Why do we still design, print and apply stamps to physical, direct mail in our photography business?

This image, from a project in New Jersey, went out ten days 
ago as a printed 4x6 inch post card with rounded corners. 
We mailed it to 150 people. 

I am currently printing and mailing a five and a quarter by seven and a quarter inch, folded card with a big photograph on the front and carefully researched and written copy on the inside. Over the course of the next few days I will mail out 75 to  existing clients and potential clients who have some connection to the healthcare industry. It will be my third, targeted, physical (delivered by the mail carrier) direct mail piece this quarter.

Why? Why in the age of free e-mail barrages, instant Instagram feeds, and equally free opportunities to market on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn would I spend the time to send "last century" marketing to anyone? Why "waste" the money? And time? And resources?

It's a good question and one posed by a reader of the blog this morning. I'm going to try and answer it. 

With the advent of voice mail getting connected via phone to a real person with whom you do NOT already have a relationship is almost impossible. It's just too easy for an overworked art director, marketing director or art buyer to ignore the message. You are, after all, competing for one of their most precious resource --- their time. If art directors at good agencies took every call made to them by illustrators, videographers and photographers calling to arrange portfolio shows they would not have enough hours left in the day to do any of the work they get paid to do. When artists stop being able to cold call successfully (in this digital age) they turn to the next avenue of communications; e-mail. 

E-mail can work well if you are sending your message to people who already know your name and have some idea of what you do and why you may be sending them a message. If your e-mail isn't "invited" you have a very small chance that your intended target will open it. Blast away all you want but don't expect that your e-mail blast, with your latest images of your sad dog, or your happy girlfriend eating an ice cream bar, will make your phone ring or your mailbox chime with a request for bids. 

The underlying issue in both cases is that there are enormous numbers of people who: Want to reach and art director or art buyer (client), and don't want to part with a penny for their own marketing. E-mail may have worked in early days when it was more novel and less utterly ubiquitous but from my conversations with clients who are in the industry I hear that they are drowning in what they consider spam e-mails. They are routinely getting 250-350 e-mails advertising for commercial artists per day. 

The idea that you can join in, create a devastatingly cool e-mail ad, and subsequently cut through all the clutter is based on the ill-conceived idea that the audience is willing to open every e-mail and gaze at it for a few moments. Yours, of course, will pop out and the art buyer will bookmark your site immediately. Good luck with that. Your e-mail is statistically more likely to be read by the hardworking spam filters every single time. E-mail works only once you are on their radar. 

But what about all the people who get discovered on Instagram and Facebook? Hmmm. I've met a lot of artists who have followings on those outlets but I haven't met anyone who has been discovered and used for real advertising projects (with a purchase order and subsequent payment) as a result of something they've posted on social media. I'm sure some lucky artists exist but....  The issue is that 600,000,000 people are already there ahead of you and there's really no sure way to filter down the mess and get yourself to the top of the "interest" heap if someone has no clue of who you are. Or where you exist.

So, if clients won't/can't take your phone calls and haven't "found" you (through referrals and shared links) on social media, and all of your witty and gorgeous e-mail blasts don't make it over the spam "drawbridge" in the e-mail system, then how in the world are you supposed to meet new people in order to get invited to be considered for jobs/projects/assignments?

There are three ways and I try, diligently, to use all three. First of all, I love getting referred to new people. When I work with good clients I ask them if there is anyone who might benefit from collaborating with me. Anyone who would get good value from the kind of work I do. When good friends refer you to their good friends you come pre-approved. Vetted. And there is a tiny, almost invisible obligation to at least give you a shot at pitching, as a nod to their friendship with your referrer. Cool. That's a gold standard for getting new business. 

The second way is to go to professional events and meetings (ad club?), happy hours, etc. and actually introduce yourself to the people who do the advertising and marketing work that may benefit from your taste, vision and expertise. This can work well if you have a great business card, a winning smile and are willing to pick up the price of a few drinks. Even so, you'll have more success if you go with a wingman who is established in that community and is willing to introduce you. 

(Side story: When I was running an ad agency I had a photographer, who I worked with, call me up and plead to take me to lunch and pick my brain. He was frustrated because he went to all the photo association meetings and knew all the other photographers in town, his portfolio was good and he wasn't repellent, but he was having trouble getting any traction with art directors and art buyers. I suggested that he "hunt where the game lives." That he stop wasting his time with other photographers (competitors) and spend the majority of his time in association with the people he was trying to court as clients. He joined the Ad Club, volunteered to help with the yearly awards shows, eventually became the local chapter president, and has never wanted for work or connections since.).

Third (our real subject here): The best way to reach large numbers of potential clients, who do not know you already, is to send them marketing pieces that tell your story and show off your work beautifully. No one in the industry gets much physical mail anymore. It's almost a novelty because it has become so rare. Very few people will throw away, unopened, a hand addressed, first class stamped (not bulk mail!!!!!), enveloped piece of mail that was sent directly to their attention. If they open it, see your photograph, and see your name, you will have made your first impression on them. 

With good paper stock, good art, a good story, and a good mailing list, you can fine tune messages for small groups of people. Today I am targeting healthcare clients. Next week I may do a mailing of 50 pieces to the people who commission executive portraits. I may do a micro mailing of 20 cards to people in the local semi-conductor industry the following week. But well done cards in hand addressed envelopes are hardly ever considered "junk mail." 

There is an old, advertising rule of thumb that says you need to reach a person 7 times before they are aware of your existence. You'll need to intrigue them 12-20 times before you solidify in their consciousness and are allowed into their world. The physical, direct mail campaigns are designed to get you and your impressions past the voice mail and spam filters. They are designed to connect with the people who are too busy to aimlessly cruise the web looking for interesting work out of the 200 million images being uploaded every day, across the social networks. They are intended to differentiate you from the masses of people who will never get around to making prints, buying stamps, tracking down contact addresses and following through. 

While I don't know of anyone being hired sight unseen from a social media site to do an assignment for a legitimate advertising client I do know scores of artists who have been asked to submit bids or proposals as a result of their direct mail introductions. This is the stuff that gets your foot in the door. E-mail is what you send to people after they know you and invite you in.......

The more things change the less they change. If everyone in the world advertises exclusively on the web because it's free the clutter is too profound for even the most determined client to wade through. But if your promotional piece is the only one coming through the mail slot in their office door I can almost guarantee it will be read. 

Have you ever tried to tack an e-mail blast to your bulletin board? Doesn't work nearly as well as a nicely printed card. Believe me.