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Trends in Direct Mail Technology: An Interview with Paul Bobnak
April 11, 2024

Trends in Direct Mail Technology: An Interview with Paul Bobnak

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Stephanie Donelson

We recently held a webinar with USPS about technology-driven direct mail. It was a fantastic discussion and we wanted to continue talking about direct mail technology and asked direct mail expert Paul Bobnak to sit down with us for a chat.

Bobnak is no stranger to talking direct mail with us, and we always enjoy getting his insights and opinions on how marketers can successfully leverage direct mail as a channel. This time, we focused on conversation on some of the topics discussed during the webinar to see what he thinks marketers need to know as it concerns direct mail technology and current trends.

But, before we get to that, let's introduce Bobnak! Paul, can you give us a quick introduction?

Bobnak: Yeah, I've been in the direct mail business in one way or another for the last 25 years. For roughly the first 20 that I worked for Who's Mailing What! as a part of the target marketing group. I ran Who's Mailing What!, which means every day diving into all the direct mail that came in, getting to know every little bit of direct mail, what it's all about, from a marketing standpoint, from a printing standpoint, talking to customers who want their direct mail intelligence and want to know what it's all about. And for the last five or six years, I have been creating a lot of written content for a lot of different companies, manufacturers, printers, companies in different parts of this gigantic ecosystem of direct mail.

All right, Paul, let’s get to the good stuff and talk all things technology in direct mail marketing!

Q: According to our 2024 State of Direct Mail report, 56% of marketers use a software/technology platform to execute campaigns. From your experience with direct mail technology, what’s been the best advancement you’ve seen? The ability to personalize campaigns? Add QR codes? Track direct mail results?

Bobnak: Variable data printing (VDP) is the most impressive and impactful advancement in my experience.

When executed well, it can produce excellent ROI. And it works because it's data-driven target marketing at a micro, 1-to-1 level. It takes segmentation several steps further away from a mass market, spray-and-pray approach.

Also interesting to me is that it is best done with digital printing and uses data - the heart of digital marketing - to work. To me, the idea that's come to life of variable images, graphics, offers, headlines, etc. is really pretty powerful.

Q: During our recent webinar with USPS, Holman discussed the power of Informed Delivery and how it’s bridging the gap between email and direct mail. What are some things you think marketers should know to get the most out of Informed Delivery? 

Bobnak: Well, first, Stephanie, I really think that USPS should do much more to publicize Informed Delivery and its capabilities first to the public, to make more people aware of it.  And marketers really ought to know that it's free to use.

Again, from my experience, to get the most from it, marketers should try using more higher-def images and intriguing copy or a website, or maybe a QR code, on the address side that gets scanned by USPS's equipment to build more curiosity or interest by the customer for just the grayscale image. That gives them a little more bang for the buck for that simple impression. 

If the marketer goes for an ID campaign with a color representative image, you want to have good branding to stand out in the consumer's inbox, and have a great call to action, whether it's going to a landing page or even activating an app.

And finally, test! Test your representative and ridealong images, and remember that you can switch out offers or the URL that the campaign reaches - because it's all digital. Can you tell I love Informed Delivery?

Q: Holman also discussed QR codes making a great impact on direct mail marketing and attribution as UTMs carry through the scan. They are great for us marketers, but what from the consumer side? We saw a dip in their usage in our 2024 State of Direct Mail report. Do you think QR codes are here to stay or will marketers revert back to pURLs or other trackable CTAs?

Bobnak: Yeah, QRs are here to stay - or maybe to be more open to possibilities, I'll just say, until something even easier comes along to replace them. PURLs are great but from a CX point of view, QR codes are easier and more error-free to use.

Q: What about technological advancements in personalization? What do you think has been the biggest advancement to help marketers better personalize direct mail?

Bobnak: It's really been the advancements in two key areas: software and hardware.

Databases have become far more complex, integrated, and capable, which creates all kinds of possibilities for marketers to creatively target prospects and customers 1-to-1.

Don Peppers and Martha Rogers first talked about this back in the '90s, and it's here now. And the software needed to run today's presses makes runs with lots of variable images, etc., easy and affordable. Of course, doing this at scale is great but you still have to have marketers who see those possibilities and actually do the testing and modeling.

Q: Holman talked about Augmented Reality and its future as a part of direct mail. Have you seen any brands starting to leverage AR or talk about it?

Bobnak: It's interesting - AR is one of those technologies that just hasn't had - yet - that breakthrough into mass use in direct mail.

