Conning their way

to success

Email Marketing Lessons from
the Direct Mail Dark Ages

Part 1: The Bad


Part 1

We who do email marketing are heirs of an earlier profession known as “direct mail.” It is still practiced, profitably I might add, by holdouts. Perhaps you know some. Or perhaps you read about direct mail in a marketing history book.

Though the ubiquity of email is relatively new, its successful use grows largely out of techniques that direct mail marketers have been developing ever since Section 8 of the United States Constitution gave Congress the power to establish post offices and made Benjamin Franklin the nation’s first postmaster.

The national postal service was up and running by the early 19th Century. Marketers lost no time figuring out how to profit from it. Mail let them sell over vast distances without having to establish stores in every market. They could communicate with large audiences. When audiences responded, their actions were measurable.

That should sound familiar. It is essentially what we do today, albeit faster, with email.

Early direct mail merchants fast sorted techniques that generated results from those that fell flat. Today, it turns out that many of the resultant do’s and don’ts are as apt in zeros and ones as they were in envelopes.

Not that we should emulate everything early direct mail marketers did.

Here are a few things that you and I had better not do. I’ll save direct mail’s more positive legacy for Part 2.

Though plenty of early direct marketers had scruples, a fair share did not. One early mail-order marketer offered “a genuine, U.S. Government-approved engraving of Abraham Lincoln” for the low, low price of just five cents. For their nickel, dupes received a penny. Another scammer offered a sure-fire roach killer. What arrived in the mail were two blocks of wood with instructions to place the roach on Block A and smash it with Block B. Yet another offered unmarried women (in the days that “spinsterhood” was deemed a cause for concern) a guaranteed method for making “a good impression.” For their money, hopeful brides-to-be received printed instructions to sit on a pan of bread dough.

In time the U.S. Postal Service cracked down.

But since you’re reading this blog, I assume you’re a legit marketer, above lawbreaking. So let’s look at techniques that are perfectly legal by mail, but either illegal or at least inadvisable when it comes to email.

It’s legal for direct marketers to mass-mail “blind envelopes,” that is, with no return address. Since most people have difficulty discarding any envelope unopened, imagine the difficulty they have discarding an unidentifiable one. It’s also legal to make an envelope look like official mail from a government agency or other authority, provided you do not explicitly state that it is. I happen to think that misleading envelopes are underhanded and inappropriate. But they are legal and, unfortunately, effective.

Hiding or falsifying your identity in an email blast can be effective, too. In the U.S., however, it’s not just underhanded: it violates the CAN SPAM Act of 2003. That’s why you don’t see informed, legitimate, domestic companies try it, and you don’t see uninformed, legitimate, domestic companies try it more than once.

Direct mail has always been and still is an effective prospecting tool. A skilled analyst can overlay and process mailing lists to increase the odds of success of a cold mailing. There is nothing illegal, nor, I might add, underhanded about it. Showing up uninvited in a mailbox is not intrusive, whereas showing up uninvited on a smart phone, tablet, or computer is.

There’s nothing illegal about cold prospecting with an email blast, but it’s not advisable. For one thing, as I said, it’s intrusive. For another, email marketing tends not to be a terribly effective prospecting tool. Email works better on a permission basis, that is, when customers authorize you to ping them. That aside, cold email blasts can result in your being intercepted by spam filters, consigned to junk files, and, worst of all, blacklisted by email servers that will thenceforth block all of your emails, permission-based or not.

It’s generally better to use email for customer retention, growth, and cross-selling. For finding new customers, look to the likes of banners, referrals, social media ads, and pop-ups to secure permission to email. And, see above: Direct mail has always been and still is an effective prospecting tool. Many an online ball gets rolling by use of snail mail.

A final don’t. The only limit to how often you should pepper a customer by mail is determined by diminishing returns. You can send mail as often as it continues to pay. When it comes to email, people—and many servers—have a threshold. Ping too often, and you’ll be consigned to spam or junk. That is why services like Constant Contact won’t let you send blast after blast. And they won’t let you blast to the non-opted-in or to prospect lists, period. They like remaining in business.

Next week: The Good.

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My article in Credit Union Journal

A Maslowian Look at Emerging Payments


Who would have thought that a high-tech company started by a hippie-esque guy who knew no better than to rip off the Beatles’ trademark, or a company started by youngsters who couldn’t even spell “googol” right, would, in a few years, present a competitive threat to credit unions and banks?

Not that Apple and Google are the only new threats on the financial services front. They’re just among the most well-known to consumers. Credit union leaders don’t need reminding that the digital revolution has made possible a host of other digital payment types and enabled the launch of dozens of non-traditional providers, from Alipay to Xsolla.

It’s no wonder then that credit unions, banks, billers, and merchants are reevaluating their payments portfolios, infrastructures, rewards programs, and strategies. Those that emerge strong will be the ones that …

Read more in Credit Union Journal by clicking here now.

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A Chip Off the Fraud Block

HighTechTheftThe encouraging, the ouch, and the plus ça change

The payment industry and the payment-fraud industry are locked in a perpetual arms race. Each time our side develops bigger and badder defense weapons, the bad guys set to work inventing bigger and badder assault weapons. And so it goes, back and forth.

One year from this month, Europay, MasterCard, and Visa will up their side of the arms race by making chip-embedded payment cards standard in the United States.

It’s about time. While a number of African nations, China, Japan, Australia, Canada, all of Europe, and others are already onboard, nearly half of the world’s payment card fraud takes place in the United States. The Economist puts worldwide payment-card fraud at $11.3 billion in 2012, up 15 percent from 2011, and puts the United States’ share at 47 percent.

