, the contaminated envelopes have been sent to "celebrities"--Tom Brokow, Microsoft, Senator Daschle--and arrived in hand-addressed, First Class envelopes. In other words, looking as little like a typical newsletter marketing package (no teaser copy, no labels or inkjetted addresses, no windows, and not Standard Rate) as is possible. But we don't appear to be dealing with an entirely rational process here.

Wait a few days

So what should a newsletter marketer do today?

Wait a few days if you're at the mailhouse. See how widespread the situation is going to become or not become.

But, after waiting a few days, as we get further into November, it's time to think about "after Christmas." Maybe there just won't be time to get another mailing into the mail effectively before the holiday rush. This may be especially true for b-to-b mailings where logjams may quickly develop in mailrooms as companies attempt to design new handling procedures on the fly.

The Direct Marketing Association suggests possible e-mail or telemarketing campaigns to alert prospects that a mailing is coming, but this doesn't sound feasible for newsletter marketers. For one thing for any firm large enough that the CEO doesn't open the mail, whom exactly do you "alert" that your mail is coming?

Envelope design

Look at your envelope design. Consider using a clear, complete return address. It's usually not the most effective design--it ruins the "who is sending me this?" attraction--but it may give confidence to the recipient. You could consider adding company logos to the return address.

Abandon "bulky" envelopes or unusual designs. Stuffing an envelope with bonus reports or free mousepads has been effective but probably not right now.

Also forget about the plain white #l0s with no I.D. at all.

Self-mailers would eliminate the envelope program, of course, but they are almost never effective for subscription mailings and I wouldn't recommend them now.

In the horror of September 11, no one understood how broad the effects were going to be in the U.S. economy, and it appears that direct marketing is caught up in the backwash.

Doomsday Scenario

The USPS handles 208 billion pieces of mail per year and some 680 million pieces of mail per day More and more of it is handled by automation. How much "inspection" of individual pieces of mail is it reasonable for them to do? Unless, as letter writers to The New York Times suggest, they lighten up their load by stopping the delivery of "junk mail."

Unwarranted alarm

The DMA has just released a survey finding 92 percent of respondent catalogers, direct mail marketers, and non-profits indicated that they are not altering their mailing plans because of the anthrax scares. Most viewed the scares as very localized and not deserving of the press attention that may be causing "unwarranted alarm" in the public.

"While there are obvious concerns and challenges, the sky is not falling," DMA president H. Robert Wientzen says.

"Members expressed concern that the amount of media attention paid to this issue is out of proportion with the isolated incidents that have occurred relative to the staggering volume of mail the USPS routinely delivers."

On the other hand, a newsletter publisher told me he has delayed a launch mailing until after the holidays because, he says, "If I mail now, and results are poor, I won't know whether it was due to product, price, package, or poor timing So, I'd wind up doing a remail."
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Author:Goss, Fred
Publication:The Newsletter on Newsletters
Date:Oct 31, 2001
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