Rory Sutherland interviews Seema Kumari, former Hearst UK

Mail Unleashed Transcript

Rory: Hello and welcome to Mail Unleashed. This is a series of occasional conversations in which I get to indulge myself by talking to some of the leading figures in marketing and direct marketing about their experiences in general, their view of the future, and in particular their experience of using direct mail. And today, we're fantastically privileged to be joined by Seema Kumari. So welcome, Seema. Seema is currently the chair of the PPA's Subscription Committee. For those of you who don't know, the PPA is the Periodical Publishers Association. I think I got that right.
And also, is effectively head of subscriptions and direct marketing and quite a few other things for Hearst Publications. Now, a few of our listeners may have heard of William Randolph Hearst, possibly better known as Citizen Kane, who was the founder of the Hearst Publishing Empire. What is the main kind of publications that come under your remit?

Seema: Yes. So, at Hearst, we publish 20 brands across digital and print. So, you've probably heard of all of them say Cosmopolitan. Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Good Housekeeping. Some key leading brands, global brands, keep us very busy.

Rory: And just about. And you actually have to maintain subscription revenue, both physical and digital subscriptions, correct?

Seema: Yes, correct. Yes. Across all the brands.

Rory: it's worth noting that particularly those categories in which you operate, print is holding up really well, isn't it? There's this completely mistaken narrative that print is dying now. It's true to say no one's denying that daily newspapers have taken a hit because instantaneous news is available in lots of other forms. But it seems to me that actually quality periodical print is actually. I mean, it's barely taken a hit. Is that fair in terms of readership and general penetration?

Seema: I think that's a fair assumption. I mean, some of our brands are still seeing print growth year to year. And I think for some brands, especially the luxury brands, you can't convey the message in digital. So, if there's an ad for a beautiful designer bag, it somehow has more value when it's in print because it looks beautiful when you're flicking that page. So, you know, I think print is definitely here to stay. You know, we've been here doing this for many years. Print said print. It said, no, it's not. And it's just a different way of reading content. And actually, someone who's digital through and through. I love that print magazine. You know, this is something that differentiates your screen time to actually sitting down with a cup of tea reading that magazine, that me time. You know, we all know that reading reduces stress by 66%. Well, so what a great way then to be reading about positive news and content, which is what magazines provide.

Rory: And increasingly, people have probably had enough Coram St screen time by the time they get home. It's worth noting also that a great magazine of that kind is a beautiful object in and of itself. It, you know, it's partly something to read. It's partly actually interior decor. It serves multiple functions.

Seema: Absolutely. I mean, it looks great on the coffee table. Yeah.

Rory: And so obviously, you know, you're, again, hugely dependent on the mail medium still, although what I think is interesting about what you do is you've almost kind of because your remit covers both digital subscription hunting for both digital and print subscriptions, you've created a kind of programmatic mail system. Pure play digital marketing. Tell me more about programmatic direct mail.

Seema: Yep. So, before I get into programmatic, It is probably important, not just email and talk about the traditional DM that everyone thinks about today. So, the traditional DM was very much about the fashion blast, little personalization, and it was, you know, it was all about the numbers. How many people can we send a mailer to? I think fair to say, you know, in the nineties we were probably receiving more DM than emails and it did have a negative connotation.
It was often perceived as junk mail because then everything kind of goes through three waves and phases. And I think now it's come out the other end as something that, you know, going on to programmatic mail is an obsession blast. It's a DM that's triggered based on an action that the customer has made, therefore making it more relevant perfect.

And so, we work with paper planes for programmatic DM are said to have a pixel on our website and when the customer abandons their journey, then a DM is automatically triggered.

Rory, you're on our site, you're locked in, and we know you're on our site browsing.

And I know some magazines and we then trigger a letter to be sent to you because we know that you are showing a high intent and you're on our site. So, you're there for a reason. It could be a bit further along in the journey. So, you're in our checkout, someone's at the door and you've abandoned your journey and that will trigger, you know.

Rory: How could it be triggered? Let's say I were browsing Good Housekeeping excessively. How quickly will that probably trigger a mailing?

Seema: So, we trigger right after 24 hours and the reason being is because we have so about programmatic DMS, part of an omnichannel recovery series. Yeah. And it's best used when you're using other channels because they all work together.  So, I call it friends with benefits. If you take email and DM, they really work well together. So, email on its own and DM on its own. Absolutely they work but fuse them together and magic happens.

