Designers and the Direct Mail Supply Chain

By Elizabeth Gooding / Published:

Designers are expanding their role in the print buying supply chain. This is important for printing companies using inkjet as growth in inkjet pages correlates strongly to design intensive application segments. Looking back a couple of years to the I.T. Strategies 2018 Production Inkjet Forecast – Continuous Feed Inkjet, 2018 was the year we saw direct mail overtake transaction printing in terms of both page volume and value. That same year, graphic arts, a truly design intensive segment, had enough volume to be reported separately from “other.” From 2017through 2022 direct mail was projected to grow at 12% CAGR (versus 8% for transaction print) and that graphic arts section is expected to grow at a blistering 42% CAGR during the same period. Looking back a year further to 2017, Research conducted by John Zarwan and Margie Dana determined that:

  • 35-40% of corporations procure some of their printing through design firms and ad agencies.
  • Agencies are more likely than corporations to be increasing their print budgets.
  • Agencies and design firms are most likely to have specialist do their print buying, while other “Print Buyers” may have multiple responsibilities.

While the upstream brand is usually the ultimate decider in the buying process, designers have tremendous influence on how much of the budget goes to direct mail (if any), the printing process used, the paper selected and the choice of supplier. It has never been more critical to ensure that designers are educated about inkjet and how it fits with other print processes in the direct mail supply chain.

Direct Mailers Need to Create Design Optimists

In order to have an impact on mail design, direct mailers need to work with designers before the piece becomes a job. To pump up the inkjet volume,  designers need to be excited about the potential of personalized direct mail and how the latest inkjet technology can help them raise the bar on what is possible. We call this creating “design optimists.”

Getting the attention of designers and creating design optimists requires an investment in customer education and outbound marketing to designers, as well as the technical ability to deliver high quality production. Getting to designers before they are customers can help bring in more business, particularly if a printer can enable them to deliver differentiated designs that their last print partner couldn’t. Helping them achieve better response rates and supporting them with awards entries will keep them coming back.

What Do Designers Need to Learn About?

Designers who specialize in non-print channels need to learn about the great, and improving, response rates that direct mail can deliver. Direct mail is the most effective channel in driving response from consumers as well as business prospects. In fact, in 2018 direct mail response rates were 5 times higher than either email or social campaigns and 9 times higher when using a house mailing list versus a prospect list.

Source: ANA; DMA Response Rate Report, 2018

Of course those numbers are averages (2019 rates should be available soon). Some response rates are lower and some are significantly higher. Getting those higher results is what everyone should be striving for. Even designers who have been working in print may not be aware of all of the new possibilities for driving top results with direct mail. Let’s consider a few:

Data Driven Personalization

There have been huge leaps in data management to drive personalization and in what can be personalized in a digital printing environment. Advances in data management, filtering, appending and even Artificial Intelligence means that lists can be more targeted, even micro-targeted, and more robust with multiple data points used to personalize a campaign.

Once triggers are identified to drive variations, designs can be tailored with variations in color, imagery, offer, response methods. In fact, the entire campaign flow might be changed based on the demographics of the list with some receiving print as a follow up to online activity and others getting direct mail first with an enticement to go online. With digital print, sophisticated marketing software and the right data, pretty much anything in a campaign can be personalized – including the envelope.


The literal feel of the piece can have a direct impact on whether mail gets opened, how the message is interpreted and how memorable it is.  A Communicator’s Guide to the Neuroscience of Touch” by Lana Rigsby and Dr. David Eagleman cites research from Eagleman Labs connecting haptics with memory. Specifically, research participants were more likely to recall content printed on high-quality, heavy weight paper than on low-quality paper. No doubt, the feel of a piece can be a major differentiator when sorting through a pile of mail. Is there a soft-touch, a grainy feel, a raised surface? The feel of the selected media is only one step in the process since that media can be enhanced with coatings, varnishes, embossing and foils to drive interest. In many cases, the application of textures and embellishment is also one more characteristic that can be personalized for each mail piece.


