Direct Mail Misfire? Why Your Clients Need to Customer Profile

By | February 26, 2015

This week, we received another entry into the “Did they really do that?” file. I understand that, at the volumes that many of these national marketers mail, they expect a certain percentage to misfire. It’s a cost-benefit calculation. But I wonder about this one. If you had been the service provider on this job, would you have said anything?

We received this piece in the mail the other day. It was from the NRA, and it included our “new NRA membership seal.” It was a prospecting mailer, but it didn’t look like it from the outside. It looked exactly like what it said — that we were receiving the new NRA seal that we (by implication) had requested. By taking this approach, the mailer could easily have given the wrong impression to friends, neighbors, family, or anyone else who saw it.

Regardless one’s feelings about the NRA, the public implication of membership gives a false impression. As a family, we don’t appreciate that.

NRAIf a direct mailing is going to be presumptuous, you might expect the organization to do a more thorough job of profiling. But other than the fact that my husband is a gun owner, there was nothing else relevant about this mailing.

Gun owners are not a homogenous group. You might expect an organization like this to cross the gun ownership with other data to increase the odds that the mailing would not misfire.

One simple cross-check would be political affiliation. According to the latest data I’ve seen, the vast majority of NRA members (73 percent) identified with or lean toward the Republican Party.  There might be other cross-checks, such as membership to specific hunting magazines. My husband fits into none of the demographics associated with NRA membership. 

The NRA can be a highly controversial organization. Publicly implying that someone is already a member (or wants to be a member) isn’t the same as sending a promotion on lawn care when someone cuts their own grass. The risk is not lack of response. It’s deeply offending the recipient, creating negative word of mouth, and creating or reinforcing a negative brand image. That’s a much higher level of risk. Then there are the ethical considerations related to publicly implying membership in (or affiliation with) a controversial organization when the recipient might have very different views.

I realize that marketers still spray and pray, but I wonder if there are some types of mailings that should not fall into this category, particularly those that imply association with causes, products, or organizations that might be controversial.

What do you think? Do you think that this “presumption of membership” is an appropriate approach for a national marketer? Why or why not? If you had been the printer on this project, would you have said anything about this approach?

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9 thoughts on “Direct Mail Misfire? Why Your Clients Need to Customer Profile

  1. Elizabeth

    While I have agreed with many of your “did they really do that” postings, I’m not sure that this qualifies as a “direct mail fail.”

    While many people might consider the NRA to be controversial, I don’t believe that the NRA necessarily sees themselves as such. Further, I don’t believe that in any case they would perceive a membership in their organization to be offensive. If it did in fact offend the recipient – that person is not likely to ever become a member regardless of how they were approached. The greatest issue here would be the waste of a mailing to an unlikely candidate – but you say that that your husband actually owns a gun so it was not a complete “miss” without correlating multiple other variables which may be not actually be predictive (despite statistical correlation.) I’ve certainly seen worse.

    If I were the printer and had a major client like the NRA who does a tremendous amount of mailing – I don’t think I would suggest to them that their mailing might be offensive to a certain group of gun owning liberals. I’d turn it around to you – do you think that would be a good business move?

  2. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Post author

    I didn’t say this was a fail. I said it was a misfire, and yes, I think asking the question about the appropriateness of this particular approach is something any good strategist should do. Raising the question doesn’t mean that the marketer is wrong. It means that the question is worth asking.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the NRA sees themselves as controversial. Again, like asking the question, “controversial” doesn’t mean wrong. It simply means sparking controversy. I don’t think there is anyone who can suggest that the NRA is a neutral organization that doesn’t inflame emotions. Of course they do, and everyone knows it, including the NRA.

    I agree that anyone who is offended by this mailing isn’t likely to be an NRA member now or in the future (not just among “gun-toting liberals,” among whom we are not counted either), so they aren’t losing potential members. But the risk isn’t just wasting money on mailing (although maximizing the mailing investment through better profiling is a great suggestion). It’s negative impact on branding, which is a much broader and far-reaching impact.

    This isn’t just about the NRA. It’s about a marketing approach that other marketers are using or considering, as well. We know that labeling recipients helps them to see themselves in the way the marketer wants to portray them (“active voter,” “pecan lover,” “pet lover”), but these labels aren’t controversial.

    I question the wisdom of this approach to begin with, but if the NRA IS going to use it, I wonder how hard the organization tried to cull out unlikely respondents before doing so. I imagine that the NRA knows the demographic and psychographic profile of its membership extremely well.

