Not Your Dad's Direct Mail - Part One
With Father's Day approaching, I started thinking about my experiences in direct mail "back in the day" as a young pup in a lettershop. These were the days before inkjet, when paper labels and metal plates were the tools used for addressing mail pieces. Even earlier, direct mail letters were typed by hand, by armies of typists sitting at rows of tables.
I remember throwing (literally) thousands of sacks of finished mail around the shop floor, trying to build skids of them that wouldn't topple over when moved. The "method" to success in those days was a.) find the right mailing lists (usually through a list broker), and b.) send out as many mail pieces as you could afford, which led to c.) hope for good returns!.
Fast forward to 2015. A direct mailer from 1972 would think they're on a different planet entering a high-volume, direct mailer today. The 5,000 per hour Phillipsburg—Bell and Howell envelope inserters have been replaced by machines that can run at 20,000 envelopes per hour without breaking a sweat. Dusty mail bags are long gone, replaced by plastic mail trays that can be automatically filled by machine tray loaders. High-speed, full-color continuous inkjet printers spit out colorful, individually-personalized mail pieces at 400 feet-per-minute plus.
And the Post Office? I remember driving a truck full of finished mail (in sacks) down the Church Street P.O. in lower Manhattan. No more. Mail sampling and electronic manifesting mean that the job is accepted in the mailer's facility and shipped out directly to USPS mail facilities right from the shipping dock. Sophisticated sortation of the mailing mates well with USPS machine automation systems so that the labor input needed to process these billions of mail pieces is kept to a minimum.
More importantly, the old mail rule of "mass" mailing where sheer numbers were king are also gone. Today's data masters weave their magic on consumer data to extract the recipients that are most likely to respond to the message. The mail piece is then individually-tailored to the target. The end result are fewer pieces mailed, but better yields coming back.
Contrary to some opinionators, direct mail is going strong. Internet ads can't compete with a well-designed, creative, physical mail piece. You might spend a microsecond on a Web ad, but a mail piece has "got you" for 30 seconds at a minimum. So today's mailers are high-tech and well-equipped to keep this medium going strong for many years to come.