Traces of direct marketing are discovered from 1000 B.C. An Egyptian landowner wrote an advertisement on a piece of papyrus offering gold for the return of a runaway slave. Other ancient cultures also experimented with direct marketing by utilizing stone tablets to advertise products when visiting other towns. As you would expect in those ages, information traveled about as fast as a snail.
Fast forward to the invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg. Advancing from papyrus offerings to printed pamphlets completely revolutionized direct mail. Pamphlets were later produced in the United States by key figures such as Benjamin Franklin and William Penn near the close of the 18th century. From there, direct mail progressively developed. In 1872 Aaron Montgomery Ward, who is considered the inventor of mail order processes and direct marketing, created his mail order business. Ward launched with a one-page catalogue that year. Richard Warren Sears was close behind, mailing out flyers to rural and small town customers as watch advertisement in the 1880s.
By 1888 Ward’s annual sales broke $1 million and by 1896 Sears’s catalogue contained more than 500 pages going out to 300,000 homes. Since the beginning, direct mail has allowed a greater variety of people to become aware of items they were interested in, whether they live in densely populated cities or rural areas. The Montgomery Ward catalog survived until 1995 and although Sears retired the “big book” in 1993, they still appeal to customers through a combination of print catalogs and online shopping. The creativity and actions of these two men brought about a revolution of purchased goods due to direct mail marketing and gaining customers outside of the stores.
In the 1950s computers were introduced and direct mail would again adapt to a new age of information delivery. With this dramatic advancement in technology came a better gauge of the change direct mail had taken. By the 70’s, graphical designs and bold colors were expected on mail with the goal of grabbing people’s attention and standing out among other bland white envelopes.
More recently, new variable data printing technology has emerged that allows marketers to personalize campaigns to specific audiences. Direct mail in 2014 is merged with database marketing to produce 1 to 1 messaging that is timely and relevant to specific audiences. It is also combined with other marketing channels to reach the audience wherever they are. No one knows exactly what the future holds but one thing is for sure, direct mail will continue to play a major role in marketing.