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Papyrus Plus: The Evolution of Direct Mail

February 18th, 2015 Posted in Fundraising

You may not find it surprising that such a practice has controversial roots. The earliest recognizable example of direct mail comes from the year 1000 BC where a wealthy Egyptian offered a reward in gold for the return of a runaway slave. His offer was put down on papyrus and distributed around the area.

Thankfully, we’ve moved on from such a grim application of the technique. Though it has been used for as long as ancient merchants could etch prices into stone tablets, the advent of the western printing press in the 15th century saw its full potential recognized.

The Impact of Print
William Caxton was churning out printed pamphlets to be distributed to consumers as early as 1480, and, as printing technology developed, so did the scale at which mail could be produced for marketing.

Direct mail allowed marketers to reach consumers directly in ways that weren’t possible before. By the Victorian era, customers in rural areas and small towns who were previously at the mercy of unscrupulous local merchants could place their orders by mail.

This ensured they were getting the same fair prices for premium goods as those in neighboring towns. It proved so successful that one of the pioneers of this practice, one Richard Warren Sears, founded a commercial empire on direct mail that lasts to this day in the form of Sears department store!

The Rise of Digital
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the impact of computers on society would harm direct mail. However, the truth is completely different. Even early computers allowed marketers to collect and analyze data faster and more deeply than ever before. This let them target specific audiences with more relevant products, reducing waste and boosting efficiency.

This trend went from strength to strength. One of direct mail’s greatest strengths is its personal nature. Emails can be deleted with the press of a button, audio/visual adverts can be ignored, but a letter is something tangible that you can hold in your hand.

When it’s got your name on it, this sense of connection increases and the development of variable data printing (VDP) allows thousands of direct mails to be produced, each personalized to the recipient without slowing the printing process. Marketers are at a point now where print can even emulate handwriting, giving the impression of signatures and adding to the personality and character of the communication.

What Does the Future Hold?
So where does direct mail stand today? Consumers are increasingly protective of their privacy online, and the data required for a large-scale direct mail campaign can sometimes be at odds with that. Similarly, with the population becoming increasingly environmentally conscious, questions are raised about the waste of paper that comes with sending out mass communications like this. In short, does it still work?

In the digital age, direct mail has to play to its strengths but is by no means “dying.” The personal touch of receiving a letter, even one that’s clearly sent en masse, can’t be overstated. So, as much personalization as your audience will accept and feel comfortable with (remember, you don’t want to creep them out) is key.

Similarly, you’ve got to make sure there’s something in it for the mail recipient if they open your letter. Big chain supermarkets get fantastic results by including coupons in their mailings, tailored to customers’ spending habits to provide an immediate incentive to engage with their products. Which again is backed up by statistics showing that 62% of people like to receive offers via direct mail. Using direct mail to complement your existing advertising and social media campaigns can add a tangible, “real world” element to your current efforts.

Direct mail’s long and storied history doesn’t look set to end with the dominance of digital. But like any technology, it can’t exist in a vacuum. By using direct mail in conjunction with good market intel and a cunning strategy, it can more than pull its weight.

January 15, 2015
By Jonny Rountree
DirectMarketing IQ magazine

Jonny Rowntree  is a freelance writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne, working with worldwide digital printing partner, Elanders Print UK. Reach him at

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