In a competitive marketplace, the secret to success is delivering what your customers need and doing it better than anyone else. To maintain a leadership position in your industry, you must keep an eye on the progression of the products and services that you deliver. Here’s a good example: Consider the difference between a direct mail campaign 10 years ago versus one today. Although they were available, features like personalization, full-color printing, and relevant messaging were not affordable for many marketers a decade ago. Thanks to ongoing technological advancements as well as the increasing need to treat each prospect and customer as an individual, direct mail campaigns still hold an important place in the overall marketing mix. Even so, many marketers still question the value of a direct mail investment and really don’t understand how to give their direct mail pieces a proper makeover. Fortunately, many of the barriers to high returns and high engagement have been removed and a new wave of powerful direct mail trends has surfaced. Let’s take a look at a few.

More Is Not Always Better!

Mail volumes reached their peak in 2006, but they have been steadily declining ever since. At the same time, however, Statista notes that US direct mail volumes experienced a slight bump last year; 70.22 million direct mail pieces were delivered in 2021, compared to 67.05 million pieces in 2020. This represents a year-over-year increase of 4.7%. Given the widespread belief that digital marketing is the only way forward, a modest increase in direct mail volumes is an important piece of data. What this uptick really indicates is that brand owners recognize the opportunity that direct mail can provide. For that reason, it might seem logical to continue with the tried-and-true direct mail practices... but not so fast! The way in which you approach an opportunity makes all the difference in the outcome. According to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a pioneer in computer science, “the most dangerous phrase in our language is ‘we’ve always done it that way.’” As we consider the evolving needs of today’s consumers, there has never been a better time to rejuvenate direct mail. This is because volume, even increased volume, is not the primary indicator of effectiveness.

A World of Color

Disneyland’s renowned World of Color event takes place every night, wowing its audience with a multi-dimensional and emotional experience. Even if you don’t have Disney’s theatrics projected onto 1,200 water fountains, there is no question that color influences behavior. In today’s world, a color image is often more desirable than a basic black and white one. For marketers, the use of color can create powerful reactions from the intended audience. A study completed by Digital Information World confirms that 93% of buyers focus on physical appearance when purchasing a product. Color is a component of physical appearance, and this insight can be transferred to direct mail.

Before we explore today’s key trends in direct mail, let’s consider the role that color plays in marketing. Brands of all sizes have been successfully using color to create demand for their products for decades, and specific colors can evoke certain responses. For example:

Red creates urgency, causes excitement, and is widely used to point to a call to action.

Blue is a steadfast, no-nonsense shade that represents trust, peace, and intelligence.

Yellow captures our attention more than any other color. It is widely used to establish feelings of happiness and optimism.

Green points to goodwill and environmental responsibility. Because it is the color of money, it can also represent wealth or financial security.

Orange is often used to evoke feelings of ambition, originality, and new beginnings.

Although it can represent frivolity or whimsy, pink is also associated with joy, kindness, and love.

Brown is an earthy tone that makes customers feel welcomed, calm, and at home with their surroundings.

Purple is often associated with royalty, prestige, and extravagance.

Finally, metallic tones like gold and silver can lend a touch of elegance. They are considered prestigious and can elevate the perception of status, wealth, and power.

Just a few years ago, many marketers were struggling to justify the cost of full-color direct mail. Even with the onset of digital presses, four-color click charges made many projects cost-prohibitive. On top of that, it was nearly impossible to add specialty features like gold, silver, neon colors, or textures at a price that brand owners were willing to pay. Today’s ongoing technological innovations are changing all of that.

Each year, Keypoint Intelligence’s forecast data compares color and black and white print volumes. Today’s larger production printers with special inkjet capabilities are more affordable than ever and offer solid financial returns. As the production market (and specifically inkjet technology) matures, a natural shift from offset to digital will cause color print volumes to grow. By 2022, color impressions are expected to exceed black & white.

Figure 1: US Print on Demand Forecast: Color vs. Black & White

Specialty printing capabilities (e.g., color embellishments, unique finishing, and engaging digital enablers) and personalization are expected to be used even more as the digital and physical worlds continue to align. Today’s brands can now deliver mail embedded with the technology to take their audience online at a reasonable cost. This will also drive larger color print volumes.

The Bigger Picture

Marketing and advertising space are often sold by the size of the banner, message, or pop-up. Direct mail is similar — the larger the mailed piece, the higher the investment. Even so, the landscape changed last year when the United States Postal Service (USPS) increased the size allowance for First-Class postcards. The end result was that marketers gained nearly 72% more space to tell their story and elicit a call to action. This is big — literally — especially when you consider the opportunities to create better, more engaging marketing messages.

In addition to the expanded real estate marketers have in consumers’ mailboxes, the USPS’s 2022 promotional calendar offers incentives to use immersive marketing methods. One specific promotion allows for discounts when a direct mail piece uses specialty inks. When you are working with your clients, understand that any conversations about these new techniques must expand beyond technical specifications and cost per piece. To attract interest, you must be able to articulate why it is important to deviate from business-as-usual direct mail. If you don’t answer the “so what?” question, you’ll likely encounter “who cares?” responses. As noted earlier, color can translate to power and value. When used correctly, color can enhance engagement and increase the merit of the mailed piece.

This article doesn’t cover other USPS promotions, but hopefully you’ve had time to familiarize yourself with them. If so, you’ll see the intended interplay between print and technology. Direct mail incentives that include augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and virtual reality make it possible for marketers to take their messaging to the next level. With proper planning, they can deliver much more than ink on paper. Today’s trends enable marketers to engage an audience with sight, sound, and touch.

There is a natural hesitation in trying new things, and this is something that remains a challenge for many marketers as well as the print service providers who support them. Understanding how consumers engage with direct mail can give you the confidence to do things differently. According to Keypoint Intelligence’s research, certain techniques are more likely to prompt recipients to engage with direct mail.

Figure 2: Features that Prompt Consumers to Engage with Direct Mail

These days, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a black & white direct mail piece invoking excitement, joy, prestige, or kindness. Perhaps that’s why so many consumers report that full color or specialty colors prompt them to engage with direct mail.

The Bottom Line

As businesses begin to stabilize following the intense disruption of COVID-19, marketers must seek new ways to connect with their customers and prospects. As print providers, it is our responsibility to generate awareness about the value that print can deliver. Even in today’s digital world, direct mail can help address the most pressing business needs while generating additional revenue. Progress is the opposite of status quo, and it’s up to you to paint the picture of your future!

Karen Kimerer of Keypoint Intelligence has experienced the many challenges of expanding current market opportunities and securing new business. She has developed a systematic approach to these opportunities, addressing the unique requirements of becoming a leader in our changing industry. She is well-versed in 1:1 marketing, web-to-print, direct mail, book publishing, supply chain management, data segmentation, channel integration, and photo products.

This article originally appeared in the March/April, 2022 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.