Has Print Passed Its Time? My Exchange with Chuck Gehman

By on December 23rd, 2012

Last week, I wrote about how the success of trigger-based email continues to support the value of trigger-based mail. After all, the importance is not in the medium. It’s in the timing and relevance.

Chuck Gehman, vice president of product platforms at Mimeo.com, disagreed. He commented on my post, saying,

It’s a real stretch to suggest that it would be possible to emulate what is going on in the digital world. It is possible that a few years ago, before digital marketing started to “run over” personalized print, this would have been a good idea. Now, though, why on earth would you want to? I mean, I get letters from my Honda dealer telling me my car is about to need a service. My BMW/Mini Cooper dealer, on the other hand, has an email platform. I honestly don’t have a preference as to which one I prefer… but I do know that the Honda dealer is spending way more money, and I believe I’m paying for it, which makes me a little unhappy.

I had to read this twice. Was Chuck really saying trigger-based print is passe? So I asked, and this is what he said.

Yes, unfortunately. The time has past for “that kind” of transactional/transpromo direct mail. In fact, I went to the Honda dealer yesterday– and I brought the letter with me (it’s a black and white letter in an envelope with two coupons at the bottom). I didn’t need it, because its content was all in their computer. The first thing the service adviser said was, “I have a coupon for you.”

One thing I might add is that my car was also telling me I needed service every time I turned it on, and it told me what kind of service it needed with a little code on the display– I looked up the code by typing “Honda Pilot B12″ into Google, and voila, I found out I needed an Oil Change.

So, Heidi, what’s the point?

There may still be room for the “print as a luxury” crowd, where some super-high end transactional/triggered direct mail piece is a good move, but generally, I think it’s a quickly and dramatically shrinking category.

I mean, I love print as much (and probably a lot more) than the next guy, but we can’t keep fooling ourselves. Some applications are just done.

I would agree with Chuck for some target audiences, but not everyone lives in the world that he is describing.

My car doesn’t talk to me. I have a neighbor without Internet access. Both my husband’s parents and mine are highly educated, with disposable incomes, but neither has an iPad or a smartphone. My husband’s parents don’t even watch television.

I have a close friend whose husband runs a research lab at Penn State. They don’t have smartphones, and their computer has so many filters on it I’m surprised email gets through. Another set of close friends is still smartphone-free, as well, despite the fact that she’s a teacher and her husband works in the world of computers.

My husband has a director-level job at a private school, but he doesn’t have a smartphone, receives no marketing email, and only looks at his home email once a week.

I think we forget that there is still a whole world out there that is not plugged into this world of e-everything, and unless we don’t need revenue from their wallets, I think print is still very much worthy of their attention.

Chuck was ready for me. He volleyed back:

That’s a very dramatically shrinking world, though Heidi, you’ve published a lot of the statistics to prove what I’m saying in previous posts you have made here!

[Yes, that's true, I would interject, but I've also posted a lot of data showing the continued effectiveness of direct mail, too.]

People who have Smartphones are the people marketers want to spend money trying to reach… not people who don’t consume any media, which is increasingly the demo for the people you are describing.

Um, I responded, does this mean that people without smartphones don’t spend any money? That’s not the case among non-smartphone owners I know. They just spend money on things other than electronics. (Although one is an avid iPad user.)

The other point is that while as an industry, we’ve been watching with great interest as the percentage of smartphone owners has grown, and there was great excitement when smartphone owners hit 50% if the market. But that still leaves the other 50%. Are we going to say they don’t spend money or consume media?

Then the irony of what I was writing back to Chuck hit me. I added,

By the way, just for fun, it’s worth noting that I’m posting my defense of the legitimacy of trigger-based print from my iPhone while at the gym…

In the final volley in this exchange (until I continued it here), Chuck posted:

Uh oh! That is fun, Heidi! Hey, check out the statistics embedded in this post I just stumbled upon.

Okay, Chuck. Good stuff. But growth in one medium doesn’t mean a corresponding decline in the effectiveness in the other. When did media become mutually exclusive? I thought multi-channel marketing meant multiple channels, including a mix of media.  That means that print stays relevant, even when other channels are growing in popularity.

