Two things are true about marketing — saturation across digital channels makes it difficult to be different and using direct mail is a unique option to reach customers at home where they are spending most of their time these days.
Today’s guest is Nick Runyon from PFL. The software company makes tools that help marketers bridge the gap between digital and direct mail marketing using Tactile Marketing Automation (TMA). Go beyond the send!
“When I think about direct mail and I think about Tactile Marketing Automation, the difference between those two is that we’ve taken direct mail into really the digital environment.”
“Tactile Marketing Automation is really the orchestration of an overall multichannel customer journey.”
“One of the challenges that marketers are facing now with this increase in digital consumption is really cutting through the clutter and making an impact and gaining a moment of attention from our customers and our prospects.”
“Reasons why direct mail is overall resurging: It’s comfortable, it’s familiar, it also monopolizes my attention whenever direct mail is in my hand.”
Optimizing marketing under extreme conditions by bringing digital and direct mail together, with @Nick_CMO from @pflcom.
Ben: Hi Nick! How is it going this morning?
Nick: It’s going well, Ben. How are you?
Ben: I’m fantastic, hanging in there, as we all are right now. Would you mind taking a moment just to introduce yourself to our audience and explain what you do at PFL.
Nick: Sure. My name is Nick Runyon, I’m the CMO at PFL. I’ve been in this role for about a year. I think PFL is really what I would call my first real job. Got hired back in 2003 and I was here for about 6 years before working for a number of different companies and then found ourselves back in Montana and was asked to come back as CMO and I’m excited to be here.
Ben: Very cool. Montana, I believe you’re out in Bozeman?
Nick: That’s right. We love it. It was one of those moves that we made recently. Started that conversation probably about three years ago. My wife and I, we’re actually vacationing back out here and visiting some friends, we’ve maintained good relationships over the years and say, you know what, we need to try to figure out how to get back to that place. We’re happy to be back.
Ben: Very cool. Bozeman, it is an awesome town. Just fantastic, I love it out there. Is it safe to assume that you enjoy skiing at all?
Nick: Yeah. I made the comment my first real job, before that I was a ski instructor actually. We love to ski. We just bought our season passes for Bridger Bowl here this year. We’re a big Bridger family. Whenever you come out next, I would love you to ski in with you or if it’s summer time, we’ll go fishing.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. I would love to take you up on that. We’re in Fargo, North Dakota. We’re just pretty far away, but also just one state over to your east.
Nick: Yeah. You can drive 90 miles an hour and be here in no time.
Ben: Right. My wife’s family, they’ve had a tradition of going to Bridger Bowl once a year, going back years and years. The very first time ever went downhill skiing was out at Bridger Bowl. By day three of our trip, I started to get it. Trying to learn how to ski as an adult, when you’re 6’4’’ and 200lbs, is not the easiest thing in the world. It was so much fun though. Like I said, I love it out there.
Nick: For real. It’s obviously sincere when I made the comment before, but you should let me know. We’ll go ski together. I haven’t been a certified ski instructor for many years, but I can help you out and list some tips probably.
Ben: Sounds like a fair trade. Getting us back on track here a bit, I understand that PFL, you specialize in something called tactile marketing automation. Would you mind taking a moment to explain what that’s all about?
Nick: Yeah. I think for your regular listeners, they will have heard a podcast with Ryan Cote recently. You guys talked a lot about direct mail. Actually, I was just listening to it prepping for this conversation. You made an interesting comment in that episode. You said when people talk about marketing, they assume digital. I think that that is true. The phrase what’s old is new again was also made in that episode about direct mail.
When I think about direct mail and I think about tactile marketing automation, the difference between those two is that we’ve taken direct mail into the digital environment.
What I mean by that is that tactile marketing automation is really the orchestration of an overall multi-channel customer journey. That’s what PFL does. We build software that allows that orchestration to take place.
Ben: Sure, very cool. With the global pandemic wreaking havoc in the economy and shaking up all kinds of different markets in all kinds of different ways. Maybe for some industries, things have been better than for others, certainly. Nothing is the way that it used to be for anyone and nobody’s marketing plan now looks the way that it did prior to March 2020.
All these things being shaken up and being impacted in various different ways and things really shaping up or projecting right now to be more challenging heading into the Winter, especially for those of us who live in cold climates. This is something that we are bracing ourselves for. What are some of the toughest challenges you see marketers facing in the near future?
Nick: You mentioned the cold climates, I don’t think those things are unrelated. Winter is coming and we’re recording this on a day where it’s probably really the first day that we’ve shifted from summer to winter, fall was about a three day window in Montana.
