The letters that sustained us

7 minute read
“You are lava girl. I am a talking electric rattlesnake with fire. I miss you.” These are the words of four-year-old Henry, punched out using the typewriter he got for Christmas. His mother told New York Times reporter Tove Danovich that Henry was missing his neighbourhood friend, and this was his way of letting her know he cared. Around the same time, Ronan was getting riddles in the mail from his grandmother. His dad explained to Danovich, “We’d have to wait a few days for the answer to arrive. That got him excited about the mail…. for a child, I think there’s something much more tangible to a thing you hold and have to find a place for in your house.”

Mail took on new meaning in 2020

In 2020, as lockdown stretched on and Zoom fatigue set in – cue the chaos of managing multi-generational family calls and back-to-back meetings with colleagues – mail took on a different meaning. As we spent more time at home, dealing with mail no longer felt like a repetitive task. Instead, discovering what the mail held for us was recast as an event to look forward to.

Sending letters in lockdown

Illustration of an envelope that appears to be in motion.L.P. Hartley once famously wrote, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” During the global health crisis, older generations reread bundles of letters from another era, bringing to life past memories and more sustainable ways of living. At the same time, younger generations were discovering a new way to connect, turning to letters as a way of building sustainable relationships within and across generations.

Rediscovering the magic of mail

A letter can be so much more than words on a page. Letters exist in many dimensions. Imagine the pressed flower you tuck into a letter to a gardener or the watercolours you mail along with a collage for an artist friend who’s sheltering in place. In 2020, we sent handwritten cards to thank frontline workers during a global pandemic. Instead of birthday hugs, we mailed cards and handwritten letters. These thoughtful connections are noticed and often amplified on social media. Some of us wrote notes to our future selves in an effort to capture thoughts and feelings – a journal of sorts. Young people became aware of the isolation faced by elderly residents in nursing homes and sent notes filled with love and hope. Love in the Time of Coronavirus was an initiative in the city of Medellin, Colombia, led by a network of libraries and inspired by Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, Love in the Time of Cholera. This anonymous letter exchange between complete strangers lifted spirits and helped calm anxiety.

Encouraging people to send more mail

The BBC reported that, as lockdown was introduced in Ireland in late March of 2020, An Post sent each household two free stamps and postcards to encourage people to write to each other. It has since reported an increase in person-to-person mail. Riona Nolan, a 17-year-old student from County Carlow, used the opportunity to cut back on social media and instead put pen to paper. “You have to really think about what you’re going to write instead of just shooting a text with a few words in it,” she says.

Connecting deeply through the mail

Sending and receiving letters makes people feel more connected. It’s why millions of children write to Santa every year at his personal postal code H0H 0H0 – and eagerly watch the mailbox for a response from him and Mrs. Claus. Writing a letter is a deeply rewarding way of communicating. It’s full of humanity. When writing, the sender has to recognize what’s relevant to the receiver, to understand what means the most to that person – what will make them happy and feel seen. The extra effort that goes into writing and mailing a letter shows that you care because you’ve carefully chosen the words. There’s a sense of personality conveyed in letters that often struggles to surface in an email. Talia Lakritz writes in Insider, “When I receive a letter from someone, I’m holding something that they’ve held. I notice the particular slant of their handwriting, the words they’ve crossed out, the color of the pen. It’s much more personal than a text and makes them feel a little closer.”

Find out more about the sustainability of mail. Get the full article and more in this issue of INCITE.

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How brands can use direct mail

Capitalize on the physicality and connectivity of mail combined with data to effectively target and personalize your content. Here’s how to use it to your advantage:

Cultivate community with direct mail content that nurtures

Just as a personal letter is an intimate conversation that nourishes its reader, so brands can be nurturers, striking up connective conversations based on listening and understanding. The dialogue involves being more respectful of the context experienced by others – personal, situational and cultural. Once the lines of communication are open, relevant and trusted, the opportunities exist to benefit both brands and their users, increasing recency, frequency and value.

