A Brief History of Direct Mail (Part 1)

By TJ Tedesco

The direct mail industry is constantly evolving, and today it’s vastly different than it was as recently as twenty years ago.

Let’s start by agreeing that direct mail marketing is the means of targeting individuals with the highest propensity to respond to a marketing or promotional message. Now let’s move on to various production issues. In today’s post, we’ll cover Direct Mail Processing. In Part 2 of this post, we’ll tackle Mail Preparation and Back End Processing.

Top-quality prepress, printing, binding, and finishing services don’t make a bit of difference unless the final printed product gets into the hands of the applicable target audience. Today, there is still no better way to quickly deliver large quantities of printed products than direct mail. To better manage the direct mail process, it’s useful to understand how our seemingly complicated mailing environment came to be.

Direct Mail Processing

In the late 1960s, the computer found its way into list maintenance.

At this point, the direct mail industry rapidly changed from metal plate addressing to data card addressing to computerized label generation. With computers, maintaining mailing files became significantly easier and record “selection” (targeted mailings) became feasible.

The United States Postal Service (USPS) attempted postal cost reduction by encouraging large-volume mailers to prepare their mailings in a fashion that would minimize postal handling.

In 1977, the USPS offered a discount for “carrier route presort,” which reduced postage costs for mail prepared and sorted to individual postal carrier routes. By giving mail bundles directly to mail carriers, the USPS eliminated a number of sorting steps, and costs did go down. Another benefit of this new presort level was that it reduced the time it took to get the piece into the recipient’s hands, making it easier to hit a targeted delivery window.

Appending carrier route information to data files while simultaneously pursuing the postal discount qualification process caused many mailers to abandon homegrown software in favor of standard presort programs. However, presort software didn’t really take off until the USPS created new minimum mail preparation standards for mail sacks—125 pieces or 15 pounds—to eliminate “skin sacks” (i.e., a mail sack with too few packages inside for it to be handled efficiently).

Throughout much of the 1980s and a good part of the 1990s, mail presorting was primarily done on mainframe computers with very expensive software. Toward the mid-1990s, this software became widely available on PCs, and a large number of individual users were capable of preparing their own mailing files. The output of these presorting programs slowly changed from Cheshire labels to a largely electronic medium capable of driving high-speed inkjet and laser printers.

Today, presorted files frequently have to factor in drop-ship consolidation and commingling of mail to achieve the maximum postal discounts.  To gain the best discounts and take advantage of tracking information with mailings, service providers need to be able to provide Intelligent Mail Full-Service—that is, full and complete electronic documentation and communication with the USPS.

These requirements developed from an “industry” standard for communicating data, IDEAlliance’s Mail.dat standard, as well as the Mail.XML standard. Not only has software development and its complexity significantly increased, but smaller service providers also must comply now.

This is how quickly the direct mail industry has changed: The USPS made more changes in the five-year period from 1995–2000 than in the previous two centuries. The first decade of the new millennium has seen an increase in pace and complexity to an even greater degree. 

For more information on Heeter’s integrated direct mail, print, digital and fulfillment capabilities, please send me an email at or give me a call at 724-746-8900.

Some of the content for this post was originally published in the newly released Direct Mail Pal 2014, authored by T.J. Tedesco and Charley Howard (publisher: Printing Industries Press).