In 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward had a burst of inspiration. In the tradition of the general store, he printed a single sheet featuring 163 items and mailed it to potential customers, allowing recipients to receive what they needed through the mail and with a discount, rather than paying higher prices at local stores with lower inventories. It was the beginning of an onslaught of direct marketing that has continued for more than 100 years.
Throughout the 20th century, many other innovators followed in Ward’s wake. Sears-Roebuck took the mail order idea a step further, offering the Sears Modern Home, available from 1908 through 1940 (during which period the company sold more than 100,000 models). In less consumer-oriented and more modern pursuits, political strategist Karl Rove spent most of his career measuring and harnessing the power of direct mail to market political spin that would strengthen the U.S. conservative voter base.
Whether a household’s mailbox revealed a Sears Modern Home offer, political promise or something else entirely, direct mail marketing has come a long way, and faces a changing market year in and year out. Even with the Web and near-ubiquitous use of e-mail for free advertising and promotions outshining Ward’s ingenuity, the tried-and-true medium has nestled into a new, powerful niche.
According to a recent Infotrends study called “The Future of Mail 2006: Direct Mail, Transaction and ‘Transpromotional’ Documents,” 2005 saw the mailing of 114 billion North American direct mail pieces. And, according to United States Postal Service (USPS) senior public relations specialist Joanne Veto, “Direct or advertising mail (what we call standard mail) is outpacing first class mail. It eclipsed first class mail for the first time in the history of the postal service during fiscal year 2006.”
The rarity of snail mail in comparison to frequent online advertisements and spam means certain segments of the population—particularly the ever-wired Gen X and Gen Y demographic groups—view direct mail pieces as novel. An independent study conducted for the USPS reported 70 percent of this target market is more likely to read mailed credit card offers awaiting them at home than those overstuffing their virtual mailboxes.
Related story: State of the Industry 2007