Ben: Yeah, same here.
Nick: That I think is having an impact on people’s outlook. We love winter here as well, with all the activities and stuff. Collectively as a society, the markets that we’re trying to reach are just, in a general term, if I can paint with a broad brush, I think pessimistic. Many people have bee caught doom scrolling. I’m news addicted right now. We’ve got the election, we’ve got the pandemic, all of these stuff.
There’s a real FOMO that’s setting in. Like, I want to figure out what’s happening right now, what else do I need to know, what’s around the corner. This digital activity that is increasing in the markets that we’re all trying to reach is making our traditional marketing using digital channels much more difficult. Since the ski instructor days, I was the head of marketing in PFL back in the day, when we were strictly ecommerce. We have it dialed in. I knew that if I spent $83, I could acquire a new customer. All I had to do is keep my conversation rates, my retention rates and my everything in line for quality and then I just had to find new digital channels to acquire customers.
We’ve always dealt with fractions of a percentage. One of the challenges that marketers are facing now with this increase in digital consumption is cutting through the clutter and making an impact, gaining a moment of attention from our customers and our prospects.
What we’re finding in PFL is that, I think this is one of the reasons why direct mail overall is resurging is it’s comfortable, it’s familiar, it also monopolizes my attention whenever direct mail is in my hand.
Last night, I got home. I don’t mean to take this in a political direction or contiguous in any way, but Montana is a mail in ballot state. Everybody gets to opt in to mail in now, it’s whenever you can get your license here. That piece of mail shows up and that’s an event this year. The family is around the table, my kids are asking me how I’m voting and why. We’re having a conversation. What am I not doing? I’m not answering my phone, checking my email, getting distracted by other pop-up ads or other things that are sharing the screen. I’m right there in that moment with that physical piece.
We find the same thing to be true for marketers that are using PFL to deliver direct mail in a tactile way. You are monopolizing somebody’s attention in that moment. What that’s resulting in is really some incredible response rates. If you can use that moment in time and lead that conversation forward... I think that digital clutter is a challenge, finding out as people have shifted from work from home, I have to mention that in the B2B space where we have a lot of information that’s in my CRM, I’ve got a lot in my marketing technology stack that helps me understand where a person’s corporate location is, it’s much more difficult now to understand whether they’re work from home or work remote location. We’ve had to develop some tools that help our customers and ourselves get around that challenge as well.
Ben: Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. In an instance like that, theoretically, you know a lot about an account, but you don’t necessarily know a ton about the individual person you’re trying to reach at that account. Maybe you don’t have their home address, but even that person wouldn’t be comfortable getting a piece of mail at their home address based on information they have provided about their company. Like I know personally, I think when I was talking to Ryan Cote, this might have come up.
I’ve recently had some weird experiences where I would get a piece of direct mail that seemed to have data mashed together from three different places. It’s a like my name, a family member’s street address, a company name and it’s just like something went haywire with someone’s CRM that’s why I’m getting this thing. I’ve also gotten some very high quality pieces of direct mail. I’ve noticed that more since the pandemic has started. But if you’re in that situation where you don’t necessarily know the best way to actually get that piece of mail or that piece of collateral in front of the right person anymore, what do you do? What’s your first step?
Nick: You talked about data cleanliness a little bit there. That’s something that marketing operations teams are always fighting that battle for us. When we’re talking about tactile marketing automation and this software that enables direct mail to be triggered, what we’re doing is we’re triggering the send based on digital intensiveness. This is where the orchestration happens.
What you do in that case is, you can’t look at it as a silo channel anymore. For people that are wanting to get started, what we encourage them to think about is what’s the overall experience that you want to deliver and then what business objectives are you trying to move with that experience? We’ve already established that delivering dimensional or direct mail. I just want to clarify, when I think about direct mail, the context that is carried with that is like a non profit mailer. We’ve talked about letters and envelopes with the ballot example. We also build boxes, fully branded kits that deliver swag. It can be this whole spectrum of things.
I’m looking for what type of digital intense signals I want to trigger off. I have been ordered to deliver a piece of direct mail and then provide timely follow ups. One of the things our software does is lets you know within 15 minutes that that piece has been delivered so that you can then make a phone call. It’s really that multi channel experience—the digital, physical, audio, phone call. When you put those together, that’s when we start to see response rates in the 20%, 30%. We see incredible ROI. We have several customers that have double digit ROI just in the first campaign. Pretty incredible.
