Minimal marketing techniques intriguing yet risky

The situation: By snail mail, a plain, white business-sized envelope arrives. There’s only a return street address — no company, no name. Inside is a plain, white tri-fold, upon which is typed, ”New website” and a website address revealing the company name. Nothing more.

I thumb through Fast Company. A full-page ad (can’t be cheap) displays a logo, within which is a needle. The logo fills the page. Along the bottom, a note: “Our website” and the site address.

The first company is a brand design firm; the second, a clothier.

Do we drop everything on our to-do lists to discover who these companies are, what they do, why we care? Are these minimal marketing techniques sufficient to draw our attention? Or, are we more inclined to do business with companies that tell us more about themselves, or go to categories in which we already have an interest?

Mark Albertazzi, creative director at Matthews/Evans/Albertazzi, said, “I would find the techniques intriguing if the URL informs me of the company’s business in some way; if not, the direct mail is a waste. From each company, I would expect some form of follow-up. However, my opinion might be different if I already knew the brands.”

But Jean Walcher, of J.Walcher Communications, enthused: “I logged on immediately to see who they were and what they were about.”

So, the experts disagree. However, soon afterward, Walcher could not remember the companies' names.

After my decades in marketing and public relations, striving to engage the public’s curiosity, then interest, then action on behalf of numerous clients in a myriad of professions and industries, minimal marketing to the max worries me.

Yet Sunkist inks its name on oranges; radio and television still offer 10-second spots; a commercial truck proclaims, with no explanation whatever, ”Leonard’s: Simply the Best.”

What’s there to do, except go to the source?

Here’s David Conover, the brand design man of the plain white envelope,

Laura Walcher: A direct mail piece with no message save a new website? Your thinking?

David Conover: I wanted to see whether this technique would pique curiosity.

LW: Did you consider other creative techniques?

DC: Based upon our intuition, we send other tiers of promotional pieces (printed, on-demand, online e-blast templates). For this piece, we hoped for quick fulfillment; we sent it to a new constituency (PR firms) who may outsource our marketing design services. We decided less is more.

LW: Had you ever seen this done?

DC: Only once, from a photographer, out of the hundreds of direct mail we’ve received since 1985 when we started our business. I felt it might work because back then, I did exactly what was intended: I instantly went to his website.

LW: Thinking it over, for what professions/companies would you not use it?

DC: Interesting! I can imagine this would work for any industry. I ponder whether it's a one-shot deal or if a series of simple promos may also be — or be more — successful. The true measure, however, would be tracking a spike in website visits coupled with engagement (page views/average time on site). I don't think there's any time I wouldn't use it.

LW: What’s been your response? Any new clients?

DC: We had several firms contact us and say it was clever. I'm comfortable knowing that this aided awareness of our firm and that some form of continued promotion may bear fruit in the future.

Like Conover’s letter, direct mail is regarded as a proven back-to-basics method. Advertisers can be reasonably sure of measurable results and, at least, clear returns on that investment.

Yet overall, it's a matter of matching the message to the medium and to the audience, according to Moshe Engelberg of ResearchWorks.

“When the audience can respond immediately and easily, i.e., quick click to see what comes up and satisfy the curiosity that the ad triggered, it could be a good use of marketing money,” he said. “Only if, however, the tactic is part of an overall strategy. If they know (not just think or believe but know) their target audience is highly curious and likely to act upon it — probably a younger demo. If they build on their minimalist approach, kind of like billboards that fill in over a period of weeks or months.”

Unless he’s prepared to invest in a reinforcing strategy, both Albertazzi and Engelberg agree, Conover’s technique may be fraught with some risk.

In the meantime, apply this old adage selectively: “Be a minimalist. It’s the least you can do.”

Walcher is principal public relations consultant to J.Walcher Communications.

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