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Direct Mail Customization Guide Part 1: How Much Variability Do I Need?
July 22, 2021

Direct Mail Customization Guide Part 1: How Much Variability Do I Need?

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Mark Pinard

Organizations have become incredibly targeted and precise at the inbox, but many are still sending out the same generic content at the mailbox. As businesses work to modernize legacy direct mail workflows, they’re running into limits their print partners place on variability. While these limits made sense before the digital era, modern companies need the flexibility to customize each mailpiece to the needs of the recipient.

In this series on streamlining direct mail production, we’ll teach you how to use HTML templates to give your direct mail program the targeting, flexibility and power of your digital channels. But before we can teach you how to build a truly modern approach to direct mail, we need to address the lack of variability that’s holding you back.

Legacy Direct Mail Printing

In legacy direct mail workflows companies typically negotiate printing costs by the batch. So if a company needs to print out and mail, say, 10,000 folded self-mailers, they’ll contact their printer and negotiate a contract for that job.

The printer looks at all the variables that determine the cost and complexity of the job, including volume, type of paper, dimensions, type or types of ink, and the amount of variability — i.e., the percentage of each mailpiece that is unique. So, for example, If the batch calls for 10,000 identical mailers, the printer will offer a low per-item cost, because it’s a high volume job that can be run on offset printers. On the other hand, if a high proportion of each mailer is unique, the printer must do most of the work on digital printers, which increases cost.

How Digital Adoption Changed Variability Needs

This approach made a lot of sense back before digital technology became ubiquitous. Companies mostly printed form letters, flyers and other low-variability mailpieces which could be prepared in big batches. Aside from names and addresses and certain transactional mailpieces like invoices, there just wasn’t a lot of need for variability.

But as digital technology became a bigger part of daily life, companies began to change the way they communicated with customers, stakeholders and business partners. Companies now had the capacity to send custom messages across various digital channels instantly, and at low cost. It didn’t take them long to learn the benefits of customizing messages for a wide variety of use cases, from driving leads, to retention, to the help desk.

And crucially, the impact of digital customization on cost continued to decline. Your email service provider doesn’t care if each email you send out is one of a kind, or if all of them are exactly the same. There were costs associated with writing custom content, and with following up with particular stakeholders. But over time, the tech industry brought down those costs, with a range of technologies to track, template, automate, report and analyze communications.

Direct Mail Workflow Falls Behind

But while digital communication underwent a revolution, most companies retained a legacy workflow for direct mail — with legacy capabilities. They continued to use outdated, paper-based workflows to design and review content, instead of the much faster and more efficient tools used for digital communications. They maintained a legacy cadence, where mailpieces were prepared in big batches, which prevented them from taking the more conversational approach typical of digital communication.

And because their internal workflow was staying the same, the way they interacted with printers and other service providers didn’t change much either. Pricing is generally still negotiated per batch, in an inflexible workflow that limits variation and prevents companies from responding quickly via direct mail.

Why Variation Matters

While the capabilities of direct mail fell behind digital channels, the effectiveness did not. In fact, with digital saturation leading to low open and conversion rates on digital channels, direct mail has become more effective than ever.

In our recent State of Direct Mail study, we found that a majority of top marketers now see direct mail as their most powerful channel. Of the 200 marketing leaders we surveyed, over 64% said direct mail delivers the best response rate of any channel they currently use, and almost 61% rated it as having the best ROI. That would be impressive for any channel, but considering the low cost, speed and flexibility of digital channels, it’s extraordinary.

And keep in mind, many of these marketing leaders are getting high ROI and response rates in spite of legacy direct mail capabilities. Only 38% of respondents had the capability to customize text, 17% could customize offers, and a mere 8% could customize imagery. There was also evidence that many respondents did not have a sufficiently advanced internal workflow, with only 54% reporting using a software platform to execute their direct mail campaigns.

As more companies turn to direct mail to boost ROI, those who modernize their mail capabilities will have a significant advantage. The more you can customize your mailpieces, the more effectively you’ll be able to target leads, customers and stakeholders, and the better results you’ll get. But you can’t do that if your printing provider limits your variability.

How Much Variability is Enough?

For direct mail to match the capabilities of digital channels, nothing less than 100% variation will do. You need to be able to write completely unique letters, postcards and brochures for each recipient, at reasonable costs. The more sophisticated and targeted your direct mail campaigns get, the more variation they’ll require. Unless you have complete flexibility, eventually you’ll hit a wall.

Upgrades don’t happen all at once. Upgrading direct mail doesn’t just require new technology and enhanced partner capabilities, but a new workflow as well. And once you get all that in place, there’s a period of training and exploration as you test your new capabilities, experiment with new approaches and push the boundaries of your communication strategies. You’ll expand your program into new use cases, and work to integrate direct mail more effectively with digital channels.

Depending on where you start, you may be able to get by for a while with modest variation. If you’re sending out bills, you don’t need to be able to add custom graphics, for example — you just need to customize a portion of the letter text.

However, the more sophisticated your direct mail approach gets, the more variation you’ll need. Eventually, you’ll want to be able to do things like:

  • Sending customers unique offers based on previous purchases
  • Printing out personalized newsletters based on consumer interests, demographics, and other factors
  • Repurposing content from other channels such as email to support important communications
  • Addressing customer-specific complaints or needs

You simply can’t do that if your printer limits your variability.

Can I Really Use 100% Variation?

The legacy approach to direct mail treats it as a series of one-off design projects, Each mailpiece is individually crafted, critiqued and revised as a paper proof before finally being sent out.

Using this approach, high variation isn’t very useful — no one has enough time to design customized versions of every letter for every customer.

To make use of high variation, you need to approach direct mail the way automated marketing campaigns approach email: using replicable templates designed to facilitate customization. This template-based approach lets you substitute in custom content using merge variables — fields that can be assigned to insert different text or images, based on the recipient and use case. Templates allow you to address a huge range of situations with just a few documents, automating most of the work involved in customizing your direct mail. They also take most of the design work out of direct mail, greatly simplifying and streamlining your workflow.

In the next blog, we’ll break down what merge variables are, how merge variables work, and what they can do to make your direct mail campaigns more effective.

Additionally, many printers aren’t really set up for a high degree of customization, so they’ll place limits on the maximum variability.

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