The encouraging news is that EMV (the banal moniker represents the first letter of each triumvirate member’s name) promises to cut dramatically down on fraud. Breaches the likes of those that this year plagued Target, Michael’s, and The Home Depot will, we hope, be a thing of the past. At the very least, they will be far less frequent. We know this from—and this is an advantage of coming late to the game—observing the experience of nations that embraced the technology ahead of us.

The “ouch” news is that merchants will once again have the privilege of ponying up for new point-of-sale devices. They can, of course, elect to stick with the old technology. But if they do, they may risk assuming all responsibility for fraud at their registers, letting E, M, and V off the hook. That could be a lot costlier than new terminals, and not just if you happen to be, say, Target. More and more, payment fraudsters are going after medium-to-small businesses, precisely because these tend to invest less in security.

Then there’s the plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose news. Though EMV represents quite the obstacle for bad guys, it is not insurmountable. Given the dollars involved, the most parsimonious criminals may view upping their side of the arms race less as prohibitive and more as a worthwhile investment. Fortunately, experience shows that lesser-heeled criminals drop out of the game. That alone results in a considerable net gain for our side.

As we engage in the ongoing arms race, we will continue to chip—get it? chip—away at fraud, saving our industry billions, and earning the confidence of cardholders.

Meanwhile, there will always be someone on the other side chipping away right back at us. I suppose that’s job security for programmers specializing in security, regardless of whether they work for the good or bad guys. Of course, anyone working for the bad guys may end up unemployed, living off the state, and wearing an orange jumpsuit. That is not the course that I would recommend.

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When it comes to innovation, think small


It’s not every day that a sweaty shoe makes me think.

Yesterday when my wife kicked off her ASICS workout shoes, I noticed this line on the removable insole: “Be better than yesterday.”

That, I realized, says it. Especially with FinovateFall happening during the next two days.

The financial services industry is obsessed with innovation. Rightly so, for we cannot let the competition outstrip us. But when we limit innovation to mean the next big shiny new toy, we have a forest-for-the-trees thing going on.


Shiny new toys that take the world by storm are rare. Smaller, “better than yesterday” changes are far more common, and they are no less able to take the world by storm.

For a low-tech example, consider a mid 1980s innovation. There was nothing shiny or even new about a bottleneck with a twist-off cap. But placing it atop a one-quart container of motor oil was new. This tiny change overhauled the industry. It made the round oilcan obsolete and grew the home oil-change market by making the product easier to handle.

For a high-tech example, observe the people lined up outside your nearest Apple Store, waiting to hand over a substantial wad of cash for the just-released iPhone 6. Let’s be honest. The 6 is shiny, but it’s hardly new. It’s pretty much a 5 with added doodads. And the 5 was pretty much an elongated 4 with added doodads. Purists will no doubt revile me for trivializing, but come on. Even today, the 4 meets the basic need. Die-hards who haven’t upgraded miss out on little in the way of functionality. Apple, it seems, is the master of effecting big change by thinking small.

For another high-tech example, consider movies sold for home viewing. My wife and I are blessed with two lovely daughters who make us suffer when they’re bored on long trips. In their defense, I should point out that they keep up the whining only 99 percent of the time. So, even though we own a bunch of kids’ movies on DVD, we paid for the same movies over again so the kids can watch them on their tablets and my wife and I can ride a few miles in peace. In order to sell us the same movies twice, no studio had to invent a device or secure new distribution rights. All they needed was a modest advance in distribution.

That, too, is the power of thinking small.

The lesson for bankers is, sure, keep a sharp eye for the next shiny new toy, but don’t overlook “better than yesterday.” A modest innovation might be under your nose right now, and it might just change the world.

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Apple Pay: The app that eclipsed the toys

I admit it. I’m an iOS junkie.Apple$Composite

Okay, okay, I’m an Android OS junkie, too. Call me fickle, but being in the business kind of requires me to be versatile.

Last week was nirvana for my iOS side, which was eager to learn about the new iPhone 6 versions and, of course, Apple Watch. The toys did not disappoint, but the announcement of an app by the name of Apple Pay seems to have stolen the spotlight. Perhaps rightly so; time will tell.

The business press heralds Apple Pay as a mobile payment breakthrough. International Business Times ran the headline, “Apple’s Biggest Launch May Not Be The Watch, Or The iPhone, But Apple Pay.” Mashable’s Seth Fiegerman opined that Wall Street is more enamored of the app than the devices.

Why the excitement all of a sudden? It’s not as if bankers haven’t been working on mobile payment for a few years (which in technology is tantamount to “forever”), and it’s not as if payment products like Google Wallet haven’t already launched. Yet there is growing speculation that Apple Pay will be the app that takes mobile payment to ubiquity.

It helps that Apple for once set aside its penchant for playing only with Apple devices. Instead of requiring use of Apple’s proprietary iBeacon, Apple Pay works with Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, which many merchants already have in place.

It’s a smart move. Fiegerman writes, “Apple has partnered with several big banks and credit card companies for transactions on the platform and says the service will work in more than 200,000 retail locations in the United States.”

With Walgreens, Starbucks, and other notable merchants among those 200,000, Apple Pay will be off to a good start. Moreover, Apple’s participation may accelerate adoption among straggling merchants.

As for security, The Verge’s Dante D’Orazio reports, “Apple is using ‘Device Account Numbers’ for each of your cards, which means that your actual card number isn’t transferred to the merchant. There’s also a ‘transaction-specific dynamic security code’ to help keep your payment info secure and prevent hackers from skimming your account number and using it for another purchase.” I might mention, too, that authentication of payments by use of Touch ID adds another layer of security. But don’t relax. Anyone in this industry knows that security and hacking are engaged in a perpetual arms race. If Apple’s security is sound, it means only that it’s the hackers’ move.

Since I use both iOS and Android, would you care to know which one I like better? I’m not telling. Apologies if lunch was riding on the answer.

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