Direct mail is, along with Out of Home, one of the bright spots for the printing industry.

Marketers are realising that mail receives more attention than email, that digital is the most ephemeral medium created to date, and that for higher value products and services, nothing beats a well presented piece of direct mail. It achieves a cut-through that digital can only rarely achieve and – thanks to digital printing, data handling and profiling – direct mail is no longer junk mail. It is delivering a message that is relevant to the reader, and according to the surveys, a message that is valued by the reader.

It is no surprise then that printers are looking to expand to be able to offer direct mail. It may start with producing the leaflets and catalogues that become stuffed into envelopes. It is a logical step to add a laser printed letter, then to fold it and place inside an envelope. The new generation of direct mail pieces require creativity in folding and gluing and greater levels of personalisation. And then comes the investment in a mailing line.

Karen Kavanagh, marketing director at Neopost, is confident that while mail volumes are sliding, direct mail offers a lucrative avenue for creative printers to spread their client offerings. “Direct mail is actually undergoing a resurgence,” she says. “Email is becoming like wallpaper, especially for the youth market, and this is starting to affect indirect mail as a leading channel to sales. Overall, mail may be narrowing but there is definitely a resurrection in direct mail, and that is where the printer needs to invest. The printer who can offer clever print and fulfilment is the printer who can capture that market growth in direct mail. The 18 to 25 year-old market has been exposed to the online channel since birth but direct marketing done cleverly with the right message to the right person at the right place at the right time can receive more of an impact.

“Printers should also be able to respond to quick requests and have the resources in place to make the job a success.”

For many years mailing has been the preserve of specialist mailing houses, but the drive towards shorter runs and especially faster turnarounds has provided an opportunity for printers to bring these services in house.

Many of the mailing houses have focused on high volumes of transactional work and now link an inkjet web press to an inserting line to create a White Paper Factory.

The idea is that inkjet quality is sufficient to replace reels that have been preprinted with colour and static elements by litho. Waste is eliminated and flexibility enhanced, particularly if the finishing element can be attached inline or almost inline to the print.

In the US O’Neill Data Services has pioneered HP PageWide inkjet presses, printing reel to reel and finishing on a variety of CMC, MBO and other lines to produce the mailers. In the UK Affinion has installed a Canon inkjet web press in the same room as a CMC mailing line. The reel is slit and folded and presented to a white envelope to which can be added a variety of other preprinted inserts. The envelope then passes beneath an Impika inkjet module for addressing in a sequence that delivers the maximum discount from the postal service. Such print heads can also come from Kodak Prosper, HP, Domino or Memjet.

CMC is squarely in the heart of the mailing sector. It has been a tough market in recent years. Buhrs almost went out of business before acquisition by Hittech Industries in Holland, Böwe Systec was acquired by Possehl, the German conglomerate which now owns Manroland Web Systems. Even CMC has found a strategic partner with German company Xproma.

As well as different mailing lines, CMC has targeted the growing ecommerce market with CartonWrap, a line which wraps different sized products in a corrugated sheet for mailing. The SmartMailer, launched this year, combines the ecommerce appeal with a standard envelope.

At the low end of the market are desktop franking machines that are little more than office equipment. Hand finished envelopes, and there are many because not all mailings can be automated, can pass through a Buskro printer to print a wax ink which is approved by the postal services. Duplo has a lightweight inserter of  collating technology, folder and an envelope inserter.

The likes of Neopost and Pitney Bowes will have different levels of small machines as well as products at all stages of the market, up to those that meet requirements for the highest mailing volumes at least for Pitney Bowes. It will even supply some of the financial institutions it works with a bespoke installation including the IntelliJet inkjet presses it sells. These are rebadged versions of the HP PageWide machines.

At the more practical scale, the Relay inserters are for light production requirements with a number of models topped out by the Relay 8000. It includes the technology to track pages using optical mark recognition, bar codes and 2D marks. But it is limited in what it can feed.

The Pitney Bowes Epic inserter is designed to cope with short runs, offering 14 inserting heads and fast switch over between envelope formats and the style of inserts.

Where Pitney Bowes excels is with software to manage a campaign, to execute it and then to handle the responses. This is crucial. The days when sending a message in an envelope and waiting for a response are as long passed as a ship wrecked sailor casting a message in a bottle into the ocean.

Marketers want to be able to choose the communications method that best suits the campaign and the profile of the prospect or customer. This may be email first with print to follow up if emails go unopened; it may be print. Fortunately print is becoming the choice more frequently thanks to being able to manage data more precisely. This leads to the use of digital printing to create either personalised or customised versions of a message, say an insurance company using images of young families when targeting this age group, of teenagers achieving exam success for the next tranche of the population or active older silver haired folk for pensioners. This is built from what is called the single customer view.

