Guaranteeing the Success of Personalized URLs

By | February 13, 2009

I recently got off the phone with Frank McPherson, president of Custom Data Imaging Corporation, who is widely recognized as one of the leaders in 1:1 (personalized) printing. I just released an update to my primer “Personalized URLs: Beyond the Hype,” so we were talking about personalized URLs.

He said, “You know, I keep waiting for someone to stand up and say, ‘Here are the kind of PURL applications that are guaranteed to work.’ I’ve been waiting a long time . . . and I’m still waiting.”

It was a good time. We started batting around some examples of personalized URL applications that, by all “official” standards, should have worked. They all had good creative. They were all produced well. They all had a high-value incentive to respond. Yet, they bombed. Not just bombed a little bit. They bombed badly.

What went wrong? Stepping outside of the “official” box for a moment, I put myself into the shoes of the person receiving the postcard.

One offered the opportunity to win a digital camera. Well, I don’t know the company, on the surface have no interest in the product being sold, and I have two digital cameras, so the incentive was meaningless to me. Next.

Another was a B2B association asking members to fill out a survey asking about the elements of the conference they found the most valuable. If I’m a member of the association, I probably decided long ago whether I was going to the conference or not, and I since I probably do pretty much the same thing every year and at the moment, I have a lot of work on my plate, I probably tossed it aside without really even reading the offer. Next.

A chance to win a sweepstakes? No impact. I never win sweepstakes, so that one isn’t worth spending my time on. How about a $25 Amazon gift card? Maybe, but how long is the survey? Usually, for out-and-out cash incentives, the survey takes longer to take than I earn in that amount of time. I may get “free” money, but I lose money doing it. Next.

Then there are those prospecting mailers from companies I’ve never done business with. When I go to a personalized URL, I know I’m going to be tracked. If I wanted this company to track me, I would have done business with them in the first place. NEXT!

Look at most of the personalized URL campaigns out there. Really, if you received the postcard, would you respond? Seriously, would you?

I think one of the reasons so many personalized URL applications bomb is because there isn’t enough thought put into how well the offer is matched to the recipient, whether it’s relevant to the recipient, and whether personalized URLs are the right response mechanism for this campaign in the first place.

So here’s my answer to Frank. There are no guarantees in marketing, but if I were creating a campaign and put myself in the shoes of my customer, here’s at least a decent litmus test: If I would respond to the offer myself, there is a good chance the campaign will work. If not, you can be pretty well guaranteed that it won’t.

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14 thoughts on “Guaranteeing the Success of Personalized URLs

  1. Alex Kollitz

    Hello Heidi,

    Thoughtful article, I agree with your conclusion about being relevant, but not your litmus test.

    I am willing to bet that the creator of each of those campaigns thought “The recipient of this campaign will surely respond to an incentive like this!” I believe that they believe that they were in the mind of the recipient.

    Obviously not. So this begs the question, “How do you know that you are in the mind of the recipient (prospect) sufficiently to have them respond to your offer? ”

    I don’t have an answer either, but a few more questions and ideas. 🙂

    1) In order to generate a response, the offer has to be relevant.
    2) In order to be relevant, you REALLY need to know who it is that you’re sending your campaign to.
    3) Once you truly understand who it is you’re sending your offer to, then you can craft an incentive that just might pique their interest enough to generate a response.
    4) Consider letting them choose their incentive if you don’t have enough information to craft a sure hit
    5) The more information you can bring to bear on the profile of the prospect, the more specific and relevant you can make the offer.

    1 to 1 marketing does not work if you don’t know who the “1” is.

    Take the time up front to know your target and you should reap the rewards from the responses. Relevancy is the key and good information is the key to relevance.

    And don’t forget…test, test and test again!

    Good Luck!

  2. Michael J

    Purls, as you so well describe are not magic bullets. But the bigger problem is that marketing is both and art and a science. The artists are people who have spent many years honing their skills. To really be successful, this is most definitely, do not try this at home.

    The only plausible strategy, IMHO, is to partner with an excellent marketing professional. We wouldn’t expect that just because some one can buy a digital press, that it’s a matter of pushing a button. Conversely in marketing, this is a difficult job. Not for the feint of hear.

  3. Sharon Dexter

    PURL can work and work well. It is how they are delivered to the user. I’ve worked on quite a few project developing and delivering customized PURL’s to clients contacts and members. Some of these have been successful and some have not, it is in the delivery – how they are delivered and the follow up to the touches.