I've seen mail from La-Z-Boy recently where you can create a virtual showroom to see how a piece of furniture looks in your house. Which was something that Ikea tried with its catalog a few years ago. BJ's, Ace Hardware, a few others use AR. And Citi has an AR scan in its credit card acquisition mail that creates a simple menu to learn more about card benefits and a way to accept the offer.

?And that all of that might be OK for now, you have to be really thoughtful and intentional in how you're going to use it. Start small, think about what works best for your audience and how their experience is better than what they may already have with an app or website that you link to through a QR code. 

Q: We’ve got to talk about it as it was a hot topic last year: Artificial Intelligence (AI). What do you think marketers should focus on when leveraging AI technology in direct mail? Should it be for data analysis or generating creative? 

Bobnak: Yes. In other words, marketers need to do both.

Content creation and messaging and copy can get a big assist from using AI tools. Though I have to add that I'm a bit skeptical about it totally replacing the human element or voice that's so important to brands and non-profits.

And yeah, for analyzing audience data, making faster adjustments with testing of offers, segments, tapping into behavioral and intent data - there are a lot of good cases that can be made for putting AI to use in those places.

Q: Let’s stay on the AI train somewhat for a second. It’s still an evolving technology, and we’re still learning how to use it. Do you recommend marketers try to be early adopters of technology in direct mail? Or should they wait to see how the technology performs and syncs with their current marketing tech stack before investing in it?

Bobnak: It's important to start now with some of the more cut-and-tried analytical tasks first. Figuring out messaging, headlines, and offers to test.

In direct mail - again - two rules by marketer Malcolm Decker: Rule #1. Test everything. Rule #2. See Rule #1.

That frees up more time to focus more on strategy, etc.

Q: Email marketing is going through some changes right now as it relates to mass emailing and we expect to see some marketers looking to different channels to help out. What are some best practices you’ve learned over the years for adding direct mail into an omnichannel or multi-channel marketing strategy?

Bobnak: My friend Ryan Phelan is an email expert, and he and I wrote an article about this not long ago. Basically the idea is that you should always consider how to use other channels to reinforce your messaging, maybe broaden your approach, and look for connections.

Understand why people use your channel and what its strengths are. So some ideas would be: get people to sign up for email by sending a mail piece first; same goes for email non-responders - reach out with something simple, like a postcard; swap in a mailer in a drip or nurturing campaign; and, of course, respond to cart abandonment with a mailer and a great offer.

Q: Holman also shared with us some of the amazing incentives offered through USPS. Have you had any experience using incentives and what would you recommend marketers think about to get the most out of those incentives? 

Bobnak: I have only observed some from my experience reviewing mail but I've talked with vendors about how they use these incentives, which were created in the first place to get marketers to push the envelope of technology in mail. Some of them have paired up with each other to use several technologies, such as texture and scent on a mail piece, and earning several USPS discounts at once. Smart!

Again - look at your audience. Think long and hard about how these mailpieces will be viewed by your recipient - are they more likely to produce a conversion, or get better ROI, than your current mailpieces?

And as always: Test!

Q: Where do you see technology going next in the direct mail space?

Bobnak: With postage prices continuing to increase, there's more pressure to keep costs low by focusing on more profitable segments. And that's where AI can help model what they look like. Online behavior and intent, I think, will drive more mail, so more triggers, more programmatic, is a smart move.

Sustainability is going to be more of a concern, and there are things printers can do working with marketers and designers, such as changing to fonts that use less ink and layouts with less white space - all while not sacrificing readability.

You may have noticed too, that mailers have gotten smaller over the years and use less words to drive people online. Again, it saves money but ink on paper still gets the job done well when it's well-thought-out and carried out. 

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on technology-driven direct mail! If our blog readers are interested in reading more about your perspectives and experiences in direct mail marketing, where can they find you?

Bobnak: Thanks for the chat, Stephanie, as always. I'm easily reached on LinkedIn, and people can find articles I've written (as well as videos I've hosted) on Who's Mailing What! as well as mailing.com, and of course, some webinars and talks we've had here on Lob.com.

Recommended viewing: See if we can surprise Bobnak with the stats in our 2024 State of Direct Mail report. Watch the video now!

Continue learning about direct mail technology trends

Want to continue learning about the latest trends in direct mail technology? Watch the webinar recording where we chat with Sheila Holman, VP of Marketing at USPS to discuss what marketers need to know about today's technology to drive more impact with their direct mail marketing campaigns. Watch the webinar: Getting Ahead of Direct Mail Technology Trends.

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