The future of direct mail has never looked brighter. 67% of marketers say direct mail delivers the best ROI of any channel they use, according to the 2022 State of Direct Mail.
But to tap into this demand, you have to automate. The days of high volume, low customization, mass-mail blasts are coming to an end, as marketers focus on more targeted direct mail strategies, which can integrate with their digital channels.
The future belongs to printers who can best integrate with a modern marketing tech stack and workflow to print and send highly customized and targeted direct mailpieces.
Direct mail marketing and the print industry
In the past few years, both printers and direct mail marketers have focused on upgrading their capabilities and workflow. Eight in 10 direct mail marketers now send personalized mailpieces, and almost half (46%) employ personalized imagery in their mailpieces — an accomplishment facilitated by more customizable print services.
COVID-19 has accelerated this change. For printers, the quarantine hit magazine and newspaper publishing hard, along with the demand for graphical displays used by brick-and-mortar stores. At the same time, e-commerce skyrocketed, creating an increased demand for packaging.
Having consumers at home and logged on all day also sped the growth of direct mail marketing. It’s an open secret that digital response rates have been trending downwards for years, as consumers were flooded by too many emails, messages, and ads. To cut through the noise, marketers were already turning to direct mail and modernizing their capabilities before COVID-19 struck.
- About 50% use a software/tech platform to execute campaigns
- 42% work with in-house teams who write/design campaigns
- One-third or less use an agency for various parts of the strategy/design/execution of direct mail campaigns
The pandemic made direct mail even more important for marketing. Mail creates a tangible connection between vendors and consumers that digital just can’t provide — something that consumers craved more than ever. If they could send mail with the same level of personalization they use on digital channels, marketers could drive a lot more ROI offline.
But there was a problem: this digital-like approach to direct mail — focused on smaller runs of highly customized mailpieces — didn’t fit in well with legacy print practices. Print runs traditionally require a lot of back and forth to gather requirements, set prices, share information, and so on. That works when printers are serving a few clients with established relationships, consistent demands, and substantial lead time. But as marketers adopt smaller, faster, more customized runs with a larger client base, it becomes a logistical nightmare — unless and until you automate.
Leveling up print workflows to work seamlessly with automation
For direct mail to work seamlessly with digital channels, it needs the same workflow, automation, and capabilities as digital channels. That requires you to update your capabilities, as well as the way you structure client relationships. Here’s what that looks like:
Digital campaigns depend on a tremendous amount of flexibility that only digital print equipment can provide. Marketers use triggers to target customers and leads at their most receptive, combined with personalized content, based on the recipient’s purchase history, demographics, previous touch points, and other factors.
Once these campaigns are set up, they go into autopilot mode. A marketing team might run dozens of automated campaigns simultaneously, such as:
- Sending personalized offers to customers who haven’t made a purchase in 25 days
- Following up with leads exactly two days after they’ve downloaded an asset
- Sending birthday messages to customers
- Nurturing webinar attendees across multiple channels
Tracking digital metrics is equally effortless. Marketers immediately know when customers receive (or don’t receive) emails and other digital messages, enabling them to quickly update faulty or dated addresses. They also know when recipients use the discounts, links, and other codes they’re sending, so they can quickly learn what strategies are working.
In the print world, you have to provide clients accurate reporting information and show tracking for each mailpiece. An automated direct mail provider does all the heavy lifting involving reporting, tracking, and analytics.
This flexibility is enabled by a pricing structure that lets them customize their content as much — or as little — as they need to. Because they don’t have to buy customizability by the percentage ahead of time (as they do in traditional printer relationships), they can make customization decisions based on the needs of each project. So if they send 1,000 custom sales emails on Monday and 100,000 identical newsletters Tuesday, they’re not seen as wasting resources.
On-demand print networks and dedicated customer portals provide ease of scheduling and contactless scheduling. All this happens without marketers ever having to call their digital providers to negotiate contracts or purchase capacity. That might seem like a trivial detail, but contact-free automation is what enables marketers to use direct mail so flexibly.
It’s a bit like the difference between getting water out of a tap and buying it at a store. Even if it only takes five minutes to go to the store and buy a jug of water, it still adds a whole layer of planning, rationing, and logistics to the process. That consumes time and mindshare for both the consumer and the vendor.
Putting it all together
This is the new standard for printer relationships. From the sender’s perspective, direct mail should work almost exactly like their digital channels. That means automated systems for sending and requirements gathering, automated tracking, per-piece pricing, and lightning-fast turnarounds — all without the need for a phone call.
Benefits of automated direct mail for printers
Fortunately, the problem has already been solved. Automated direct mail solutions use APIs to connect senders to a network of printers, creating a streamlined workflow that benefits both parties.
From the printer’s perspective, the process starts when the client sends a direct mailpiece. The API routes the mailpiece request to the printer who is closest to the destination — along with the recipient’s address and other relevant information, such as the form factor.
The API also shares information with the client. That lets them keep track of the mailpiece throughout production and delivery, so you don’t have to field calls asking for updates.
The whole system uses fixed, per-piece pricing, eliminating the need to negotiate batch-based projects or manage difficult clients. This also reduces demand fluctuation and uncertainty. When you’re in a one-to-one relationship, business can fluctuate dramatically based on the needs of a few clients. But with an automated direct mail provider like Lob, you’re getting orders from a large, diverse client base. While seasonal demand does vary, it won’t swing dramatically based on the decisions of a few large customers. That makes it much easier to plan capacity and keep your shop running smoothly throughout the year.
What to look for in automated direct mail
There are a number of direct mail automation platforms available. Here are a few factors to help you choose the one that’s right for your shop.
Integrated address verification
Incomplete, inaccurate, and incorrectly formatted addresses can be a hassle for you and your customers. Look for a provider who integrates address verification into their system, so it’s ready to go when you get it.
In addition to using up a lot of bandwidth, PDFs can create unexpected problems if they’re not correctly formatted. Look for a provider who integrates client-facing HTML templates that are optimized for prints. It makes it easy for the client to send you correctly formatted designs, which makes your life easier too — there’s no need to sanitize PDFs and less risk of print mishaps.
Ease of installation and use
Before you sign on with a direct mail automation provider, make sure the software is user-friendly and easy to install. Each print shop is different, so there will always be some work required to fit an API into your workflow. However, it shouldn’t be a mammoth undertaking.
Make sure your automation solution really is automated. Once you’re up and running, you should only be responsible for preparing mailpieces and handing them off to the USPS. You shouldn’t have to make calls or send emails to request additional information, manage clients, or share tracking data.
Join the automated direct mail revolution
The days of complex workflows, demand droughts, and difficult client management are over. Partner with Lob to future-proof your print shop, reduce inefficiency and keep your business on the cutting edge of print automation.
Lob is the only direct mail automation platform that enables businesses to transform campaign ROI and employee productivity. The Lob platform simplifies workflows by automating the entire direct mail process — from creation, printing, postage, delivery, and sustainability with end-to-end analytics and campaign attribution. Over 10,000 businesses rely on Lob to send more than 700 million pieces of mail through the platform.
Founded in 2013 and based in San Francisco, Lob is venture-backed by Y Combinator, Polaris Partners, Floodgate, and First Round Capital.
This article originally appeared on BRAND United‘s sister brand Printing Impressions.