  4. Jeff Stewart

    PURL’s as a part of a 1to1 campaign help deliver the main point of 1to1 campaigns… relevant messages. And just because digital communications technologies CAN deliver relevant messages that start a conversation, it doesn’t mean the personalizing the message via VDP and PURL’s WILL be relevant.

    Your comments reflect this. It is up to the marketers to identify what is relevant to whom before the message is sent. Otherwise we are just engaging in a digital fishing exhibition… not be be confusing with phishing!

  5. Rick Littrell

    Great comments by all and I agree with them. Too many people consider PURL’s as the “magic” that will make a campaign successful. WRONG…WRONG…WRONG! PURL’s are just a tool, but they require a “skilled” marketeer to determine how to use them and whether they add value to the campaign for the particular target market. Using them to register for events is a common practice and has typically proven value for both the responder and the organizer. Sometimes PURL’s are more valuable in configuring the response, whether it is automated email, outbound telemarketing, or variable print piece, based on how the responder self-qualified. So, by them completing the PURL, you can enhance the information that you know about the responder and increase the relevance of the next communication. But, they have to engage in the first place for the PURL to be of value for all parties. There are no magic bullets here, unfortunately. Testing and re-evaluating results are the only ways to gain the insight into what works and doesn’t. Too many people consider these marketing campaigns a one-shot deal, which can only lead to pain, agony, and despair. As Alex said…”Test, Test, and Test again!” Also remember that you need to consider that different markets and target individuals will require different approaches. There is no “one size fits all” approach.

    That’s my $0.02 for what it is worth.

  6. Bill Gallagher

    Don’t Blame the Messenger.

    The fundamental principals of direct marketing still apply. If the program failed, and failed miserably, it was the wrong offer sent to the wrong recipient. No amount of new technologies can fix this error, all the PURL allows us to do is measure the failure more accurately. Which is, in the long run, a benefit of the PURL.

    A failure is usually because of bad data, and/or bad assumptions with that data. Certainly the failures don’t exist simply because a PURL was used in the marketing piece. As long as there are multiple response options for the target to utilize, we cannot fault the PURL simply because that PURL was one of the response mechanism. Putting it in Heidi’s terms, I would not stop myself from picking up the phone simply because there was a PURL on the postcard. I do not believe that PURLs are turn off to client response.

    But let’s step back here for a moment and analyze exactly what a failure is, and what that means. One must take into account that the recipient may side step the PURL and go directly to the vendor to order. There have been multiple instances where we saw low response rates on the PURL measuring side, but the client had higher product sales for that week and greater conversion rates. Certainly upon a deeper analysis these campaigns would not be seen as a failure. If there were multiple options for the recipient to respond, including telephony and PURL visits and the client did not see a spike in sales or any measured response at all, the offers and data need to be revaluated.

    But all is not lost, an assumption was measured, and it was wrong. That assumption may be that my returning customers want to win a digital camera. In the next mailing the client should re-evaluate the data to ensure that it is indeed the same database, and if it is, revisit the offer in subsequent campaigns. I always recommend multiple offers in a campaign and use the PURL and telephony technologies to scientifically verify which offer performed better in each marketing segment.

  7. Thaddeus B Kubis

    We have been dedicated to the use of purl’s as one part of our marketing offerings for over 3 years. We have found MindFire to be the best system, which is easy to use and provides very functional tracking. We also feel that the use of a purl as an independent stand alone effort can be successful if the data used is correct and vaild. The offer as well as the need of the offer to the target contact is critical. There is an old marketing adage, that states, you can’t sell many hair dyers to a bald audience.

  8. Sheila Thiery

    I’m working on a few integrated campaigns involving pURLs and one in particular is having outstanding success. Not just in response, but in the information my client is gaining from responses to market more relevantly to them in the future and to target upcoming events. They now know, within each household that responded, what their particular interests and ailments are to better connect with them. This info can be more valuable than just the response alone.

    I agree with Bill that relying only on the purl to drive response is a big mistake and will reduce your response rate. Always provide them as many options to respond as possible, as everyone is still not comfortable entering info over the internet. Business replys are still a big favorite, but when used with a purl, provide outstanding results. Try it in your next campaign and measure both. Don’t always settle for a postcard. If you need more great ideas, drop me a line.

