Paper is still king

Paper is still king when it comes to targeting an audience and getting the message across, says Adam Novak

Investment in websites and the Internet over the past year in particular has been staggering. Whether this investment will be successful or not is largely dependent, as ever, on planning and attention to detail. Experience has shown that investing in up-front marketing activity, customer care and logistics makes all the difference and integrating new technology with existing systems – “clicks & mortar” – is critical.

It is because of this that Royal Mail has seen strong growth in paper-based communications aligned to the expansion of technology-based media. Quite simply, catalogues and direct mail work extremely well alongside digital media, and the direct marketing techniques that have been the bedrock of direct mail for years are more relevant than ever to today’s marketers.

The world of business is becoming more and more customer-centric – meaning the customer has much more control than ever before.

As new technology makes information more freely available, so power is being transferred away from the agent, into the hands of the customer, and the consumer is rapidly learning how to use it.

The nature of the Internet makes it a great buying medium, but a bad selling medium. Targeting a message towards a group of potential customers is virtually impossible on the Web. But if you want to find purveyors of the most obscure goods and services anywhere in the world, where else would you look?

Directing potential customers towards your website is a powerful selling strategy, but to get them there needs highly targeted, relevant communications, and direct mail has an enormous role here.

More and more e-commerce operations are realising they cannot operate by the Net alone. Companies like Marbles, Lastminute.com and Egg are turning to direct mail as a major part of their marketing mix, particularly as competitors match them electronically.

And once you’ve attracted a visitor to your website, directing them around the site in a controlled way is impossible. Web surfers tend to jump from one page to another, or worse still one site to another, in a very random way. The way a reader scans through a paper document on the other hand, is far easier to predict and to design-in.

Paper versus new technology

The digital revolution is upon us and we’ll soon be wearing supercomputers as fashion accessories. While Sky beams 200 channels into our homes and turns our TV set into a global shopping mall, our high street banks are closing branches and going on-line. Soon Digital TV will beam personalised commercial messages straight into the heart of every living room, the Internet will replace the high street and newspapers will soon be a thing of the past. The world will be but a keystroke away in an information utopia.

So, with all this technology sounding the death knell, surely it’s time for printed media to give up and let the brave new world sweep in?

I contend not. The historical evidence suggests that digital is as likely to kill direct mail as CD-ROMs are to replace books. Instead, technology is more likely to take its place alongside other media, and stimulate an increase in the total use of communications.

I am not dismissing new technology – it will make a significant impact on all of our lives. I’m just cautious about believing some kind of revolution is inevitable. Nothing is inevitable while consumers have preferences, and the one thing we do know is that people like paper.

People like paper

Dealing with the mail is an integral part of the social routine in the home, a communal activity which is shared and understood by all members of the household and an important part of family interaction. To some, this ritual engenders a positive self-perception concerning domestic organisation.

The paper itself has many advantages over technology. It is intimate and friendly, technology is cold and cumbersome. The importance of printed material can be interpreted and categorised at a glance, this makes it very easy to prioritise.

Printed material is easy to navigate and display. It will often be passed around the family, enabling people to influence each other. This makes them hard to overlook, as they often carry a perceived, but unspoken endorsement. Digital communications, on the other hand, are far more easy to dismiss.

Printed material is often displayed as a visual reminder. As such it is easy to cross reference, whereas digital communications tend to be more transient, soon forgotten, and easy to file away. Paper is permanent and accessible at all stages of its life.

Paper is more personal. It came from a living source, and is perceived as an intimate, friendly medium. Letters are transportable, and can be easily taken to a private space to be read.

More importantly, if the communication needs more than three pages of text, human beings prefer seeing it on paper to scrolling up and down computer screens.

Even Net-heads prefer paper

Research carried out earlier this year in the US among households which are regular users of the Internet, concluded that paper is a more believable medium. More than 90 per cent of those questioned said they prefer post to e-mail when receiving bills, bank statements and other financial reports at home.

When they were asked how they would like to receive new product announcements or offers from companies, I am delighted to say that more than three quarters said that direct mail was their first choice. And remember, these people all use digital communications on a regular basis.

The report concluded that the attraction for mail is that it is universal, it does not need special training or hardware, it is private and personal and it is easily the most effective marketing tool available to businesses for communicating with customers.

Adam Novak is managing director of the Media Markets Unit at the Royal Mail

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