An examination of the typical mailbox on any given day indicates that the direct mail industry continues to favor quantity over quality. But an examination of the marketplace indicates that this approach is under assault from both increasing costs - postal rates and other factors - and consumer expectations and generational shifts. In spite of these conflicting trends, there is good news for mailers. Not only are there a variety of tools and services available to significantly enhance the quality of direct mail; mail also continues to have the unique characteristic that every piece is viewed with human eyes.

The key to success is to leverage digital tools that provide personalization and interactive content delivered via the Internet. This requires making mailpieces personally relevant to the recipient and using the tools available to quickly and easily expand the content and message beyond print into the digital realm. In addition to leveraging these technologies, the USPS has gotten on board with a variety of incentives to promote both personalization and interactive content.

A key component in linking the mailpiece to digital content is the mobile device. So an immediate challenge is, how do we get mail recipients to see the link between their mail and their mobile device? From a behavioral standpoint, it is a bit of a chicken and egg question, but the ball is clearly in the court of content development and distribution companies. There must be an expectation that a mailpiece contains a link to interactive content. This will only happen once there is widespread use of these existing and emerging technologies. Some of these technologies are presented below and represent a real opportunity for printers and mailers to bring more value to content owners and consumers.

In addition to tools for linking the mailpiece to mobile devices, the content needs to be personalized using a VDP composition tool. Building a link to personalized digital content uses data that the mailer knows about the recipient; why not use that same data to build compelling personalized content into the mailpiece as well?

But it all begins with the data. A mailing list can be built with data collected directly from customers or other microlevel activity or purchased from a list provider. In either case, there are numerous techniques available to build profiles and identify characteristics that can be used to build mailpieces with significant personal relevance. Ultimately, it's vital to realize that good data and effective use of that data are the key building blocks to delivering targeted content that ultimately leads to a positive ROI. "Data is a tool, you have to use it right," says John Leininger, Professor of Graphic Communications, Clemson University. "You can hammer in a screw, but it will not do the job right. You need the right screw and the correct size screwdriver to get the job done. Good data works, bad data kills the job."

So what are some of the print-to-digital tools that can be used to deliver content?
· A pURL - a personalized URL that takes the recipient to a web site landing page that is built, typically on the fly, for that individual using data that has been collected or purchased to target the message. So a pURL such as would take Mr. Smith to a landing page which references his five year-old Chevy and invites him to visit his local dealer for a new minivan. The web page shows a picture of the new model minivan because the data shows that Mr. Smith is driving an older version of the same model. One downside to the pURL is that it requires the recipient to enter the URL into their browser which can reduce a recipient's interest in using it, especially when compared with some of the other tools available.

· QR Codes - can be personalized just like a pURL but because they are simply scanned with the mobile device. They provide easier, more immediate access to online content. Imagine targeted text along with an eye-catching QR Code on an envelope. The recipient pulls out her smartphone, is quickly linked to a personalized landing page which has additional engaging content, but also tells her to use her smartphone to access a coupon for lunch at a new local restaurant. QR Codes provide a route to adding creativity and relevance to mailpieces, ultimately working towards the goal of increasing the response rates on the piece's call to action.

· Hashtags - are most conducive to social media and are used to both tag and search for content. For example, a hashtag such as #mailtechnology, would be used to publicize related content and create a community of interest around it. The concept of the hashtag is in many ways the opposite of a personalized digital connection such as pURL. But building a community discussion may be just as powerful as personalized content. Including a hashtag in a direct mailpiece where the topic has been seeded with relevant content is a technique that has already been adopted in many TV and magazine ads. Hashtags in postings, first introduced by Twitter users, have since also been adopted by Instagram and Facebook.

· Image Recognition (IR) - uses the mobile device to scan the image and link it to content on the Internet. This technology has a couple of interesting advantages, including the fact that it can be built from any image, a paragraph of text, a picture etc. Secondly, it is seamlessly embedded into content and does not require a dedicated, out of context image or space. But there are disadvantages. The first is that the actual content IR uses has limited personalization capabilities because it is impractical to alter that content on a person by person basis. However, one successful technique that is also frequently used with VDP is to vary content based on a high level category, such as age or marital status. In this case, scanning the image takes the recipient to a different landing page based on the image. Secondly, unlike QR Codes, there is no standard application for accessing IR, so the recipient must download a compatible third-party mobile app.

· Digital Watermark - is an imperceptible and unique image pattern that is embedded in the content and can be used with both images and text. It does have a couple of advantages over IR. It can be personalized just like a QR Code and it supports variable interactive content based on the context of the image. For example, an automobile ad in a golf magazine could use a digital watermark with a link that includes a golf promotion while the same ad in a tennis publication can use a different watermark with a link relevant to tennis fans. A downside is that specific apps are required to both compose and consume digital watermark-enabled content.

· Augmented Reality (AR) - offers more complexity and sophistication than the other tools discussed. With all of the other tools described here, the viewing of the mailpiece content and the digital content are separate activities. Not so with AR. AR provides an augmented view of the printed content using digital technology. With AR, the reader takes their mobile deviceplaces it over the printed content, and is able to view enhanced content through the mobile device. An example of this would be that the printed material shows an ad for a new car. Using AR, the reader holds their tablet over a car ad and is able to see the car being rotated 360 degrees, or the hood of the car pops open and the viewer gets a glimpse of the engine. The possibilities are endless. The same caveats as IR apply here. AR requires a specific app and is clearly most effective with visual images. But, it is an exceptionally cool technology and a great opportunity for direct mailers, printers, and their customers to differentiate themselves.

Adding mobile devices into the equation also adds another dimension of personalization. Many of these applications capture location and preference information made available by the mobile device which provides the opportunity to introduce tailored content to the landing page. So scanning a QR Code on a mailpiece promotion at Starbucks can take me to a landing page that features a discount on my favorite latte and also provides directions to the nearest shop.

It's important to note that the USPS has developed a number of promotions for 2014 to incentivize mailers to use the technologies mentioned here. These provide discounts for both first class and standard rates for utilizing these tools. Documentation on these promotions can be found at: These types of programs are an excellent opportunity for printers and mailers to demonstrate more value to their customers.

One of the most important things to remember is that all the razzle-dazzle is great, but without a marketing plan, a strong call to action, and high quality content on both the print and interactive media, the effort can be a waste of ink, paper and postage.

John Hankins is Strategic Program Manager, Production Print Cloud Services, Ricoh.