Marketers can seal the deal with new high-tech envelopes

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When it comes to envelopes and technology, most past innovations were limited to the manufacturing process. These advancements helped create a plentiful and affordable supply of a trusted product that millions of Americans use every day, but they did not change the basic structure and power of the envelope. New technologies are emerging, though, that could transform envelopes as we know them.

Today, many people continue to think of paper-based communication and electronic communication as separate. The truth is that, increasingly, direct mailers and others are combining these two channels for maximum impact. A well-known example is Netflix, the movie-rental business. Customers pick their movies online, and the movies are sent through the mail in an envelope that serves as both the delivery and return mechanism. As technology advances, more opportunities will emerge to bridge the print and online worlds, facilitating more strategic marketing campaigns.

Advanced printing technologies. As the industry moves toward a digitally-integrated process, it is becoming easier to replicate colors. Some printers are now able to turn the entire envelope into a canvas, allowing direct marketers to use more space for their messages. The envelope becomes a piece of the overall campaign, not just a delivery mechanism for what's inside.

According to the Intelligent Document Task Force, created by the Envelope Manufacturers Association Foundation and the U.S. Postal Service, high-speed inkjet technology could allow for more information to be encoded onto mail pieces. This may allow envelopes to one day become an extension of a Web site, communicating information through a bar code, read by a bar code reader for the home. The bar code could direct a consumer to a Web site, making it easier to shop online or return merchandise.

New intelligent systems. Recently, the USPS expanded its Intelligent Mail bar code system to include flat mail. The system provides the ability to use a single bar code to store more information on individual pieces of mail. This allows for better tracking of mail pieces, which facilitates better sequencing of marketing efforts. For example, if a marketer knows consumers in a particular city or region will receive a direct marketing piece on a certain day, it could buy advertising time in the local television market timed to correspond to the "mail moment" closely.

An exciting area of research and development is intelligent stamps. There are many potential uses for stamps featuring wireless technology. Perhaps one day a stamp will communicate with a cell phone and call up a Web site about a product or service or issue a missing child alert. This technology could also be used on the envelope itself.

Not just a cover anymore. Academics and industry researchers are working on a number of next-generation technologies that will make the envelope even more versatile and powerful. These include:

Electronic ink can turn envelopes into tiny billboards. Imagine receiving an envelope that shows you an image of a product and then switches to describe its features and benefits.

Memory spots can store information on a document or envelope. With this technology, a photograph could interface with a computer to deliver an audio message from the person in the picture. Or, a company could attach a memory spot to an executive summary, so they need to mail only a small portion of a report while the remainder could be transferred to a PC.

Radio frequency identification chips embedded in an envelope could offer a better tracking system or more secure transaction, ensuring that the recipient received the product, whether it is medication or a new credit card.

The face of mail is going to change dramatically as these technologies are refined and deployed. The envelope is positioned to go high-tech, offering the potential for direct marketing to become more personalized, secure and effective.

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