History of Direct Mail

Ever wondered where direct mail began?

The earliest known direct marketing comes from the year 1000 B.C., where an Egyptian landowner wrote an advertisement on a piece of papyrus offering gold for the return of a runaway slave. That papyrus was recovered in Thebes and now stands on display in the British museum. Other ancient cultures experimented with direct marketing – Babylonian merchants used stone tablets to advertise the products available when they visited towns.

Humble beginnings – but direct marketing took a huge step up with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in around 1440. The technology quickly spread across Europe, with William Caxton creating printed pamphlets to order from his printing press set up in Westminster Abbey from 1480. Technology for printing presses continued to improve over the coming centuries, allowing for faster and faster output, and direct marketing on a bigger scale. In the 18th century, garden and seed catalogues were distributed in the nascent American colonies before the Revolutionary War – so catalogue mailings predate even the United States as a country!

It was in the century that followed that direct mail really developed, though. Aaron Montgomery Ward is considered the inventor of mail order processes and direct marketing; he created his mail order business in 1872, launching with a one-page catalogue. Richard Warren Sears followed soon after in the 1880s, mailing flyers to rural and small town customers to sell watches. The actions of both men served to revolutionise the purchase of goods – having previously been at the mercy of price mark-ups by their local stores, customers were now being reached directly. The advent of mail order meant that consumers could receive attractive items whether they lived in the developed cities like Manhattan or out in rural regions – and all at far cheaper prices.

The two pioneers moved from strength to strength – Montgomery Ward’s annual sales broke the $1m barrier in 1888, and Warren Sears’ 1896 catalogue consisted of more than 500 pages and went out to 300,000 homes. While both men passed away – Montgomery Ward in 1913 and Warren Sears in 1914 – their businesses lived on. Montgomery Ward & Co. survived until 1995 and Sears is a famous department store and mail order business to this day in the U.S. And their industry kept growing, with direct mail becoming a worldwide marketing staple, boosted  still further by the post WW2 economy.

Yet, just as the invention of the printing press in the 15th century had brought about a revolution, there was another big change coming up – computers were now being developed and introduced across the world. What effect would this new technology have on a form of marketing that had been going for three-thousand years?
There’s a certain irony to the fact that it was the advent of the computer that really kick-started the evolution of direct mail, given that email, web advertisements and social media are now considered such serious competitors to the direct mail industry. They may seem like uneasy bedfellows, but the two have co-existed for a significant amount of time. It was in the 1950s that computers began to be introduced, making them a perfect gauge of how direct mail changed over time.
The first computer advertisements in the ‘50s and ‘60s carried on in a long-standing tradition, typically stressing the functionality and usefulness of the product, with an image accompanied by a slogan and plain text that outlined what it did.

But the 1970s saw a change, with people being treated to kaleidoscopes of colour (that just seems so very ‘70s, doesn’t it?) and bold graphic designs designed to grab their attention. The specifics of the product being advertised were not quite as important as shorter selling points. With the computer now beginning to be a must-have commodity, marketing was becoming customised to appeal to specific target markets, such as businessmen and children.
Another piece of modern technology is credited with playing a big role in the story of direct mail – bank credit cards, introduced in their present form from the 1960s, were successfully marketed to customers and banks with the widespread use of direct mail. Businesses wondering how to encourage customers to take to a whole new form of payment opted for direct mail as the way of extolling the card’s virtues, viewing it as the most personal way of reaching them.

These new technologies also helped shape the use of direct mail due to the change in lifestyles that they brought about. Statistics show that the number of women working outside of the home went up from 42% to 58% between 1980 and 1990, which was simply the continuation of a trend that had started decades earlier. With fewer and fewer women able to go shopping during daytime hours, it made perfect sense to mail to them so that they could peruse and mail order the latest items in their own time.
The technology available now can give us targeted campaigns that in the ‘70s and ‘80s wouldn’t have been thought possible. Direct mail innovation and design have taken a huge leap forward, with marketers given greater creative tools to design their direct mail pieces. Direct mail now is all about creativity, targeting and understanding your target market.

However, when looked at in simple terms, it is just like it has always been – offering a product or service directly to others. And we still do catalogue mailings, just like it’s the 1800s – though we haven’t done any mailings from Egypt yet!

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