For Tangible Results, Try Doing Something Tangible

For Tangible Results, Try Doing Something Tangible

You need to be doing direct mail.

We tried very hard to find a stealthier way into this statement. But it’s such a point of contention and confusion that we just have to come out and say it, in no uncertain terms, as unequivocally as possible: Direct mail is a necessity of conference marketing.

We know this because across every industry and meeting size, the associations that meet their numbers are the ones who are doing direct mail. Yes, there was a mass exodus from printed marketing pieces a few years ago, fed by a perfect storm of recession, mobile app proliferation, and social media. But the associations who have kept direct mail in the mix are the ones having the most success with their events.

If these few paragraphs were all it took to convince you, we’d be thrilled! But we see you shaking your head in disagreement. Direct mail in 2013? Really?

Yes, really. But let’s get it all out on the table. All of the reasons you disagree and don’t want to invest in direct mail in 2013.


1. Because no one cares about print anymore.

This is one of those statements that people like to utter with a hint of nostalgia in their voice and pair with a sad headshake. Oh, the doom and gloom of a modern world that no longer values print! It’s a really compelling story. The only problem is that it isn’t true.

In fact, as a culture, we value print more than ever: precisely because when there are so many other options (less expensive options at that), creating a tangible piece of printed material is a much more conscious decision.

However, the scarcity of print doesn’t automatically mean that everything being printed is actually good. Lots of printed pieces are still crap. But, if your piece is well-designed, inspiring, and interesting, that combination of good + tangible automatically builds esteem and credibility in your members’ eyes—as in, “Wow, they must really care about this: they put it on paper!”

It’s not something terribly logical. It’s like trying to describe why you would ever want to go to the zoo to hear the lions roar versus just watching them on TV. It’s about realness.

And when you print something, it becomes real.

It comes out from behind the screen and jumps into your hands, connecting with the part of the brain that processes emotion and gut decisions. Like the decision to register for a conference.

We would never deny that in the modern world, people care about different things than they used to. But don’t tell us they don’t care about print. We’ve seen with our own eyes that the opposite is true.


2. Because it’s too expensive.

Yes, print is more expensive than email. We can’t argue our way out of that one. We know your budgets have been slashed. But here is an important fact to weigh when you’re designing your conference marketing budget: Direct mail gets a greater response than email.

We’ll repeat that one more time, because it’s not a typo. Direct mail gets a greater response than email. Now, email has a stronger return-on-investment, precisely because it is relatively inexpensive. But time and time again, when associations need to bring in the numbers, they send out print. A great example: one of our clients, National Staff Development Council was having trouble meeting their attendance goals, despite using all of the other tactics we recommend. Once we designed a compelling direct mail campaign for them, they easily met their numbers. This is a rinse-and-repeat story: it happens over and over again. When associations are struggling to meet their numbers and they hit their audience with strategic direct mail, they wind up meeting their goal.

Yes, direct mail is an investment. We can’t pretend it’s not. But it’s an investment that works.


3. Because it doesn’t work anyway

Did you read what we just said?

But we will concede that on its own, it may not work. And if it’s not done well, it definitely won’t work. But when you use direct mail strategically—that is, as part of a comprehensive campaign that also includes email marketing and social media—and you create graphic- and story-driven pieces that engage and inspire, and you segment and time the pieces properly, it works beautifully.

Basically, direct mail is the opportunity right in front of you that you’re missing.

Are you ready to do something about it?


Two Ways to Make Direct Mail Work

We recommend choosing one of two approaches—both of which work extremely well.


Plan A: Highlights Mailer + Registration Brochure

The first approach is to pair event highlights with a well-designed registration brochure. We’ve written quite a lot about the kind of registration brochure you need to be doing. So let’s focus on what this highlights mailer needs to be about.

Timing: Drop the event highlights mailer when registration is open, and the registration brochure in the weeks before the Early Bird deadline.

Content: A highlights piece should be exactly that: the most captivating highlights of the event, based on what your members tell you they care about most. Networking is almost always the number one reason people cite for coming to events, followed by learning. Your printed piece needs to have those things jump off the page, with bold design and high quality photography (not grainy images of people sitting around a table in a poorly lit ballroom). The session highlights you feature should make an emotional connection with your members. You need to both show them why they should care, and also tell them.

Design: This is not simply a save-the-date postcard—or a postcard at all. This is a folded, smartly-designed piece, with graphic elements that tie not just to the event brandmark, but also to the overarching “WHY” behind what your association is about. For example, we did a highlights piece for our client, The American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) —whose “WHY” is around the idea of leading through play. We used fun images of kids playing and learning and wove in graphic elements like bubbles. We laid it out in such a way that all of the messages—even the “Schedule-at-a-Glance”—tied back to the kids and the overarching reason.

Segmentation: It’s possible that you need to create two (or more) different pieces, especially if you have two (or more) distinct audiences you’re reaching. You’re not re-inventing the design each time—just tweaking. For example, if your session events are grouped by track, you might create a mailer to highlight each track. The more directly you are talking to your members in this piece, the better. Forcing the highlights into a one-size-fits-all piece sometimes has the effect of not saying anything at all. Take the time to be strategic and segment.


Plan B: Case Studies Mailers

The alternate approach (and one we love) is to craft three direct mail pieces around three personal stories from members. We call these “case study” mailers. You’re basically building a case study—based around member testimonials—for why the event matters.

Timing: Start dropping the pieces one a month, about three months before the event. Tie the pieces to your specific offers, such as Early Bird, hotel deadlines, giveaways, webinars, or other special offers.

Content: The only way to build a successful case study is to mine your members (survey feedback is the logical place to start) and do a series of in-depth interviews with a handful of them to really get at WHY they come to the event and the difference it makes. Choose three stories that build on each other: they’re not saying exactly the same thing, but they all tie into why the event matters. Include good quality headshots of each member. There are various stylistic choices you can make (first person versus third person), but the key is to make sure the pieces are written in the voice of the event. And definitely use your email campaign to reiterate and retell the stories.

Design: As with the highlights mailer, this should be a top-notch piece. The design should match the voice, whether it’s playful, urgent, bold, or charming. Your design must get at the heart of why your event matters to people. When we design case study mailers, we take time to really brand them. For example, we did a series of case study mailers for the American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR) where we focused on interviewing people at one member organization and telling their stories of why the event mattered. We branded the case study mailers all around this idea of why the event matters, and used the design to reinforce it. (And yes, they got their numbers.)

Segmentation: Different stories will resonate with different people. It’s not just about tracks. For example, stories from first-time attendees might be the exact thing that members who have never attended need to hear. On the other hand, members who are deciding whether to return to the event might make a stronger emotional connection with stories of members who have attended multiple conferences. Think carefully about the stories various segments of your audience will identify with.

Yes, many of your peers may have run away from direct mail. That only makes your opportunity that much stronger. Go back and take a look, and then ruminate on this: tangibility will set you apart. Tangibility will build connection. And tangibility will help you bring in the numbers.

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