To Moon! Variable-Data Printing Flies Into New Directions

By | November 26, 2014

Recently, I was working on a project for one of our clients, and in a marked-up Word document that came back to me was a comment that read, in part, “which came first, digital print or one-to-one marketing?” That got me thinking—which is always dangerous—and then some poking around—which is even more dangerous.

Today’s notion of “one-to-one communication,” aka “variable-data printing,” has something of an unlikely origin and, like just about any technology, is the result of a fortuitous confluence of other related and unrelated technologies. Curiously enough, it begins with an attempt at pre-Internet “blogging” of a sort, which turned into one of American publishing’s biggest success stories. And that Word doc’s “chicken and egg”-esque analogy is also apt: this story begins down on the farm.

DeWitt Wallace was born in St. Paul, Minn., and in 1912, after college, he got a job for a magazine publisher that specialized in farming literature. A few years later, World War I intruded and Wallace enlisted in the army. While in combat, he was wounded, and recovering in a French hospital, he passed the time reading magazines. Realizing that many rural Americans—of which there were many back in the 1910s—didn’t have access to a newsstand, he thought he would compile a “digest” of various magazine articles that caught his eye and promote it via direct mail. You can probably see where this is going…

When he returned Stateside, he went through the magazines at the Minneapolis Public Library and put together a diverse collection of articles, condensed and often rewritten. He was the blogger of his age, in some ways. His project was officially launched in 1922, and the resulting Reader’s Digest became one of the most popular periodicals in the world.

For our purposes, Reader’s Digest also holds the distinction of being what is believed to be the first use of in-letter personalization—the use of a person’s name in a computer-generated letter. (Political mailers—especially those on the conservative side of the aisle—would finesse Reader’s Digest’s early experiment and perfect database marketing.) What do you need to produce a computer-generated letter? Well, obviously you need a computer.

The history of computing is a long and winding road indeed, but the Reader’s Digest condensed version of this story would lead us very quickly to the 1960s and the advent of the IBM 360, which was announced in 1964 and started shipping a year later. It was the first commercially popular and upgradable mainframe computer (this was more than a decade before desktop computers). Essentially, it was affordable by businesses large and small rather than massive academic or government research labs or the largest of corporations. It was the IBM 360 that gave a jolt to direct mailers, because of another invention that appeared around the same time.

The advent of “merge/purge” software is often credited to Alan Drey, a Chicago-based mailing list professional. In the early 1960s, he helped develop the seminal System DupliMatch, software for cleaning up mailing lists. Other types of data analytics software started appearing at this time, as well.

So, by the end of the 1960s, you had the hardware that was powerful enough to process really big mailing lists and could be afforded by a large number of businesses, you had software for managing mailing lists, and you had many proofs-of-concept (Reader’s Digest and political mailers). One other element would be needed to take one-to-one marketing to the next level.

Robert Moon may not be a household name, but if you are in any way involved in direct mail—or a fan of Beverly Hills 90210—it should be. Moon was born in 1917 went to work for the post office as a mail carrier and then a postal clerk, soon passing the exam to become a postal inspector. In the 1940s, he had an epiphany and felt that

the existing rail-based system would no longer be adequate for huge new volumes of mail. He believed the future was in airplanes.

To that end, he became an amateur pilot, true, but he also proposed, in 1944, to the postal powers that be an idea he had for streamlining delivery of the mail. For a variety of reasons—Moon’s widow felt it was political—the idea languished until 1963, when it was finally adopted: the ZIP code. Short for “Zone Improvement Plan,” it revolutionized mail delivery in general, and direct mail in particular. It also revolutionized the ability to segment recipients.

By the way, Moon—living up to his name or perhaps the space-race euphoria of the 1960s—apparently also left behind a ZIP code scheme for interplanetary mail. (I kid you not!) So have no fear: if we colonize Mars, Harry & David will still be able to find us.

Anyway, by the 1970s, direct mail had exploded, and we all began to be inundated with mail that was seemingly written by a human being just for us. In a previous post, I used as an example of the kinds of things we used to receive:

Dear Mr. Ramono,

We very much want to put you, Mr. Ramono, in a new car. Mr. Ramono, have you ever seen yourself behind the wheel of a luxurious yet sporty new vehicle. Have you ever envisioned your own vehicle, Mr. Ramono, being the envy of your neighborhood? Surely the entire Ramono family would derive nothing but benefits from this…

By the end of the 1970s, all the pieces were in place for what eventually became known as “variable-data printing” (VDP). Digital printing itself emerged circa 1994 and the earliest VDP programs—the “killer apps” for digital printing—appeared not long after that. Variable-data printing wasn’t so much a revolution as an evolution of all that had gone before—it was more about digital front ends having the horsepower to process more and more unwieldy databases, as well as variable images. The key to keeping VDP-based campaigns effective is to make them unique and eye-catching; novelty (and relevance, of course) is the most important aspect of one-to-one marketing. After all, no one is especially impressed by seeing their name in the body of a letter anymore.

Any VDP expert will be first to tell you that, despite whatever technological bells and whistles you care to add—and as printed electronics become more prevalent, who knows, we may be printing actual bells and whistles on direct mail—the most important element of a VDP campaign is the content and the message—or the offer—itself. That is the one thing that has not changed since the advent of personalized direct mail all those years ago.

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