The key to unlocking print's future lies in data and its direct-mail past

Epsilon's Stacy Hawes gives her thoughts on how learning from direct mail can quell the fears of print's demise.

Headlines continue to focus on the death and disruption of traditional industries. Netflix and Hulu have already disrupted the TV industry but many experts predict the future will be a blend of the old (linear) and new (addressable/OTT).

Publishing is the latest industry to make headlines with the news this week that The New York Daily News, American newspaper since 1919, now owned by media publisher Tronc, cut 50% of its editorial staff, citing its need to focus more resources on digital. For Tronc, fragmented audiences and competition from new media platforms like Snapchat and brand-run content hubs are seemingly insurmountable.

Despite Tronc’s challenges, I’d argue that print is not dead. Top Google executives believe the future of media consumption and distribution will not be fully online. Innovative retail-giant Amazon recently announced that it’s issuing its first-ever print catalog during Holiday 2018. Yet, the world’s largest media companies, such as Tronc, Conde Nast and Meredith Corporation, face a constant challenge: can their print publications keep up and remain a critical part of the customer experience?

There are new layers of complexity within today’s 24-hour news cycle thanks to digital, real-time interactions and mobile. However, the solutions that exist for reaching and engaging consumers in this new paradigm are not new and remain valuable today. Companies across industries simply need to understand how the print channel has changed and evolved with digital demand – and how and where it fits into their business strategy.

Publishers could learn a lot by looking at the evolution of direct mail and the data-driven techniques that are still employed today. This starts with investing in truly understanding current readers and prospective readers through test and control strategies, segmentation and personalization and measurement. Lastly, media companies must put a focus on lead generation, employing alternative channels to acquire new customers and grow existing customer spend.

To better understand their customers and optimize channels, publishers should consider the following:

Don’t fall into the “TMI” gap

Focus first on the data that matters for your business. The expression “TMI” – too much information, in the simplest terms – is the ultimate drawback of big data. While marketers hunger for customer data, most are challenged to make sense of the deluge of information.

Third-party data is a good place to start as it can help identify critical insights relevant to a customer or prospect base. Demographic data like age and occupation; financial information like income and marketing profitability and lifestyles and preferences can be used for profile analysis, segmentation and more.

This type of information is fuel for marketing programs. The better and more accurate the data, the greater probability for exposure and engagement success. This applies to publishing businesses, too.

For example, JustFab, a leading subscription ecommerce site and lifestyle brand, turned to third-party data to find the most qualified prospects, grow its customer base and achieve maximum return on marketing spend .Over the past few years we’ve seen more than 250 digitally native companies include print/direct mail as a key strategy for acquiring new customers. Why? Because it performs.

First-party data is also critical to developing custom audiences defined to marketing objectives like customer acquisition, cross-sell, up-sell and brand awareness. Understanding the best audience for a given objective allows marketers to build custom audiences based on the profile of their ideal customer and similar customers in-market.

If content is king, audiences are queen

No matter how creative or powerful content is, it won’t be effective if the audience a brand or publisher is trying to reach is wrong.

Audience development starts with customer identity. What’s new, and a major roadblock for many marketers, is the complexity of integrating data from multiple sources to build one universal profile of an individual. This is especially true as Personally Identifiable Information (PII), like email address and loyalty program information, and Non-PII information, like website cookies, proliferate.

Seamlessly aligning online and offline identities provides the most accurate customer view and can drive customer connections with an unparalleled level of stability and longevity.

Going beyond known customers and focusing on prospects, overlaying third-party data with a brand’s first-party data, like names, addresses, phone numbers and site interactions, allows for the creation of rich modelling techniques to understand and engage prospects better.

Publishers have the same opportunity to leverage first-party data and third-party data to ensure they’re reaching and engaging the right people.

Snapchat and the mailbox do co-exist

Epsilon research on millennials found the digitally-native crowd, aged 18-34, are 2.2 times more likely to subscribe to sports and leisure catalogs and are very responsive to direct mail. Given the meteoric rise of mobile, social and other emerging media, brands must have a presence across channels – both traditional and digital – and tailor their experience to match each one.

Beyond simply having a presence, however, marketers must measure the performance of their efforts across channels. To drive the best performance and efficiency, marketers need a holistic approach that looks at their investments across all channels as a whole: return on marketing investment (ROMI).

ROMI entails tracking and reviewing every expenditure involved in running marketing for a solution, campaign, or whatever else is being leveraged.

It’s time to ignore the headlines proclaiming the “death of print” and instead focus on bringing together and optimizing the old and new. If publishers want to return to growth they need to follow the tried-and-true data-driven marketing techniques that have proven successful through testing and measurement.

Stacy Hawes is president of data at Epsilon.

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