The Intersection of Direct Mail and Digital

September 30, 2020

By Bill Duggan


I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Dixon, product technology innovation director at the United States Postal Service, for an ANA event. This Q&A has been lightly edited — view the full conversation here.


Q. Let’s discuss the topic of creative. In my opinion, creative has taken a back seat to media in the advertising industry and that’s unfortunate. USPS has been very proactive in bringing new creative ideas for direct mail to the marketplace. Please discuss some of those ideas.

I think there is a lot of opportunity for creative in direct mail. As a platform mail offers creatives tremendous flexibility to do new things whether we talk about the use of color, the use of new inks or the papers that come along with digital printing. Whether we’re talking about supporting new types of folds and new inks, or we’re talking about embedded technologies that are available. One of the things that I think is just tremendous is video imprint. Receiving a printed mail piece with a video screen embedded in it containing a video message to me is a really great opportunity to merge digital technology with traditional print methods.

Q. That’s interesting because I’m thinking about what I’ve gotten in the mail and I can’t recall a mail piece that had a video somehow embedded. What would be a typical advertising category that might use that? I’m thinking maybe automotive but maybe not.

No, you’re absolutely right. The customers we’ve seen use video imprint are in automotive. It’s a great way to give that virtual test drive via a physical mail piece. Of course, that’s a premium experience so that is being used for your dedicated customers of higher-end automobiles, but it’s still a great hook to give them an experience without them having to leave their homes.

Q. How about QR codes in direct mail? Is that another example of a way to be creative?

We do see a lot of QR codes. We also see near-field communication chips, so not even having to scan the code but just hold your phone up to the mail piece. You hook the attention with a physical mail piece, you bring your phone over to it, and you can launch that digital experience. Again, a great way to use physical mail as the carrier for a digital experience.

Q. At the end of every year, ANA polls our membership to identify the “ANA marketing word of the year.” In 2019, that word was “personalization.” What are some of the new ways that USPS is bringing personalization to direct mail?

I think personalization was a great word to choose. It has a lot of opportunity in a variety of different ways for mail. Certainly, one of the things we talk about a lot lately is retargeting, retargeting direct mail and being able to get someone from their digital experience. Maybe they’ve left an abandoned shopping cart, and follow-up with a postcard or a printed mail piece to encourage a consumer to finish that transaction. There is tremendous opportunity there not only in the retargeting strategy but also in the technology that is being used for retargeting. Digital printing of mail pieces goes beyond just creating those pieces on demand, but gives marketers the opportunity to really customize those pieces to use their creative muscle to make sure that the physical piece as well is personalized to each individual recipient, based on all the rich digital data collected.

Q. We are all familiar with retargeting in a 100 percent digital world. The classic example people talk about is somebody goes to look at a pair of shoes and then keeps seeing that shoe ad for a month or so. Even perhaps after he or she has bought the shoes, and that can be annoying. But in this case when the consumer does get the first experience online the retargeting happens in a direct mail piece. Am I understanding that right? How would you know who saw the online piece and how would you have their mailing address to send something to?

There are third parties that can provide that service to map those email addresses into physical addresses. The Postal Service is also working on a prototype product where we would do that for the marketer. We launched a pilot earlier this summer where for opted-in consumers we mapped their email addresses into their physical addresses. We would never give away your real name and address, but we could give away a code to mail the piece to the consumer without ever compromising their identity. Providing that retargeting but protecting consumer privacy.

Q. There has certainly been an intersection of direct mail and digital. What are some of the key points digital marketers should know about how direct mail can supplement digital campaigns?

I think the first thing I would tell them is lose the concept of the snail. A snail does not actually deliver the mail, it does not actually take that long to produce a mail piece, as long as you’ve planned. I think there is a misconception that the mailing cycle is long. With the technologies available today it does not have to be. Use the same planning you would use for your digital campaigns, the same personalization options are available and mail now has rich data that comes with it especially if you use something like Informed Delivery. We provide, at no additional charge, data about how your mail travels through our network, data about when the physical pieces have been delivered, and with Informed Delivery we can tell you which pieces were seen in Informed Delivery and which pieces were clicked on. All that data can be fed back into the existing tools you’re using to manage your marketing digitally. I think most people probably don’t know that and we’ve worked really hard to make sure that those tools are available so that you can continue to do that really well targeted messaging even with the physical mail.

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