Connecting in the messy middle

7 minute read

In Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation, author Idris Mootee reminds us, “Every company provides a customer experience. You may not have a customer experience strategy, but you have a customer experience regardless of whether you create it consciously.”

The question is, do you approach customer experience [CX] the way your customers live it?

Enhancing CX through context, content, creativity – and even a measure of chaos – is essential if you want to nurture the connections that grow healthy brands and build sustainable businesses. Convenience and experience are both important to consumers, who are willing to walk away from brands for the lack of either.

Customers don’t think in channels or follow linear paths. The authors of Think with Google’s study Decoding Decisions: Making sense of the messy middle point out that there are no typical journeys, “Instead there is a confusing web of touchpoints we likened to spaghetti, not least because this would be a real mess to clean up.” To build relevant, connective customer experiences, marketers must venture into the messy middle.

Direct mail and the messy middle

Consumer decision making has become way more complex. The Google study suggests that much of consumer influence exists in “a space of unlimited information and abundant choice where brand and performance overlap.” It highlights two distinct consumer mindsets in the messy middle – exploration and evaluation. The consumer jumps back and forth between them – against a dynamic and ever-changing backdrop of the overall category and brand exposure over time. Brands that can design good customer experiences that delight, inform, simplify exploration and make evaluation easier will convert faster.

Decoding Decisions: Making sense of the messy middle underlines three principles to keep in mind. Direct mail delivers on all three in spades:

Showing up

Simply being present in moments of deliberation can be enough to win or retain consumer preference. Direct mail makes it easy to show up and stand out in the hands of the right consumers. Direct mail is also primed for the messy middle. Binet and Field’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising [IPA] report, Media in Focus, demonstrates how direct mail can effectively deliver on brand and performance impact, making it a good channel to address the messy middle.

Behavioural economics

Use this to become more compelling, improve CX, reduce customer effort, incentivize profitable behaviours and enhance customer lifetime value [CLV]. Direct mail is the OG of behavioural economics – already adept at reducing cognitive load, increasing memorable delivery and activating behaviour. Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Group and author of Alchemy, has said, “the best practices of direct marketing have been getting absorbed into the bloodstream of advertising for some years.”

Customer experience

Optimize experience to shorten the distance between purchase intent and actual purchase. Direct mail can do this, while at the same time enhancing brand experience, by complementing or filling gaps in digital exploration and evaluation. Direct mail is a customizable channel that, although paid, acts like it’s owned. It’s shoppable, makes people feel valued and increases trust.

With a renewed focus on home as our hub for decisions and connections, direct mail presents marketers with an ideal opportunity to unravel the messy middle and emerge with a clearly differentiated brand, plus an enviable competitive advantage.

Discover 10 more ways direct mail can improve customer experience and connect in the messy middle.

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Home is the new experiential marketing frontier

According to Accenture, we’re entering the decade of the home. Fifty-three per cent of people who never worked from home previously now plan to do so more often. Accenture’s Oliver Wright says home has “become the workplace, the schoolroom, the place to try new hobbies, the place to socialize and a safe sanctuary – so companies must account for this reality.”

Over the course of one week in March 2020, Google saw search volume for curbside pickup grow by 70 per cent. According to McKinsey Quarterly, in the space of eight weeks, digital adoption skipped five years – with some companies reporting year-on-year surges of as much as 400 per cent. By the time we closed the door on 2020, Shopify Ecosystems was reporting that Canadian e-commerce was ahead by a decade.

This acceleration in e-commerce, the expansion in direct-to-consumer [DTC] choices and the increase of purchase influence, as well as decision making, in homes has influenced the expectations we have of brands and how we experience them. The pandemic changed the patterns of our daily lives, from driving routes and in-store habits to where and how we shop. As consumers, we expect convenience, but we also want, and miss, the experience of discovery, browsing and tangible IRL interactions.

There’s no doubt that Canada’s at-home consumers are now supremely connected shoppers who channel-hop [online and offline] to fit their lifestyle, expectations and shopping needs in the moment. With all eyes on at-home audiences, marketers have been gifted an opportunity to deliver new experiences and find innovative ways to bond with these consumers, using data that already dwells in our home addresses. Curated at-home experiences are not only possible but welcomed. By integrating the right mix of media, with direct mail as an anchor, marketers can create hybrid marketing experiences [XM], dive deeper into subscription models and give people the combination of convenience and experience they so value.

Highlighting a new role for direct mail in the digital marketing era, the IPA worked with Peter Field and found that “campaigns that include mail were 27 per cent more likely to deliver top-ranking sales performance and 40 per cent more likely to deliver top-ranking acquisition levels than campaigns that didn’t.”