    So is this just sloppy targeting? An ethical breach? Or good mailing practice? That’s exactly the question I’m looking forward to having debated here.

  3. John Leininger

    First I do not own a gun, probably never will, but I definitely believe every single American has a right to have gun if they wish (assuming the pass the background check). That is my impression of the NRA—they fighting the hardest to protect that right of Americans to own firearms. I have to say I lean to the Republican side, but I have voted for as many Democrats as I have Republicans over the last 40 years. I also do a lot of mailing studies. I do not think this was a miss fire. I think they might have worded their mail piece differently (from the little you showed or mentioned), but I think there certainly is some logic to sending a mail piece to anyone that owns a gun. “Spray and Pray” would be sending a membership application to me—someone that does not own and will never own a gun.

    So you own a gun, do you think there are any Democrats that are members of the NRA—I would think there must be some. So I would not rule out sending a form to a gun owner just because they are a Democrat.

    Did your negative impression of the NRA actually get worse? It sounds to me like you are still just as negative as you were before the mailing. Maybe their message could have been presented differently to explain the goals and objectives of the NRA in a way that you might see them in a more positive light, but it sounds like you already have your mind made up that the NRA is an evil organization and nothing will change that image. How would they possible know that?

    I do not think this was “Spray and Pray,” a miss fire, or a failure. I think they had a pretty significant reason to send you a mail piece. That fact that you have some reason for being against the principles and goals of the NRA might be a mystery to them since you own a gun. From what you shared, it is a mystery to me.

  4. Todd Butler

    You have a gun, their targeting worked. Suggesting that they only mail to republicans with a gun presupposes that all republicans like/have/support guns and all democrats hate/do not own/do not support guns. The same concept could apply to many non-profits, especially political groups. And yet all of these groups are seeking to expand their donor base beyond their hard core supporters.

    How can the NRA or any other group expand their membership if they narrow their mailings to those most similar to 75% of their base? Isn’t it good marketing to target and expand their membership to those that look like the other 25%?

    And for the NRA, expanding their left leaning, Democratic membership would yield exponentially more political power than expanding their conservative base. The NRA targeted gun owners and wants to expand its base into more liberal precincts. There is a real possibility your household was specifically targeted because you are so liberal and own a gun. Good marketing, better politics.

    Maybe liberal Progressives should do the same, oh wait they do.

    I find it strange that your visceral hatred of the NRA prompted this post when politically acceptable (to you) organizations have not raised a question in your mind as to their appropriateness. One that comes to mind would be Emily’s List doing a mailing that contained woman that through more extensive demographic searches could show that some are conservative, and then exclude them.

    PS, no matter what you think of the NRA, it fights for your husband’s 2nd amendment right to continue to own a gun. Unlike more Progressive organizations that think his gun should be taken away from him because he is obviously (he owns a gun!), a danger to society.

  5. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Post author


    It’s not appropriate here to get into the politics of the NRA, but I think most people would agree that there is more to the organization than simply protecting gun owners’ rights. There is a philosophy about HOW to go about protecting those rights that is where the controversy arises.

    That is the point of the post — and something good marketing solutions providers and marketing firms should be sensitive to. Was this the right approach for an organization that already polarizes people so quickly?

    Yes, I believe that my perception of the NRA was affected by the mailing. Had the NRA made a different choice on the outside of the envelope (as you say, implying that there might be benefits to membership that would be relevant to us), it would have been a whole different story.

    What’s interesting to me is how this discussion has already morphed into defending the NRA as an organization, which was not the issue I raised. The fact that this conversation so quickly became inflamed, however, simply proves my point that perhaps certain organizations should tread more lightly.


    First, profiling your customer base and targeting prospects with the same demographic and psychographic profile is a standard best practice for direct mail. MSPs and marketing firms gets huge bumps in their clients’ direct mail response rates this way.

    Second, I absolutely agree with you that organizations like the NRA need to expand their membership beyond their “typical” member. The question is how to go about it. The approach used in this campaign would be appropriate for prospects who already fit the NRA member profile. It may very well NOT fit those who don’t.

    I never said they should only mail to Republicans with guns. I said that the messaging may be inappropriate for a “spray and pray” campaign (and targeting gun owners as if they are a demographically and psychographically homogenous group would, in my mind, qualify as spray and pray).

    MSPs tell their clients to talk differently to different customer segments. You don’t talk to moms with young children the same way you talk to retirees. Likewise, the NRA should not talk to prospects that fit their “sweet spot” member profile the same way they talk to prospects that don’t.

