How Programmatic Print is Breathing Life Into Direct Mail

Print is old fashioned. Print is expensive. Print is slow. There are many ways to articulate the decline and death of this paper-based medium, but don’t declare it down for the count just yet. The same programmatic forces that have revolutionized the digital advertising and marketing industries are making their way into a format that is often left for dead, or at least considered a challenge to iterate into the future.

That’s right; the bane of print’s existence—namely, its inability to let real-time analytics inform real-time production—is finally getting attention and remedy. As a result, cutting-edge, hyper-optimized reinventions of print—unrivaled in their impact—are emerging as distribution, advertising, and promotional channels and offering new opportunities for marketers.

Even so, why would anyone actually want to focus on print in an era when mobile ad spending will hit $42 billion by 2018, according to BI Intelligence? In a word, efficacy. Print still delivers a return on investment that blows its digital rivals out of the water.

Take direct mail, for example—a 70-year-old industry that has at some point sent everyone in the country a mail order catalog or credit card offer. According to research from the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), 79 percent of consumers will act on direct physical mail right away, versus 45 percent for email. Meanwhile, the digital ad click-through rate is only 0.06 percent or less than one click per 1,000 impressions. Approximately $45.7 billion will be spent on direct mail in 2015, according to the Winterberry Group, versus just $2.2 billion for email. It’s no wonder that old school direct print mail is still a serious choice for marketers eager for results.

“Direct mail is the second largest ad spend next to television, and it’s the highest response rate next to telemarketing,” says Lewis Gersh, CEO of PebblePost, a new startup that takes the real-time analytics and optimization of programmatic digital formats and applies them to direct mail, an industry where a campaign traditionally can take 12 to 24 weeks to process, and which typically relies on static demographic data and mature house mailing lists. The two worlds could not be more different.

Until recently, joining these diametrically opposed segments of the marketing arena would have been challenging, but advancements in printing technology—the opening of APIs for printers and world class print quality that sometimes surpasses that of traditional offset machines—have helped bridge the gap.

As a result, PebblePost can offer real-time segmentation of users, tracking them before and after any mail goes out, then respond within 12 to 24 hours with a customized piece of collateral. It’s not an easy feat running dynamically rendered (or custom modified on the fly) wording, images, and layouts, but it’s now possible through printers that have been set up to receive an API from PebblePost. Immediately after printing, the final product is moved into carrier trays on the backs of mail trucks and into postal hubs in under 24 hours from a user’s tracked online activity.

Why go through all this effort? The ROI makes it worthwhile. Whereas previously a change from a three to 3.2 percent response rate was considered heroic in the mature direct mail space, PebblePost’s addition of real-time segmentation, analytics, optimization and physical world workflow management has led to dramatic growth. “We are producing, on average, ten times the response and conversion rates of typical direct mail, and 100 times the average of typical online targeting with display or email,” says Gersh.

Marrying real-time analytics to paper-based collateral has implications beyond direct mail, however, as evidenced by Time Inc’s recent and innovative foray into programmatic print advertising. The endeavor allows for the automated purchase of ads targeted to different audience segments in 18 of its U.S. print titles, including Sports Illustrated, InStyle, and People. Launched in February 2015, the initiative has taken off, with more than $1 million of inventory purchased as of the end of July 2015. Future iterations will allow for increased segmentation.

For at least the past decade, print-based industries with impressive traction have had to sit still as instantly quantifiable and actionable digital mediums from blogs, banner ads, mobile apps and online video have eaten their lunch, at least in terms of mindshare. But recent innovations are helping supercharge a tried and true medium, offering new opportunities not just for marketers, but content creators of all kinds.


[xyz-ihs snippet=”Hubspot-CTA-Leaderboard”]