25th Anniversary Issue: Technology Radically Transforms Print Realm

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Marketing for direct mailers and catalogers has changed drastically in 25 years. Printing has changed with it, often leading the way with innovative technologies and practices that increased efficiency and effectiveness.

Today, direct marketers enjoy a thriving business model and consumers continue to open their mailboxes. But let us start with developments in direct mail.

Before 1979, direct mailers had basic solutions for campaign management. Lists were obtained from other mailers who had identified receptive buyers or, just as likely, painstakingly transcribed from telephone books, voter rolls and state licensing departments. Sweepstakes and contest lists were available for the more adventurous who sought direct mail-responsive consumers. Accuracy was suspect, targeting was coarsely understood and personalization was only a dream.

Yet the mini-entrepreneur could function, using cards, steel plates and photocopiers to print address labels and ship them to the mail house, which would assemble mailings sourced from local printers. Big mailers printed their lists onto continuous forms, from large mainframe computers fed with nine-track tapes, using noisy line printers that generated enough heat to warm your dinner.

Printers served many customers who still supplied camera-ready art boards, hand-typed copy and photography set in place with tissue overlays showing color breaks. Color art was scanned for film separations.

Final Staging Point

The mail house was the final staging point before launch. Components were shelved based on the warehouse manager's memory. As waves of programs were assembled, the huge task of separating strings of mailings for simple tests of copy, offer and formats was executed on 20-year-old machinery.

By 1981, we saw the first personal computer. They were intended to replace typewriters and to automate spreadsheets. Savvy DMers recognized the breakthrough. Soon, lists were compiled and recorded in manageable, sort-worthy files that allowed targeting of offers and messages. It would be 10 years before the big mainframes retreated from the list world, but the PC was the first field-leveler for the small entrepreneur.

The PC let hundreds of emerging database marketers design analyses supported by newly available U.S. census data. More than any other factor, the growth of consumer database intelligence and flexibility energized and changed direct mail. Soon to follow was a demand for flexibility at the mail house. Mailers wanted to test more and to personalize within those tests. This was a logistical challenge because every unique mail string had to be run separately, incurring up-charges in postal rates.

Technology that advanced the mail house was twofold: variable imaging and variable assembly. Laser and inkjet imaging let mailers skip expensive plate changes and press stops. Mechanical inserters were equipped with intelligence that allowed for selective input.

Importantly, web printing and inline finishing of continuous mail forms allowed assembly of complex, customized kits. Soon after, a web mailing typically would contain hundreds of offer combinations, supported by components and copy that spoke to the individual.

By 1990, the consumer saw that the direct mailer was zeroing in. Benefits were plenty. Offers were more relevant. The marketer was more considerate of the buyer's wants, and cycle times were reduced. But consumer privacy was affected. Through the 1990s, we saw the mood of consumers and marketers change. Privacy laws were enacted.

The success of the mail industry is that it continues to provide a profitable business model. Though proportionately fewer names are available, targeting lets us make our mail more effective for those who want it. Customization of each piece lets the mailer create a package that is truly for an individual.

Fundamental laws of physics and finance drive the mailing profession. How fast can we move paper through a press? How fast can we extract data and turn it into words and images that stick to paper? How fast can we put a piece in an envelope? How fast can the U.S. Postal Service put the mailing in a consumer's mailbox? Will this pay for itself? These questions have encouraging answers.

Printing speeds move inexorably forward, and our data systems are accelerating the application of variable color. Web printing and finishing innovations deliver more features and origami. Mechanical inserters exercise selectivity at faster speeds. The USPS has introduced automation machinery that is more effective.

Changing Face of Catalogs

For catalogers in the early '80s, page layout was labor intensive. Typesetters produced the sheets of copy, then cut and waxed them onto mechanical boards. Typos were fixed with re-typeset copy. Boards, along with spec sheets and instructions, were sent to the printer via parcel carrier. Copy was limited, leaving customers to interface with the cataloger's customer service personnel to get more information. Press proofs were common, and destination discounts for mailing did not exist.

The average paper for catalogs was heavier stock than today, with 40 pound considered on the lighter side. The largest offset presses were 32pp presses, and big bindery lines had 10 to 15 pockets. "Big Books" were more prevalent. There was no Selectronic Addressing (or inkjet addressing). Catalogs were addressed with Cheshire labels.

Database analysis was limited to RFM, with little household-level information. Multichannel marketing was the retail store and catalog as PCs were in their infancy. When renting lists, catalogers had far fewer selections and almost no enhancements. The National Change of Address database and other list hygiene tools did not exist. Many catalog marketers were pioneering new processes including fax ordering, real-time customer service and merchandise forecasting.

Many changes have affected catalogers in 25 years. Desktop publishing software lets the creative team design catalogs on computers. More recently, digital workflows have improved cycle times, increased efficiencies and reduced overall costs (including rework costs). Digital photography saves time and money by eliminating scanning and color separations and enabling reuse/repurposing of digital images across print and electronic media. Marketers also have greater targeting capabilities, such as Selectronic Binding (or demographic binding) and the emergence of database mining.

Other developments include lighter-weight papers, which reduced paper and mail costs, and inkjet and scanner technologies, which enabled more targeted marketing. Electromechanical engraving and CTP (computer to plate) technologies emerged into the mainstream, and CRM gave insight into customer behavior.

The USPS' National Change of Address system launched in 1986, and the Database Prospecting Alliance, a business-to-business catalog cooperative database begun in 1993 by Direct Media, got all the compilers to participate by adding SIC codes and employee size. However, postal rates continued to rise, leading to more intense management of postal costs through distribution options such as drop ship and merged mail.

Major changes also happened in the consumer environment. The Internet and PCs opened new avenues to new customers. Multichannel marketing changed traditional marketing methods and let catalogers expand product lines and launch new brands. At the same time, consolidation was taking place among printers and catalogers, which increased scale and helped absorb the higher costs of doing business.

Looking to the Future

Catalogers likely will rely more on targeting and personalization. With ever-greater consumer insight, catalogers can manage the cost-revenue balance. Other trends likely to continue include lighter paper and larger presses. More sophistication and personalization will be offered in printers' binderies, and inkjet technology will continue to evolve. As a result, traditional distinctions between mail and catalog offerings will blur.

Co-mailing of multiple catalog titles will become more prevalent to combat rising mailing costs. Media selection tools will grow more effective in determining the media mix, and there will be more work sharing with the USPS to improve efficiencies.

We also expect to see a changing marketing mix using multiple media to drive purchases across multiple channels. Catalogs are used increasingly as a marketing vehicle to drive online purchases or to drive consumers to the stores. Increased marketing complexity is leading to critical decisions for catalogers: Do you build greater scale and in-house expertise and incur the associated higher costs, or do you outsource to the most efficient and most capable provider?

Developments likely will include better image quality, enabled in part by expansion of digital technology and digital photography. The future also will hold continued proliferation of digital technologies at the prepress and press stages, including digital manipulations of creative and color manipulation at the desktop level, digital swatch matching, soft proofing and press-based soft proofing. We also will continue to move toward increased digital workflow collaboration and on-press closed-loop color.

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