Social media, email and other forms of digital communication have become the norm in society, so for businesses to really stand out in a crowded marketplace the pressure is on to do something different.
Charlotte Pearce founded Inkpact, a business that helps companies to send handwritten letters to customers, to do just this. Business come to Inkpact when they need to send a handwritten note and Charlotte’s team of writers produce this and send it out to customers on behalf of the company. We caught up with Charlotte to find out more…
So where did this idea come from? It seems so different to the usual approach that businesses take at the moment of bombarding us with emails, Facebook posts and tweets. Why start a business that shies away from technology?
I guess the thing for Inkpact is that we wouldn't have a business without technology and yet the end product is nothing to do with technology. We're kind of straddling these two worlds.
The idea came back when I was a student at Southampton University about two and a half years ago. I ran a big social enterprise organisation called Enactus, which is a global social enterprise organisation and I ran the Southampton branch of it.
I was really in this world of finding an opportunity for somebody and at the same time solving a business problem. I went to a personal development day by a company called Action Coach and they were saying how they were really struggling to personalise their marketing. Sending an email about their services didn't seem quite right and getting face to face was almost impossible but they said that they were really struggling to personalise their offering.
One of the guys said to me, 'I love sending handwritten letters, it gets to the right person, it's really personalised, it gets opened, they remember it. But I have a lead list now of a thousand leads, I can't write a thousand letters, how am I going to do this?'
And I said, ‘Surely there's people out there that are looking for a job and a way to earn some money with great writing, why don't you get them to do it?’ He didn't know of a service that offered this so I said, ‘Why don't we do this: I'll charge you for your marketing and I'll pay some of my friends and people in Enactus to handwrite the letters for you.’ I completely started a business by accident!
He called me the next week and said that he'd called all the people that received one of our letters and they all loved it and everyone responded so positively to it and we had a 100 per cent open rate. Everyone that he called had opened the letter.
And it got me thinking. You only get about a 12 per cent open rate on an email if you're lucky, actually if we're getting a 100 per cent open rate, I think I'm on to something here. So very steadily, while I was still at university I started it up. At this time, there was no technology whatsoever, people used to call me to put in their orders.
Surely that’s a hard model to grow, though. How did you change things?
I was very fortunate to get a place on something called the New Entrepreneurs Foundation, where they pick the top 30 up and coming entrepreneurial people and it's like an accelerator for yourself where they put you into the London start-up environment and you get to meet the most amazing people who have grown billion dollar businesses, not just small ones. So I was sitting there with this small business wondering how I could make it scalable. The New Entrepreneurs Foundation really helped me think about big business.
I found someone on the course who had built a platform that was for crowdfunding of innovation ideas. The same type of technology that he was building for that company we needed to build a platform to link up our clients and our writers.
So I said, let's build a platform that's really simple and easy for companies to send handwritten letters at the touch of a button. Then a writer can log on from anywhere in the UK - anywhere in the world - they can say which jobs they want to do, it gets sent to their home, they handwrite it and they send it out.
That opened up a whole world of scale for us because it means that we can have a whole team of writers in the UK, and throughout the world, it doesn't matter where they are, they sit at home doing the writing and post it from their location. It suddenly opened this world of scale so last summer we launched our first online tech platform.
So how many writers do you have?
We have 50 writers at the moment, mainly in the South of England, just because that's where we're based. But we work with a lot of charities - the House of St Barnabas for example, the Retirement Transition Initiative, and the Young Women's Network - to find our writers. They pass on people who are looking for work, but maybe a standard nine to five isn't right for them for whatever reason, so we have a waiting list of hundreds of writers. For us now it's just a case of getting ourselves in front of clients.
And what’s been the feedback so far? Do you know how successful this approach is?
We get as much data from our clients as we can because we need to know what works in different industries. Inkpact could work for almost every type of business because everyone has customers so we're trying to work out where we fit best.
We've had some fantastic feedback. With some campaigns we've done, someone has either got on the phone or written an email back - sometimes even written a letter back to the company - saying that no-one has ever contacted them in this way for the last 20 years and that it stood out.
We received one testimonial from a customer of a bank that works with us and it said, "In the last 20 years I have never received anything this personalised. It really shows how much you value me as a customer and I look forward to working with you going forward."
This was from a business customer that the bank were trying to persuade to go with them. It really shows that, when you're compared against five other banks, you need that one thing that's going to make them make a customer choose you.
We did another really cool campaign with a cosmetics company at Christmas and we looked at the impact on social media after. We'd split tested it, half with a printed flyer, half with a handwritten note and no tweets were sent from people who received the printed flyer, all the tweets online had the handwritten note.
I think it's interesting to see the effect above and beyond people actually responding and that's happened a couple of times with different campaigns when it's been an end consumer who receives our handwritten note. That gives the brand extra credibility above and beyond gaining that customer.
What do you think is the future for this kind of marketing? Will we be seeing more personalisation and more business offering similar services to Inkpact popping up?
I think services like this have to pop up. People are getting so sick of digital communication all the time. It's also really easy for a customer to switch to another company, whether it's energy provider or an airline or whatever. It's so easy to see better deals and as a result people are becoming less loyal to an extent. I think that every company is realising that they have to do something extra because there is so much information and so many messages out there; price isn't the only thing that's going to affect a customer's decision. I think we’re in the right space at the right time.
In terms of Inkpact, what we're looking to do is just be an easy way for companies to be more personalised. We've actually just got some partnerships with a flower company and a chocolate company where we can offer a gift with a handwritten note, just by adding to the company's existing order system. We're thinking if we bring this kind of service into the already existing systems then it's going to be easier and it's more likely that people will do it. We're just opening up the market to be more personalised in a very simple, effective, easy, seamless way. I think that the easier you make something, the easier it is for someone to adopt it so that's what we're working on.
And there are other companies in the US that are doing handwriting and it's something that's becoming more and more known, especially with the world of digital detox and understanding that we look at screens all the time - even vinyl is coming back now! I think people really love physical things. I think that's the way that the world is going again but for us, it's about helping businesses be a part of that because it's harder for them to be part of those worlds so we're bridging the gap.