Direct Mail: Practice What You Print

News flash for printers: The latest DMA National Client E-mail Survey report reveals that direct mail is still one of the most commonly used marketing channels. Furthermore, not only has direct mail stood up well to the challenges posed by the recession, but it carries weight in the boardroom, according to last fall’s Marketing Week Direct Mail Attitudes survey, which found that 56 percent of marketers believe that direct mail has influence with the top executives or board members at their companies.

Just last month, there was a flurry of direct mail activity among U.S. printers. of Prince Frederick, Md., purchased nearby Eagle Direct, adding capability for its multi-insert packages. The acquisition is expected to boost DirectMail’s capacity by more than 500,000 pieces per day. Also in December, Princeton allpoints Communications opened a new service center in Robbinsville, N.J. The 150,000-sq.ft. facility features a complete suite of data processing services, full-color digital print on demand, continuous and cut-sheet laser printing, turnkey direct mail services and fully integrated fulfillment. Meanwhile, the nation’s leading menu producer, Glen Allen, Va.-based online printer, launched a new direct mail division serving small business owners in the pizza and takeout food industry.

The bottom line is that direct mail (still) works for the majority of the 18 million businesses in the United States. And it stands to reason that if direct mail works for printers’ customers, it should work for printers, too. Form should follow content, especially if you’re a printer of direct mail! After all, how does it look to your customers if you don’t use direct mail yourself?

Making the Time, Doing the Math
For many printing companies, what seems a like a no-brainer—promoting themselves in print—doesn’t happen because there’s never time. Yet many of these same owners complain of presses sitting idle and flat profit margins. Something’s not adding up. Maybe it’s the perceived hassle of creating a direct mail piece. But what could be easier than partnering with a design firm customer, ad agency or local marketing firm? Think of it as a prospecting opportunity instead of a pain in the neck. Heck, if no staffer has the time to run the project, pay a college intern $10 an hour to get it done. Why?

Because in the direct-response world, a 2 to 3 percent response rate is considered about average for a typical static mailing. (Rates can rise dramatically when personalization and variable data are incorporated.) On a book of business featuring 500 accounts, what printer couldn’t use 10 to 15 new jobs—or new accounts, for that matter, depending on the mailing list and the offer? Multiply those results by four for a quarterly campaign. That’s why.

If the economy has paralyzed your self-marketing efforts, there’s an historic reason to consider. “Companies that advertised aggressively during the 1981 and 1982 recession had sales 256 percent higher than those that did not continue to advertise,” reported a McGraw Hill Research Study (1980 to 1985).

That statistic is what self-proclaimed magnet tycoon Trey Schaefer has been including at the bottom of every e-mail message he transmits these days. Schaefer owns Art Promotional Services (APS) in Birmingham, Ala., whose division provides custom magnets, refrigerator magnets, date and calendar magnets.

“We use our magnets for direct mail purposes as well and giveaways and leave behinds,” Schaefer said. “We have a product that we call a Mailable Magnet that has a paper backing on the magnet side that you address and can actually send through the mail. Once the end user receives it, they can stick it immediately on their fridge or filing cabinet. We’ve gotten great response back from customers because magnets have that ‘staying power’ and people hold on to them much longer than basic postcards or business cards.”

VDP Response: 15 Percent and Up
Printers across the country regularly toot their own horns with direct mail, but few do so as sophisticatedly as Modern Postcard of Carlsbad, Calif., near San Diego, which specializes in self mailers yet hasn’t considered itself a printer for several years. The 34-year-old firm, whose employees now number around 180, has evolved to offer mailing services, lists, marketing and design. In fact, the $50 million firm provides mailing services for about half of its annual customer print volume of some 100 million postcards, most produced within a stable of Komori Lithrone sheetfed presses and perfectors at its 75,000-sq-ft facility.

In the self-promotion realm, Modern’s mass acquisition programs also are run on this conventional equipment. About a year ago, however, it launched a digitally printed, variable-data element to its client acquisition and retention initiative: customized, trigger-based communications individually targeted to one client at a time.

The progressive marketing concept is based on customer life cycles, such as a first order or most recent order and other milestones. Each card features customized creative and messaging. “We’ve had the capability for several years, but they key has been a better understanding of our customer database,” said Marketing Manager Fred Hernandez, adding that this type of campaign is nothing like having a preset schedule of static, historically or seasonally based communications.

For example, some cards are targeted to win back a customer who reappears after, say, a three-year absence. If the intent is to push a product or a brand, then appropriate images are substituted. The most innovative scenario is when actual images are pulled from an existing customer’s previous job files. In this case, the corresponding message might relate to reprint pricing, as if to say, “Remember this cool postcard you did? Want some more?” More often than not, each message includes some kind of a customized offer or call to action, “perhaps to repurchase a product or [suggest] a natural cross-sell,” said Hernandez. For the returning customer, there’d likely be an offer for something that’s new in the 36 months since they’ve been gone.

With nearly 50,000 customers, “There’s a constant flow of communication from our company. We have hundreds of cards going out once a week,” Hernandez reported, cautioning that the company is sensitive to “over communicating.”

