What if the Mail Had a Quality Score?

Looking at the usual small pile of unwanted solicitations sitting on our dining room table, it made me think. “DO NOT BEND” in red caps, on a simple renewal notice for a women’s fashion magazine. Do not bend? Are you serious? “The favor of your reply is requested,” in a script font on mail from one of our favorite charities. How polite! I think I’ll…

Most people in marketing know these not-so-subtle cues aren’t there by accident. They’ve been arrived at through years of testing. Apparently, “DO NOT BEND” just gets you to look. And if you look, you might finally deal with your unrenewed subscription. And you feel grateful that the charity is so polite. And it has been a long time since you even opened one of these letters…

Whether the subject matter is trivial or worthy, direct mail works off a certain incentive structure. Advertisers pay a certain amount to reach these targeted recipients. The materials themselves, and the campaign overhead, cost a certain amount. There is little disincentive to gaming the system with gimmicks, just to up the open rate. (Indeed, I’m a bit surprised we haven’t seen the mail go completely the Jerry Springer, Duck Dynasty, all-out-culture-surrender route, so there may well be some odd standards lurking in these organizations that stem more from thinking inside the box too long than any well-thought-out plan. I suspect there may be an era of “crass mail” left in the old girl yet… when some unexpected impresario – think Jesse Ventura or Gene Simmons – is elevated to a top job at Canada Post and/or the USPS. In this era, mail would gain texture, light, sound, smells, and… well… a magical world of sensual delights that most persons dare not dream of!]

But anyway, to be digitally self-righteous for a moment: how do these people get away with it? How do they get to keep dumping paper in mailboxes and not wind up paying more per impression when the “landing page experience” is “Below Average,” as we search advertisers do?

But funnily enough, they’re the self-righteous ones. Canada Post has truly made the most of direct mail’s seemingly declining position with a negative campaign of sorts, casting doubt on the trustworthiness of online clicks. A print ad, prominent in the pages of national newspapers, warns: “Is Your Online Advertising Reaching Someone? Or Something?”  The ad continues: “Bots are coming between you and your customers.”

The more verbose version – a detailed blog post – can be found here.

There’s no question that low quality impressions, low quality clicks, and out-and-out impression and click fraud, are a serious concern online. I’ve personally been a leader of the paranoia party for many years. (Consider my series of warnings during the dot com bubble, the “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” trilogy, including this piece on a terrible publisher fraud conspiracy. ). There are many shortcomings of the online environment, including a lack of attention to well-rounded marketing communications and creative … at least in ad  buying circles. It’s part of what Nassim Taleb refers to as “the rise of nerd culture.” Which is pretty funny, if you watched the last season of Mad Men, when computers were already supposedly taking over. People at an ad agency had to yell over the noise of the new computer that was taking up half a floor, in 1968. Accurate? Prob not.  But a nice touch.

Here’s the thing. If bots click on 30% of your ads, then some of what you’re paying for isn’t reaching customers. But in a medium like direct mail, up to 60% of your ads might be reaching squirrels or your sheepdog. It’s anyone’s guess.

So are the postal people and the TV people and the newspaper people and the yellow pages people and all those people really trying to make us not watch that imaginary clip in our heads that shows us dumping the flyers in the recycle bin, walking by the piles of free papers that get counted in the ‘circulation figures,’ doing everything in our power to obliterate the ads from our TV experience, and (obviously) enacting pretty much a global boycott of the heavy yellow books? How much of all that stuff does anyone see?

The answer, of course, is that you measure it.

I’ve no doubt that direct mail has some legs left in it, and that’s precisely because there is a right price and a right conversion rate on pretty much any targeted advertising effort. Direct mail was scientific in its day, compared with high-concept “mass creative” advertising; precisely why it was denigrated by the “big thinkers” at the big agencies. No one likes the nerds.

What’s remarkable about so many online ad platforms and native advertising innovations is that they’re so conscientious. And yet, that conscientiousness does not need to stem from any sense of honor or duty. It’s simply expedient: keep ads relevant, native, relevant, and consumer-approved, and people will accept the trade-off and continue to consume both content and advertising.

In both realms, old and new, we still allow far too much gaming, far too much deception. AdWords Quality Score, a mystery to many and a tool of propaganda for some solution vendors, probably doesn’t go far enough. But Google’s idealism in attempting to enact standards – to establish a level playing field for advertisers – has placed an onerous burden on the company. So many ads, so many placements. Enforcement doesn’t scale, unless your algorithm gets really good. But it’s a fight worth fighting! Yes, Google, you created a monster the day you decided to protect consumers from crap. You also created sort of a police state that I’ve sometimes uncharitably dubbed “The Guvernment.” But done right, it’s a win; a net reduction in unwanted junk. A Kyoto Protocol for our eyeballs, if you will.

So yes, the technology provides an excuse – OMG this takes up a lot of resources to enforce! But looking at the analogies back in the print world, it was never too hard for them. Ever see a “1 Tip of a Flat Belly” bullshit ad in The New Yorker or GQ? (OK, some of the magazines have classifieds sections that let in some of the junk. And Mother Jones still lets Tom’s of Maine advertise that toothpaste. But you see what I’m saying.)

An incorrect mythology grew up around certain of the more annoying display ad series you may have run across: that they were insanely effective due to their genius testing and incredibly well-honed messaging, programmatic ad buying, and the like. As it turns out, the scamming was even worse than you might have envisioned for some of these operators: it wasn’t just an overhyped supplement or an ebook, or an attempted upsell to a get-rich seminar. After people purchased a product, their credit cards were illegally hit with all manner of random charges. This was fraud on a large scale, and yet it went on and on. The “effectiveness” of the “genius” campaigns was built on a customer LTV that stemmed from out-and-out credit card billing fraud. Repeat: you bought the $49 item, then found you were in for a $600 subscription. You desperately tried to wiggle out of that, and while you did so, you went about your business oblivious to the fact that thousands of dollars in “funny” charges were hitting your card over time.

Publishers stood by and let these ads run. Why?

The online platforms need to rise to the challenge, no doubt about it. They need to provide a safe environment for consumers as well as advertisers – the same goes for any publisher, any media.

But the post office’s anachronistic fearmongering about unconsumed advertising messages shouldn’t be taken too seriously, in the end, coming from people who deliver paper mail to squirrels and sheepdogs.

In either medium, measuring attributable results will put any arguments to rest.