Success is about ensuring that the correct insert is fed to each envelope, because mail discounts are achieved through pre sorting into the ideal distribution sequences. This leads to combined mail where the maximum mailing discount is primary so that completely different campaigns can be combined on the inserting line, perhaps even using different colours of envelope.

It requires high levels of software control because the data about which envelope has which inserts must also be tracked and loaded into a report for the client. For Swiss manufacturer Kern this is the Mail Factory software. It will spot the potential error, eject that envelope and can order a reprint or a new insertion if printing is not required.

Kern has created a full one up of inserting machines from those targeted at implants to the latest 3600 able to run at 27,000 envelopes an hour. The straight paper path is essential to speed says Kern. The management system uses touch pads to set the machine, with the settings for between 50 and 99 jobs held in memory.

A new concept is to build the envelope around the collection of inserted material. In this case a reel of paper is loaded and is cut folded and glued around the contents on the fly. There will be no problems from misleading leaflets or opening the envelope wide enough. However, a wrapper produced in this way, while offering the benefits of enabling printed branding, can sometimes be crude in comparison to the real thing. Kern’s unit has added a laser cutting system with a series of templates to produce a more convincing looking flap.

Its standard machine geared towards flexibility is the 2600 providing the capacity for a 10mm thick package (the 3500 line is rated for 6mm, the 3600 for 8mm maximum thickness). This is the latest version of a machine that has been around for more than 30 years, and in some cases is still in use. Preowned mailing machines from the likes of Buhrs, Kern and CMC are in demand as they can be upgraded with cameras and sensors to almost new standards. Thanks to servo motors and software, set up times on the more modern machines will be faster,  just two or three minutes.

It has led to a modular approach where a company can buy a more basic system and then add to it as the requirements of customers change, say moving from barcode triggers to being able to read a full sheet at line speed for extra assurance that the right content is reaching the envelope. This can include plastic cards which are printed, embossed, coded on the fly and then stick to carriers on the fly.

Böwe’s top of the range machine is the Fusion Cross, a line which can ‘do it all’ running at 16,000 B4 envelopes an hour, while at the other end of the market it has teamed up with Riso to create a bridge to line the Riso ComColor printer to an envelope inserter.

KAS, a British company, comes in with the Mailmaster product lines, often sold alongside Kern’s more powerful machines. They are robust enough to operate at a steady 7,000 envelopes an hour throughout the day and can be an affordable first step into mailing.

Companies like Lake Image Systems can add camera technology to existing inserting lines to read the barcodes that trigger the insert feeders according to the addressee’s profile, have been in demand. Vitally, it will also record that every address on the list has been served providing the marketing or payment departments with proof that the mailing has been sent.

It can be essential for marketers to know when a piece has entered the postal system in order to prepare call centres to receive the anticipated response. In the UK, Mailmark is being introduced to give more precision on when each envelope in a campaign is thrust into the postman’s bag. It is the physical equivalent of knowing that an email has been opened. Such systems will spread across the globe.

At the same time mail management software offered by aims to manage a complete campaign, from identifying prospects, ensuring that exclusion lists for the deceased and gone aways are applied, to sending the message by physical or digital means. Pitney Bowes is one that has taken this a step further into delivering personalised videos.

Smart computer software can create short videos that explain the lines on a bill, so reducing the cost of running a call centre to handle incoming complaints. This is the EngageOne service, based around an acquisition made last year. It is not considered a replacement for physical mail, but as another option in communications.

For print, colour printing on the envelope has been shown to be effective, either preprinted envelopes or especially those with personalised promotional messages urging for example Steve to open the envelope to receive his personal offer. It works, because the chances are Steve will open the letter, provided of course that the inserting and management systems have done their job and the offer is not that intended for Derek.

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  1. It’s a great story as there are new markets for printers and DM has to be at the top of any list.
    However in my view printers in NZ could have been quicker to embrace direct communications. But mail also needs to co-exist with email as the customers (Enterprises) just see these as “channels” where you you can switch from one to the other, as receiver preferences change. Fortunately omni-channel software is now available making this whole process less complicated. Quadient (previously GMC) are leading with the likes of their Inspire software platform.
    There are printers in NZ who are gaining a competitive edge by making investments in software, so beyond digital printers and desk-top inserting systems, as it’s the data management function that is the enabler and the service element that sets them apart from the rest of the market.

  2. Complexity associated with data has slowed-down the move to DM by traditional printers. However that has now changed.
    Modern document composition tools make the move to variable data printing as easy as 1,2,3. In the new world of object oriented programming, the reality is that there is no – or very little programming required – so log as the right document composition tool-set is chosen. If you have a good understanding of InDesign you are well on the way. For more information on “It’s easy as 1,2,3” – contact me at:

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