Hence, its 30-day window philosophy that ensures at least one month between communications. The present format for these variable-data mailings is a triple panel, with one perforated score, that folds down to a 4.25-x-6-inch card, allowing for up to three coupons. The company has used double panels and flat-sized cards as well; Fernandez said flexible software from XMPie makes it easy to switch formats. Printed on SFI-certified, 12.5-point card stock that’s milled especially for Modern Postcard, they’re produced digitally on a web-fed HP Indigo press w3250 installed nearly four years ago. The digital stock is then aqueous coated for protection, demonstrating how Modern’s proprietary coating technology “holds up well in the mail stream,” added Hernandez.

So, is VDP working? “The response has been quite through the roof, two to three times [higher than] our normal 3 to 5 percent range,” Hernandez noted. “We saw results within two weeks, and now we’re seeing close to 15 percent on average. Sometimes we’re easily into 30 percent.” Such off-the-chart response rates have helped the direct marketing/print provider to keep its head above water during the recent economic storm.

Award-winning Promo
CustomXM, a central Arkansas marketing services provider and printer, does its own direct mail self promotion, too, distributing a newsletter every other month and quarterly direct mailing that promote new products. A fall 2009 mailing touted the firm’s new dimensional print capability on its Kodak NexPress. Recipients could feel the bumpy texture of a football image atop smooth blades of grass. Some 750 were sent out; more than 30 of whom have requested sample kits: a 4 percent response.

But CustomXM took the one-to-one marketing concept to yet another creative level with its highly customized board games, of which only three were produced. After conducting extensive research on the recipient companies, “We printed labels on the NexPress and applied them to blank game boards,” explained Paul Strack, president of the 44-year-old, family-owned firm. One space for an ad agency read, “Win an Addy Award, Advance 3 Spaces.” CustomXM also created box tops and game pieces.

The piece was hand-delivered rather than mailed, but one thing’s for sure: Their 1.5-inch, pizza-box-like footprint ensured that they were opened by the key executives who received them. To date, one resulted in a new client and the second led to a contract retention, reports Strack. The jury’s still out on the third.

With annual sales of $2.25 million, Strack said that digital revenues have surpassed offset in his 10,000 sq.ft. space, which houses 14x20-inch, two-color Heidelberg GTO and Printmaster sheetfed presses as well as a smaller format AB Dick machine. 2009 was a good year for CustomXM and its 13 full-time employees. For the first time, the North Little Rock firm was named as one of the Top 100 printing companies in the United States by PN’s sister publication, Quick Printing magazine. Its board game promo also won two Bennys, the highest honor in the annual Printing Industries of America Premier Print Awards for Customized Variable Data Digital Printing and the Self-Promotion categories.

Imtech Graphics of Carlstadt, N.J., is another Benny winner for a self-promotional piece demonstrating the printing and prepress firm’s range of capabilities. Entitled “We Do—We Can,” the 36-page folder features a double gatefold and vellum overleaves. “They’re used as a sales leave-behind but we could have just as easily mailed them,” said Rich Parillo, recently retired sales vice president. Imtech printed only 1,000 of its elaborate brochures.

Based near Chicago, Mark Vruno is a business writer who has reported on the commercial print industry for more than 20 years. Most recently, he was executive editor of Graphic Arts Monthly magazine. E-mail him at

For Printers, By Printers

Mike Stevens makes a living off of printers who can’t find the time to promote themselves. Twenty-two years ago, the former owner of Fargo, N.D. quick printer Express Press founded Ink Inc. as an ad agency specializing in designing direct-mail marketing for the printing industry. Today, more than 550 subscribing printers mail more than 660,000 pieces of Ink Inc.’s materials to businesses in their cities monthly. One of its products is FastStart, a monthly motivational fold-over postcard mailer that printers use to upgrade their professional image. Parent company also offers newsletters and Web site packages.

“We believe that this direct-mail campaign is highly responsible for the fact that we have weathered the economic downturn with minimal effect on us,” said Dan Johnston, CFO of AJ Printing & Graphics, Santa Rosa, Calif., which has been an Ink Inc. customer for several years.

Direct Mail Links To Profit
For profit leaders in our industry, direct mail is frequently at the core of their marketing efforts and programs, said quick/small commercial printing consultant John Stewart. Almost without exception, they use direct mail to establish name recognition and to help open doors.

“In many cases, a prospect has received 15 to 20 mailing pieces from these print leaders before a sales representative gets to set foot inside the door ….” Stewart wrote in an online white paper at Ink Inc.’s Web site. “Whether it’s a simple two-color flyer, a postcard, or a complex, personalized four-color newsletter, the winners in our industry simply seem to do a much better job in the area of direct mail. They believe in it, they practice what they preach, and it is an integral part of their approach to managing their business. The result is the ability of these ‘winners’ to maintain sales and, more importantly, profits in both good times and bad,” he noted.

“While many printers give lip service to the effectiveness of using direct mail when times are good, they seem to be the first to postpone or even cancel their regular direct-mail programs when times turn bad,” Stewart added. “Not so for the profit leaders, who often see a recession as an opportunity to grow market share at the expense of their competitors—who are struggling. It’s not unusual to see the leaders redoubling all marketing efforts, especially those pertaining to direct mail.”

Stewart’s firm, Q.P. Consulting, Inc., is based in Melbourne, Fla.,