Trigger Happy

Trigger campaigns are becoming a direct marketing staple, with new technologies available and consumers increasing expectations for responsible, relevant messaging

In November 2007,—a social networking site with more than 67 million active users—launched Facebook Beacon, an advertising technology that used customer activity to trigger ads within the social network for services and products. If a Facebook member were to purchase movie tickets on, a listing would appear on Facebook to share news of this purchase with all of these members’ social networks. Ultimately, due to privacy issues, the technology was poorly received by Facebook users and scaled back to an opt-in feature.

With recent reports of a decline in Google search ad clicks, a trigger-based marketing solution like Beacon appears ahead of its time. It illustrates where direct marketing is headed: into a multichannel trigger environment, where a prospect’s experience is tailored to suit her preferred platform, needs, affinities and past purchasing behaviors.

Where Do Triggers Come From?
What defines a trigger campaign is its focus on a timely event to produce a 1-to-1 communication that responds to said event and is, therefore, highly relevant to the consumer. Marketers can use internal triggers from a customer’s recent behaviors and purchases, append external triggers from other list and public information sources, or even address external consumer holidays or purchasing seasons like Back to School with specific communications. Jeff Haggin, CEO and president of Mill Valley, Calif.–based Haggin Marketing, suggests there are also natural triggers embedded in a customer’s life cycle—new customers, current customers and lapsing customers can all be sent appropriate offers reflecting their customer experiences.

“Trigger campaigns have been going on for a long time; they just haven’t been called that. New homeowner marketing, for example, has been around for decades. The word trigger has only been in the lexicon for probably the last eight to 10 years,” says John P. Riley, president and CEO of Poway, Calif.–based Trigger Direct. Advances in digital printing and greater mastery of e-mail communications, however, has made the 1-to-1 technology faster and easier to employ and track. “Marketers have always targeted based on geographics and demographics. Then in the ’90s, you started to see a lot of psychographic targeting … but event triggering is sort of like the layer above that where the variable of time is included. So suddenly, when a certain event occurs, marketers can reach those prospects at just the right time,” Riley describes.

Benefits … and Dangers
Trigger campaigns offer speed, efficiency, timeliness, relevance and, as a result, a greater potential ROI. “Your response rate is higher because it’s relevant. So your ROI is better, and that’s one of the huge benefits,” Riley says.

Advances in digital printing, are making the technology more feasible for small companies and national companies alike. “We work with a retailer that only mails about 400 to 500 pieces per week. They’re getting a response rate on average of about 4 percent and as high as about 8 percent some weeks, and their ROI for every dollar spent on a marketing campaign is $16 in revenue,” Riley notes. In a recent test that Direct Group managed for a financial services firm, Don McKenzie, president and CEO of the Pennington, N.J.–based printer and fulfillment company, says that trigger mailings boosted the company’s response rate from .5 percent to 5 percent.

“The beauty of it is—you react or communicate with the customer based on something they did. I think customers generally appreciate that fact and tend to have a higher level of interaction than if something comes unsolicited in the mail,” says John Giusti, vice president of small business marketing at Staples. “It’s relevant mail; you’re cutting down a lot less trees. It’s received by the recipient much more warmly than junk mail—it’s the exact opposite of spam,” Riley adds.

While there is some concern that like Facebook’s Beacon, trigger marketing may pose privacy threats, most marketers feel comfortable pursuing responsible trigger-based approaches. “If you start to stray outside of core [marketing] principles too much, then I think you might start to run into privacy issues and things like that, but it really depends on the company and how they’re using the data,” Giusti says.

Where to Begin?
Most businesses already have a great amount of data that can be optimized in trigger campaigns. “A lot of database marketers like me, we always salivate at how much data these companies have that they don’t use,” Riley says. Looking at transaction-level details, Haggin suggests, will help define a customer’s history and experience with your company.

“Try to make the cream-of-the-crop work first; that’s where the greatest benefit and value will occur. Direct marketers who have in the past used one control package ought to start personalizing and versioning the existing vehicle for best customers,” says Haggin, who also finds value in using analytics to highlight cross-selling opportunities within your database. “Do some analysis to find out, ‘If people bought product X, what is the propensity to buy product Y? What is the No. 1 product Y?’” he says.

