Digital-First Leadership


The Power of Direct Mail with Jeff Tarran from The Best Marketing Book Ever

jULY 5, 2023
Richard Bliss

In this episode of Digital-First Leadership, Richard’s guest is Jeff Tarran, the COO of Gunderson Direct, one of the US's largest independent direct mail agencies. For over 25 years, he's helped businesses of all sizes, from startups to Fortune 500 companies, start and grow successful mail programs. Today's discussion with a co-author of The Most Amazing Marketing Book Ever emphasizes crafting compelling offers and calls to action and optimizing landing environments for customer research. They also explore the unique advantages of direct mail, such as its engagement of eye-hand coordination and its ability to complement digital media to make products feel more real. Tune in to this episode of Digital-First Leadership to hear Jeff Tarran's expert insights on the power of personalized direct mail.

Jeff wrote chapter 21 of The Best Marketing Book Ever, called Building Your Business With Direct Mail


Welcome to Digital-First Leadership. The podcast that explores the essential principles and strategies for leading in the digital age. In this dynamic podcast series, we dive deep into the realm of digital leadership. Equipping leaders, and teams with the necessary tools to thrive in today's rapidly evolving digital landscape.

Richard Bliss [00:00:25]:

Welcome to the show. I'm your host, Richard Bliss, and you're listening to Digital-First Leadership Podcast. And As you know, I have been participating in a project called the most amazing marketing book ever. For those of you who are video watchers, I'm holding it up now, and this was a collaborative effort by more than 30 authors to come together, and each write a chapter on their expertise. I was one of those authors, and I'm joined today by another one of those authors Jeff Tarran. Jeff, thanks for joining me.

Jeff Tarran [00:00:55]:

Glad to be here. Thank you for the invitation.

Richard Bliss [00:00:57]:

Jeff, so let me let me introduce you by reading the the introduction, basically, the bio that you have in the book. So here here's what we've got here as I as I turn to the page, at the end of your chapter, Jeff Tarran is the COO of Gunderson Direct, one of the largest independent direct mail agencies in the US. And for over 25 years, He's helped mailers of all sizes from startups to Fortune 500 companies start and grow successful mail programs. You'll find more information about Gunderson and how to mail successfully at Gunderson direct dot com. And so, Jeff, does that accurately describe who you are? 

Jeff Tarran:

Close enough. 

Richard Bliss:

Close enough. What would be something that people might not know about you as we as we get started? 

Jeff Tarran [00:01:43]:

Let's see. Ex-New Yorker. 

Richard Bliss:

Okay. Living in the San Francisco Bay area. 

Jeff Tarran:

So I'm living in the San Francisco Bay area now, for most of my life. But Ex-New Yorker, watch probably too much basketball to the health of any good relationship with my wife.

Richard Bliss [00:01:53]:

No. You cannot watch too much basketball. And that Are you a Knicks fan or a warriors fan? I mean, where does it go there? 

Jeff Tarran [00:02:07]:

No. I'm I'm a warriors fan. I -- Okay. -- I was a season ticket holder for many, many, many years. Although I grew up a Knicks fan and always cast an eye in that direction. And a Grateful Dead aficionado, I would say.

Richard Bliss [00:02:15]:

There you go. A very good friend of mine, David Meerman Scott, is a Grateful Dead aficionado as well. And -- Yes. -- he never fails to mention that one. We when we get together. Now I grew up in Seattle. And so when it comes to basketball, I was introduced to Jack Sicklma Downtown Freddie Brown, Gus Williams, and writes the Seattle Supersonics, which then drafted Kevin Durant, but he never played for them because he moved on to Oklahoma as they moved the franchise there. So love that can never get too much basketball. So I love that. That's a great thing to know about. Okay. We're gonna talk today about your chapter in the book, The Most Amazing Marketing Book Ever. Now I'm gonna, before I do, let me introduce the audience again to how this came about. There is a community, Jeff and I both belong to that community called Rise. This community came about because of a cryptocurrency organization, under the guidance of Mark Schaeffer, a very well known marketing guru expert in the industry. From that, a community rose up and then from that community, the idea of all of us creating and participating in the writing of a marketing book, each one of us providing our expertise. And so it was a collaborative effort. And I would encourage my audience that’s listening. If you haven't had the chance to download the the Audible version because each author reads their own chapter. And I gotta tell you, Jeff, it was fascinating to listen to the Audible and get to know all of these people that we had worked with but actually had never interacted. And here the accents and the nationalities as people came from all over the world. I don't know about you. What was your experience listening to that?

