Color and Its Impact on Printed Communications

Color has the power to invoke a variety of responses from consumers and is a critical marketing tool for building a brand and winning customers. Adding color to printed transactional and promotional communications can highlight important information, make advertised products more attractive, and improve response rates. While the added value delivered from color printing compared to black & white is often difficult to quantify, recent research from InfoTrends makes a compelling case for the power of color.

According to preliminary data from a new InfoTrends survey–Customer Engagement Technologies: State of the Market—businesses that invest in printed communications overwhelmingly believe color to be a vital component of their print communications. About 61% of firms reported that color was very important in transactional documents, while 63% indicated the same for printed promotional materials. These companies reported that using color in their printed materials generated a higher ROI, strengthened brand image, and made documents easier to read and review. Many also noted that since their competitors print in color, they must do the same to keep up with the competition.

Historically, direct mailers and transactional communication service bureaus have digitally printed in black & white and relied on offset printed shells to provide color design elements such as logos, highlighted text, and tints. In recent years, variable color printing has enabled these providers to eliminate the use of pre-printed offset shells while simultaneously leveraging full-color personalization to improve response rates. According to InfoTrends’ research, businesses that plan to add variable color to printed bills and statements believe that doing so will improve the customer experience (62%), improve brand perception (59%), and increase the effectiveness of marketing messages (55%).

Although color is certainly effective for a variety of marketing initiatives, it can be overused. Designers often advise using color moderately and strategically because overusing color can undermine its effects. For example, too much color in a transactional document can negate its ability to highlight important information or direct the reader’s attention to a specific call for action.

Strategic use of color in direct mail often leads to improved response rates. Full-color images can capture a consumer’s attention with realistic depictions of advertised products. Color can also be used to personalize messages by matching pictures or text to items that the customer has purchased in the past. Furthermore, as shown in the Figure below, nearly 49% of consumer respondents reported that seeing color on an envelope had a moderate or major effect on their likelihood of opening it.

Figure 1: How does the use of color on a direct mail envelope impact your likelihood of opening it?

Pie-Chart of the Impact of Color

While color is an important component of the success of mailed communications, it’s important to remember that it’s only part of a larger direct mail communications strategy. For example, a key determinant of success is focusing an offer toward the best possible prospects—ones that are selected through robust data analytics and addressed with targeted, relevant personalization. Color works best when it is used in concert with an attractive design, an appealing offer, and personalization. Printing in color can enhance other elements and assist in maximizing the return on investment, but it can’t be used in isolation.

Cutting Through the Clutter with Millennials

Millennial consumers (individuals between the ages of 18 and 34 and generally referred to as Generation Y and sometimes Z) are the largest and most diverse generation that the world has ever seen. Born between the early 1980s through about 2000 (in the early years of the “Information Technology Revolution”), Millennials are a highly connected, “always on” audience. These individuals don’t know a world without personal computers and mobile devices. According to a Millennial Marketing Infographic powered by Futurecast, here are some key aspects of Millennials:

  • They account for 25% of the U.S. population.
  • They make 21% of consumer discretionary purchases. This is estimated to be over a trillion dollars in direct buying power, and it has a significant influence on the older generations.
  • 1 in 4 Millennials are parents today.
  • They are social—40% of Millennials have 200+ friends on Facebook compared to 19% of non-Millennials.
  • Millennials are 2.5 times more likely than other generations to be early adopters of technology.
  • 80% of Millennials want brands to entertain them.

Today’s marketers must identify the best media types to effectively communicate with Millennials. Although some might think that direct mail is only for Baby Boomers, InfoTrends’ research indicated that Millennials are also responsive to direct mail marketing. Millennials reported reviewing about 67% of their direct mail pieces, and this is consistent with the open rates for older generations. If the direct mail piece had a QR code, over 45% of Millennials scanned it with a mobile device versus about 20% of those aged 50+. When asked about preferences for direct mail versus e-mail, nearly 29% of Millennials said that a tactile piece of direct mail was more effective at getting them to take action. Meanwhile, less than 24% reported that e-mail was more effective.

Figure: Which is more effective at getting you to take an action, e-mail or direct mail?