Rory: They multiply. It's not additive as you'd think. It's actually multiplicative is the influence.
Do you tend to leave direct mail till slightly later or obviously it's going to take 24 hours to arrive. one of the great things of DM, I would say this because it's probably the most potent and least likely to be ignored communication, is it? If you can't make DM work for you, maybe it's your product that's the problem, not the medium. 
Seema: Yep. The way we're working it, I mean, I mean there's so many ways to slice and dice it so it could be that it's a follow up to the email. Yeah, we would like to have it all integrated, so it works together because, you know, we've seen all the research. Average DM sits in the household for 17 days.
And actually, what a better time to be sending emails in those 17 days. Because if that letter is sitting on your coffee table receiving that free impression every day that you're not paying for.
And then these emails that are following up, you know, that customer might not take the action with the direct mail, but they might do with the email. And I think this is where measurement is so key because often DM is undervalued because of the way marketers are measuring the impact of it from a low click point of view.

Rory: So quite often the responses is triggered by the data, but it's not attributable. You think.

Seema: Exactly. Because they might have gone on to Google and on the search coming through our PPC or coming through organic or through our Facebook ad. And actually, when you then put those metrics together, completely change the shape of the campaign.

Rory: And then six months out, you realize that 50% more people were actually ending up subscribers than you previously thought.

Seema: Yep. Which, you know, as I said, changes the whole shape of that analysis than actually creates a good business case to be doing more of this because of the halo effect that Dm has.

Rory: So anyway, you brought along a couple of campaigns that have a particular resonance for you, that have a particular meaning, which you like. We always make it a bit of a tradition of these events for the guests to share them. What are your two?

Seema: So, I was I was obviously I've received a lot of time and I keep here because that's what you do when you're in marketing. And the ones that really stood out for me are the ones where they sent me something extra. So, I really like the white company. So, every November, they, October, they send me a catalog with all the great stuff, you know, recognizing that I'm a loyal customer, you know, with a discount and a nice code with a discount for me to feel special, it's something I can tear off and take it to the shop.

And that catalog, I'm probably one of those people where it stays in the house for 17 days, but, you know, it stays on my coffee table because I know I want to look at it and it drives me to the store as well.

And it's great timing as well because even if I'm not in the market for myself, we know that in a candle to make a great Christmas gift. Yeah.

Rory: Oh, God, it wasn't that. And I've got I've got a wife and two daughters and you're bringing back a total trove of candles. Why is it 47? Don't worry. Okay. I got over it now. Recovery, reprieve, every that you can carry on something. Yes.

Seema: So, if it's not candles, I'd say chocolate. Yep. The to my favorite things so. And hotel chocolate scent and a beautiful catalog every year to me as well. And again, it's brilliant because they really amplify their marketing around Christmas. So guaranteed when I receive that DM with the catalog, every magazine I'm opening, each time I'm watching TV, there's all this integrated campaign that really works with the DM.

Yeah, because I probably see that brand about 15, 20 times in the space of a few weeks because I'm constantly exposed to the messages and again, a lovely little catalog that sits on my table, a night, grab it when I'm about to send gifts, corporate gifts, etc. It's just, you know, it always works a treat.

Rory: I mean, I see the time when not necessarily to the same scale, but both are doors and IKEA bring back catalogs in some shape or form because it strikes me that. Yes. Okay. They've made the case that the future is moving online, but actually the long-term effects of abandoning those physical things completely strike me as probably a bit mistaken.

Seema: I hundred percent agree. When I found out that Argos were removing the catalog or printing of very few. Yeah, I was actually really upset.
It was like this loss mainly because of the association I think because as a child that August could go in that circle. What I want for Christmas. Yeah, my birthday and you know it would be a permanent feature in the home and would I just walk into August to buy something. No, no. Would I look in that catalog if it was there. Absolutely.

Rory: I think you made an interesting point because, of course, Hearst is essentially a premium stable of brands. You've mentioned the white company, you've mentioned Hotel Shukla. I think there's a particular renaissance of direct mail and direct marketing among those kinds of upmarket brands, which I think is interesting.  
Well, Seema Kumari, thank you very much indeed. It's been an absolute joy having you on the long, passionate love of the whole subscription business, which I think is fascinating. So, all I can say is thank you very much. It's been an absolute joy having this interview. If you want to know more, why not go to where you can find even more ways to really unleash the power of the mail medium. So, until next time, thank you and thank you very much indeed.