Jeff Tarran [00:03:54]:

I believe it was the very first book that Amazon ever published that had that many authors reading individual chapters. So it was an interesting challenge, I understand, to get it through their approval process. But I enjoyed it. I mean, it it's just it is a lot of fun. I'm only about halfway through the Audible. Of course, I I read it as nice as you would think I would. Yeah. But it's a lot of fun. And it really is kind of interesting too, especially since we meet each other in these Zoom meetings. And now we hear each other more formally speak through our chapters. So it's it's kind of fun. 

Richard Bliss [00:04:29]:

It has been a lot of fun. We're gonna talk about your chapter because it's kind of unique. And I say unique because it's old. It's old school. It is leftover, as I tell, my team tells me all the time, from the late 19 hundreds. Right? Covered wagons and floppy disks, and before that was direct mail. The idea of using the US Postal Service primarily as a means of delivering your marketing content into the hands of the individuals you want to target. And that's what you talk about. So Let me ask a question that some of the audience might be asking. What direct mail? Do people still use that? And what would your response to that be?

Jeff Tarran [00:05:03]:

Oh, yeah. So and, actually, we're seeing a lot more interest in direct mail now than we did just a few years ago. Couple reasons for that. Number 1 is you are overwhelmed with digital messages. As a matter of fact, most of the digital messages you see, you don't actually see. So there are thousands and thousands of digital messages that pass you by. So getting your attention has become really difficult and very expensive. In digital marketing. So what we find are a lot of our clients, a lot of people who contact us have gone they feel kind of as far as they can building their business in the in the digital space. They need to go the next step And direct mail is another way to reach peace. People, obviously, it's a tactile medium. It can be highly personalized. The data we use is extremely viable data. It's the most verifiable data on the planet is based on where you live. Believe it or not. I mean, just ask just ask the IRS. 

Richard Bliss:

Yes. They they know for They know. 

Jeff Tarran:

They know. And so, hey, how do you get your prescription? They know. So so it's excellent data. So more and more companies are reaching out to us. And there's another thing which is that there are just some products that will always sell better through the mail, and part of that is a trust issue. Significant financial products such as mortgages, refinances, even credit cards, checking accounts, a lot of subscription services. For whatever reason, people are open to receiving those messages in the mail in an acquisition format, whereas online, they're uncomfortable with it. Uncomfortable getting an email that says get our credit card. Very comfortable getting a direct mail piece that says get get our credit card. So those kinds of services, we also see marketing very consistently through the mail. 

Richard Bliss [00:07:06]:

Yeah. And the credit card one is, I might not want that piece, but I'm not certainly, I look at that, and I'm not threatened by that. I I would be, like I'm not scared of If if I'm interested, hey, I'm like, oh, this is legit. It came through the mail. That's right. 

Jeff Tarran [00:07:22]:

That's right. And and the reason for that is you raise up a you raise another great point. There are very few scams that go through the mail. 

Richard Bliss:

And that is because – 

Jeff Tarran:

It's damn expensive.

Richard Bliss [00:07:29]:

It's expensive. And there are laws in place -- Yes. -- that you can get in trouble in a in a hurry. Right? Because we hear about right all the time.

