The founder and CEO, Lumen Research, UK, elaborated on the Attention for DM Research in an interview that addressed a range of issues, from ‘attention’ forming an important factor in media planning, to the areas in which Direct Mail scores over other media.

Read the whitepaper 'The attention advantage: Exploring the impact of mail in an attention-scarce world' here.

Headshot of Mike Follett

Mike Follett, Managing Director, Lumen Research

There’s an emerging school of thought that believes attention is a better predictor of commercial outcomes than viewability. As a result, attention is appearing more frequently in media planning processes. What’s the context around that and how do you see that developing?

Attention is the very essence of advertising in the broadest context, including DM (Direct Mail) and all forms of marketing. There's even a clue in the word, ‘advertere’ which in Latin means “to turn towards”. The nature of advertising is to get people's attention. These are people who might not necessarily know about or be interested in something. The nature of advertising is to be able to gain and hold people's attention so that you can highlight something to them or change their minds. Attention has always been the essence of marketing.

Back in the 1960s, when people were defining serious terms for “impressions” and “advertising”, they came up with the concept of an “Opportunity To See” things – or OTS. Not “Guarantee to See”, but “Opportunity to See”. This was a very smart thing to do as within OTS is also an opportunity not to look at things. There's a vulnerability in all forms of marketing; just because people can see it, it doesn't mean that they will see it. So right from the get-go, advertising has always been about attention.

Up until recently, we haven't been able to measure attention. We've known that it's a thing but we can't do anything about it. And then, in the last few years, suddenly attention data has become much more available and important.

We can now measure attention. We've always been aware that it was an issue. However, advances in the scalability of eye tracking mean that instead of just thinking of this as a problem that we can't do much about, we can now measure these things. The cost of producing high-quality eye tracking has come down too. But also, marketers have become far more scientific in the way they measure success and understand not just that something has been successful but also why. And so, areas like Direct Marketing and Direct Mail that have often valued that sort of quantitative evidence, are now able to get this level of deep understanding.

Plus, things like cookies are going away. While some marketers are hungry for data, for many, cookie data is being taken away despite wanting meaningful quantification to improve their decision-making. And so, this attention data offers a different paradigm for understanding the effectiveness of direct communications.

How would you define ‘meaningful attention’ and how do you see particular channels performing in that space?

All attention is worth something. Under certain circumstances, you can communicate a lot in a second or so. Posters work by gaining about a second to a second-and-half of attention and they can work extremely well. There's no such thing as an absolute minimum amount of attention because things can work even in a short time frame. However, things tend to work better in longer amounts of time. That’s certainly true for more complicated messages and more rational and involved decision making; that can't happen in 1.5 seconds.

What we have observed is that you have to play “horses for courses”. Some media are a bit like posters – for example, social media is more like a poster than a DM piece. Those media work very well in a second or a second and a half if you design your ads to work in a second. There is a place for posters.

But while there’s a place for posters or their digital equivalents, there is also definitely a place for longer attention media. At one end, there are more storytelling-style media like cinema where you lock people in a black box, you take away their phones and you make sure that they're in a frame of mind receptive to storytelling.

Direct Mail could be quite similar. But there, you have a different challenge and a different opportunity. DM works by being the most seductive and voluntary medium of them all. It's a wonderful storytelling opportunity but it also provides a resource for people to return to and help you with more rational decisions.

So, to recap, there is some value in posters but more attentive time usually means greater engagement. With DM, you can get very long periods of attention but it has to be seductive and voluntary because, unlike cinema, you're not forcing people to read, watch or engage. That’s why creativity and targeting become very important so the mail piece gets to the right person. And although there’s an assumption that you're talking to the right person, even when you do so, they don’t have to engage. That’s the same with all forms of marketing but it’s why creativity is so wildly important for Direct Mail, thanks to the voluntary nature of the medium.

Building on the above point, what would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of Direct Mail?

Direct Mail is incredibly diverse and varied. You have 15-second unskippable YouTube ads or half-page newspaper ads but there's no similar equivalent in DM. The world is your oyster as there's a tremendous amount of variety and because of the variety of the medium, you can get four or five times more attention.

