A brief history of Direct Mail

History of Direct Mail

Direct Mail has become one of the most powerful marketing channels, providing high conversion rates along with an impressive Return on Investment. However, it is crucial for it to be effectively integrated into a digital marketing strategy to deliver the best possible results. It is surprising how, in the digital era we are living in, one of the oldest (if not the oldest) channels is still able to deliver such astonishing results. In order to understand the reasons behind this we have to dig through the history of Direct Mail and how this channel has managed to evolve to become what it is today.

HISTORY of Direct Mail

The first example of Direct Mail Marketing can be located around 1000 B.C., when an Egyptian landowner wrote an advertisement on a piece of papyrus offering a gold reward in return for a runaway slave. Today, this is displayed at the British Museum. Other ancient cultures experimented with Direct Mail, such as the Babylonians, who used stone tablets to advertise their products when visiting other towns.

However, it was only after the invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg that Direct Mail was able to spread across Europe. And after 1480 with William Caxton, with his printing press set up in Westminster Abbey, the channel became available to more and more people.

Nonetheless, many historians consider the official birth of Direct Mail Marketing to be in 1872 when Montgomery Ward launched his mail business with a one-page catalogue. Richard Warren Sears followed soon after in the 1880s, when he started mailing flyers to small and rural towns to advertise watches. The actions of these two men revolutionised the purchase of goods, allowing consumers far from the big cities to shop products at a cheaper price, having reduced the power of local shop owners who were able to charge very high markups.

The two pioneers had great success, Ward reached $1 million annual sales in 1888 and Sears’ 1896 Catalogue consisting of more than 500 pages was present in 300 000 homes.

After 1970 colours played a key role in the design of advertisements, allowing marketers to appeal to the emotion of the audience. Furthermore, the change in lifestyles was a crucial ingredient for the growth of the channel. With increased focus on work meaning consumers had less free time to go shopping in the daytime it made more sense to reach consumers at home, allowing them to peruse and mail order in their own free time.

Direct Mail’s role in the Marketing industry gained even more importance in the second half of the 1900s, with some key products that were successfully advertised mainly through mail marketing, such as store loyalty card programmes, computers and credit cards. Although Direct Mail Marketing had established itself as a very successful channel, after 1990, with the mass adoption of computers and the Internet, email and digital marketing were on top of every marketer’s mind and direct mail seemed to have exhausted its power. In the first years digital marketing was able to deliver stunning results, with record-breaking Return on Investment and conversion rates. However, after a few years email inboxes and website pages became overcrowded with non-personalised ads and the magical effect started to vanish.

After the 2010s marketers started to realise that the direct mail and the digital marketing channels could only work well if integrated properly in a strategy.

Personalised Direct mail could be used to cut through the noise of the digital ads, reaching customers at home, where they felt safe and valued by the company that took such a great effort to be there at the right time and with a personalised piece of mail. Here at Paperplanes we have taken the evolution of direct mail one step further through successfully combining the interactions and behaviour outlined on your website with the ability to send something meaningful and physical in post to drive an action. There is plenty more life in the old dog yet.



It is surprising to see how the Direct Mail channel survived 3000 years of history and still be able to deliver amazing results. But, to expect great return on investment and conversion rates, it is essential to integrate this channel within a digital marketing strategy.

At Paperplanes, we manage to do this, thanks to our machine learning algorithm, which can easily be implemented on your company’s website. This is able to track customers who browse your products but don’t go through with the purchase and automatically trigger a personalised piece of programmatic mail directly to their doorstep.

Do you want to learn more about how we do this? Contact us for a free demo here (Contact Here)