In today’s tidal wave of new social media platforms, smartphones, and streaming services, it’s easy to write off forms of “traditional” advertising as obsolete and irrelevant. That bias is certainly understandable — after all, it’s the message that experts in Forbes and LinkedIn have been hammering into marketers’ heads since the early 2010s.
But the latest research shows that print catalogs still offer a striking degree of insight into the minds of shoppers — and even more surprisingly, the millennial generation can’t seem to get enough of them.
That’s right — according to a 2017 USPS survey on direct mail advertising (DMA), a full 87 percent of Millennials report that they genuinely enjoy receiving at least some direct mail advertising. In fact, millennials are 54 percent more likely to read paper catalogs than customers of any previous generation, and quite a few of those flip-throughs lead to actual purchases.
What are some catalogs doing right that digital marketers may be getting wrong? The answers reveal some fundamental truths about the tactics that turn shoppers off — along with an array of time-tested approaches that generate sales on any channel, from print to email and beyond.
When paper beats (shallow) personalization
As convenient as it might seem to dismiss paper advertising as irrelevant in today’s digital world, direct mail sales techniques represent more than a century of intensive consumer research, not to mention decades of trial and error in a wide variety of print formats.
Even if many of those techniques strike us as outmoded today, millennials’ overall positive responses to paper catalogs hint that a certain amount of gold may lie buried among yesterday’s mountains of discarded snail mail. So what do paper catalogs have to teach us about marketing in the digital age — particularly in the email realm?
Most noticeably, catalogs have never contained “you may also like” product recommendations. One reason for this, of course, is that even if a catalog retailer had data on every customer’s individual purchase history, the high costs of printing would’ve made it prohibitively expensive to print a unique page of recommendations for every recipient.
But as it turns out, this lack of product recommendations has become a positive selling point for print catalogs — in contrast to emails, which can offer endless suggestions that often showcase products similar to those already purchased. Catalogs, on the other hand, present an ever-changing variety of hand-selected new and different products, exposing consumers to more merchandise while creating moments of magic and delight.
In other words, catalog purveyors carefully curate the content that will resonate most with their shoppers — which means they rarely have to rely on heavy discounting or other tactics to make a sale. By focusing on a combination of relevance and creativity, catalogs gain a reputation as art exhibitions in their own right, attracting readers who may have no intention of making a purchase, but end up making one anyway.
Finding the balance between relevance and excitement
As every email marketer knows, an effective email campaign focuses on relevant content above all else. But there’s a lesson to be learned from print catalogs here, too: product recommendations shouldn’t remind customers where they’ve already been — they should point the way forward to new discoveries, encouraging customers to comfortably branch outward from their core tastes.
Of course, this can be a delicate balancing act: present a category or product that feels too far out, and customers will be unlikely to follow you into the new territory. Timing and relevance are crucial when you’re personalizing offers — it demonstrates that you recognize what the customer’s tastes and aspirations look like at this moment and understand where they’re comfortable going next.
How do you find the balance, and present relevant recommendations that also feel creative and inspirational? By bringing together truths about each customer from a wide range of data sources, and synthesizing them into nuanced insights about that customer’s personal journey, evolving interests, aspirational tastes, and longer-term goals.
When an email campaign is powered by these deep insights into each customer, it’s possible to deliver recommendations that delight and feel as if they were hand-picked by a personal shopper. That’s the key balance at the center of impactful email marketing — and for many digital marketers, hitting the right notes can be a challenge.
Even so, this is a crucial balance to understand, because millennials aren’t just engaging with print catalogs — they’re checking email multiple times a day, which means their inboxes continue to represent prime advertising real estate.
By using email to deliver personalized, curated content that feels fresh and engaging, retailers can share areas of their product catalogs that traditional recommendation algorithms might never present to customers — and unlock new worlds of exploration and discovery.
Also, don't miss our Email Deliverability Guide to ensure you are following all critical procedure to deliver those emails to the inbox.