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AFTER THE ANTHRAX ATTACKS: DIRECT MARKETING IN AGRICULTURE
As you read these words, four months have passed since the 9-11 attacks changed the way Americans view their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

Fast on the heels of the devastation in New York and Washington, D.C., came another attack - this one less violent but no less ominous. When the first anthrax-seeded letters turned up in business and government offices from Florida to New York, they cast a pall of doubt over what had been the simple task of opening the daily mail.

For direct marketers - the companies who use the discipline and the people who design and implement the campaigns - the reaction of American consumers is a deep concern. And agri-marketers are not immune.

"The consuming public has become highly skeptical about the contents of their mailboxes," says Doug Mertz, who heads the target identification and message delivery group at Meyocks & Priebe Advertising, Inc., West Des Moines, Iowa. "Before the anthrax incidents they sometimes didn't read direct mail because it was a bother. Now, they don't read it because they fear possibly fatal consequences."

Companies and the firms that provide direct-marketing services must recognize the impact of the anthrax incidents on their mode of contact, Mertz says. "Direct mail has become far more than a message in an envelope. Now the issue of safety is top of mind."

CHANGING THE STATUS QUO

Consumer concerns haven't diminished the value of well-executed direct marketing programs, Mertz says, but the post-anthrax era will change some of the direct business' conventions.

"As an example, it's been a standard practice to avoid company identification on the outside of an offer envelope," he explains. "That's changed. Now we must avoid blind mailings. It is critical that customers easily recognize the brand name, logo and contact information. Never has the value of a trusted brand meant more."

Mertz also says that communication from the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has been both frequent and useful in the weeks and months since the anthrax incidents were reported. He and the agency team have reviewed DMA guidelines and culled these points for consideration by agri-marketers.

Design the mailing to look as official as possible and make it clear what is inside. Adding a Web site address or telephone number may be beneficial.

Be sure that the envelope is tightly sealed and avoid use of "slip agents" intended to ease insertion of mail pieces into the envelope. Slip agents may leave powder residue or other debris inside the piece.

Conduct security audits of your production procedures to ensure that policies are being followed, and carefully screen third-party vendors and temporary employees.

"The U.S. Postal Service has cautioned all consumers on safety and mail handling. All direct marketers should be aware of that information," Mertz adds.

E-MAIL TAKES THE LEAD

Mail volume plummeted immediately after the anthrax reports, while commercial e-mail traffic surged during the month of October. But Mertz cautions agri-marketers against making a wholesale switch from the mail to electronic information delivery.

"Producers have rapidly expanded their use of e-mail during the last four years," Mertz says. "According to a USDA survey, 43 percent of U.S. farms and ranches have Internet access, compared to 13 percent in 1997. But we still find many gaps in coverage because rural telecommunications infrastructure lags urban systems."

Both e-mail and the telephone can - and should - be used to alert customers and prospects to coming offers for production inputs and services, he recommends. Meyocks & Priebe used pre-campaign telephone calls to let people know they'd be receiving a mailed offer. "We found no unusual issues and the advance call enhanced the effectiveness of the mailing," Mertz notes.

Where good e-mail addresses are available - and where customers and prospects have given their permission for electronic contacts - it's smart to integrate them into the marketing mix. For example, consider incorporating images of offline efforts, such as catalog covers and packaging, to increase awareness and comfort levels.

Finally, it's important that all marketers put themselves in the recipients' shoes.

"As an agency, we must represent our clients' business interests," he says. "But we also need to be extremely empathetic with the people our clients are trying to reach. In the long run that will pay dividends for all of us." AM


Ken Benkstein operates KGB Consulting from his vineyard home near Amity, Oregon.


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