Stop Sending Me Junk Mail!

In 1737 Benjamin Franklin was appointed postmaster of Philadelphia, and it probably didn’t take him very long to see the opportunity that the “mail thing” provided for his printing firm. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he was actually the first American to use direct mail to market a product.

I can imagine the headline and “call to action” on Franklin’s mailer: “Ye May Purchase Poor Richard’s Almanack Directly From The Publisher At 320 Market Street in Philadelphia. Ye Must Act Quickly, For Quantities Are Limited!”

I can also imagine at least one of its recipients saying: “I did not ask for this solicitation. Why is this Franklin person sending me useless junke through the mail?”

A Matter of Perception

According to Wikipedia, the term “junk mail” can be traced back to 1954, although no one seems to know who to trace it to. The Direct Mail Advertising Association, predecessor of the present day Direct Marketing Association, was established in 1917. Part of its purpose has always been to fight negative perceptions of direct mail/marketing strategy—in other words, to convince the public that it’s not junk; that it does have value.

Whether any given mail piece is valuable to its recipient or not, I think all of us would agree that direct mail puts a very small burden on those recipients. After all, if you don’t want to read it, you can just throw it away! It’s the marketer who really bears the burden (read that: cost) of direct mail, and smart marketers realize that direct mail is an investment. The success of any marketing program is determined by the return on that investment.

That takes us to the main point of this month’s column. I don’t classify direct mail as junk just because I didn’t ask for it. But I do call it junk if it’s unlikely to provide a return on the marketer’s investment. And sadly, I think most direct mail falls into that category. It just plain doesn’t work very well, and some of that is the fault/responsibility of the printer, which could represent either errors of commission or errors of omission.

What does that mean? You’d be guilty of an error of commission if you designed a mailer that didn’t work well. And you’d be guilty of an error of omission if you allowed your customer to implement a poorly designed mailer or marketing program. Remember what I’ve written about the transition from printer to marketing services provider. The real key to that transition will be imagination and creativity—developing marketing plans that 1) incorporate all the things that a printer who has evolved into a MSP can sell, and 2) actually work to grow the customer’s business.

Piece of Junk

I have a piece of junk mail right here in front of me, and I’d like to tell you about it. It’s a postcard, finished size 8.5x5.5", printed 4/4. The sender/marketer is a local real estate agent, and the headline reads: “What are homes selling for in your area?” In addition to that headline, the front face of the postcard features the company’s logo, the agent’s photo and contact information, an image of a home in my neighborhood, three lines of variable text, including my wife’s first name, and a rectangular white block which includes a QR Code and two more lines of text which read “Go to and enter code 3E942XXXXX” and “Or text MLS 3E942XXXXX to XXXXXX.” Finally, the front face also includes the image of a stake sign which says “just listed” and points in the direction of the house image. The way it’s positioned, the sign image blocks out about a quarter of the house.

Graphically speaking, I would give this postcard a C+. It could be improved a full grade, I think, by simply removing the “just listed” sign and increasing the size of the house image. In other words, this is a situation where one small element of design reflects a large effect on performance.

In terms of marketing strategy, I would also give this postcard a C+. I’m pretty sure that the desired result of this mailing is to stimulate listings. I think the agent wants us to call her and ask her to help us sell our house. But the postcard doesn’t say that, it just invites us to compare our home to the details and price of a neighbor’s newly listed home. In theory, we will call her if we decide that we want to sell our house, but don’t you think she’s more likely to achieve the desired result if she states her objective more clearly?

Now, I’ll grant you that might be perceived as too pushy for a postcard. But when I followed the “call to action” and visited the Web page for this home—using all three of the contact options—I still didn’t find a single element of “asking for the order.” Nor did I find any means of capturing my contact information. All in all, I think this “cross-media marketing program” will go down as an underachiever at best.

What Is This?

As noted, this postcard also features a QR Code. The printing industry is very excited about QR Codes, but it’s my belief that most civilians—remember, that’s my term for people who don’t have professional knowledge of our industry—don’t have a clue about them.

To corroborate that, I took the postcard with me when I went out on errands this morning, and asked 10 people (who looked like they might be homeowners, since that was the target market for this program) if they knew what the black/white square on the postcard was and what to do with it. Only two of the 10 gave me even a remotely accurate answer—and neither of them had a reader app on their cell phones.

Granted, it’s a very small sample, but here’s what you should learn from this market research: Marketers need to tell their targets what a QR Code is and what they should do with it. “This is a QR (Quick Response) Code. Your “smartphone” has the capability to scan it to take you immediately to a website where you can learn more about our product/service. Go to the app store for your phone and search on ‘QR code reader’. Any of a number of free (and immediately downloadable) apps will allow you to use this QR Code to its full potential.” Is there any reason why that couldn’t have been printed on this postcard?

I have more to say about how of this all might have been done more effectively, but I don’t have room for it in this column. Let’s see if you can figure out how to find it! (If you can't access the QR code that accompanies this article, you can go to


Dave Fellman is the president of David Fellman & Associates, Cary, NC; a sales and marketing consulting firm serving numerous segments of the graphic arts industry. Contact Dave by phone at 800-325-9634; by fax at 919-363-4069; or by email at Visit his website at See the ad for Dave’s products and services in this issue.