Jeff Tarran [00:07:38]:

Yes. There are interstate commerce laws. And also, you can hide yourself behind servers, but you really can't hide yourself… Whoever mailed that that piece for you, and if you're mailing thousands of pieces, you're mailing using a mailing service probably. They have to know who is sending that mail. So it's it's fairly traceable relative to digital scale. 

Richard Bliss [00:08:01]:

Which is which is this is kinda crazy that in today's world, that this move to the physical online is actually more secure, more safe, more and people would not even think about that. Here's something else I just saw recently, Jeff, and I imagine you're aware of it. The younger generation is now being drawn to the physical concepts of mail. Right? I'm thinking of my grandson. He's 10. Sending him a postcard or sending him a text message, which is he more excited to get?

Jeff Tarran [00:08:26]:

That's right. That's right. 

Richard Bliss:

He gets thrilled by the postcard. 

Jeff Tarran:

Some of the highest approval of engagement statistics come from Gen Z right now. They love getting the mail. Part of that, it's it's novel. Right? They're they're not getting much mail, and they won't get a ton of mail because mail, because it's relatively expensive, the customer acquisition cost has to be relatively high. So, I mean, you're not selling something that's a 30 dollar item through the mail. You're selling something that will turn into a long term subscription. It will turn into something that has a fairly significant long term customer value. So those people aren't seeing as much mail, so it's very high novelty. But as, it's interesting, people say that the younger generation aren't going to respond to mail. It may actually have more to do, one of the theories is what they're interested in buying, not so much where they look for information. So when you are suddenly interested in owning a credit card, when you're suddenly interested in a mortgage refinance, or something of that nature. Suddenly, the mail becomes the way you are happy to learn about it. So there's something about aging in to getting the mail as well as as well as anything else. But right now, the novelty aspect for certain target audiences makes it really stand out. And the other thing it does really well is it complements digital media. So I have seen a message about a given product a number of times Now I see something in the mail that is physical. Somehow it just makes it feel more real and something I'm more interested in, and I can take my time and look it over. It's not a it's not a digital message that flashes by that I click on her for yet. So it's kind of interesting how it's come around like that.

Richard Bliss [00:10:00]:

It has. And and in your chapter, you identify some key ingredients to making that piece of lateral, that piece of mail, that mail, effective because as you've already identified, it's not cheap – That’s right. – And you gotta make it count, and it's not like a cheap you okay. Do an AB test. We'll throw out a thousand, 10000, a million emails on this, or run an ad on a Google this way. Now this one, you kinda gotta get it right and so there's some key things that you have to do right. 

Jeff Tarran [00:10:50]:

Right. Absolutely. And number one among those, Richard, is data. Do you play golf? 

Richard Bliss:

I do a little, but I don't have the time. So let's say yes and no. 

Jeff Tarran:

Okay. I'm an even bigger no because I've tried it. I like sports where I can bump into people and get sweaty. I don't like sports where… basketball. Ok, go back to basketball. – There you go. – I don't like sports where I have to be really, really, really careful like I do at work. So, anyway, I don't play golf. So if you were to mail me a beautiful piece about a golf club membership, and you were to give me 50 percent off. You, it would just be a beautiful package with a phenomenal and it would be trash. – Yep. – Go right into the recycling bin. And that is something that it has to be really considered when you're developing mail program, but targeting is absolutely essential. Because no matter how great your message is, your creative is your offer is, if it goes to the wrong person, it's it's recycled material. So so that is absolutely the number one priority is getting your targeting right. There are a plethora of lists There are new lists and data sources and ways to append and analyze data coming online every single day. That's one of the things that as people who are in the industry, we have to stay up on. So your data is number one, number two, not so far behind that. Is an offer, and here's something that everyone who is new to direct mail doesn't always consider. You can't click on direct mail. 

Richard Bliss:

Really? I I tried. 

