Growing with Direct Mail- a conversation with allplants

We met up with allplants at our recent Masterclass to get behind their marketing strategy and the impact direct mail has had on their growth since they started testing last year.

allplants delivers 5* plant-based meals nationwide; making eating more plants easy, exciting and delicious, to help both people and the planet thrive. Their early growth had been driven by Facebook and Google and they didn't have much of a marketing team at all, especially on the acquisition side. As part of their growth strategy, they really wanted to focus on acquisition and channel diversification, a big part of that being direct mail.

Our Head of New Business, Ben Collier spoke with Emma Aitken, Head of Performance Marketing at allplants.

Ben Collier: How long have you been using direct mail as a business and why was it something that you've pursued?

Emma Aitken: When I joined, we were very much reliant on Facebook and Google and they were great for new brands like us. Google obviously grows at the rate that the interest in that topic grows and with Facebook we came up against issues such as algorithm changes affecting the CPM or costs increasing YoY and it just wasn’t sustainable to purely focus on that side so one of my big tasks, when I joined, was to find some other channels that could work for the business and that’s how we came to testing direct mail with Epsilon.

Since September last year, we've done three campaigns and we are still learning, its kind of early days but we're definitely much less reliant on Facebook and Google and much more solid in terms of our channel mix.

Ben Collier: How does performance compare with your other acquisition channels in terms of CPA and conversion of those newly recruited customers to ongoing subscriptions?

Emma Aitken: There’s a couple of different ways of measuring it. It is a little bit more expensive than some of the other channels and slightly more expensive than inserts, for example, but, given some of the recent difficulties with iOS 14, it's actually not that far off Facebook which has been a little bit tricky.

And when we do the address match, it comes back in line with search, which is pretty strong. The early signs on lifetime value are quite promising as well. We like to work towards an overall CPA as a business and direct mail has been a part of the overall mix in some of our most successful months.

We definitely want to improve and get that CPA down further but we know as we branch out into more channels, that code redemption is a bit trickier because if you are used to doing just Facebook and direct mail, people would see you in two places and have two code options, whereas if we've got influencers talking about us and all these other things running by its side, it reduces the chance of them using that one code which does make things a little bit tricky. However, having the address match, particularly for someone that likes to do things as data-driven as possible, is extremely helpful. It gives us a good snapshot and enables us to monitor the ongoing value of those customers

Ben Collier: Following on from that point, it's great to hear that the CPA is in line with some of the other digital channels. We always emphasise the role that direct mail plays in conjunction with other channels. Can you share a bit about when you tend to run direct mail campaigns, how it impacts other channels, what other channels you'd like to have running at the same time?

Emma Aitken: We have a really strong seasonality with our brand, for example, in January people want to eat healthy after Christmas and that time is absolutely crazy for us and kind of our equivalent to Christmas for retail brands.

We have a couple of other brand peaks that aren’t as big as ‘Veganuary’ but in which we know our customers are in more of the right mindset, For example, we wouldn't test in summer because it's hot food, people are on holiday they care slightly less, they've already done their work to get fit for the summer and they just want to enjoy themselves so we kind of work around that and we have tested it alongside our TV campaigns. Having a direct response objective on this is really helpful to be doing direct mail alongside some branding activity so you're telling that story and then they get the mail and it complements each other perfectly. On that, we noticed something in one of the first tests. We ran an A/B test of a letter vs a roll fold format and the roll fold had a bit more branding present. However, from a CPA perspective, it just didn't perform in the same way.

So in conclusion, timing our direct mail campaigns with other marketing activity and making sure you really know when your customers are more likely to convert and jumping on the opportunity, even down to picking the right date, are really important. For example, if I know that my customer would want to start eating vegan in two days' time, what will they be doing if their house is full of leftover Turkey, so kind of getting in at that right moment, is really, really important.

Ben Collier: It’s such an important point to keep seasonality front of mind, because as obvious as it might sound to test the new channel in a time where you typically have a good level of demand, particularly with a channel like direct mail, which as we've talked about is going to be a bit more expensive, you want to give direct mail the best chance of working and making sure that not just yourself, but all decision-makers sees the early results and return on investment.

It’s also a very important point you make that for you it's not really about a catalogue, as it is with fashion brands, for example, but the letter and envelope format that works well for allplants. That is pretty much the case for the majority of subscription brands and it really seems to be the tried and tested method that works best and produces the best ROI.

Ben Collier: From a content perspective, your focus groups have shown that it's the food and the imagery that get them most excited but equally there's so much more to why you would become an allplants customer, whether it's from a sustainability angle or the healthier eating angle. What have you found in terms of content, has been most effective to include in the mailing piece itself?

Emma Aitken: We have a hierarchy of messaging and the hook for most people is the food and the convenience.

For certain groups it's health and you can be really, really specific with that, for example, Facebook targeting people who do yoga.

Targeting the broader audience, we know with the convenience angle, we lead with a nice food picture on the envelope.