Increase customer engagement and linger in consumers’ homes with at-home media

Ian Gibbs is the director of data leadership and learning at JICMAIL (a U.K. joint industry body responsible for implementing channel research and building connections into media planning systems, including joint industry metrics – lifespan, reach and frequency). He believes there is one channel that delivers huge levels of audience interaction in the home and often gets overlooked in above-the-line planning conversations: direct mail. JICMAIL already knows that mail gets shared around in the home and is interacted with frequently throughout the month (4.2 times for the typical direct mail piece). And, according to a fusion of target group index (TGI) and JICMAIL data from 2019, those who use the internet to work from home show above-average interaction rates with direct mail (4.3 times a month per mail item).

There is one channel that delivers huge levels of audience interaction in the home and often gets overlooked in above-the-line planning conversations: direct mail.

Seventy-one per cent of all direct mail is opened, 26 per cent is put aside to look at later and 31 per cent drives some sort of commercial outcome for a brand (for example, driving web traffic, a store visit, a specific product purchase or word of mouth). Gibbs adds that, at a time of national crisis, these figures are even higher for government and medical mail, with open rates as high as 80 per cent and over half of mail still not thrown away after a month. He knows from experience that mail has staying power and that the impact of its exposure is measured in days and weeks, not seconds or fractions of seconds.

Illustration of a young woman reading handwritten letters.

Use direct mail to connect emotionally with consumers

Hands up those with a parent who insisted on prompt, sincere and reasonably long thank-you letters almost before the sun had set on a birthday. Beyond showing your appreciation for the generosity and thoughtfulness of your gift givers, your note probably also resulted in a repeat performance the following year! Mail gives businesses the opportunity to stand out – ways to remind customers about a brand, excuses to re-engage, occasions to thank, to reward loyalty and chances to encourage frequency. Just like letters tell stories about lives lived, business mail is the consummate storyteller – often resulting in repeat business! Katie Jansen, a Forbes Councils member, knows that customers are people too, not buildings or corporations. If we overlook the humanity of our interactions, we risk “missing opportunities to make personal, relevant connections that characterize the most effective marketing.” According to Google, “On average, B2B customers are significantly more emotionally connected to their vendors and service providers than consumers.”

Personalize your connections with marketing mail

As large-scale growth becomes harder to achieve, new marketing principles like personalization promote sustainability. Viable growth over time involves carefully paced, relevant and contextual connections. Increasingly, marketers need to do things differently. The lessons of 2020 taught us that the way we connect, the values we respect and the organizations we choose have, in many ways, changed.

Why do we default to a buttoned-up, formal approach to business buyers, while we appeal directly to consumer passions?

Increasingly, marketing needs to balance the needs of the buyer and the benefits to their consumers – acknowledging the new reality of B2B2C. It’s a dynamic that’s pushing B2B responsiveness into a more human and engaged space. People simply want to be engaged, no matter the type of brand interaction. The way we judge value has changed. Marketing for responsiveness, engagement, relevance and value works equally well for a commercial buyer as it does for the consumer. We have a responsibility to communicate humanity at every customer touchpoint.

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Engage consumers with authentic direct mail content

Engaging people at home requires a tangible format that earns attention and time. Letters and cards connect authentically and emotionally. Treating direct mail more like content, and less like an ad, increases engagement. In a B2B ecosystem, content creates a shortcut to relevance and recency, while also increasing brand engagement.

Integrate direct mail media with other marketing channels to amplify your message

A multi-channel, integrated approach is now proving necessary to manage customer expectations and self-directed learning. Direct mail, for example, sits at the intersection of marketing, customer experience and shopping. It’s a customizable channel that can connect to online content as well as adapt it into an engaging physical format that can close customer service gaps. People want to try before they buy and experience product or service value propositions in an intimate and tangible way. When you can’t be physically present with clients, you need something to supplement video conferencing, emails and calls. Physical materials bring a brand to life.

This is an abridged version of the article, “The Letters That Sustained Us”, which appears in The Year Ahead, the latest issue of INCITE.

Janestky, M.,“Anonymous letters providing solace in the pandemic”, BBC News, July 8, 2020.
Gibbs, I., “Working from home? Admail always has been,” MarketReach, May 12, 2020.
Nathan, S., “From Promotion to Emotion: Connecting B2B Customers to Brands,” Think With Google, October, 2013.
Garner, G., “Mourning the Letters That Will No Longer Be Written, and Remembering the Great Ones That Were”, New York Times, June 19, 2020.

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