Jeff Tarran:

Okay. You can you can Richard, don't don't hurt your finger there. They you can't click on direct mail. So everybody who responds to direct mail has to put the the the physical piece down and go to another channel. That channel is usually online, but it can also be a phone -- Yeah. -- phone call depending on the product. Sometimes you can bond through the mail that tends to be more nonprofit oriented. But for the most part, the vast majority of response is going to happen online and lesser extent by phone. So when we're thinking of offers, what we're thinking of making people feel like they're going to miss out on something if they don't take advantage of our product. We need an offer that is strong enough to drive them to respond right when they're thinking about it, or at least put something on the top top of the I'll get to later pile. – Right. – And that has to do with the quality of the offer and the fact that that offer has to expire. If the offer doesn't, you know, FOMO is just a big part of what is going to make direct mail successful. So you need a good offer, and then you need an expiration date, and then you need the creative, the actual piece itself, that tells the story Just enough so people are interested, doesn't overtell it, doesn't over try to overdo anything because limited attention span is what we all fight in every channel every day. And then really direct people to how to to the call to action. What is the offer? How do you take advantage of it? And why should I do it right now?

Richard Bliss [00:13:49]:

Yeah. You bring up an interesting point because there isn't a subset of individuals. The I don't wanna pick on marketing, but people who believe that the picture, the graph, the imagery, that's what's gonna get people to stop, and that's what's gonna get people to interact with your content. But there is a counter intuitive response to that.

Jeff Tarran [00:14:13]:

Well, I wanna say yes and no. In, you know, direct mail, because you're holding something, there is an eye-hand response that is unique to that physical aspect as human beings we’re kind of built in the eye hand coordination aspect of it. That doesn't happen online. So when you pick something up and it is highly graphic, it does stop you and make you want to absorb it. So in certain instances, for example, if a major retailer is doing a sale, a very graphic approach showing what they're selling. – Yeah. – A big 20 percent off when it's happening on a large postcard is going to work. – Yeah. – Okay? On the other hand, what we find is a lifestyle approach only goes so far in a lot of the more serious products that people want to buy where they’re more interested in information than a couple strolling on a beach. So we have to be thoughtful about it, about what imagery we use, when it's going to work. And with direct mail, unlike other channels, We have a lot, it's all print on paper. All ink, visuals, etcetera. But we have decisions to make related to format. And different formats dictate different visual styles as well. You expect to be able to pick up a postcard, look at one side, flip it over, and get the mess for some things that's absolutely good enough. Other things, you would kinda be offended if you got a letter that said, Hey, Richard. Here's, you know, 40000 dollars towards your next refi if you can, on your house based on this address at this you know, for this amount of value. And that, you know, these are just more personal messages. That require more information. So we put them in an envelope, and we make either letters or flyers out of them so that they can communicate differently. So the format we use is a very big part of the creative decision-making when it comes to direct mail.

Richard Bliss [00:16:24]:

Yeah. And I've seen that having been in the industry for a long time like you have, I can recall a young man that I went to work for. He was a competitor. And he launched his business with a letter. He had them, now this is pre social media, and but he he took a letter 2 pages, type written, printed it out. But it's 2 pages of type written, no graphics, and explains the business model of how he can help them solve a very specific problem and mailed it to a bunch of law firms. – Mhmm. – And Boom had phenomenal response because law firms were interested in solving particular problem. He gave them all the details they needed in the letter. It was very personal. It turned around and became a phenomenal direct mail piece. But in some ways, that wouldn't even feel like a direct mail piece because so many people would where's your graphics? And where's your offer? And where is it? It was like, no. He just laid out, as you said, the information they needed to solve a very specific problem that he knew they had. And so I have seen that work so well. But you like you said, you have to know your audience, though. In this case, very specific.

Jeff Tarran [00:17:29]:

That's right. And the other thing you have to know is how they are going to want to research the information that they need to make a purchase. 

Richard Bliss:

Oh, good point.

