In the oft-criticised world of paper-based direct marketing, genuine innovation has been hard to come by. With digital marketing spend in the ascendancy, Royal Mail, which depends heavily on brands' direct marketing investment, has turned to technology in an attempt to reinvigorate the reputation of the medium.
Its 'digital watermarking' service enables smartphone users to take a photo of a mail pack and then, via an app, access exclusive content and special deals through their handset.
This is not the first time mail distributors have sought to beef up their proposition through gadgetry.
A couple of years ago, Royal Mail unveiled its Sony eBridge branded DVD service, which, when consumers logged on, offered personalised messages. However, although novel, and trialled by automotive brands including Honda and Mercedes-Benz, the initiative proved too costly and weak on ROI for some.
Royal Mail has higher hopes for digital watermarking. Developed by software maker Digital Space, it aims to take up where Quick Response (QR) codes have left off, and capitalise on the prevalence of smartphones.
Chris Whitson, planning partner at direct marketing agency Stephens Francis Whitson, praises Royal Mail for using direct mail as a driver of online traffic, as well as trying to take advantage of consumers' distaste for email marketing.
'There have been many suggestions that direct mail is no longer a powerful sales driver and has been superseded by email, but we are seeing a big change in the medium as a strong driver of online interaction,' he says. 'The email channel has been so badly abused by brands that view it as a quick and cheap way to communicate without giving thought to content, that we have all witnessed a decrease in openand click-through rates and, ultimately, in sales.'
Brands' use of QR codes has increased, with the likes of Nike, Debenhams and Waitrose integrating the technology into their ads. The latter incorporated QR into its TV campaign featuring Heston Blumenthal and Delia Smith, offering recipes for those scanning the codes.
'We were the first UK retailer to use QR codes in a TV campaign, so there was a fairly low awareness of them at that time,' says Fiona Hall, manager, innovation, at Waitrose. 'There is still a lot of work to do across the industry as a whole to raise awareness of QR codes before they are adopted by the mainstream. Our Christmas campaign was a success as the number of scans well exceeded our expectations.'
The free Digital Space app for digital watermarking will be available in the Apple and Android app stores. Despite this, Garry Moore, head of digital planning at below-the-line agency DAD, questions the potency of content that can be accessed only by downloading certain software.
He argues that advertisers risk disappointing consumers if the content does not match the effort required to access it. 'If it just takes me to a normal website, I'm going to delete the app, and that is a barrier to entry,' he warns.
Philip Ricketts, head of door-to-door strategy, sales and marketing at Royal Mail, claims the venture proves the organisation is adapting to 'meet advertiser needs'. It is perhaps more demonstrative of a medium in search of a dose of razzle-dazzle, and the ability to measurably prove its worth.
'We need to change the perception of the medium,' says Ricketts. 'We have traditionally invested in creating a value offering for advertisers, but digital watermarking creates awareness of their products and provides a direct measurement point for advertisers.'
Signal of intent
Although Royal Mail is yet to recruit any brands to the scheme, Ricketts insists there has been 'strong agency and client interest'.
Ultimately, digital watermarking may prove an early version of more viable and affordable future technologies, but the display of creativity is important for the direct mail industry.
As Ricketts ruefully observes, less than 1% of the total annual marketing spend in the UK is accounted for by door-drops, and that figure will only diminish further if innovation is confined to offline services.
87% of people surveyed recalled leaflets posted through their door.
9% v3% - Door-drop response rates versus direct mail industry standard.
25-34 - Age group most likely to respond to door-drops.
Source: Mail Media Centre 2010/DataTalk/TGI