Some of the haptic opportunities described above are part of post-print finishing lines, including clear and textured coatings and foils, but there are many other finishing opportunities to for designers to consider and understand. Sometimes even understanding all of the folding options that are compatible with a particular print technology can be confusing – but a unique “reveal” through an unexpected fold can be a differentiator. Designers need to understand how available finishing options work together from haptic enhancements through folding, binding, cutting and inserting – or building the envelope around the piece in lieu of a typical inserting process.

USPS Promotions

Currently there are six promotions proposed for 2020 that can offer discounts on postage of up to 2%. Promotions cover Tactile, Sensory and Interactive Engagement; Emerging and Advanced Technology; Mobile Shopping; Informed Delivery; Personalized and Preprinted Color Transpromo; and Earned Value which also correlate to the direct mail value drivers noted above. For more see Inkjet, USPS and Getting Ready for 2020.

Creating Design Optimists

Personalization, haptic enhancement and finishing are just a few of the value drivers that can take direct mail to the next level and they each are complex topics to master. The selected paper (or other media) must be compatible with each step in the process. A particular print provider may have different combinations of print and finishing solutions including toner or inkjet, sheet-fed or roll-fed and different levels of sophistication with their software processes. Without guidance, designers can become frustrated with trying to figure out what is possible. Print organizations can help them by providing guidelines on:

  • The production capabilities of the organization. Not feeds and speeds, but rather combinations of technology that work together. What paper and print options are available for high, medium and low coverage designs? What finishing capabilities can be used with each of those options. What are the base sheet sizes or roll widths that can be produced. How can you get each piece in the mail at the lowest cost?
  • File preparation guidelines for submitting data, design and graphic files for production. Start with color space and preferred image file formats for each print process used.
  • Guidelines and suggestions for taking advantage of USPS promotions around augmented reality and other advanced technology and mobile shopping options including design reviews to ensure that designs comply with requirements for discounts.
  • Inspiration through sample designs. Print firms can create them in-house or hire a designer, but sample jobs that push the limits of your production capabilities should be available to drive designers to think big. 

Thinking big may include designs that include more than one type of print, more than one type of media, variations in finishes and campaign components that go beyond the page such as augmented reality or other connections to web, social or mobile experiences. Design optimists assume that what they want to do is possible and go out and work with production partners to try to make it happen. Printing and mailing organizations need to be ready to collaborate on that vision and find ways to say yes, even if that involves some fine tuning on the design.

Print providers need to work to gain the attention of designers, but designers also need to take the initiative to engage with their print provider. Design optimists assume that what they want to do is possible and go out and work with production partners to try to make it happen.

Talking with different providers can also open designers up to possibilities that may otherwise have been missed. When designers and their print partners are working together early in the process, the chances of a clean, successful and innovative campaign are greatly increased. When innovative campaigns drive even higher response rates, we all win.

Making direct mail better should be a priority for every part of the supply chain that touches the direct marketing segment. Direct marketing underwrites the postal costs of many other segments in the US with 77.3 mail pieces delivered in 2018. While direct mail volumes have grown, direct mail designers and producers are still vying with many other channels for a piece of the marketing pie. Designers are also competing with the perception of direct mail as “junk mail.”   

Let’s face it, everyone loses when poorly designed pieces make it into the mail. Consumers are annoyed and more likely to toss everything in the bin. If response rates are low, especially on mass mailings, it drags down overall industry performance making marketers less likely to put their budget on mail versus non-print channels. Everyone in the supply chain has a vested interest in creating truly effective direct mail. That means everyone in the supply chain needs to work together and the opportunities to create great work have never been better. We’re here to help.

For more on inkjet and direct mail, download the free white paper “5 Ways Inkjet Helps Improve Direct Mail.”

About the Author

Elizabeth Gooding


Elizabeth is the Editor and Co-founder of Inkjet Insight. She has a rare ability to see print related issues from many perspectives. She has managed creative teams on complex design projects, selected outsourcers for major brands and helped print organizations to retool operations, focus their market positioning and educate sales teams to accelerate growth. She works with a team of top analysts to translate experiences into tools, data and content to help print organizations evaluate the potential of inkjet, optimize their operations and grow pages profitably. She is a founding member of the Inkjet Summit advisory board, the co-author of an award-winning book on designing for inkjet and a curious consultant constantly seeking innovative ways to drive new pages onto inkjet presses.

Leave a Comment