“You want to commit a certain amount of time and energy to [trigger marketing] because often the quantities are really small and the economies of scale don’t work as elegantly—so it may take multiple mailings or marketing initiatives to achieve a sample size large enough to evaluate,” Riley cautions.

To guarantee a high enough ROI to offset the cost of rolling out and establishing a testing baseline, be sure that the campaign is not just another customer touch, but has a distinct offer and marketing goals. “When you’re thinking about a trigger campaign, you need to be thinking, ‘What do I exactly want to come out of this? What can my level of engagement be with the customer? And, ultimately, what action do I want that customer to take?’” Giusti says.

Silos and Setup

If you’re appending external data onto your customer file, then the setup is simple. “It’s easy. You hire a vendor, who will acquire the data, run a direct mail campaign and then the advertiser’s phone just rings. As the prospects enter into the company’s CRM system, eventually they close that business, and it enters their financials,” summarizes Riley, who adds that the only time you need to get interested in a detailed setup with the data is if you’re doing internal triggers.

For internal triggers, the challenge lies in developing a cohesive approach across several marketing specialties. “You have the classic challenge of right brain versus left brain and analytic-type people trying to translate results and findings over-the-transom to the people that are doing the creative and production work … it’s just plain, hard work, and you need deeply experienced people across the disciplines to work together,” says Haggin, who advises employing a team experienced in deep database marketing analytics.

From the vendor’s point of view, McKenzie says, “If we take on a brand new client, who had not been involved in trigger-based printing in the past, there would be a normal transition time in learning about their data and understanding how they want to mail. But once we’d gone through that normal transition, then literally we can start doing trigger mailings immediately.” He adds that with a setup in place, production time is reduced from about four weeks for a traditionally printed campaign, to a couple of hours or days for a digitally printed, completely variable campaign.

The Full Integration of Triggers
Haggin Marketing developed a full-scale trigger campaign for its client eBay, which involves online and offline 1-to-1 pieces. “For eBay, we have been mailing catalogs versioned based on product affinity … so there are a number of different versions of a catalog that we create, and we’ll change four-color [treatment] and make the front-end appeal based on recent purchasing history,” Haggin explains. If a customer purchased mainly women’s shoes, the catalog’s cover and opening spread would be set up to lift that product. The catalog is also personalized with the prospect’s name and a pURL, which leads to a unique landing page reflecting the same product affinities and personalization.

Trigger campaigns can also incorporate other online features like product ratings and customer-service feedback. “When a customer buys something, we will go back out there with a trigger-based campaign to ask them to rate that item,” says Giusti, who also notices a trend in using service experiences as a trigger opportunity to reconnect with the customer to gain feedback and show appreciation.

Riley has incorporated time-tested direct mail techniques into a multichannel trigger campaign. “We’ve been able to take three-step letter sequences—like a collection letter sequence where you are able to turn the negatives into positives—then overlay it on top of an event trigger, and we’ve gotten really good results,” Riley says.

Trigger’s Bright Future
Trigger-based marketing is integral in rounding out a multichannel campaign and moving forward with online and mobile technology. McKenzie believes that trigger-based mail volume will increase to become at least 5 percent to 10 percent of total mail volume by the year 2010. To offer this valuable service, Direct Group is the first U.S. company to invest in an Océ JetStream 2200 system, a digital press which enables full front and back variability in four colors at high speeds and quality. “The Océ system will enable our clients to leverage three significant and converging industry trends—the rapidly increasing adoption of trigger-based mailings, the availability of revolutionary digital printing technology and the demand for more effective postal strategies to combat recent and future rate increases,” McKenzie says.

“This whole 1-to-1 future that’s being realized finally—it’s going to get more and more targeted, and costs are going to come down. There’s an unstoppable trend toward greater personalization and more relevant marketing messaging, so that we as marketers can reach individuals and provide opportunities to buy products and services that people have a real and true affinity for and desire and need for,” Haggin concludes.

(Originally published in Inside Direct Mail, May 2008)

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