Because it’s a multi channel experience, about the address capture question, one of the things that we’ve started to do and we implemented immediately back in March, April, when people started going work from home is we’re still sequencing people with emails, we’re still making outbound phone calls as part of our sales process. But we want to help people understand our value proposition by experiencing it themselves. We make that invitation available where customers can begin to engage, which now I start to see in my ABM platform that I’ve got engagement at a certain rate so they can engage and give us their preferred address in order to opt in to that experience.
In a way, this remote work and the ask for an opt in has really leveled up engagement with our prospects. Because now, they’re saying yes, I want to see, I want to take this next step. I’m constantly reminding my team, we have to deliver value at every touch point. I’m not just putting something in a box and sending it to you, then letting that go into ether. They need to capitalize on that moment, make sure whatever I’m sending you is one, valuable. Two, helps you understand what’s the next step to take if actionable and we can help to move the conversation forward as part of our business.
Ben: Something that is so interesting to me about tactile marketing automation is this ability to personalize a piece of physical collateral and to take something that’s cynically been an advantage of digital tactics—personalization and so forth—and really being able to cross a divide between digital and physical space in a way that really allows you to do some really interesting things that people haven’t seen done a billion times before. That is of course as long as you can keep your data clean and your processes sound, and you don’t send me personally, something with CoSchedule’s name and my sibling’s street address, and then somehow have it arrive on my doorstep.Which, by the way, is a real thing that happened and I still think it is super weird.
But, conversely, it certainly hasn’t soured my enthusiasm for this idea or the potential that it may have for marketers. Now, back to Nick.
As things are starting to get tighter for business. Budgets are certainly getting tighter, even for businesses that are doing well, they’re probably starting to look at their bottom line a little bit more closely than they were before. All of us really trying to maximize our return on every dollar we spend on marketing right now. With that in mind, say I’m a marketer, I’m listening to this episode and there’s always a hundred different things that any of us could do work and spend on our money on in a given time. What makes direct mail a particularly smart option right now, especially as one, people are spending more time at home and two, they’re also spending a lot more time on their devices. It’s just something you touched on a little bit before, but knowing those two things, what makes direct mail the smart play there?
Nick: There’s a budget element there, it’s a lot of that, I think is important to address. Because people think about direct mail as being expensive. When you compare it to cost per click or any other type of digital efforts, it is going to be more expensive. But there is the difference for tactile marketing automation. When you’re using digital intense signals to trigger that expensive scent, you can do so with laser-like focus. I think that’s why people should consider it.
Especially, anybody that’s in account based marketing or has an ABM strategy. I know that I’m sending to you and I want to create an experience for you, personally, and it really takes us back to the days where you’re making sales calls in person or I can follow up on a customer face to face. That’s incredibly effective whenever you get to have a conversation and you can open up that moment in order to truly engage and deliver your value proposition to your customer.
The idea here is that you can do that at scale so you could create the one to one opportunity and then you can scale that really, infinitely as your business grows. That’s why I think the software element comes in and why that’s important. I imagine that your listeners have a variety of different elements in their marketing technology stack. But if I’m looking for certain engagement points, I’m not going to send direct mail, just batch and blast it, like people used to. You don’t have to anymore. I can see that target prospect, or customer, or even multiple people from an account are engaging in different ways. I can make a decision about when do I want to send them that tactile piece. And then, I can coordinate my sales team’s efforts to make sure that they call within 15 minutes of that being delivered and you get those experience where it’s like, oh, I’m glad you called. I’m actually looking at your thing right now.
That’s not a coincidence. We did that on purpose. That’s where the orchestration comes together. Because budgets are tighter, because it’s harder to cut through the clutter, because it’s harder to find movement in the metrics that we’re trying to drive… Personally, this is why I came back in to PFL when I saw that there’s this blending of the online and the offline, I’ve never seen results like this before. I’ve been marketing for 20 years, mostly in the digital space. You can’t afford not to do this today because of the impact that we’re driving.
Our business is just like the example that you gave. We’re more cash conscious, I think you have to be. I’m so tired of hearing uncertain times, but only because it’s a constant reality. As a business leader, you have to be making budget conscious decisions. What we’re seeing is that when those things are well orchestrated, this is the place to spend a quarter to move business objectives for. I think it’s pretty exciting because we’ve created this new category where it blends in the online and the offline for some remarkable results.
Ben: Sure. Let’s say I’m listening to this conversation and I’m sold on the idea of direct mail, of tactile marketing automation and all these things, and I really have a strong feeling that this might be the missing piece in my marketing strategy right now. How would you recommend somebody in that position get started? Say, direct mail is never been a thing that you have done anything with, what’s the first thing that you do?
