2020 Direct Mail Outlook Reveals Combining Print, Digital Crucial

For years now, the so-called common wisdom was that “print is dead” and electronic media will make applications, such as direct mail communications completely obsolete. But print is still very much a vibrant and exciting industry, and direct mail is making a comeback.

“The direct mail space continues to evolve as marketers fall in love again with mail’s tangible, measurable attributes that provide a welcome distraction from screen-based ads and offers,” Jim Andersen, executive chairman of Chanhassen, Minn.-based IWCO Direct, notes. “Some are referring to it as the ‘tactile’ component of omnichannel marketing.”

That tactile component is the key element that is swinging marketing back to the realm of print and direct mail, agrees Jessica Eng, VP of marketing for Alliance Franchise Brands Marketing & Print Div. She points out that direct mail and digital communications aren’t an all-or-nothing proposition, and the best results are being seen when brands find creative ways to combine the two into a seamless campaign.

The Pendulum Is Swinging Back to the Usage of Print

“We are seeing the pendulum swing back to print and direct mail as integral parts of a multichannel campaign versus an all-digital strategy that gets attention,” Eng says. “While there’s no silver bullet to direct marketing, neuroscience studies show that it’s easier for your brain to process information, recall it, and take action when it is presented in a print format such as direct mail.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that direct mail isn’t evolving. Personaliztion, in particular, is a major driving force behind today’s direct mail campaigns — a trend that will continue into 2020 and well beyond.

Direct mail added to omnichannel campaigns.

Marketers are turning to direct mail to add a tactile marketing component to their omnichannel campaigns. | Photo courtesy of IWCO Direct.

“Personalization is more important than ever before, including with direct mail,” according to Maureen Powers, president, Direct Marketing Group, at Chicago-based RR Donnelley. “We are using the direct mail channel to drive the customer experience through communications such as coupons and personalized offers. We’re also changing how we help our clients message their clients based on individual customer preferences and their point in the customer journey. The trend we are certainly seeing is innovation around 1:1 marketing.”

That strong shift toward smaller runs of more targeted, personalized direct mail campaigns that tie into digital marketing efforts is a trend Andersen sees as well, noting, “Today’s direct mail is more effective, relevant, and timely thanks to more sophisticated audience selection and segmentation. This technology uses digital print to personalize every component of a mail piece, including letters, inserts, cards, and call-to-action reply devices that connect the physical mail to an online, digital marketing experience.”

But with more personalization comes more data. And that, in turn, means commercial and direct mail printers will need to be increasingly aware of data security, taking steps to ensure that the privacy and integrity of the information these campaigns and brands are generating remains secure.

“Data and privacy are always — and have to be — a top concern, whether for clients or us,” Powers says. “We are close to it since many of our clients are in highly regulated industries, but data security has to be in line with [the latest best practices.] Data and privacy are always top of mind, and it is a priority for us to ensure we remain apprised of any new industry developments on this topic.”

“We are also keeping our eye on GDPR (EU General Data Protection Regulation) and CCPA (the California Consumer Privacy Act),” explains Eng. “As we deal with more data across more channels, protecting personal information according to these regulations will remain a priority.”

Beyond the move toward more targeted, personalized direct mail pieces that play an integral role within broader omnichannel marketing efforts, another trend the experts are watching for 2020 is what changes may come to the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). The USPS is a critical link in the direct mail chain, so any shop — large or small — involved in direct mail should be keeping at least one eye on everything from postage costs to potential legislation that could impact the way mail is handled.

“The financial stability of the U.S. Postal Service continues to be a key issue for the direct mail industry,” Andersen says. “We are cautiously optimistic that Congress will step up and address postal reform legislation to put the USPS on a more stable financial path. We continue to monitor trade, tariff, and tax issues for their impact on capital investment plans.”

Good News: 2020 Is a National Election Year

There are a few strong opportunities when it comes to direct mail campaigns in the coming year. One being the fact that 2020 is a national election year, and no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, or your personal beliefs around politics, there is no denying that direct mail will play a critical role.

“The USPS continues to see election mail as a growth opportunity,” Andersen notes. “Over the past two election cycles, the agency has seen upticks in marketing mail volume in the quarters preceding and including a national election.

It's important to attract skilled labor talent by providing a career path with opportunities

Attracting skilled labor talent by providing a career path with opportunities for advancement and professional growth is needed within the direct mail printing industry. | Photo courtesy of IWCO Direct.

“With the intense interest already focused on next year’s presidential contest, we expect that trend to continue into 2020. Campaign and election mail should be a growth opportunity for printers as well.”

