Fans of Netflix’s cult eighties-themed series “Stranger Things” are counting down the days to the season 3 premiere on July 4. In the meantime, all this waiting around has got us thinking about how things have changed since the 1980s.
Set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, “Stranger Things” takes us back to that innocent period before the advent of the World Wide Web, smartphones, and social media. Nobody in Hawkins would have heard of big data nor envisioned how it would enable brands to target consumers with greater precision.
The 80s Was the Golden Decade for Direct Mail Marketing
Throughout the first 2 seasons, we see plenty of great examples of how things were back then. Elections play out on front lawns instead of social media: Mike’s house has a Reagan-Bush sign out front, and Dustin’s a Mondale-Ferraro sign. The chief of police, Sergeant Hopper, spends his days trying to fend off calls from the town’s resident conspiracy theorist. Everyone has a mailbox—and it doesn’t only get filled with bills.
Another thing the people of Hawkins would have been familiar with was direct mail marketing, a form of marketing where businesses sent promotional materials directly to prospective customers. The package usually included a stamped, self-addressed envelope or toll-free number which made it easy for customers to purchase or subscribe to whatever was being offered. In 1983, the year the “Stranger Things” story begins, direct mail accounted for 15.1% of all US postal revenue.
Direct mail was a precursor to what we now call demographic marketing. Early efforts targeted customers based on things like age, income, location, and profession. As database analysis (the precursor to online data analytics) became more sophisticated, businesses were able to target customers based on their purchase history. As a result, direct mail began to morph into a fairly primitive version of today’s intent marketing. If Hawkins were a real place, brands would have targeted Dustin’s house with promotions for audiovisual gear based on his previous purchases of high-end cameras. Brands would have targeted Sergeant Hopper’s house with promos for Eggo waffles or similar products, based on the fact he had purchased dozens of boxes for Eleven, the hero of “Stranger Things.”
Eleven, the hero of Stranger Things, would have been a target of Eggo’s direct mail campaign.
Like today’s digital marketers, direct mail marketers aimed to achieve 2 things: reach the customers with the most interest in their product; and get those customers to act.
In those days, marketers would pore over customer databases—on an old Mac if they were lucky, or on an A4 printout if they weren’t—in an effort to identify the customers with the highest intent. The self-addressed envelope or toll-free number represented the call to action: the customer was urged to place a check in the envelope to get their fishing gear, Eggos, or whatever product was being sold.
Data Analytics: Enabling Digital Marketers to Target User Intent with Precision
Direct mail marketing hasn’t disappeared altogether, but for the most part marketing campaigns have migrated online. These days, brands use online lead generation and targeted PPC (pay-per-click) campaigns to find and attract high-intent users. Once the customer reaches the brand’s landing page, there are all sorts of call-to-action buttons and tools that brands can place on their website to get customers to act.
Thanks to advances in data analytics and machine learning, marketers can now target consumers far more accurately than they were able to in the 80s. Think of Netflix, Amazon, or Spotify. The more a customer consumes, the more data these brands collect and the more accurately they are able to target the customer with recommendations.
A person need not be an existing customer to appear on your brand’s radar. These days, brands can reach new, high-intent customers by targeting certain keywords. In consumer finance, for example, consumers are increasingly beginning their journey with non-branded search terms like “best mortgages” or “best car insurance.” The key to getting consumers onto your brand’s website is to bid the optimal price for high-intent search terms. The key to getting those consumers to convert is to satisfy their query (e.g. helping them to compare mortgage or insurance options).
Online Intent Marketing Loses on Nostalgia, Wins on Effectiveness
Those of us who remember the 80s can be forgiven for feeling nostalgic when viewing “Stranger Things.” It certainly seemed to be a more innocent period for kids and parents than the present day (although some commentators have argued that now is the safest time to be a kid in America).
Some people will no doubt lament the gradual disappearance of direct mail marketing and other relics of the past. There’s nothing like the feeling of opening an envelope, reading a paperback, or paying for something with real money. Like it or not, these things are all on the way out, replaced by email, e-readers, and digital payments.
Online intent marketing benefits marketers and consumers more than its direct-mail predecessor. If Dustin or Eleven were growing up today, you can imagine them googling “compare AV equipment” or “cheapest Eggo suppliers.” Marketers would interpret these search queries as signals of intent and show them the best AV products or cheapest Eggo stores. Dustin and Eleven would find what they were searching for in minutes and without having to leave the house. Brands would reach them more cheaply and easily, earning a greater return on their marketing budget. It would be a win-win for both sides.