Strategy DirectResponse: Opinion: Stupid direct marketing tricks

A research organization pitches a prospective client. 'First, we'll survey a zillion consumers', proclaims the researcher. 'We'll get their names and addresses, ages and incomes, likes and dislikes, past purchasing habits and future intentions...' 'Won't that be expensive?' asks the client....

A research organization pitches a prospective client.

‘First, we’ll survey a zillion consumers’, proclaims the researcher. ‘We’ll get their names and addresses, ages and incomes, likes and dislikes, past purchasing habits and future intentions…’

‘Won’t that be expensive?’ asks the client.

‘Very expensive.’

‘And what do you recommend we do with all the expensive data?’

‘Nothing!’ the researcher triumphantly declares.

Unbelievable as it may seem, the above scenario, or something like it, happens all the time.

Take, for example, Imperial Oil’s Olympic hockey card promo early this year. The deal was: sign up for a free Esso Extra Card (not a credit card) and you get $1 off each set of their Olympic cards.

It struck me, initially, as an excellent promotion. First, it would further tie Esso with the Olympics. Second, by offering a card series every week or two, they’d force repeat visits to their gas stations. And, third, because they would be capturing names and addresses, they would be able to increase sales by writing to new cardholders and making special offers.

I had my first inkling that my assessment was wrong on the day I applied for the Esso card at the gas station.

‘Now that you’ve signed up, you can buy the first set of cards at $1 off and get a free binder for the series,’ I was told.

‘And then I come back next week and get set number two?’, I asked somewhat rhetorically.

‘If you want to, you can buy the entire series today.’

So much for forcing repeat visits. But what about making use of the data they’d collected?

When I signed up, I was certain that soon I would be the target of high-octane direct mail campaigns to get me back into Esso time and again once the hockey promo was over. (And I would have been a receptive audience. After all, their Olympic hockey card set was of excellent quality and a genuine value. My hockey-fanatic son Jeremy loved the cards. All I needed was a little encouragement to switch to Esso permanently.)

So how soon would Esso discount coupons and new premium offers start filling up my mailbox? Many months later, I’m still waiting. Apparently, the promo ran out of gas almost as soon as it began.

Now, if they had no intention of converting me to a regular customer, why did they waste all that money collecting data on me? Why did they give me the $1 per set discount? Why did they go to the expense of producing a handsome, full-color plastic card for me? What did they get out of it?

It seems to me that their data gathering was a waste of money of Olympic proportions.

ok, Radio Shack, here’s a question.

It had been years since I’d set foot inside a Radio Shack. And the reason had nothing to do with their locations, products or pricing. It’s just that every time I’d think about going in to buy something, I’d recall the ordeal that I always had to go through if I purchased so much as a pack of batteries – having to give my name and address to some unknown clerk, in full earshot of every shopper in the store.

If Radio Shack had ever used the information I gave them, perhaps I could have understood their risking the wrath of customers who value their privacy.

But they never once wrote to tell me about any upcoming sale. Never announced the arrival of some new product. Never said we miss seeing you and want you back.

A few days ago, I tried Radio Shack again, hopeful that they had by now abolished their insistence on asking for my name before they’d sell me anything.

The good news is, I didn’t have to provide personal information. The bad news is, the clerk told me they’re supposed to ask for it.

‘Does Radio Shack ever use that information?’ I asked.

‘I don’t think so,’ came the reply, followed by a cordial, ‘See you again.’

‘I don’t think so,’ I said to myself.

Radio Shack’s current slogan states that if you have questions, they have answers. I have only one question for Radio Shack: Why do you spend all that time and money collecting names and addresses (and angering some customers) when you never do anything with the data?

Not exactly the cat’s meow

A few years ago, a fellow feline-owner told me about a club operated by the Friskies cat food company. If I wrote away, I’d get a newsletter with tidbits of cat-related information and an envelope full of coupons to help me save a little scratch.

So I eagerly applied for membership. And my cat and I doggedly checked the mailbox for the promised material each day. And each week. And each month. And the result was always the same – nothing there from Friskies.

Finally, after about six months, our first newsletter arrived. And that was the end of it. Despite the newsletter’s promise of more to come, we never heard from Friskies again.

Now, maybe not enough cats showed an interest in the club and Friskies was forced to disband it. If so, Felix and I would have been able to understand that. But why didn’t the company write to tell us that and encourage us to continue buying their product sans newsletter and coupons? And why didn’t they keep mailing me other enticements?

They had my name. They had my address. They knew I had a cat. They knew I was mail-responsive. They could have used my cat as a test market for new products, to mention just one of numerous possible uses for the data. They could have kept me buying Friskies for years.

But they didn’t. They just abandoned the program and all of its followers. And, by abandoning Felix and me, they opened the door for us to abandon their brand… which we did.

They would have been better off if they hadn’t collected the data in the beginning, and they would have saved themselves a lot of money in the non-process.

Gathering data so you can address customers and prospects one-to-one is a marketing endeavor with the potential for exceptional payback. But spending a fortune to gather data and then not using it is…well, just a stupid direct marketing trick.

When not playing hockey cards with Jeremy or waiting at the mailbox with Felix, Bob Knight creates direct marketing programs for a variety of clients. His Vancouver-based agency, named after his great-grandfather (or maybe great-great-grandfather), is called Knight & Associates. Bob can be reached by phoning (604) 684-6564.