You may have already seen the news that Royal Mail MarketReach is teaming up with the IPA, ISBA and Whistl on a new project to create new industry metrics specifically for mail. The purpose of this is to empower marketers and media planners with the metrics needed to accurately measure the reach and frequency of mail.

A recent pilot study conducted by Kantar TNS on reach and frequency of mail already shows promising signs. Establishing mail specific metrics will help towards levelling the playing field with other major channels and offer the same comprehensive insight into consumer habits.

Marketing consultant and effectiveness expert Peter Field recently wrote an insightful article which welcomes the proposal of mail specific metrics. It explores the pilot research Kantar TNS and other industry bodies conducted into the reach and frequency of mail.

Peter Field's full review

Peter Field

Measuring mail

It’s not every day that a new Industry standard measurement for any channel comes along, so I am especially keen to review the proposals being put forward for the metrics – the currency – of a prospective standard measurement for mail - the precursor to a JIC.

Some might argue that this initiative is long overdue, but I believe the timing is very apposite; despite growing pressure, the digital world steadfastly refuses to open up its own questionable metrics to independent scrutiny.

Over 70% of mail pieces were opened and viewed: comfortably in excess of equivalent measures for email and digital display

‘Marking your own homework’ should be unacceptable in the modern world, especially now that online ad fraud has become such an issue, yet still it continues. If mail can agree a standard methodology, so could the digital players, and all marketers should welcome this important stage on the road to across the board media transparency.

Besides the obvious merit of this initiative, there is another reason why I think this project is so important, and that has to do with the role that mail could potentially play in marketing. 

Mail has a long-established reputation as a direct response medium (or activation channel in contemporary parlance). Throughout the digital era, use of mail by UK IPA effectiveness case studies appears impressively consistent and even rose in 2016. But thanks to the obsession of the digital community with short-term metrics, mail now has many rivals as an activation channel. Its future surely cannot lie in this role alone, especially as a part of today’s integrated multi-channel campaigns.

Over a third of mail pieces were shared with others in the household

This is where the proposed mail currency starts to prove its value, as it will include metrics that I believe open up the possibility of exploring the brand-building potential of mail. Naturally the proposed currency includes all the metrics you might need in an activation context:

  • Reach (not merely in the sense of being delivered, but in terms of being opened and viewed, not immediately binned)
  • Sharing with other household members
  • Subsequent purchasing and other response behaviours

But it is in the additional metrics that I think the future power of mail will be revealed. In an increasingly virtual world, mail is a medium that delivers physical contact, with all the scope for brand communication this can offer. A number of effectiveness case studies from around the world have already shown how mail can do this. But in my opinion, there are far too few of these, because too few marketers embrace the experiential role that a great mail piece can play. In part of course, this is because the metrics to evaluate such campaigns are currently lacking: they are often simply an act of faith.

However, the new currency could go a long way to remedy this. It will track whether the mail piece was discussed within the household and whether it was displayed or filed for future use. Its retention and revisiting over a one-month period will be reported. Repeated exposure is a core requirement of brand building (but not of activation), so at last we may have a metric that can guide this role. 

It is just one step further to start recording attitudes to mail pieces and their associated brands, and I strongly advocate doing that as the metrics evolve. We know that creativity in advertising is the primary engine of brand-driven growth, so the currency must be sensitive to its modus operandi. The danger is that if the metrics are too focussed on short-term behavioural responses they will miss the long-term potential of more creative, brand-focussed pieces.

I also believe that the one-month respondent research window opens up the intriguing possibility of implicit brand measures – the holy grail of brand-building evaluation. If mail can objectively demonstrate that it can go beyond response generation to brand building, then it will unlock a far richer and much more defensible marketing role.

Around 40% of mail pieces were still not discarded by the end of the full one-month research window

That is for the future, though. Inevitably at this stage, the currency is more concerned with immediate needs. And the pilot study has produced some intriguing findings that, if validated in full-scale research, are of real importance. 

The pilot phase was limited to 85 households and 683 mail pieces, so is a fair way short of producing robust findings. And methodological issues surrounding the impact of the measurement process on respondent behaviour will need careful exploration, but the initiative is nevertheless highly valuable to anyone focussed on effectiveness.

For me, there were some findings from the pilot that stood out:

  • Over 70% of mail pieces were opened and viewed: comfortably in excess of equivalent measures for email and digital display
  • Over a third of mail pieces were shared with others in the household
  • Around 40% of mail pieces were still not discarded by the end of the full one-month research window
  • Retained mail pieces were revisited around seven times across the month
  • Around a third of viewed mail pieces led to some kind of commercial action by the household
  • Often actions take place several weeks after receipt of the mail – there is a long tail to the response curve that persists into the fourth week

The last finding chimes with my interest in long-term effects of communications and is encouraging support for the view that appropriately designed mail can work as brand reinforcement. The 683 mail pieces in the study, however, were just a typical mixed bag of everyday specimens, not selected for their brand-building potential. And it should be remembered that four weeks is just a blink of an eye when it comes to brand-driven growth, so longer term studies would be needed to really explore this area.

So, I welcome the prospect of a standardised industry measurement for mail and I am encouraged by the currency in development for it. I look forward to further progress and the results yet to come. And, who knows, maybe it will help entice the digital world out of their walled gardens into the bright world of transparency. Now, that would be a result.

Mailmen from Royal Mail