20th Anniversary Special: Direct Mail's Biggest Trends and Their Current Impact
An old saying promises that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its misadventures. This is true of direct mail, where cutting-edge marketers study the successes and failures of the past in the hope of replicating winners and avoiding losers.
In researching the last 20 years of direct mail, as covered by Inside Direct Mail (which launched in 1984 as Who's Mailing What!), I found that many current trends have deep roots in direct mail history. It also became apparent that certain mailing preferences might die off, only to be resurrected when the right conditions exist again.
Overall, the most important lesson gained from analyzing two decades of mail trends is that no format or offer need be relegated to the direct mail graveyard. With the right tweaks and the right audience, marketers can pull ideas from the past to make a little history of their own.
June 1987: Professional Discount Vouchers
Although Denny Hatch, founding editor of this newsletter, discovered what likely was the first professional discount offer mailed to a consumer in 1985 by Outside magazine, it wasn't until 1987 that this approach began to rein in some serious followers. That's when big-time mailers Time and Newsweek started to put their own creative stamp on this pitch, using laser personalization and four-color premium inserts. These newsweeklies were joined in the 1990s by other mailers in the use of these vouchers to sell the appearance of special pricing for select recipients.
After sweepstakes mailers took a legislation-engineered tumble in late 1999, the voucher format spread like wildfire across the magazine landscape. What once had been just another part of the publisher's format mix became the control for scores of magazines.
Currently, the professional discount voucher continues to pull strong response and payup. But a number of adventurous circulation professionals reluctant to rely on a single format are testing into more message-oriented packages that offer a strong complement to the voucher.
July 1987: Oversize Formats
Whenever the economy slows, mailers go big. Over-sized mailings were spotted in, well, larger numbers in 1987 and since 2002. But the economy alone isn't responsible for this march toward big formats; increased competition also has convinced marketers to use size in the mailbox to beat their foes.
The 9" x 12" envelope package, in particular, has drawn quite a fan club over the past two decades. In September 1987, Hatch talked to Pat Corpora, then with Rodale Press, about his firm's preference for 9" x 12" envelope formats; Corpora reported that 9" x 12" envelopes were pulling results that were 25 percent stronger on average than its prior favorite format, the 6" x 9" envelope package.
More recently, mailers keeping the large mail trend alive in the 21st Century have included Consumer Reports, American Lung Association, Life Extension Foundation and Boardroom, to name a few. And for many of these firms, 9" x 12" just doesn't cut it anymore; most of their formats measure in excess of 10" x 13".
May 1989: Magalogs
In the early 1980s, the Who's Mailing What! Archive might have collected a magalog here or there. But in the spring of 1989, this format dispelled notions that it was a flash in the pan, as a slew of 16-page efforts showed up from Agora Publishing (Hulbert Financial Digest, Taipan), Phillips Publishing (The Retirement Letter, International Gold Report), KCI Communications (Personal Finance) and others.
Today, magalogs still are used by newsletter publishers as a way to share sample content for the publication and to create hype around the offer. In addition, magazine and book publishers have latched onto this format, too. The magalog can lay claim to a spin-off format, the bookalog, which has been used successfully by Boardroom Inc., Martha Stewart Living, Allure and others as a more upscale option.
And this format also has served as inspiration for catalogers, who realized that magalogs enjoyed a longer shelf-life than most mail, since recipients tended to put them in their reading piles. Lands' End, Williams Sonoma and others have sought to emulate this longevity by incorporating editorial (articles, recipes, travel tips, etc.) into their catalogs.
In a nutshell, the magalog represents mailers' awakening to the power of giving prospects some value upfront to encourage a sale.
November 1989: Personalization
A Southwestern Bell mailing that featured a personalized "While You Were Out" phone message slip showing through the envelope window exemplified the growing use of laser technology and databases to create more targeted mailings in the late '80s.
In June 1993, we profiled another Archive find that was a strong example of the personalization technology available to innovative marketers. Avionics Review customized its acquisition effort with the longitude and latitude coordinants that matched recipients' mailing addresses; for the target audienceairplane pilotsthis kind of personalization was sure to be appreciated.