Direct mail can play a highly adaptive role in enriching customer experiences – bringing online, out-of-home and at-home contexts closer together.

Marketing has a new partner

While direct mail media is often thought of as a linear channel, it’s a place where marketing and CX naturally coexist to build experiences beyond sales conversions and calls to action. It can play a highly adaptive role in enriching customer experiences – bringing online, out-of-home and at-home contexts closer together. Although direct mail has always been data driven, now it can be seamlessly plugged in to digital channels and mobile data in ways that make it more responsive within the ever-shifting customer journey.

Tracking and measuring are essential to being responsive, but the idea of response should first focus on human experience and be supported by purchase triggers. Designing through a CX lens reduces the number of interactions required to generate a response, and the experiential nature of direct mail makes it a prime candidate for brand exploration and evaluation. It’s important to meet connected shoppers with unified marketing and CX strategies before, during and after purchase. When people are looking for enhancement, optimization is the wrong response.

Direct mail as a media multiplier

Direct mail media sits at the intersection of marketing, customer experience and shopping – giving it a unique ability to connect, captivate and convert. It’s part of an integrated media mix that moves shoppers toward buy buttons. According to Digiday, DTC marketers looking for a more diversified marketing mix are focusing on direct mail. Media agency ForwardPMX reports that many advertisers tried out direct mail for the first time, and those with established programs in the channel saw strong results in 2020. “All of [those] clients are up 20-25 per cent [in direct-mail-driven revenue] over last year.”

From a media perspective, direct mail delivers all the essentials to attract attention and extend dwell time. The tactile experience of interacting with a piece of direct mail improves engagement and recall, while providing creative flexibility to fit the experience to customer needs, context and the happenstance of touchpoints.

Read more from our INCITE blog series

Treat direct mail as content, and you’ll get more from it. Content isn’t just digital. Use direct mail to increase the value and impact of digital content, generate word-of-mouth, leverage socially generated reviews and amplify peer-to-peer influence. Exploring the rise of experience-driven immersive content, Digiday suggests the “solution is to create content that draws the audience inward, delivering entertainment and education in ways that truly stand out in a crowded landscape. This requires a high level of creativity and innovation, and can only be achieved when marketers and designers come together around their customers’ unique needs.” The article continues to explain that content designed to create an experience performs better, and an overwhelming majority of marketers and creatives said more immersive content, designed to encourage active participation and a higher level of engagement, works better as well.

It’s important to give customers a connected and personalized experience wherever you meet them. Keep them at the heart of the experience so your brands can grow and evolve with changing needs. It’s about using touchpoints to reassure customers they’re seen and encourage them to move along the path to purchase.

According to Harvard Business Review, the most successful companies focus on users, not buyers. This mindset concentrates on how users experience the brand – whether or not they have purchased it – on how the brand fits into their lives. It puts the onus on brands to pay closer attention to their relevance, utility and value. We need to reposition retention as a catalyst for growth and profitability, rather than considering it a drain on resources. Competitive advantage in a fast-paced and saturated marketplace requires a focus on consistent experiences that create renewable value.

Mine for first-party insights, then ask the data multiverse for more and layer third-party insights, such as postal code data, to get to know your audiences better.

Take a look at the habits of your browsers and buyers to determine how you can use direct mail to multiply the effect of your existing media. Start by identifying audience segments. Do you know what’s changed for them? Are there new segment opportunities? Are there ways you could create closer connections with opportunity segments? You might be sitting on data gold. Mine for first-party insights, then ask the data multiverse for more and layer third-party insights, such as postal code data, to get to know your audiences better.

To design experiences that resonate with customers, you’ll need to keep assessing changes in consumer behaviour. In an article entitled, “Meet the next-normal consumer,” McKinsey suggests using the following questions as your framework for assessing any changes you may need to make so that consumer experiences sing.

How do consumers get their information?
Do you need to shake up your media mix and compensate for fewer in-person experiences?

Where do consumers make their purchases?
Can direct mail step in to fill gaps in other channels?

What are consumers buying?
Are there new needs, buying patterns and priorities you may have overlooked?

How are consumers experiencing you?
Are you aligned with what consumers value and do you meet their expectations?

In order to navigate this new frontier of at-home consumers, marketers must embrace the messy middle of evaluation and exploration and meet consumers where they live – both in the literal and figurative sense. This is the space where consumer choices are made. Brands that can enhance customer experience, while simplifying the exploration process, will more effectively connect with and covert consumers. Direct mail puts your brand directly into consumers’ hands and brings your message home.

This is an abridged version of the article, “Connecting in the Messy Middle,” which appears in EXPERIENCE OF MARKETING, the latest issue of INCITE.

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