Jeff Tarran:

So for example, now almost everything we do I talked about the importance of an offer and a call to action. A very significant part of that is saying, do we want them do we want to teach them this on the website? Do we want them to download an app? Do we want them just to make a call? What do we expect them to do? Is it to go out and fill, is it to fill out a form right away? Type of thing. So we've got a lot of thought process that goes on to how we want people to respond. In the old days, Yes. You wrote 2 and 3 page letters, and you told stories, and you brought people to it. Now a lot of what we do is is work with our clients to make sure that their landing environments are optimized for the people we're sending them to them because we know virtually everybody is going to probably do some online research. – Yeah – Before they make a purchase. And if we understand that, we understand how that funnel is going to work, what people are going to do, we drive them to an action that we're best for us, which is go to our website to learn everything you can that we think you need to make a decision.

Richard Bliss [00:18:48]:

Yeah. And so I find this fascinating because so many businesses are looking for ways to reach those customers. Obviously, I talk about LinkedIn being one vehicle to do that. But the more I have thought about it, the more it's become so important. For example, you bring this up in your chapter, and that is the ability to do print on demand means that you can provide offers in such a way that you don't have to print up a bunch of stuff that when they get a response, boom, a mailer goes out, easily customizable based on their information. You wanna talk about that just a little bit? 

Jeff Tarran [00:19:29]:

Yeah. That's really a fascinating aspect of what's going on. I mean, at at the highest level, we are always trying in direct mail to get closer and closer to actual intent. So it's very easy you know, it started with, well, you know, you're 18 to 34. You earn 74000 dollars a year. You okay. That's the best we could do. We use, now we use transactional data to say, based on what your stuff you're buying, we think you're gonna be interested in buying this. Type of thing. And a next phase on that is we will actually have a pixel placed on a client's website. And then what we will do is we will model behavior of people who have gone to that website and ended up purchasing. Alright? So if you were to visit that website and you were to model that behavior up to a certain point but didn't buy. We will trans, we will take that data, we will append your physical address to that data. And within 24 to 48 hours, we will get a postcard or a letter out to you in the mail related to your visit to that website based on modeling your behavior as someone who looks like they are interested. In that specific mailing can can have a unique offer to drive you over to the purchase home It can address some perhaps an issue that we see people who leave have when they exhibit a certain amount of intent but don't buy. So that is what we're doing now. So that, you know, the the most efficient way to use direct mail is to print thousands of thousands and maybe millions of pieces of mail and mailed them all at one time. Right. Perhaps the more of, in many cases, the most effective way to use direct mail is someone has shown real intent, and the cost of that mail is gonna be 2 to 3 times what it would be if you were 1 of a million. However, If your intent is strong enough, then it's worth it to spend that money and get something in your hands with a unique offer for you based on how we've modeled your behaviors through the website. 

Richard Bliss [00:21:38]:

And I think that's just so amazing. I have something, my I have a book out called, Digital-First Leadership. And the service I use allows me to customize the dedication page to every person I send the book to. And so I will send a book to a prospect or maybe a recent purchase customer or a client, and they're getting a unique one-of-a-kind copy of my book. Right? Because when they open it up, there it says, Brian, thank you so much. It was great to meet you. I hope that you find this after our conversation, blah blah blah. It's all in there as I wrote it up and it has my signature and the date and they now have a unique copy. I did this this with one gentleman that I had met. And I said, did you get my book? He's like, yeah. And I was texting him. Did you get the book? Yeah. I got the book. Did you look at the inside? And he's like, no. Why? And then a few seconds later, I get an OMG because here's this long dedication in the book to this individual that I had met. And so this ability to, this is a high now in my case, I'm I'm looking at 20 dollars a piece mailing. That's a hot that's a really expensive direct mail piece.

Jeff Tarran:

It sure is. 

Richard Bliss:

But if that turns into a 10000 dollar sale, then it was well worth and, you know, if I get a 10 to 20 percent hit rate on the amount that I send out, that's supposed to pay for itself real fast. That's right. 