Plus, some mail pieces get referred to again and again which means there’s life beyond the initial engagement. The distribution of attention across DM is far wider than many other channels. This makes identifying average attention levels for DM difficult compared to, for example, Facebook ads. Some mail pieces get thrown in the bin immediately while others get four or five minutes of attention. There’s a potentially broad distribution of attention.

A good mail piece realises that it might have to do two, three or more things at the same time. It might have to be a well-crafted message, a nice poster, an informational letter and a catalogue all at the same time. The best DM pieces – for example, a letter – are designed visually to initially be a poster, then subsequently serve as a letter, and finally become a catalogue of sorts.

That way, the visual design can allow you to take in all the most important information in a couple of seconds. Then, for those who want to read on, you design it so that they can take in some more information in the next 10 to 15 seconds. Finally, for those who are still more interested, you delve deeper into the details. So, you should design your DM with those three modes in mind:

  • First, as a poster, so that anyone who opens it can get something out of your communication even if they don't read on
  • Second, as a letter and
  • Third, as a catalogue.

All of that requires slightly different ways of thinking and potential compromises in visual styles to be able to work in those different modes.

I once worked with a utilities company that was convinced they had an extremely engaged audience. But when we did some research with their target audience they saw how amazingly busy they were - and how much direct mail they received each day. They would tear through it all, a sort of desperate triage, trying to quickly assess if each letter was worth further engagement. They only invest more attention if they could see the initial value. Therefore, it is important to understand these principles of first needing to communicate something in a couple of seconds. “Think a poster”; then “Think a short note or letter” for those few people who are going to require education through mail, rather than going online to learn more. We were able to show that there are three very different modes of attention that are sequential and considered in design.

Marketers also need to think about how attention leads to outcomes, what the best outcome is or what the most realistic outcome is. One of the things that we've observed is that attention data can help marketers understand the true value of DM in driving behaviour change. This is above and beyond doing a simple A/B test of a direct mail piece. Those tests can be very helpful but they run the risk of the “narcissism of small differences”. Namely, thinking that if you tweak one little thing and compare the A v/s B, it must be that tiny tweak causing the outcome. It’s often much more complicated than that.

You use different channels in different combinations with respect to how marketers can drive audiences through a purchase funnel. Are there certain channels that you think DM complements particularly well?

It’s worth considering that one of DM’s roles can be to drive organic search and traffic to websites. It may be that the websites are monetising. However, the actions of the mailpieces and their role may be more about getting people to go online so that they can make a decision there. That's tremendously valuable – ensure that you can establish branded search terms to avoid paying the Google tax. Or get people to go automatically to the right landing page or part of the website. That’s all part of the journey design. One of the insights from our eye-tracking studies is helping clients and agencies understand the true value of DM in driving organic behaviour.

Is there any other advice you’d give about mail’s potential role within the customer journey and high-potential media combinations?

I run an eye-tracking company but there are also other senses. We have fingers for haptic senses. We have noses for olfactory information. These are sensors which are under-utilised in a digital world and so one of the things about direct mail is that you can almost rename it as “haptic media”.

Time and thought should be put into things like the paper stock, pop-outs, design and sampling. The directness of direct mail is a directness to other senses that are alien to visual-only media. That is an important factor in terms of complementing other media. If you just base everything on the eyes, you’re missing a trick and you're especially missing a trick that is unavailable to other media.

Secondly, because of its voluntary nature and its absolute need to seduce rather than force people into engagement, direct mail can and should think of itself not as the sort of hard-working, grubby end of marketing, but at the top end of experiential marketing. Again, there are cheaper ways of reaching the right audience – even with GDPR – if you want to reach exactly the right people.

There are other senses and DM should lean into that in its complementarity to other media. There is a need – because it's a voluntary media – to seduce people. It should also lean into the experiential even if it is just using your eyes. The second thing is that it should very definitely offer entertainment as well as use other senses. The targeting benefits of DM, while great, aren’t as great with Facebook or YouTube, etc. That's okay, because what it has is this experience.

And then the final thing is about utility and DM’s ability to get people referring back to mailpieces. There are very few media that people put on their fridge afterwards and refer back to. You can't save a Facebook ad.

So, for Direct Mail, think about the other senses, think entertainment, and think utility. These are three aspects of the medium that complement other media and that's where I think we should be thinking as an industry.