Political campaigns often use direct mail as a channel to communicate, and it’s a strong channel for them, notes Powers. “We treat political campaigns like we would any other clients, bringing end-to-end expertise in design and innovation based on their goals and what they want to achieve. One thing I will say is that the volume [for political direct mail campaigns] can spike quickly, often based on what’s happening.”

“We anticipate a large increase of direct mail campaigns in a short timeframe, like most election years,” notes Eng. “The size of the increase and the longevity can vary by candidate and market.”

Speed-to-Market Is a Critical Element

But the opportunities for direct mail printers go beyond specific verticals. Powers points out that speed-to-market in a world where consumers are now accustomed to interacting with brands nearly in real-time across multiple channels is both a challenge and an opportunity for commercial and direct mail printers.

“We know the landscape is changing rapidly for marketers,” says Powers. “These industry changes are driving the need for new technology and increasingly innovative solutions. Whether a printing company is small or large, they have to be aware of what’s happening in the industry and adapt as necessary. That doesn’t just mean bringing in a new printer, but understanding what changes are coming from consumers, how their behaviors are changing, and what that means for your clients.”

Direct Mail Must Be a Seamless Component

Knowing how direct mail fits into those broader efforts, in particular, and having the right tools and expertise to know how to make the print elements a seamless component to help drive the message is something Andersen stresses as well.

“One of the biggest opportunities in the direct mail space is providing effective and efficient solutions to consumer demand for personalized, relevant messaging integrated across all channels,” he says. “Insightful use of data, combined with the flexibility of digital print production, allows marketers to seamlessly integrate tactile marketing in their omnichannel campaigns.”

Automating as much as possible will help printers satisfy the demand for increasingly complex direct mail pieces. | Photo courtesy of Alliance Franchise Brands Marketing & Print Div.

Which brings shops right back to the data, Eng points out, noting that it is impossible today to get away from those broader trends if direct marketing providers want to truly take advantage of the opportunities that are out there.

Print shops that take data seriously — not just on the security side, but in how to most effectively use and maintain databases — will find greater opportunities than those that rely on the brands to provide the data themselves.

“We know there is demand for more personalized and relevant [direct] marketing,” Eng says. “To meet that demand, quality data is a necessity. This continues to be a challenge for our customers. If they don’t have quality data, the ability to target and maximize the impact of direct mail is limited. We continue to educate clients on collecting and scrubbing data, and how to use that data to create a personalized experience that resonates with the recipient.”

A Programmatic Business Approach

One print shop that has taken these trends to heart, showing that success can come from innovation, is Brodnax 21C Printers in Dallas. Jim Singer, managing partner and 50% owner of the company, notes that integrated platforms that allow Brodnax to handle everything — from the digital storefront, to direct mail, to promo products — has been a successful strategy.

Brodnax 21C Printers evolved from first adding online storefronts to their service offerings in 2004, then in 2007, bringing coders on board to integrate the print components into the accounting software of one client. It was such a successful approach, that today there are six people in the shop’s custom development department, four of whom are developers. That, Singer notes, has led to a mix of print and programmatic — a concept from the online marketing world — that has been, in some ways, a game changer for the company.

“We take raw XML data to drive intricate, complex direct mail campaigns,” Singer says, “including ongoing on-demand digital printing campaigns for local store marketing applications. Every night at midnight we get a massive amount of data, and the automated workflow we built for this programmatic offering [kicks in.]”

That workflow automatically takes the data and generates direct mail campaigns, sending them to production and getting them ready for mailing with little to no human intervention. “Our goal is to get 100% of the business into programmatic,” Singer laughs. “We’ll never get there, but 30% of our revenue is programmatic today. That is something printers never had before — a forecastable revenue stream that only grows and is level. It smooths out the peaks and valleys most printers have to deal with.”

The Brodnax 21C Printers model is a perfect example of how a shop can look at the broader trends impacting print and adapt to provide what brands and print buyers actually need. Direct mail is still a critical component, but rather than use the traditional approach, Brodnax found new ways to use technology to not just make campaigns more personal, but to also speed up turnaround times and improve efficiency — all trends the experts see as continuing to shape the space well into 2020 and beyond.

Print isn’t dead, and direct mail is still a vibrant, innovative part of that story. Personalization, data management, and cutting-
edge technologies like production inkjet printing will continue to shape the evolution of direct mail campaigns. Those commercial and direct mail printers willing to experiment and push the limits will be well-positioned for success, not just in 2020, but for many years to come.