Call it the revenge of analog. Despite the ongoing lurch to digital marketing for the past several years, pre-web advertising vehicles such as direct mail are making a comeback. Embracing more of a holistic approach to customer engagement, B2B marketers are starting to lean on hybrid strategies that blend digital and analog channels to improve their reach with business professionals and vertical audiences. Due to over-reliance on digital venues during the pandemic, 76 percent of marketers saw engagement with digital executions dropping, while 78 percent reported that analog touchpoints like direct mail surged, according to a study released by Forrester last April. "Hybrid Experiences Bring Direct Mail Into the Digital Age," based on the responses of 158 B2B marketing executives in the U.S., also found that 54 percent of respondents boosted direct mail spending this year, while 69 percent expect to boost spending on direct mail in 2023. What's more, traditional marketing strategies still resonate, with 49 percent of the respondents saying they were very likely to open a package they received for work.
Indeed, COVID-19 seems to have altered the script when it comes to the most effective ways to reach business decision-makers. Among the marketers Forrester surveyed, 44 percent said analog touchpoints like direct mail performed better for their companies this year compared to 2021, while 46 percent said their customers were now less likely to engage with digital marketing executions compared to last year.
There's further evidence that B2B firms are deploying a hybrid marketing strategy blending both digital and analog programming. According to Gartner's "State of Marketing Budget and Strategy 2022" report, which polled 405 global marketers, online channels continue to garner the largest share of budgets (56 percent). However, offline channels account for nearly half of spending (44 percent), a more equitable split than in recent years.
While traditional marketing campaigns can still move the needle with customers and prospects, personalization is more important than ever. "As we further develop the efficacy of direct mail marketing, brands need to further personalize the way they speak to existing and prospective customers," says Wahid Lodin, senior communications manager for North America at Trustpilot, a business reviews website that is a heavy user of B2B direct mail campaigns.
Messaging should be tailored to specific businesses, Lodin says, while personalization could include putting the recipient's name, company name, and/or logo on the envelope and/or enclosed letter.
He adds that B2B marketers should use a three-pronged marketing approach: top-of-funnel personalization; mid-funnel use of direct mail to "sweeten the pot" as prospects review personalized messages; and a bottom-funnel tactic again using personalized messaging, this time to nudge clients to close the sale.
It's happened frequently in the evolution of marketing precepts: What's old morphs into the new. With advancements in direct mail executions, the format itself has become much more digital in nature, says Ambur Cole, VP of marketing at Postie, a direct mail company whose clients include EyeBuyDirect, Farmer's Dog, and TULA Skincare.
"What that means is marketers can now leverage direct mail to reach new audiences that convert just like their best customers and engage existing customers to increase lifetime value and build brand loyalty," Cole says.
She adds that direct mail can be automatically triggered by digital behaviors spurred by a brand's website, email campaign, or time-based lapses in purchases. "This opens up the opportunity to be able to target, reach, measure, and optimize direct mail campaigns in real time," Cole says. "It truly is a digital direct mail campaign platform."
Kris Persons, SVP of direct marketing at ANA member company Quad, which provides printing and marketing services and whose clients include Citi, Dick's Sporting Goods, and General Motors, says that leveraging data can help inform the offer, audience, and the efficacy of direct mail campaigns.
Quad has yielded solid returns on behalf of its clients by deploying hybrid marketing campaigns. For example, for an insurance company client, Quad leveraged virtual creative testing to analyze thousands of combinations of imagery, copy, and formatting. The effort cut timelines significantly, identified the most successful direct mail piece, and increased response rates by nearly 20 percent.
Meanwhile, for a national retail client, Quad integrated direct mail, catalogs, and virtual testing to increase the marketing campaign's overall effectiveness. The strategy paid off, with test packages outperforming expectations for the designated KPIs and catalog responses growing by nearly 30 percent, and direct mail responses increasing by nearly 50 percent, according to Persons.
Eric Perko, founder of the independent media agency Apollo Partners, whose clients include Intuit, Coupa, and The New York Times, says that when leveraging integrated hybrid strategies, it's critical the communication feels consistent and cohesive to the end user.
Regardless of the delivery mechanism, messaging "has to be coordinated and work together," Perko says, adding that this can be difficult for larger marketing teams. "But when done correctly, where everything is working in unison, the downstream effects can be significantly positive," he says.
Marketers continue to seek strategic and profitable ways to blend digital and physical direct mail programming.
According to the Forrester study, more than 70 percent of marketers agree they would value the ability to orchestrate direct mail with other buyer touchpoints, time mail deliveries to match buying signals, and measure and optimize direct mail using their current marketing technology stack. "Blending digital and physical direct marketing is vital to ensuring the customer journey is as efficient and seamless as possible," Trustpilot's Lodin says.
The use of QR codes on a physical direct mailing enables the recipient to take advantage of a digital convenience via a physical correspondence. Whether it's placing an order or linking to an online review, QR codes can serve multiple purposes both online and offline.
The appetite for QR codes continues to grow, with orders placed by QR codes projected to reach 2.2 billion by 2025, up from 1.5 billion in 2020, according to a 2021 study released by Juniper Research.
Cole recommends testing all the elements of the campaign early and often, including audience models, creative, messaging, and offer, adding that learnings and insights gleaned from A/B testing can triple and quadruple optimized campaigns.
Analog's resurgence is also influencing the marketing food chain, including development, creative, distribution, and measurement. Since analog and digital marketing strategies require different approaches, the blending of the two is "forcing a change" across the industry, Lodin says.
Might the trend toward hybrid marketing and more analog marketing strategies spur B2B companies to reconsider their print magazine buys?
"If we are trending in a direction where physical media and direct mail marketing are becoming more and more intertwined, B2B marketers may need to shift their thinking and consider outlets that have long since been deemed antiquated," Lodin says. "The goal of marketing is to reach the largest audience possible with your message. If physical mediums are common among the consumer, marketers will need to leverage those mediums to remain relevant at all possible points."