And on the inside, we have a few key USPs we want to get across to get rid of some stigmas or preconceptions people might have about frozen, ready-made food which is part of what makes us unique. For example, making it really clear that it's a team of chefs,not machines that are making it, that it is plant-based as some of our customers aren't vegan but they’re people that are just trying to get more plants in their diet. Getting that communicated in the right way, is something that we're still learning.

Our January campaign was a much bigger step in that direction and just being really clear with our messaging that this is plant-based food to help them get on the way. Another point to get across is that it's delivered. We need to make it crystal clear as even though most people assume that it is these days, there's so much coming into the supermarkets and particularly in 2020 there was such a big step up from the previous years in terms of what's available there so just making it really clear that you order online.

So, when planning, we think of a catchy headline, then detail we want to get across as mentioned above, and then ticking the boxes that won’t necessarily hook people in but instead convert them to make the purchase, like Trustpilot.

There are two things we know our customers really care about, sustainability and health, but actually, it's not the thing that drives them to purchase. That’s the food and the convenience and the fact that it’s chef-made and sustainability is not the leading marketing message. However, having it in there in a subtle way, the fact that the delivery is carbon neutral and things like that is really important and kind of the last tick box. So with any direct response pieces, we almost have a checklist of things we want to include.

Depending on the space you have to sacrifice some of those but the letter format is really a nice format which helps us avoid going off on too much of a tangent down the brand route, which I think we did a little bit with the roll fold test, and ensure we're still introducing ourselves and getting all of the key points across.

Ben Collier: You've given fantastic insight into the messaging hierarchy that you have and it’s interesting that even a shorter format direct mail piece like the letter still gives you more scope to get more of those key points across in a succinct way compared to certain other channels.

Emma Aitken: With digital, you're very much relying on people clicking through to the landing page or finding the way to the homepage to get that complete picture of who we are and particularly with social media, where we're a bit more playful with our marketing, we need to sometimes step back and see whether we are losing our core messaging. With direct mail, it gives us much more space to communicate that brand message.

Ben Collier: There is a view out there that using paper is not sustainable and for allplants and for so many other sustainable brands that could be conflicting. How do you reconcile that?

There are a few different sides to it, I think. Carbon offsetting with our printer, making sure it's recycled paper, and making sure your messaging is really clear all mean we're doing the best we possibly can.

And also using Epsilon Abacus is key because we're cherry-picking the people that we think are likely to convert so we're being as efficient as possible with that paper usage. On the other side, it’s just weighing up the impact of paper versus other things, not least food! It is a tricky subject and there are a lot of misconceptions out there about the environmental impact of different things.

What has a higher impact on the environment? Your transport, your home energy usage and your diet are the three biggest things you have control over.

And for us sending an email versus sending a letter might seem to have less of an impact but people don't tend to think about the environmental impact of digital marketing and it does have an impact.

Being brave and mindful in our messaging and getting it out in an efficient way means ultimately getting more people with more plants in their diet and that is our positive impact on being more sustainable.

Also, we should remember the carbon footprint of a cheeseburger is at least 20 times greater than that of a letter! Thus if we can for every 20 letters we send convert one person down the line, whether it's in this campaign or the next, and they have one meal, we are reducing the overall carbon footprint. It's weighing those things up. Food has a much bigger impact than people think, and paper is definitely not as bad as people think.

It's such an important thing for marketers to sit up and take more notice of and understand the impact everything in life has on the environment.

Ben Collier: What has been your biggest challenge in the first year of using direct mail for allplants and, to follow that, what advice would you have given yourself, or someone starting out on the journey, given what you know now.

Because you have more space in direct mail, getting the balance right of the direct response elements and the brand and branding elements is a must. We've definitely not got that quite right in some of the previous ones and being super clear what it's about, particularly in January when there weres lots of other things going on, we allowed the kind of general brand campaign message to seep in a bit too much and we left out some of the direct response elements which I think wasn't quite the right thing. That's part of learning though and it is tricky when you've suddenly gone from using Facebook ads with a certain amount of text to having all of this space and figuring out how to fill it.

I think that the other thing is relying on code redemptions, as we do with most of our other channels, which meant we weren’t convinced of performance until we did the address match and then realised many more people had bought and they just didn't use the code or they spotted another ad and used that code instead.

So they're two of the biggest challenges. I would also say the impression internally about sharing our data with 3rd parties delayed us starting out a bit. I think people often push back on that and that marketers often shy away from it and decide not to take the risk but getting to work with the Epsilon team to fully understand the requirements and understand it's completely GDPR compliant was worth the effort.

The other big piece of advice is testing - making sure you test with whatever volume you've got, monitoring all the elements and measuring campaign performance.

That’s the one thing that we have done well, guided by the team at Epsilon and PSE.
Whether they be different data models, different formats, different offers or different content you've included in the format, whatever it might be, testing is crucial!

We've been able to test both different algorithms for identifying the prospect audience and different formats at the same time in our early campaigns, and that's accelerated the learnings we’ve taken.

Whilst allplants and I’m sure other businesses are happy to invest in testing, it's only up to a certain point so you’ve got to try and get as much as possible but still allow for a result that you can trust.

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