Mail order sales vs. online marketing

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Are traditional mail order sales and the virtual world at odds?
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Who is the winner when mail order sales take on virtual sales?

The battle lines have been drawn.

In this corner, we have traditional mail order sales. Pull-out order forms in magazines. Newspaper inserts. Direct mail. Call centers. And paper catalogs.

And in the other corner, we have online marketing. Web sites. Virtual catalogs. Search engine optimization. E-mails.

For the past few years, the battle between these two side has been intensifying. Arrows have been flying back and forth. From the online marketing side, we've the practices of traditional mail order sales called relics. Dinosaurs, even. They've been accused of perpetuating massive paper waste, junk mail overload and irritating inserts. But the they have not endured silently. The online marketing contingent is often attacked as inaccessible to many consumers, risky for credit card shoppers and adrift in a sea of spam and data mining.

The truth is, there really doesn't need to be a battle at all. Because both sides are absolutely right.  And completely wrong. Let me explain.

The sins of the cyberworld

Traditional mail order sales people have accused the online marketing profession of being elitist. There are vast numbers of people who do not have access to computers or Internet connections, so this population is being ignored by the online world. TRUE!

But because large numbers of people are getting all or most of their information online, it is essential that marketers reach that population, too. So the accusation is also FALSE! Far from elitist, it is reaching out to an additional group of consumers who might never see a print ad or read a direct mail flyer.

Mail order marketing pros have also lambasted the online marketing world for spam and dating mining. Again, TRUE! One has only to browse an inbox to see evidence of both of these. But this truth is balanced by the fact that traditional mail order sales have relied on data mining of a different sort (although they called it demographics), and that direct mail is the paper precursor to e-mail marketing. Are these sins or standard marketing tools? Clearly, a draw.

The sins of the mail order sales model

Web marketers have sat harshly in judgment on the mail order sales world for their use of paper for direct mail and catalogs. Catalogs, they claim, are single-handedly filling our mailboxes, homes and landfills. And given that over 69 million catalogs are mailed each year, the accusation appears to be TRUE. But there is another side.

Catalogs are reusable, transferable, multiuser and require no electricity or Internet connection to peruse. And at the end of their useful life as shopping tools, they can saved as reference materials, reused in craft projects or recycled into new paper goods. Even without recycling, paper is biodegradable. Computers, however, are not.

The solution lies in synergy

Clearly, there are pluses and minuses on both sides. So the solution to this battle does not lie in eliminating one model of marketing. It lies in synergy.

The synergistic melding of the mail order sales through paper model and the sales through electrons model is the best way to combine the strengths of each into a more effective and less wasteful model of marketing. For example,

  • Catalogs promoted online then shipped only with a consumer request
  • Direct mail cards leading to virtual online catalogs
  • E-mail and direct mail both targeted more carefully to those people who represent genuine matches with the catalog, instead of sweeping campaigns based on vague demographics.
  • Catalogs which offer a company's core products and are good for 6 months or a year, with seasonal and transient product changes listed in regularly updated online catalogs instead of mailed updates

Working together rather than against means that a cataloger can reach more people, better target mailings and other promotions and still give Americans the catalogs they love to browse. A clear win in both corners.

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