Nick: I’m a big fan of Eric Reese’s book The Lean Startup. If we’re talking about truly just getting started, I wouldn’t go out and buy PFL software. If you haven’t yet proven it out that that’s going to be a big lift, I actually wouldn’t buy any software because you can, and I have in the past in other roles, effectively implemented direct mail to prove out the concept. I directed a non profit before this. Part of my role as the top executive was fund raising. I knew the owner, I didn’t have very much information, I had no relationship, there were no networks that were related to this person, but I knew he had a common mission and would be interested in what we were doing. I just wanted to start the conversation.
I sent a package to his office by FedEx. I use FedEx because I know it’ll be delivered before 10:00 AM and I know that I can track the delivery, because they sign off for it immediately. When that was delivered, I made a phone call and the receptionist connected me immediately because he was engaged with my piece that I had sent him right in that moment. I was able to just break in. It’s a door opener. I got five minutes of his time and three weeks later we were having lunch together and we spent a whole day together. It was a really great relationship.
I would test out some of these concepts in those ways. You can do a lot of the swag closet, probably with existing marketing material on a low level. Once that’s been proven out, now it’s time to think about how do I scale this, what type of intent signals do I want to begin sending off of, and then what type of business objectives are we trying to move over things. I think those are foundational when starting. As prospects and customers engaged with PFL, that’s where our teams begin. More than just selling a software, we are really working with our customers to build marketing campaigns and strategies. You work with around five or six customer success—a team of people that help build campaigns out for your target customers.
That’s where I really start to geek out. That’s the fun thing. What problems are you trying to solve now, let’s try to see how we can move the needle on that. But I think that’s the place to start.
Ben: Cool. Once a marketer has gotten to that level, they’ve gone to their proof of concept phase so to speak, they’ve scaled up to the point where now they have some software or a platform, what would be the next, more advanced tactics that you would recommend that they explore in order to get the most of the capabilities of what that software can enable them to do?
Nick: That’s a great question. Because if it’s not providing value, then there’s no reason to keep using it. This is where we really see an opportunity to accelerate value. We’ve recently published a marketing maturity curve. Based on what we’ve seen, some of the biggest brands in the world doing with their TMA software through PFL. One of those brands would be Blue Cross Blue Shield in Michigan.
As you’re asking a question, it comes to mind. I recently chatted with Angela Dunbar at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Michigan. She had a great quote. Because I was asking her about triggering direct mail for customers based off of their known communication preferences. The context was around budget. If somebody’s digital only, take them out of the physical sense. They don’t want it, they don’t need it. That’s a way to save cost and just orchestrate your customer experience.
As I was asking about that, she said, I don’t even think about those things anymore. We’re way beyond that. They’ve been using PFL for about four years. What we’ve seen is customers like Angela. Once the basic principles of tactile marketing automation have been applied with the customer journey, usually, people want to apply it to the buying process. That’s where you find immediate ROI. After that, marketers can begin to think about triggering direct mail using intent signals from really multiple sources or working with cross functional teams that are enabled with TMA.
Normally, we’re working with the marketing team and they’re using the buyer journey examples that I mentioned earlier. But we’ve started to just take people build customer programs around their customer success teams, customer enablement for maybe a referral program. Maybe there’s customer success initiative. It’s really deeper in the customer journey with cross functional teams. You can gather these intent signals from your entire ecosystem and really decide what type of experience do I want to present at different points from that customer and how does that return on the investment for the overall organization.
A lot of people are having great success—especially in 2020—working with their existing customer base. In some cases, cross sell, up sell. But really, to just deepen the customer relationship which gives them a stronger foundation for 2021 and beyond.
Ben: Sure, I think that’s a great example. That does it for all questions I have for you. But before I let you go, is there anything else on this topic or in this area of discussion that you feel is particularly important for marketers to maybe know or to take the heart right now?
Nick: I appreciate that, because as a recap, we talk about direct mail, we get into the weeds and the timing and when do I send what. The focus tends to always come back to the send. I think that’s really a mistake. An important thing to keep in mind is the experience. What experience are you trying to create and then where does that get applied at different stages of the journey.
Really, it goes beyond the active sending, it’s not about enabling your sales team to send or enabling your marketing team to send. Really, at a foundational level, it’s about what experience do I want to present to the customer, what message do I want to deliver, how does that align with my brand? We want people to go beyond the send and think about the overall, long term customer experience as a way that it’s coordinated across these multiple channels.
That’s where we started and it’s a great place to leave it at the end. Thanks for the opportunity to recap that.
Ben was the Inbound Marketing Director at CoSchedule. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.