    Huge organizations like the NRA certainly have the wherewithal to make those distinctions, and it is good marketing to do so.


    I also want to go back to your point that the NRA wouldn’t necessarily see membership in their organization to be offensive. Of course they wouldn’t. They strongly believe in what they are doing and how they are doing it.

    But smart marketers are aware of (and sensitive and responsive to) public perception. They don’t have to agree with that perception, but if they want to expand their membership / customer base, they need to be sensitive to it and will try to change it among their target groups. That did not seem to be the case here, and why I called it a misfire.

  6. Robert W Bell

    I believe your husbands gun ownership is why he got the mail piece, plane and simple and no the NRA is not controversial. You just think it is because of all the negative news. If you owned a swimming pool{(lIKE I do) you will get lots of companies looking to sell you every thing under the sun for pools. And I own a Harley, guess what, I get lots of motorcycle magazines and emails about bikes, period.

  7. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Post author

    @Robert, I would respectfully ask you to consider the tone of the responses to this blog post. On no other topic has the actual topic (prospect profiling and targeted messaging) been derailed so quickly (in this case, immediately) and have the responses had this level of polarization and hostility. That speaks volumes about my original point and why good, ethical marketing should be sensitive to the demographic and psychographic differences within the target audience. John Leininger’s point is exactly on target on this.

  8. Todd Butler

    Unfortunately your original post set the tone. As with many marketers, you did not see that the words, concepts, and example used were controversial and tone deaf as viewed by some in your audience. The true challenge for all marketers is to produce pieces that reach a targeted audience and do no harm.

    If I were advising the NRA, I would tell them to target liberals with a record of gun owner ship or even an interest in guns. Pieces targeted towards women and inner city residents about self defense and self defense classes could also be very potent. The rewards of increasing this base of support could be significant in increasing their political power. To your point, I would certainly advise they use different copy for this audience than when mailing to a more conservative group.

    Those that may be offended by this type of outreach are of no consequence, they will never be supporters (so therefore no harm). Direct mail has many advantages. One of the primary advantages for recipients is easy disposal. When I receive mail pieces from those organizations that I do not agree with I think to myself, YES they have wasted more money on me! And I am happy, even content.

    Heidi, I love your blogs so keep up with the hard work. But when you ask for comments, don’t be surprised that we occasionally tell you exactly what we think.

  9. Heidi Tolliver-Walker

    @Todd. Of course I knew the topic was controversial. That’s part of why I wrote about it. Part of what I do is get people thinking and talking rather than passively reading and moving on. If you only write about topics that everyone agrees on, why bother? What’s the point?

    Absolutely I wanted comments on this post, which is why I asked for them. What was disappointing was that this did not result in an objective discussion about profiling and targeting (or marketing ethics, which was really the point). I think your comments were great and made some really valid points, and exactly the type of thing I was looking for. But not all of the responses were as dispassionate and focused on the issue.

    I think the challenge all of us have, whether in our personal or business lives, is developing the ability to talk about controversial subjects objectively and without the conversation taking on a personal and polarizing tone.

    Now back to the marketing issues, I would question your point that sending a piece with no chance of response is “no harm.” Perhaps not to the marketer, but what about the recipient?

    Not all organizations are neutral. If a lawn care company sends me a promotion on 25% off my first spring landscaping but I do my own, it’s truly no harm. But if an organization that prompts a high level of polarization sends a mailer that affiliates the recipient with that organization, it can be argued that there can be harm. A mailing like that can influence the perception of the recipient in the eyes of friends, family, and neighbors. Maybe that’s “no harm,” but maybe it’s not. For most marketers, this isn’t an issue. But for certain organizations, I think we need to be honest that it is.

    That’s why my question was whether — for this reason — this was the wrong way for this particular marketer to go about its prospecting. As has been pointed out here, for some recipient profiles, this approach was perfectly appropriate. But for others, it wasn’t. Not just from a marketing perspective but perhaps an ethical one.

    I think back to the hullabaloo that Target caused when it used an algorithm to create profiles for expectant mothers based on the purchases they made with their Red cards. If the algorithm determined that there was a high likelihood that someone was expecting, Target sent mailers with all sorts of products an expectant mother might want. Great idea, except it backfired when a 16-year-old girl received the mailing and her family discovered the pregnancy that she had kept hidden. It caused Target to shift its strategy, and it no longer uses the information gained through the profiling so overtly.

    We have a similar issue here. This is a very subtle distinction, but I think it’s one worth putting out there for discussion.

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