Direct Marketing, Advertising Agencies, and Designers

U.S. organizations spent $46 billion on direct mail in 2014.

Impact of Direct Mail

In 1835, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) took their campaign to a new level with what has been called the first use of a direct mail campaign. [Deeper Learning: Direct Mail Campaign] The Society, founded two years earlier by Arthur and Lewis Tappan of New York, mailed a number of anti-slavery newspapers and printed materials to religious and civic leaders in the south. They selected names from newspapers, city directories, and other published lists. The reception for these unordered and mostly unwelcomed publications was swift, widespread, and hostile.

Direct mailing grew in use over the next decades and would grow to become a critical advertising tool in the United States. By the 1860s, retailers and service providers were using circulars to create awareness, provide information, and generate sales. Today, businesses have many different ways to advertise, and direct mail continues to be an effective part of the “marketing mix.”

Research suggests that people spend more time looking at print than digital content, and that print is more likely to generate an emotional response. People were able to both recall information faster and be more confident in their knowledge when they had read content in print. People often prefer printed products to digital ones for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the relative clutter of the digital mailbox. Overall, print content is seen as having a higher value and generates higher response rates than online marketing.

Direct Mail Began as a Business Tool

Direct mail did not really take off until the use of the typewriter became widespread after 1867, and an organizational system of marketers came into being in the early 20th century. The term “direct mail” came into use about 1905 and the Direct Mail Association (now the Direct Marketing Association) was established in 1917. The first direct mail agency was created in 1921, and a special class of advertising mail was created in 1928.

In the late 19th century, direct mail was seen as a way to generate leads for salesmen. Among the early users were the National Cash Register Company (NCR), founded in 1884, and the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, established in 1885. In 1891, it was reported that the National Cash Register Company mailed almost four million pieces of printed material to prospects.

Book Clubs Lead the Mass Market Way

As the educational and literacy rates increased, so did the demand for books. The Book-of-the-Club was founded in 1926 to fill that need. The owners developed the sales concept called the negative option, in which customers would automatically be sent a book at regular intervals unless they opted out of a particular selection in advance. Other mail order book companies followed, including the Literary Guild in 1927. These companies flourished even during the Great Depression. Later, inexpensive and lightweight paperbacks became popular, especially for military personal serving overseas in World War II. After the war, Time-Life Books and Reader’s Digest capitalized on the growing education and affluence of the American population. These companies also pioneered analyzing their lists to see which books were selling and who was buying them.

Other retail segments looked to capitalize on the concept of sales through the mail. Columbia House entered the market selling records, while the magazine industry benefitted from subscription services such as Publishers Clearing House and American Family Publishers.

The growth of local retail outlets for books, records and other goods put a dent in the mail club approach. As retail strategies shifted, so did the use of direct mail. More retailers and service providers started using direct mail and the object shifted to encouraging people to visit nearby stores. . The creation of the Internet and the emergence of online superstores such as Amazon changed the market yet again by reducing the need for retail stores for some products and changing how marketers talked to their customers.

The Changing Retail Market

While some retail segments reduced or eliminated their use of mail, other segments found ways to use it to bring customers to their stores and, later, their websites. Large regional or national retail chains and franchises advertised promotions and sales, provided coupons, and combined direct mail programs with radio, television, and newspaper ads. Smaller, local firms used First-Class mail with existing customers and often used post cards to remind people of appointments or announce special sales or discounts. In 2011 the Postal Service introduced their “Every Door Direct Mail” service for local businesses, allowing retailers to reach customers by geographic area without requiring an actual mailing address.

Relevant Direct Mail Works

Most people at least look at their direct mail. Many find it very useful in planning their routine shopping. The challenge for direct mailers is to develop carefully targeted and relevant messages. Good marketers have become experts at collecting and analyzing data from different sources, including customers, about their preferences and behaviors.

The next challenge for direct mailers is to design attractive campaigns that catch and hold the reader’s attention amid other distractions and to get them to respond. The formula for direct mail success is well known, but difficult to implement effectively. It is said that there is no such thing as “junk mail” – only poorly designed and implemented campaigns.


Lester Wunderman, Creator of Modern-Day Direct Marketing (part 1/3)


Lester Wunderman, Creator of Modern-Day Direct Marketing (part 2/3)


Lester Wunderman, Creator of Modern-Day Direct Marketing (part 3/3)