To Catalog or Not

Most of us order just about everything online these days. Does that mean that direct mail catalogs are of the past? Not based on my experience. Stop mailing your catalog and plummeting sales will convince you as well.

Placing orders online is good for everyone. It is fast and, in most cases, relatively easy. Most sites have reasonable policies for returns so the drawback to ordering online is that you cannot actually inspect the product prior to purchase and in many cases, you have to pay shipping charges — even if you decide you want to return it.

Online catalogs are passiveDirect mail catalogs are active

Direct Mail Reaches Out More Effectively

The challenge for online catalogs is in getting you interested in their products to begin with. Most of us dismiss emails and pop-ups instantly. The moment we realize the email is solicitation, we hit the delete button, and especially if it is a company with whom we are not familiar. However, a direct mail catalog receives slightly less harsh treatment.

Even if our intent is to put a direct mail catalog in the trash (or more likely the recycle bin), we cannot help but see at least one of the front or back covers. If the catalog’s creative team has done its job by placing an enticing offer on either or both covers, we cannot help but get the message. A direct mail catalog actively reaches out whereas an online catalog waits for you to reach out to it.

Unfortunately, many of us are not very experienced at creating catalogs. There are good catalogs and not so good catalogs. Those that are well crafted deliver an acceptable return on investment. Those that are not often fall short. Few of us are willing to admit that our catalog could have been better crafted and we blame the medium instead of the execution.

Four Critical Components to Success

There are four critical components necessary to a successful direct mail catalog. The first two are the offer and the list.  Direct marketing experts credit these with being responsible for up to 70% of the response. The offer is the deal. Examples of offers include a sale discount, a free trial, a buy one-get one, and so forth. Not all offers are equal, some work better than others and some work much better than others.

The list should include recent customers and educators in schools that have discretionary funds. The education databases available to us all have far more selections than we need. Some of the selections make a difference in how well the catalog will perform, and some do not. For example, there are selections that appear to indicate the level of the school’s discretionary funds. These include selections such as expenditure per pupil, Title 1 funding, and technology budget, to name just a few. However, the most meaningful indicator of a school’s ability to spend money is the affluence of the community in which it is located.

Just as not all schools are equal, neither are all educators. Our consumer marketing counterparts discovered years ago that those names most recently added to a list are the best responders. In every analysis of RFM (recency, frequency and monetary value), recency is the run-away winner.

Timing is Everything

The last two critical components of a successful direct mail catalog are the creative presentation and the timing. Look to consumer catalogs for creative ideas. Your catalog should include photos of educators in classrooms benefiting from your products. Educators want to be successful, effective and appreciated. Think how you can depict your products and services as ones that will help them reach these goals.

As the saying goes, timing is everything. Virtually all school budgets roll over on July 1. The heaviest purchasing activity takes place in June, July and August when educators spend left over money from one year and new money for the next. There is no single approach to how educators make purchasing decisions, and decisions vary based on the type of product or service and the purchase price. Virtually all school-funded purchases involve multiple personnel. Higher price points involve more people and take longer. The key mailing dates are in August, January and March/April, and purchase decisions peak in April, May and June.

If you do not have extensive experience creating direct mail catalogs my advice is to work with someone who does. We are often tempted to create our own catalog because we feel we know the product line best. Too often, we do a great job of representing the product line while failing to motivate response to the catalog. And response to the catalog is the only meaningful measure of success.

Bob Stimolo

Bob Stimolo, EDmarket’s Official School Market Consultant, is President of School Market Research Institute, a full-service marketing and research firm. SMRI provides direct mail and email lists and services exclusively to school marketers.