Pre-testing marketing message can improve direct mail campaigns

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Despite the prevailing use of email, display, social media and other digital channels by marketers today, traditional direct mail remains an important element in many b-to-b marketing campaigns. But direct mail is also one of the more expensive forms of marketing, so savvy marketers are always looking for ways to get the most bang for their buck. Pre-testing direct mail campaigns is one way marketers can save money, but few b-to-b marketers use this technique, said Ruth P. Stevens, president of marketing consultancy eMarketing Strategy. “I hear of practically nobody doing pre-testing,” Stevens said. “Part of it is cultural. B-to-b marketers tend to come out of nontesting backgrounds, so they haven't been trained in testing.” Unlike b-to-c direct marketers—many of whom have millions of prospects—b-to-b marketers are often dealing with much smaller universes, which limits the testing options. If a company has only a few thousand prospects, it might not make sense to run a sample campaign and, in the process, possibly damage relationships or get substandard information due to small sample sizes. Chuck McGee, VP-political and corporate communications at direct marketing company Spectrum Marketing Companies, recently started pre-testing his direct mail campaigns and has also used focus group to evaluate them. “B-to-b mail is difficult because it's hard to get to the people you want to reach,” McGee said. “I find [testing] helpful if I'm trying to put out a new piece and want feedback. At least I can see if it will work.” Despite the challenges, b-to-b marketers can sharpen their pre-testing efforts, in particular by testing direct mail campaigns before launching a program. Stevens recommended these approaches: First, marketers can use a combination of outbound telephone calls and email both to test a message and the quality of the list, she said. Second, marketers can use focus groups or interviews to get feedback. And finally, online surveys are a low-cost option to test a marketing message and get feedback. “Pre-testing is usually intended to narrow the range of options,” Stevens said. “Traditionally, if you have 15 hypotheses, you can eliminate the outliers through pre-testing.” Stevens said that all pre-testing methods have shortcomings for the b-to-b world, including the expense as well as skewed results as a result of a small sample that doesn't reflect the reality of a larger campaign. She did not recommend testing actual creative to help companies avoid the expense of producing creative that might not be used. “The way people behave in a direct mail environment is often different from the way they say they'll behave during testing,” she said. “The point of testing is continuous improvement and saving money.” One frequent problem with b-to-b campaigns, Stevens said, is repeatability. Unlike a big b-to-c marketer, which might use the same campaign for a long time, only rarely does a b-to-b marketer reuse creative, she said. “A company that has a prospect universe of 10,000 companies will want to say different things because they're always talking to the same people,” Stevens said.
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