AT&T is pretending to by my neighbor. My helpful neighbor, in fact, who is very much in tune with fluctuating telecom prices and packages. And as a helpful neighbor, friend, or perhaps even relative, AT&T was kind enough to let me know in writing, via snail mail, that there were some great new rates available.
There’s nothing surprising about receiving junk mail, especially from large companies. But there were some interesting traits in the AT&T message that made it stand apart from the typical credit card offers and magazine subscriptions the postal service drops off.
As much as I like to imagine a considerate, local AT&T employee spending his or her free time stuffing envelopes to save everyone in the neighborhood a few dollars, that’s not the reality. But why does this letter feel like it came from someone I know? The envelope is the first element.
Fonts that look like handwriting are nothing new, but this is still a departure from regular business mail. And rather than the typical corporate, printed postage we expect to see, a stamp has actually been affixed to the envelope. It still has some of the markings of junk mail, like a printed return address (on the reverse, not shown), but its lean is distinctly “organic.” It’s a hybrid of business mail and social mail, at least on the surface.
The envelope certainly encourages a better open rate, something e-marketers are well accustomed to, but the contents are slightly more troubling.
The faux-handwritten font makes a return, albeit in a different font than that on the envelope, which doesn’t quite make sense. Overlooking that inconsistency, the sales language still can’t help but get in its own way: “Why wait? I’m calling today!”
These fonts and CTAs have been part of mailing campaigns for years and again, aren’t entirely surprising or unexpected. It’s the the upper left corner of the document that deserves the most attention. It has the shading of a poorly executed photocopy (not the result of a poor uploading attempt). This crosses the line from creative marketing into subterfuge. Perhaps the script-like fonts crossed that line years ago, but attempting to dress up a letter to disguise it as a home-grown message is pushing the limits of acceptable conduct. Improving open rate is one thing, but feigning legitimacy is another.
So junk mail is getting more elaborate. Was this unexpected? Perhaps not, but the real issue is maintaining the line between organic content and sponsored content. Comparing digital content marketing to a direct mail campaign may not seem like the best matchup, but AT&T crosses the line into subterfuge with its printed message.
Content marketing and native advertising, even while past their digital infancies, are plagued by concerns about sponsorship transparency. This direct mail marketing comes off as intentionally misleading and as an attempt to obscure, rather than clearly state, the origin of the content.
A great deal of the criticism aimed at native advertising has addressed this very point. The major worry about native ads is the fall of the wall between journalism and sponsored content, but the real reach of these ads – and the associated issues – extends far beyond print publications. While the content here is clearly branded, in the sense that there are AT&T logos, the it’s not in the spirit of good native advertising. There aren’t hard set rules for native ads yet, and this is the kind of behavior that can make other brands and publishers hesitant to embark on what is really an effective, and useful, marketing track.