You’ve probably always received mail at your home. Whether you got sales information about a product or service, a handwritten letter or birthday card—or less excitedly a bill—mail was and likely still is a part of your life. Even with the influx of electronic communication, the physical mail we receive is still evident.


Direct mail is now a $44-billion industry and U.S. advertisers are experiencing a 1,300% return on their investment. Meanwhile, consumers are enjoying a break from their smartphones, citing the tangible effects of direct mail as one of the primary reasons they love receiving it.


Let’s look at the history of this popular print marketing channel to see how far it’s advanced over the years.


The Printing Press


mail order marketing strategy

Movable metal type, and composing stick, descended from Gutenberg’s press. Willi Heidelbach [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Before we can trace the history of direct mail marketing, let’s rediscover how print got its start.


It was around 1440 when German blacksmith/goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Naturally, with this discovery, he became more widely known as a printer and publisher. His introduction of mass-producing mechanical, moveable type started a revolution in Europe.


The technology quickly caught on and permanently modified the structure of our society.


That’s when William Caxton entered the printing picture. Caxton was a merchant and writer who became the first English retailer of books. He had a printing press (believed to be the first of its kind in England) set up in the Westminster Abbey Church where he created pamphlets to order his publications. Among them was an English translation of the Bible, “Aesop’s Fables,” and Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”


To this day, he’s generally considered one of the greatest Britons in history.


Direct Mail Marketing Materials


history direct mail marketing

Maule’s seed catalog. Maule, Wm. Henry (Firm) [CC BY 2.0 ]

Naturally, the technology improved over the years, allowing for faster production. Garden and seed catalogs were appearing in the American colonies prior to the Revolutionary War. While it’s unclear when the first direct mail marketing catalogs shipped, there are a number of relatable examples.


The Mail Order Marketing Strategy: Early Direct Mail Marketing Campaigns


The American Anti-Slavery Society printed and mailed marketing materials to religious and civic leaders in the south in 1835. This is likely the first direct mail campaign. They created a mailing list from names in newspapers and city directories, among other public lists.


Many retailers and service providers were using “circulars” as a mail order marketing strategy to develop their sales efforts in the 1860s. Here are some of the other early direct mail marketing participants:


  • The New York Life Insurance Co. began direct mailings as early as 1872.
  • That same year, American entrepreneur Aaron Montgomery Ward founded Montgomery Ward and Company. He established the first mail-order business and made a fortune through retail sales, beginning with a simple one-page “catalog” that featured 163 items.
  • Soon after Montgomery Ward’s success, Richard Warren Sears began mailing flyers for watches to rural customers. These flyers evolved into 500-page catalogs that shipped to more than 300,000 homes. This process revolutionized how to buy goods. Customers were now contacted directly to buy products, no matter where they lived.
  • The National Cash Register Company was also enamored with direct mail, dispatching almost four-million pieces of printed material to prospects in the late 1800s.
  • The Book-of-the-Month Club (a continuity program) began in 1926.
  • The former March of Dimes (then National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis) started in 1938.


History of Direct Mail Marketing Fun Fact


There are more than a few suspect internet reports stating that direct mail began in Greece 3,000 years ago. There’s also news that the very first piece of direct mail is on display at the British Museum in London. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence of either. According to an email from Dr. Julie Anderson, curator on duty at the museum, no such document exists there. Furthermore, Greek was not used in Egypt 3,000 years ago. The first Greeks never arrived in Egypt until the 7th century BC.


Computers and Desktop Publishing


history of direct mail marketingThe history of direct mail marketing continued to evolve. Just as the printing press revolutionized the 15th century, computers changed the game in the 1950s and 60s, first as products to be marketed, then instruments for direct mail marketing itself. Credit cards were becoming a popular way to place product orders. As a result, direct marketers took advantage by expanding their sales into magazine publishing and music clubs, among others.


Direct marketing giants Publisher’s Clearing House sold magazine subscriptions and eventually introduced their popular sweepstakes in 1967. The Columbia Record Club began as a mail-order music club and developed a significant market presence by the 1980s and early 1990s. At their peak, they managed a membership of 16-million music fans by offering “12-for-One” CD deals, along with various other promotions.


By this time, catalog shopping became a popular way of business for brands like Lands’ End, Lillian Vernon, and Spiegel. Luxury retail stores such as Neiman Marcus and Tiffany & Co. got in on the catalog craze while mailings to the lower and middle class began to decline. This was largely because the rural population decreased and postage costs increased.


Direct Mail Explosion


personalized direct mail marketingBy the start of the 21st century, the direct mail marketing industry was entirely reliant on computers with large databases full of zip codes and demographic information. As a result, marketers could target specific audiences with their direct mail messages, then track their responses. This led to an explosion of direct mail that caused many consumers to feel overwhelmed by it. That’s when the term “junk mail” was first introduced. It referred to the rush of unsolicited (and oftentimes unwanted) direct mail that consumers were receiving.


The Smithsonian National Postal Museum cleverly responded with:


There’s no such thing as junk mail – only poorly designed and implemented campaigns.


Thus, if you took the time to design an attractive, targeted campaign, you’d likely receive a positive reaction. (Need help with that? Let MSP guide you step by step.)


Even so, direct mail marketing services used a variety of tactics to get consumers to open their mail pieces. Many are still used effectively today:


  • Real stamps instead of machine stamping make direct mail more personal.
  • Items of bulk (like promotional pieces) increase interest in opening the mailing.
  • A window envelope sparks interest by previewing what’s inside.
  • Direct mail that’s designed to look like a telegram, check, or government document makes the mailing appear official.


History of Direct Mail Marketing: Modern-Day Methods


Modern-day technology allows for a seemingly endless number of innovative direct mail marketing designs. There’s almost no limit to what you can do with your marketing campaigns. By combining print with mobile technology, you can launch an interactive experience from a mail piece. This helps your message connect with more customers. After all, direct mail is about understanding a refined target market and using creative ways to reach and appeal to their needs. As a result, marketing mail is on the rise with more than 120-billion pieces received each year.


Print marketing is not meant to be a substitute for digital. It works as a strategic partner. To get the most out of your modern-day marketing efforts, you need both—an integrated, omnichannel marketing approach.


MSP’s direct mailing services can help you create a marketing strategy that combines both print and digital. Contact MSP for a free consultation today.

Add direct mail to your marketing strategy.

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