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How Has Direct Mail Evolved Over the Years?
September 1, 2022

How Has Direct Mail Evolved Over the Years?

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Stephanie Donelson

The old way of sending direct mail seems prehistoric to the options you have today. Mail that was once static and non-personalized is now hyper-personalized, measurable, and prioritized — it also now takes less than a week to send direct mail with Lob instead of months. This level of automation has changed the game, making direct mail an integral component of any marketing strategy.

As the back-to-school season approaches, Lob has taken the opportunity to create a direct mail refresher course on the evolution of direct mail. Whether you're interested in adding direct mail marketing to your strategy or have been out of the game for a while, wondering how this channel evolved, here's what you need to know.

A brief direct mail history lesson

The earliest form of direct mail marketing can be traced to ancient Egypt, way back in 1000 B.C. However, it wasn't until 1440 that direct marketing experienced a monumental leap forward, thanks to the invention of the printing press. From there, direct mail was slowly shaped into what it has become today. Each century, printing technology became more advanced, resulting in faster, more efficient output.

An important name in the history of direct mail is Aaron Montgomery Ward. Ward, often credited as the godfather of direct mail, sent out a catalog in 1872 to drum up sales and people responded with enthusiasm. In fact, people loved the ability to shop from home so much so that by 1888 Ward was generating $1 million in annual sales. This then inspired Richard Warren Sears to copy the selling tactic and send his own Sears Catalog which became its own pop culture reference as every house in America seemed to get one of these 500+ page catalogs.

Throughout modern history, there are plenty of examples of how direct mail evolved within specific industries. For example, the introduction of bank credit cards in the 1960s was successfully marketed to customers and banks via direct mail — and today, direct mail continues to play a significant role in the financial services industry. Whether companies strive for greater communication or compliance, automated direct mail is helping those across many industries, including retail, healthcare, and insurance. Read about specific use cases to see how the evolution of direct mail has helped these industries.

The key here is that direct mail today is automated and targeted. Technology allows companies to gather data to get the most bang for their buck. In the past, mail was sent to entire communities, hoping that a certain percentage would be interested. This approach involved far too much wastage — but not anymore. When intelligent mail is integrated with other digital marketing efforts as part of a strategic omnichannel approach, you can supercharge ROI.

Examples of how direct mail has evolved

Over the years, sending direct mail has become easier to execute. This evolution is apparent in several key areas, including the following.

Call-to-actions (CTAs)

Your CTAs are the most crucial part of any successful campaign. In the past, mail recipients were encouraged to call a phone number or visit a physical store. Today, direct mail campaigns encourage consumers to visit a website or specific landing page to increase conversion rates. This traffic is measurable, offering insight into what CTAs actually drive action and what type of action your customers prefer to take.

How Has Direct Mail Evolved Over the Years?  image 2
This Ulta postcard offers a variety of ways the recipient can act: shop online or in store, plus they get 20% and can get a free gift. Source: Who's Mailing What!

This 1997 IKEA postcard also has a variety of CTAs on it, but you'll notice that visiting the website is the last option presented. It was much more common to use business reply mail or ask people to call a phone number in order to take action on a piece of marketing mail:

How Has Direct Mail Evolved Over the Years?  image 3
Source: Who's Mailing What!


Direct mail today needs to catch the audience's attention. In this last decade, the average attention span has decreased by approximately 50%. That is why certain formats are so effective, such as well-designed postcards. Copy has become shorter and more simplistic, yet it is just as powerful. The average word count in envelopes, postcards, and self-mailers has decreased by 124.22%, 30.13%, and 29.24%, respectively, in the last 20 years. Looking back at mail advertisements from the 1950s, we see more long-form content that focuses on the functionality of the product but by the 1970s, it was all about bold colors, images, and shorter sentences with key selling points.

Another interesting insight is the use of first-person point of view in the copy and CTAs was a popular choice in the 1990s:

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Postcard sent by Musician Magazine in 1998. Source: Who's Mailing What!

Form factor

Although many campaigns focus on direct, limited copy, that does not mean letters are not effective. The key is choosing the right format based on your specific goals and targeted audience. For example, letters and envelopes were the default format until the 1990s when advertising postcards became popular, and while letters took a back seat as postcards were all the rage, letters are once again making a comeback. An engaging oversized letter can be an excellent option when sending a welcome letter. In these cases, leverage customizable letter templates.

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A letter sent by Rodale Press Advertising in 1986. Source: Who's Mailing What!


Along with different form factors, we've seen shifts in overall direct mail design with the use of more white space, less text, and like we saw in the 1970s, bold images to capture people's attention. In lieu of photography on the piece, we're starting to see the rise of icons being used to accompany small blocks of text or unique selling points. Since the CTA is generally to visit a website where they can get more information, designers don't have to cram a postcard or letter with superfluous text to sell the product.

How Has Direct Mail Evolved Over the Years?  image 6
Icons are used on this piece from Wayfair to quickly get across key points. Source: Who's Mailing What!

