Direct Mail Goes Digital


Direct mail has been inseparable from technology since the days of the earliest database-driven campaigns. The marketing mix has changed dramatically since then, with an explosion of digital channels—but direct mail remains one of the most effective hands-on tools to reach customers and spur prompt action. “When you want someone to attend an event, make a phone call, or do anything with higher touch, you still see people go back to physical mail,” says Ray Wang, principal analyst at Constellation Research.

Looking to refresh your direct mail strategy? These five tech trends can do more than put a new gloss on old messaging. They can turn your campaigns into omnichannel experiences that last long after the delivery date.

Triggered digital content

Mailers can do more than deliver messages on a page. A quick scan, swipe, or tap of a smartphone can turn a mailer into a gateway to personalized content, promotions, and experiences.

Near-field communication (NFC) represents the next wave in digital activation, because the tiny chips can be applied to virtually any form factor and requires no effort on the recipient’s part. Just putting a mobile-enabled device in contact with the NFC chip is enough. “NFC is easy to use, and there’s no need for the consumer to load an app or initialize anything if the phone’s NFC abilities are turned on,” says Andy Bear, director of multichannel marketing at Quad/Graphics.

There’s a catch, however. Until and unless Apple opens its NFC capabilities to third-party developers, NFC is an Android-only play for marketers. In the meantime, consider campaigns that key off of presenting the NFC media in-store, where kiosks and point-of-sale can trigger customized content.

QR codes and other mobile barcodes remain a solid alternative to NFC activation, albeit one long mired at a low point in the hype cycle. Wildly popular mobile communications apps Snapchat and WhatsApp have both started supporting mobile barcode scanning, which may increase awareness and acceptance. “QR codes tend to get a bad rap because they’re not aesthetically pleasing, but marketers are learning how to use them better and call more attention to reasons why you would want to scan the code,” Bear says.

Smartphone video is a common payload for direct mail activation, because mobile video bandwidth and display resolution aren’t the challenges they were just a few years ago. Augmented reality (AR) plays well in this space because a video can be overlaid on the mailer’s content, providing more context and connection with the material. “You want the video to feel like a key link in the conversation, so you can present content and messaging that aligns with what the customer learned from the mailing,” says Pat Spenner, managing director of business advisory group CEB.

Delivery-triggered campaigns

Digital channels allow marketers to use direct mail as just one piece in a multi-pronged campaign, which can be triggered to contact the customer through multiple channels, including text, email, and app inboxes. The key is to trigger the action based on delivery, which is possible through conventional tracking systems for parcel and letter delivery, or with a high degree of accuracy based on USPS Intelligent Mail Barcode reporting. “Seeing the mail piece the same day you get the email creates a nice one-two punch,” Bear says.

Rather than simply repeating the same message in the mailer, marketing automation systems can apply location, time-of-day, and other context-sensitive triggers to customize the digital content. That can be something as simple as expressing the wish that the package brightened the prospect’s morning or afternoon, or acknowledging relationship details that may have changed since the mail went out.

Mobile is the ideal platform to deliver these multichannel messages because of how closely tied consumers and professionals are to their devices. This intimacy creates additional pressure on direct mail–oriented marketers to choose their timing and frequency wisely, however. Irrelevant or tone-deaf direct mail may be shredded and forgotten, but a mobile experience gone awry may not be quickly forgiven or forgotten. “On mobile, if your relevance is on target, you could have a huge hit,” says Brent Shedd, Geometry Global’s executive director. “If your relevance is off, you can get your legs blown off: ‘It’s such a personal device that I’m loathe to forgive you for encroaching on my personal space.’”


Marketers’ customer insights don’t have to hit a dead end if an offer lands in the recycle bin. “You need to start modeling behavior of customers who didn’t purchase, because you can still learn if they visited the website, followed the personalized URL (pURL), scanned the QR code, or did some searching,” says Mike Arsenault, director of retail solutions at digital promotions solution provider Revtrax.

Instead of simply measuring response and conversion rates from direct mail campaigns, it’s time to get more sophisticated about working direct mail responses into the retargeting matrix. Particularly when a mailer invites trackable behavior through a pURL, barcode, or other unique gateway, marketers should consider the visits, searches, and calls that follow that direct mail delivery when shaping the next steps in a customer relationship. Even without a trackable call-to-action, a sophisticated attribution formula can assign probabilities to customer activity that occurs near the known delivery date of a mail drop.

Enhanced personalization

The recent variable printing revolution changed the way marketers think about personalized mailing, but progress doesn’t have to stop there. When building trackable calls-to-action into a campaign, make sure the pURL or barcode takes the prospect to genuinely valuable and personalized content, or it will quickly be disregarded. “Unless you provide some real personalization, people see right through it and it becomes phony,” says Jeff Johnson, senior vice president of digital agency Primacy.

Marketers can promote customized content and enhance the perceived value of a campaign by using unique, one-time codes and landing pages that cannot be shared. Or they can go the other direction and provide incentives to share a pURL with others.

Take every opportunity to customize the payload of a direct mail call-to-action. Presenting different content depending on the time of day, time elapsed since the offer was first sent, geographic location, and past purchase behavior not only customizes the experience, but also encourages more innovative campaigns.

The day is not far off when the mailer itself delivers customized content. Digital video players are already reasonable investments for enterprise B2B or luxury consumer marketers. Although typically configured with a specific playlist, different content based on time of day or location is entirely possible with current technology. Public Wi-Fi and cellular networks even make network-enabled playback, with streamed content determined on-the-fly by campaign logic, an option for cutting-edge marketers.

For a lower-cost approach, keep in mind that just about any mailer can be turned into an augmented reality (AR) campaign, even after it’s been printed and mailed. Marketers would still have to communicate to recipients the need to load an AR app, but digital channels are an excellent way to deliver that news. “You can decide what image or graphic is going to trigger the AR experience, then lay the AR groundwork after the fact,” says Pat McGrew, evangelist in HP’s Inkjet High-Speed Productions Group. “I don’t normally say anything in marketing should be an afterthought, but in this case, the technology lets you make those late decisions.”

Marketing automation and CRM

Marketers of all stripes have done tremendous work wringing value out of individual campaigns and channels with the help of marketing automation and CRM systems. Now it’s time to take a more holistic approach and demand more from those systems. “Particularly on the B2C side, marketers have done a good job optimizing within each channel, and delivering customized offers,” CEB’s Spenner says. “But if you stand back and look at the whole of it, it doesn’t look so good. The promotions and experiences don’t sync up.” That means using frequency, recency, and other retargeting characteristics to generate a better understanding of an individual customer’s response patterns and timing preferences.

Being more sensitive to individual customer needs not only makes the best use of flexible campaign technologies, but also allows marketers to craft mailers that speak to each customer’s interests when they’re most likely to respond, rather than following the mandates of global campaign rules. “Customer communication management and content management link arm in arm,” McGrew says. “Without them, all you’re doing is throwing a lot of stuff at customers, not creating an engaging conversation.”

Make better use of social media analysis, as well. Social listening is often narrowly focused on making an immediate save through social channels, but marketers can personalize direct mail pieces based on social trends and topics of interest to each recipient. A postcard that follows up on a tweet isn’t conventional practice, but it’s a practice that can distinguish a brand.

Regardless of the tools marketers bring to bear, 2015 is no different from past years: No technology can beat the success of messages that are relevant and appealing. “If you keep sending irrelevant content, you can’t expect a response,” Constellation Research’s Wang says.

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