  9. Scott Baker

    Greetings from Hunkeler Innovation Days! Intersting observations, Heidi… I feel as if I am piling on, but pURLs are vehicles for delivering relevant, personalized messaging and content. A pURL is a tool – nothing more, nothing less. If a marketing team hasn’t interpreted their data correctly, or if a marketing campaign is poorly conceived or poorly executed, or if the timing of a campaign’s launch in incorrect, then the number of pURL viewings, the conversion rate, and the resulting ROI will not meet anyone’s reasonable expectations.

    pURLs have worked very well in many well designed, properly executed marketing campaigns conducted by our customers on behalf of their customers. Our friends at MindFireInc and their competitors have prospered based upon the adoption and mainstreaming of pURL technology by PSPs and their customers.

    Your litmus test, Heidi, points to something that all marketers should do, and that is to use testing and/or focus groups to validate fundamental assumptions regarding a campaign’s messaging to the targeted segments. The question is not whether you are I would respond, but it is actually whether or not individuals in the targeted segments would respond…

  10. Heidi Tolliver-Nigro

    Good comments, all. I’d like to point out that, in my piece, the lack of response was not a matter of poor execution. All of the campaigns in view had good creative, were produced well, and had a high-value incentive to respond. The point is that, in order to succeed, personalized URL campaigns have to go much deeper — they often need to be better than you think they need to be. That said, one client just produced its first personalized URL campaign, and while it made a lot of mistakes, it generated a 6000% ROI. So, go figure. . . 🙂

  11. Michael J

    Just a quibble. If the campaign didn’t work that means to me that the creative was not good. I’m taking creative to mean strategy, timing and delivery method and the appearance of all the pieces. If the execution was done well, then the only thing left to revise is the creative.

    They get the credit if it works, they have to get the blame if it doesn’t. After all, printers are experts at printing. Usually printers are not experts at creative. That’s why creatives get the big bucks and the responsibility for delivering what they are paid to deliver.

  12. Cary Wheeler

    New to PURLS, I am. But I decided to craft a PowerPoint presentation to present to 3 of the networking groups I belong to. (Does everyone know of BNI?) Anyways, one of the BNI groups my company belongs to has less than 20 members. Prior to my turn at giving a “talk” on what my company does, I sent out a postcard with a PURL on it. Addressed only to the 20 or so BNI members that I see every week, the incentive was simply a chance to win two mouth-watering Black Angus NY Strip steaks from my city’s premiere butcher. (Perfect for the BBQ!) The postcard asked the reader to log onto the PURL before my “talk”….. 4 only did so. (Mind you that’s a 20% return). Now you know what? Maybe the other 16 were vegetarians, but I would have thought that this group – that sees me weekly – has done so for almost 2 years – seems to like me, would have almost unanimously logged onto the PURL just to see what I was up to. To see for yourself, please visit
    I so enjoy your Digital Nirvana site and the opportunity to share and learn more. Keep up the good work Heidi.

  13. John Foley, Jr.

    Couple of comments. First – Great insight and knowledge from all of you..

    The PURL is not the holy grail, nor is it a tool. A PURL is a response mechanism as part of a a marketing campaign. The PURL has been sold to PSP’s as the thing that will “drive revenue and push you into a new business model”. WRONG as Rick would say. The reality is that many PSP’s ( I did not say all). lack the Direct Marketing experience and also the solution selling experience to sell marketing solutions to the enterprise – so they sell a PURL. A Direct Marketer looks at an entire campaign with possibly many different Media Types and Data Sources (The data you use) and also many different response mechanisms that will support the “1’s” in the campaign. Not just a PURL.

    See to me, in a way the PSP sells the PURL as an individual item, doing so they are repeating the commodity based business model they would like to move away from. I believe success for PSP’s with PURLS will be when the PSP recognizes they can offer value added service to the enterprise’s marketing department with entire marketing campaign solutions versus just selling a PURL. Instead of saying ” Hello I think I can sell you PURLS, let me talk to you about it” How about, “let me show you how we can help you with all of your marketing efforts to include all media types (more than just print) in your campaigns and also your data sources and the many different ways folks will respond to these campaigns. We can help you deliver on your entire marketing campaigns.”

    Lastly, to me a Printer is looked at someone who sells print, a printer who sells PURLS is looked at as a printer who sells print and a PURL. A printer who sells marketing services is looked at as a partner who sells the whole enchilada and separates themselves from the pack!

    So remember a PURL is a response mechanism and part of a marketing campaign. 🙂

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