In the Wayfair example, the colors are bold and match Wayfair's branding. The text is easy to scan and there's a compelling reason to keep looking at the mailpiece (an extra 10% off). Now, compare that to a piece from Rodale Press Advertising in 1988. It does have color but today's printing and finishing is much more vibrant and since it's busy with so many uses of "free," it's hard to know where to look first.

How Has Direct Mail Evolved Over the Years?  image 7
Source: Who's Mailing What!


As technology evolves and direct mail campaigns become more targeted, this channel becomes much more cost-effective. No, the relationship between technology and direct mail is supercharging ROI.


Production is now much faster than it was 10-15 years ago. With advances in printing technology, the processes are also easier and cheaper. What once took 3+ months can now be achieved in less than a week. Faster production allows you to create and send campaigns that are time-sensitive, and with new finishing methods, such as coatings and perforations, your direct mail can better fit your brand and catch your target audience’s attention.

Workflow and sequencing

Direct mail used to be a spray and pray marketing method, hoping you hit the right households with your messaging. But as computers entered our daily working lives and we became more sophisticated with how we collected customer data and how we could leverage that data, it was time to send personalized, relevant direct mail. With integrations into CRM systems, direct mail has moved beyond being a one-off campaign where marketers crossed their fingers and hoped that the messaging worked and evolved into a tactic that relies on targeting and triggers to be a part of an omnichannel strategy.

Now, marketers can enable triggers so that when a person abandons their online cart they get a follow-up email or can even get a postcard just a few days later as it was created immediately when the website sent the right marketing trigger.

How Has Direct Mail Evolved Over the Years?  image 8
Abandoned cart postcard from Fingerhut sent in 2021-2022. Source: Who's Mailing What!


Through collecting the right data, we have more opportunities than ever to personalize our direct mail campaigns! From adding the recipient’s name to including images of previously purchased products, we can easily demonstrate that this piece of mail was created just for them. No longer can we get away with letters that start with “Dear Sir or Madam,” as we should know who we are sending mail to.

This Stitch Fix example is like the "Inception" of shopping as it's a personalized mail piece featuring tailored imagery that's also inviting the recipient to shop a personalized online storefront:

How Has Direct Mail Evolved Over the Years?  image 9
Source: Who's Mailing What!


Thanks to barcodes on mailpieces, marketers have a lot more visibility into the delivery of their direct mail instead of just guessing when it probably arrived. This ties back into the point above as you can now time the next sequence of marketing events, such as emails or sales calls, knowing your mailpiece has arrived.

The evolution of direct mail into intelligent mail

From Expedia to Twitter, over 10,000 innovative companies have chosen Lob to transform direct mail into intelligent mail.

But what does this mean?

Instead of relying on repetitive, manual processes, direct mail automation will allow you to send mail quickly and easily. Best of all, that mail will be connected, personalized, and measurable. You can easily integrate offline communication into your apps, internal systems, and marketing stack using Lob's direct mail and Address Verification APIs. This advanced process means you can send 100 or 100 million pieces within minutes, showcasing the power of APIs built for scale.

These APIs automate all the operational hassles that once plagued direct mail marketing, showcasing direct mail's current and future potential. With the ability to access a real-time data feed, you can get information to people when they want or need it most. As you break down communication bottlenecks, thanks to greater agility and speed, your customers will gain access to more relevant mail, fueling your ongoing goals. Whether you want to target someone who recently unsubscribed or send a personalized offer, using APIs makes this possible.

You can also optimize your existing tech stack, enabling you to add direct mail to your digital campaigns. It is now just as easy to send a postcard, letter, or even a check as easily as you send an email.

Explore all partnerships, ranging from Salesforce to Shopify.

The importance of personalization

As technology advances, direct mail processes are becoming more streamlined, allowing marketers to run targeted campaigns. This level of personalization yields a higher ROI than traditional static mail because it increases response and conversion rates.

Here are some excellent resources to dive deeper into how you can personalize direct mail at scale:

Leveraging end-to-end analytics

After a campaign's mail is sent, it's no longer out of sight or mind. To optimize your campaigns, you can now take advantage of analytics. Track conversions with QR codes and unique URLs to benefit from greater visibility and insight.

These options allow you to track the results of each direct mail campaign. For example, you could create a specific landing page to see which visits come from your latest campaign. You can then use this data to see how effective your approach was so that you can improve upon it.

Learn more here: How To Track Direct Mail Using Tracking Links

Lob simplifies the direct mail automation process

The evolution of direct mail has taken centuries to get to where it is today. Long gone are the days of untraceable snail mail. Direct mail is receiving the attention it deserves once again — but only when implemented strategically. For some, this may seem overwhelming. However, when you partner with Lob, the direct mail automation process is as simple as 1,2,3.

At Lob, we take care of the latest technology so that you don't have to. By offering no-code and low-code applications, Lob will allow you to streamline workflows, benefit from faster development times, and reduce campaign burdens.

Manual, repetitive processes have evolved into campaigns with hyper-personalization, end-to-end analytics, and sustainability support. With Lob, what would have taken three months now takes less than a week. Personalized campaigns can be created and sent in minutes, and thanks to real-time address verification, you can significantly reduce wastage.

Ready to experience the evolution of direct mail to take advantage of intelligent mail at scale? Contact us to learn more today!

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