On the advice of your marketing expert, you had just penned the perfect blog or customer letter. You had a throat-grabbing headline, and the body copy provided content that was relevant, timely, and interesting: the trinity of good copywriting. The length was not too short to imply unimportance and not so long that potential readers would send it to the “later” folder that no one ever revisits. You pressed the send button, expecting to receive a mini-flood of email replies during the next several days.

We at Thermostat Recycling Corp. (TRC) followed this scenario, and several days later, after reviewing our responses, marketing reality set in. We had plenty of responses, but the stunning surprise was the number of faxes that suddenly brought our fax machine back to life. Before completing the campaign, we even received responses through venerable snail mail.

The digital age reinforces two timeless messages of marketing. First, know your audience, and second, allow them to respond to you in the manner they prefer. Offer options.

TRC sends out 2,000 biannual digital questionnaires to a national audience to address a location’s participation in our collection efforts to recycle thermostats containing mercury. Our audience members are HVACR wholesalers, contractors, retail outlets, and recycling centers for household hazardous waste. We conduct this survey to find out who is still active in the recycling process and which locations may have dropped out. How our audience chose to respond was eye-popping. A whopping 70 percent responded via fax, 25 percent through email, 4 percent through snail mail, and 1 percent came in as phone calls.

A small digression. In the world of direct marketing (both traditional and digital), the second-most frequent mantra uttered (after the need to create a great headline) is the need for a call to action. Get the reader to do what you want: send money, join your email newsletter, write your congressional representative, etc. However, we sometimes forget to consider all the reply options that our audiences might prefer.

At TRC, the response startled us. In the HVACR industry, the common age of the “average” technician or counterperson is 50-plus, but we presumed that even this group would favor email responses. However, we had a 70 percent rate for fax responses. I mentioned this to a PR-industry friend, and he told me that his latest business card lacks a fax number. He might be missing some business.

We can safely conclude that our audience partners still prefer a low-tech option such as the fax machine. I suspect that, if we had sent out an email survey with relevant information to middle managers in Silicon Valley, we would have seen a dearth of responses via fax.

What we did correctly, even though I confess we were not conscious of it, was our provision of a fax option in our questionnaire. Try sending a fax to my fax-less PR buddy.

The larger lesson, of course, is twofold. First, never presume you know how your audience prefers to respond or how they wish to receive information. It is no surprise that today’s trade press, in which magazines are often free, still ask whether you prefer the publication in print format, digital format, or both. This is a smart move. The other lesson is that you must provide all the options possible for your audience to respond, if that is what you are seeking. Remove every barrier for a response and do not prejudge which ones to use. Use every one that is even remotely relevant.

Is there a tipping point in the HVACR and related industries that will turn the fax-response rate we received upside down? I suspect there is. We can anticipate a different response preference for when those 50-something-year-old technicians and counter people leave the industry and are replaced by smartphone-savvy younger replacements — if you can find them. Then again, the new preference might not be email. After all, you will notice that, in our survey collection, we never used LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, or any social media platform. The next time we conduct the survey will show whether my prognostications hold true. In the meantime, give everyone a variety of options to respond, and that is how you can really understand your audience.

Publication date: 9/17/2018

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