In fact, according to last year’s USPS Household Survey, eight out of 10 U.S. households still scan or read advertising mail that comes to their homes. That sure beats average click rates. And the percentage of U.S. households that “usually read” advertising mail increases as the volume of mail they receive decreases. This is more evidence that, as U.S. mail volumes decline, advertising mail becomes that much more effective. Plus, we know that personalization increases effectiveness even further.

So I agree with Chuck’s comments, but only on a non-exclusive basis. I think that’s where we can easily become myopic. Growth in one medium doesn’t necessarily mean lack of effectiveness of another.

Please chime in . . . what is your response to this exchange?

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    4 Responses to “Has Print Passed Its Time? My Exchange with Chuck Gehman”

    1. Brian Says:

      The biggest misdirection with marketers I talk to is their myopic point of view that uses their own preferences as the norm. I think you nailed it by saying that there is still the other half of the segment that doesn’t prefer digital communication. What happened to testing and letting your market decide? I see a lot of marketers going the digital path merely for the lower cost. We all know that digital is where we want to drive them to have a conversation, but it all starts with getting attention and digital isn’t always the best way to make that happen. Integrated marketing success proves that there isn’t a one size fits all strategy for using the right medium. Using unproven opinions to launch strategies will only keep marketers from truly maximizing each marketing dollar invested.

    2. Rick Sands Says:

      I recently read that approx. 67% of info is noticed non-digitally (i.e. direct mail, print ad, tv, etc) and that 43% respond online to that.
      Perhaps my numbers are off, but the takeaway is that a lot of the push to respond online happens offline.

      Similarly, many people surveyed as to how they’d like to receive information select email vs. direct mail. Yet experience tells us that a great number of those respondents never open their email.

    3. Tim ODell Says:

      Regarding the Honda / BMW email vs. snail mail debate: I like the approach many utility companies and banks utilize: Offer the choice between paper or paperless solutions. Many even offer incentives to go paperless. Just as long as the statements are online and available for at least 4 years (in case of an IRS audit), and the ability to painlessly print out one’s own statements if necessary.

      Savvy marketers from the respective companies could also draw conclusions about their particular customers, based on the mail/reminder notice choices and responses they make. (To some degree as Target did sending targeted email to a particular pregnant customer even before the dad knew about it, based on buying habits!)

    4. Phil Larson Says:

      Hilarious to think that because one person or group has adopted a form of communication that everyone will follow. Do we really think we are that powerful?

      People still love print and people still love electronic display. Both have value for different audiences at different times.

      Anyway, the printed piece on one of his cars brought him into the dealership, increased conversational connection with the dealership and even added to online digital exchange. Seems like the email did not have a reported effect. Statistically that would mean print is 100% more effective than digital in getting a tangible response, customer engagement and driving online activity. Statistics are not reality, they are statistics. What they observe may not be what is happening.

      Mainframe computers were supposed to go away and small computers make the industry more cost effective. That is a joke. Mainframes still dominate and networked servers skyrocket costs in administration and drove storage costs due to inefficiency. Bill Gates only wanted 30 employees. I guess we all miss predictions.

      So, my prediction. There is a balance. The extreme costs of digital against the energy grid (coal and oil) and non-recycleable waste created will have an effect to be dealt with. Projections don’t tell us when we will have to start turning down the ever burning digital lights and go back a few steps. The creative marketers of the world may be talking about the power of delivering a piece of paper that gives tactile response instead of a box or donuts or a candy in the mail in the future. The distinction may drive people back to really quality, interactive print. Why not send a thank you post card instead of a thank you email that gets buried in a spam folder? Is a thank you worth a $1 to make sure it is delivered and read?

      I’ve worked on computers since 1972. Whew, am I old or what? They did not have screens back then. I started at 16 years old. I love reading a book in my hands with an underliner next to my computer keeping me connected with facebook, five email accounts, blogsites, newssites, linkedin, slideshare, and even occasional twitter when I am bored. I think with pen and paper after 41 years of computer keyboards. I am not a dinosaur, but an early adopter of all things digital. I just like paper to read and study some things. I ignore digital adds totally and read my mail. I belong to the Monday morning email deleters clubs of the world. I probably put out more online content than 99% of the people in the U.S. and love to hand people my business card in person.

      There will always be people who prefer paper alone or paper mixed. At least that is my prediction. I don’t think I’ll be alive always so I can say that and be right in my time.