And it would be remiss not to mention the impact that sweepstakes mailers have had on the continued development of inline production and personalization. Working with print vendors such as Vertis and Moore Wallace Response, sweepstakes users have sought to include prospects' names across nearly every square inch of a direct mail package. Their pioneering efforts paved the way for the personalized freemiums produced inline for nonprofits today and the one-to-one direct mail efforts printed on digital presses that promise to be the wave of the future.
April 1990: Billboards
To leverage the quick-response aspect of the double postcard, National Geographic Society designer Jim Bullard dreamed up a presentation style in 1990 that, while not widely used today, holds down control status at publications such as PC World and Smithsonian.
First mailed for National Geographic Traveler, the billboard format incorporates the efficiency of the double postcard with the drama of an oversize postcard. The 8-1/2" x 11" postcard, upon which the double postcard rides in an acetate pouch, offers the mailer extra space for visuals and supporting copy that can invite prospects to take a closer look.
Bullard's creative thinking served as inspiration to other direct mail designers, too. In 1997, a 6" x 10-1/2" billboard effort proved a worthy addition to The Wall Street Journal's mail program. Still circulated today, this mini-version features an acetate pouch that covers the entire front of the mailer.
July/August 1991: Sweepstakes Regulation
Editor Denny Hatch wrote in Who's Mailing What! during the summer of 1991: "But based on the Family Media massacre of 209 capable professionals ... everyone working for a marginal magazine whose subscriber base is built on sweeps had better rethink his or her future."
It would take nearly a decade, but these words eventually came true for even the largest of magazine publishers. The Deceptive Mail Prevention and Enforcement Act was passed in December 1999, placing stiff restrictions on the exact wording allowed in sweeps promotions.
In addition to the restrictions, months of negative publicity in the general press cast a pall on the largest proponents of sweepstakes: American Family Publishers went out of business, Publishers Clearing House greatly reduced its mail volumes, and Reader's Digest and Time started testing away from sweeps offers.
But sweepstakes and other contests still are strong promotional tools. Today's campaigns are more targeted and emphasize the value of the prizes offered, rather than the likelihood of winning. In fact, Consumers Union continues to have success with a raffle that includes a grand prize of a car for which the make/model is kept a mystery.
February 1993: Diskettes
It will probably come as no surprise that AOL was on the cutting edge of direct mail in 1993, when it began to insert diskettes preloaded with its software in acquisition mailings. CompuServe and MSN were not far behind on this trend; nor were online gaming services and publishers that wanted to offer subscribers an interactive library of back issues.
By April 1995, the game had changed from diskettes and the occasional floppy to CDs. In addition to the online services that continued to leverage this instant- access medium were companies like Adobe Systemswhich put 400 fonts onto a CD that could be accessed only with codes obtained by calling a toll-free number and making the purchase.
In future years, mailers would use CDs to lead recipients to Web sites for special sales selections and customized content, or simply to offer up freebies, such as music or software, as an inducement to respond.
Now that print vendors, lettershops and the U.S. Postal Service have developed technology that allow CD/DVD mailings to be machine-insertable and automation-compatible, the future holds promise for the continued use of this blend of print and online marketing.
December 1993: Greeting Cards
Another trend that took a decade to blossom is the use of greeting cards to give prospects and customers a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Columbia House was spotted in late 1993 mailing a welcome-back offer to lapsed club members that included a greeting card of its own design. Wildlife Conservation Society was one of the first nonprofits to make its greeting card the star of the mailingand not an involvement device to be returned with donationin a holiday 2000 effort.
In late 2002, greeting card efforts started rolling into the Who's Mailing What! Archive from AT&T. One of these efforts was a simple reminder to current customers that their business is valued and that the telco offers many plans to suit their needs. The latter included a check voucher to induce a service switch, which detracted a bit from the personal approach.
The big success with this format comes from the embattled publishing arena. People magazine unseated a professional discount voucher control in early 2003 with a greeting card effort that urged busy women to treat themselves to a subscription. (See MailWatch, page 26, to find out which magazine is following in People's footsteps.) This is one trend that promises best results for the early adopters.