Confession: I never would have dreamed that direct mail would play a role in recharging my enthusiasm as a digital product guy. Direct mail just sounded so old and I was eager for something new. Those of us lucky enough to come out of college into the emerging world of the internet in the last days of the 20th century got to experience something special. We didn’t just create the roadmap — we also built the road. I missed that trailblazer spirit.

Contrary to my initial impression, Programmatic Direct Mail® — the operative word is programmatic — has given me a second opportunity to explore something genuinely new.

Party like it’s 1999

The late ’90s was an exhilarating time to work in digital media. There was no shortage of challenges, particularly those involving situations that had no precedent. Or maybe there was an offline precedent and you had to come up with an analog for this new medium. And you accomplished all this while working in a small web shop, managing established big-name brands that were just as new to the online experience as you were.

As I helped brick-and-mortar retailers adapt their business for a digital world, I found myself asking the same basic question over and over: What could they keep of their conventional wisdom and what could they discard or rethink?

Out with the new, in with the old

Like any other maturing industry, digital marketing eventually established a conventional wisdom of its own. It settled into a monkey-see, monkey-do enterprise with very little genuine innovation, at least in terms of what’s delivered to end users. Certain items on your roadmap became mandatory for no other reason than that they were on the list of features that somebody else had. To a product guy, it can often feel like you’re just in an arms race to amass a long feature list and huge piles of data of dubious value, where the reward for “winning” is that somebody else acquires your company and rebrands it.

Putting the focus back where it belongs

The thing that ultimately sold me on Programmatic Direct Mail® wasn’t so much what it could do for me as what it could do for brands.

For many years, I worked with online retailers on rich media solutions, many of which involved tie-ins with their print products. And while everyone knows that the print medium is still an effective component of many successful marketing campaigns, it also presents a lot of stressful logistical challenges.

Programmatic Direct Mail® solves many of the problems that retailers had come to accept as the cost of doing business in print. It used to take weeks to prepare a catalog for an expensive, high-stakes mass mailing with few guarantees that your 100-page tome would have any appeal to Jane and John Doe at home when they’re clearing out their mailbox.

With Programmatic Direct Mail®, brands can communicate a relevant message to a very specific and receptive group of shoppers. They have the freedom to do the kind of nimble merchandising that they’ve long taken for granted in their online stores where they can experiment with pricing and product presentation to get the best results. The state-of-the-art tech in Programmatic Direct Mail® allows for small, on-demand batches that dramatically shorten the print cycle. Its “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” support for RGB digital image assets is also godsend for anyone familiar with the back-and-forth torture of color calibration in the old CMYK print process.

Sorry if I’m getting a little granular here, but I just find all this very cool. With Programmatic Direct Mail®, we can build the product that we want, strictly with our brands’ needs in mind, without worrying about what other people are doing. And it’s that sense of collaborating with our customers as we clear our own path that reminds me so much of the early days of digital.

Another thing that reminds me of those days is the feeling that we’ve barely scratched the surface. I think the lightbulb is going to go on over a lot of heads when more people understand what we’re doing. And in the coming months, I expect more and more retailers to come to us with new problems to solve.

I can’t wait.

Like many people at PebblePost, John Miller has both impeccable digital cred and a classic humanities background. He studied English and history at College of the Holy Cross and Oxford University and cohosts a podcast called “The Bar Stool Historian.”

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