Video Killed The Radio Star!

If you’re familiar with that song, it may be with you for a few days now—for that I’m very sorry. Someone put it in my head a few days ago while I was traveling, and it’s been stuck with me ever since.

You understand the message of the song though, right? An emerging technology coming along and rendering others obsolete. As we all know, things aren’t always so black and white—radio didn’t go away because of television, though people use it differently now than in the past. The way we consumed television programs prior to the widespread availability of high speed internet was very different than the way we view content today. Jerry Seinfeld and NBC used to own Thursday evenings at 9 pm—with Friends on before that at 8 and the fan base enjoyed their shows simultaneously around the timetable of the network (or you’d set up a VCR to record your show to watch later). I can’t believe I used to stay up that late!

Like Seinfeld, my marketing career developed exactly at the time when the “catalog” and “web” retail worlds collided, and many were quick to predict the end of catalogs. There were brands like Land’s End that acted swiftly to “cut the cord,” only to lead to disastrous results. The impact of mailing print has been debated to varying degrees ever since.

I’ve personally been guilty of minimizing the influence of targeted direct mail (and prospecting in particular). I remember adopting a pessimistic view of the role of print, and its role in acquiring new customers. Well, just like television didn’t kill the use of radio, and MTV no longer plays videos, the internet didn’t render mailing print obsolete, though we’d be foolish to keep using “catalogs” the same way we used to and expect the same results. Doesn’t mean we haven’t tried.

I was recently asked about some of the highlights of direct mail that I saw last year—and to me one thing that stood out was the expanded use of what some refer to as “alternative mail pieces.” (As pictured below)

Specifically, I’m thinking of companies that are mailing differently than we used to in the past with traditional catalogs. It could be a disruptive or unusual print format, such as an oversized postcard or tri-fold type piece, or a catalog that looks and feels a bit more like a magazine loaded with content and articles, and not so product-focused. We’ve seen radically reduced product density and increased use in lifestyle imagery. I’ll also include that people are mining data differently than in the past, using web browsing behavior to augment or create a targeted audience.

Essentially, we’ve seen people throw out the 90’s catalog rule book, and in doing so making a huge impact. With one major retailer in the outdoor space, we saw incredible use of product category mailers to help introduce new products, which drove customers back to their existing products as well. In fact, results were nearly as good as mailing a full catalog. We interpreted this as great news—and along with other data points, supports the notion that a well-designed print vehicle can serve as an incredible web driving tool, and letting the website do the heavy lifting.

We understand that what may be a winning strategy in some cases will not always work. When tested, we saw that existing buyers with a strong affinity for the brand responded to the product category mailers almost as they would a catalog, while outside prospects did not. This makes sense in hindsight, but our assumption was that we don’t need to reinforce core brand products and benefits to the same extent with our big fans as with those that may not know us as well.

Even my alma mater L.L. Bean, universally known as being a conservative, traditional mailer took me by surprise. Our household loves L.L. Bean, and based on the number of catalogs they send our way, they feel the same about us. This holiday, I received a tri-fold mailer (8 panels) that featured a sample of their “greatest hits.” There was little to no copy, and 15 products across their biggest categories featured throughout. I thought it was well executed. Clearly it was intended to be a teaser, to reinforce all the things that one may love about the brand, and leave you wanting more. Admittedly I don’t know how it did, but I can tell you one thing for certain—if anyone knows how to test, it’s L.L. Bean. If they did it, it’s because they believe in it.

Testing new concepts and different print pieces/cadences/audiences will be a major effort for many of us in 2020; we are always happy to discuss test plans and ideas to ensure clear test objectives, a clean and measurable test set up, and recommendations for test expansion or concept roll-out.

Some of the most important tests I continually run when appropriate are:

  • Incrementality testing (how much impact does a print piece truly have?)
    • How does this vary by segment? (it does!)
    • Long term implications
  • Creative and Format tests
    • Big vs. small pieces
    • Lifestyle images vs. product focus
    • High density vs. low density
    • Copy tests
  • Long term cadence testing

What I’ve learned is that the extent to which targeted print can and cannot work depends on many factors; the vehicle, the messaging, the product mix, the imagery, the audience, the brand position, the timing, etc. We don’t have to wonder though—a clever test plan can settle many of these questions. I’m amused at the number of times my theories going into a test have been disproven; the impact of mailing prospects and of mailing millennials to name a few. We’d love to hear about any of your testing efforts and would be happy to discuss testing further. The results just might surprise you!

You can find me at I’d love to connect with you!

1 thought on “Video Killed The Radio Star!

  1. Great article Tom! And all so true! Print is different world today and you are so accurate, throw away the 90’s rule book!

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