Jeff Tarran [00:23:07]:

Well, you've got a high lifetime value there. So -- Yeah. -- obviously and you'd know who you're you're marketing to. But also, it what's interesting is you could have you could send that same message in an email, and it's equally personalized. – Yep. – And it would not have the same effect as seeing your name in print in a physical aspect of that nature. There is something about the physical personalization that goes on in print and our ability to use variable data, which is now becoming, you know, a a hundred percent, basically. Every I mean, everything and every mail piece can be 100 percent variable if we want it to be. You know, there's just something that is strong about the the impression it makes and the value of that communication, especially relative to digital channels. And it's just the way people are wired.

Richard Bliss [00:23:52]:

How would Jeff, how would people find more information about what you're doing? Because I've gotta believe that for somebody, this is maybe entering their mind for the first time, like, oh, I should go back and think about direct mail. I haven't done that. Where should they go to find out more information?

Jeff Tarran [00:24:09]:

Well, I'm glad you asked. Obviously, you know, what one of the things that goes on on our website, we have a very robust content library on our website. Lots of blogs, a lot of information. A very interesting p tab on our website is our ROI calculator. You can literally go into that calculator. And you can say, I wanna mail 20000 pieces of mail. I think I'm gonna make, you know, it's this format that's and we'll calculate your postage and and everything and basically tell you what do you think your response rate is going to baked so you can play with that. The other thing is I am really happy to answer any questions people have. It's one of my fondest evangelical wishes that people just keep reaching out to me so I can spread the word on direct mail. And my direct email address is jeff JEFF, at gundir, which is short for Gundirson Direct. So it's GUNDIR dot com, jeffett gunter dot com, I'll answer any questions you may have. I'm on LinkedIn. You can look me up at Jeff Tarrin, and reach out to me there as well. But we are really kinda happy to work with anybody who has interest in the channel because, again, we're one of the largest independent direct mail agencies, and we'd like to spread the word. 

Richard Bliss:

I'm gonna ask a question. You spelled it GUNDIR. Is it DER or DIR? 

Jeff Tarran:

Gundir, DIR, Gunderson Direct.

Richard Bliss [00:25:40]:

Because when I look on the website, I see Gunderson with an e r, Gunderson Direct dot com. 

Jeff Tarran:

You can you can put in yes. You can go to Gunderson direct the whole word, but if you're going to only do 6 letters, do GUNDIR.

Jeff Tarran [00:25:55]:

Okay. Because it's gun, it's it's short for Gunderson Direct.

Richard Bliss [00:26:00]:

Like, got it. Yeah. Gunter. Got it. Well, I'm glad for clarification because – 

Jeff Tarran:

You are not the first person. No. 

Richard Bliss:

They must jeff at gun der, GUNDIR, dot com. I hope that will get ahead of you. And then you are jeff tarrant, TARRAN, on -- That's right. -- LinkedIn. – That's right. – Well, this has been a fascinating conversation. It's a topic that I am extremely interested in just because of the capabilities of what it can do. And so I appreciate you taking some time, and it's been so wonderful to work on this project and to get to meet the authors just like yourself. So thank you for joining me. 

Jeff Tarran [00:26:35]:

Thank you. I enjoyed your your chapter as well, Richard. It was a great contribution.

Richard Bliss [00:26:43]:

Thanks, Jeff. You've been listening to Digital-First Leadership, nd what we've been talking about is not necessarily the digital side, but a blend where you take the direct mail piece and can blend it with your digital activities online. And my guest has been Jeff Tarrant, who is an expert experienced in this concept of direct mail today's digital-first world, there is still a very strong play for the direct aspect of your marketing efforts. Thanks for listening. Take care.

Jeff Tarran:

Thank you.


You've been listening to Digital First Leadership, the podcast where you learn to leverage and build your expertise on digital platforms. For more valuable tips on mastering the language of social media, subscribe to our newsletter at bliss point consult dot com. If you'd like to stay in touch, Feel free to add Richard on LinkedIn and join the conversation.