Action, E-mail or Direct Mail

Although Millennials are hooked on technology communication and spend a lot of time on the Internet, they have become numb to digital advertising. This is precisely why an envelope in the mailbox cuts through the clutter and still grabs their attention. According to the Quad/Graphics Customer Focus® 2014 Research Study on Millennial Channel Engagement, the most three popular types of direct mail that Millennials read include retail (82%), grocery (79%), and clothing (69%). Furthermore, direct mail is a driver of web traffic—over 84% of Millennials prefer to respond to direct mail by visiting the company’s website (via PC or mobile device). Millennials are substantially more likely than any other generation to respond via web.

According to research by Cassandra, Millennials are careful with their money. These diligent researchers always consider whether something is a good investment and are less likely to make impulse purchases. According to Quad/Graphics, the most popular offers among Millennials include Buy 1 Get 1 Free (57%), gift cards (55%), and percent off total purchase (51%). Millennials that respond to direct mail will do their research before making a purchase, consulting online reviews, blogs, and product experts to learn more and make price comparisons.

As you work with your clients, remember the techniques that can help make their direct mail stand out:

  • Make it simple: In today’s “always on” world, Millennials want answers immediately. They need to be informed right away about a product and its benefits. Information has always been just a click away to these consumers, so marketers risk losing Millennials if they force them to watch a video, create an account, and/or wait for an e-mail confirmation.
  • Make it personal: Millennials are hardened by a lifetime of managing spam e-mails. To be effective, direct mail must be relevant to the individual. Relevance instantly adds a degree of appeal and believability to a direct mail piece.
  • Make it interactive: For young adults who have been inundated by online requests and marketing initiatives, direct mail has a certain credibility. It can also be tremendously effective for leading Millennials to online resources. When it comes to marketing success, the right blend of print versus digital is critical.
  • Make it omni-channel: Brands must ensure that their product information is available in all forms—mobile, in-store, online—so Millennials can access it anytime and anywhere at a moment’s notice. Millennials should also receive a consistent message as they navigate across various channels.

Marketing to Millennials isn’t optional for marketers; these consumers possess a huge amount of purchasing power. In today’s “all channels on” environment, direct mail continues to cut through the clutter. Service providers must work with marketers to develop fully integrated marketing plans that comprise newer mediums like social, while still understanding the importance of more traditional printed assets.

Surcharge Removed; USPS Postage Rollback Effective on April 10

Surcharge Removed; USPS Postage Rollback Effective on April 10
Even though the United States Postal Service’s financial condition is expected to worsen, your marketing budget just got better. On April 10, 2016, the USPS will be required to reduce certain postage prices on items including letters, large envelopes/flats, and postcards. This rate change reverses the existing exigent surcharge of 4.3% (average) that was enacted back in January 2014. This surcharge was put into effect by the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) to help ease some of the financial hardships that were suffered during the Great Recession of 2008-2009. The exigent increase was intended to be temporary, limited by a cap of about $4.6 billion in extra revenue. The PRC expects to reach this cap by April 10 of this year.

Although you might be excited about the removal of this surcharge, the post office is decidedly less so. During a statement on February 25, Postmaster General and CEO Megan J. Brennan reported that the surcharge “only partially alleviated our extreme multi-year revenue declines resulting from the Great Recession, which exceeded $7 billion in 2009 alone.” It should come as no surprise that the USPS had been hoping for a legislation or court action to prolong the higher rates. “Removing the surcharge and reducing our prices is an irrational outcome considering the Postal Service’s precarious financial condition,” added Brennan.

At this time, the congress and court actions that the USPS was hoping for are not looking too promising, so you can probably start planning on seeing some extra dollars in your marketing budgets before long. You might consider using those extra funds to create more mail pieces, buy better lists, improve creative capabilities, or even upgrade your production options.

The Table below shows how First-Class Mail prices will be adjusted once the surcharge is removed.


Mandated Reduction

First-Class Stamps

49 cents

47 cents

First-Class Metered Letters (1 oz.)

48.5 cents

46.5 cents

Letters (Additional Ounces)

22 cents

21 cents

Letters (All International Destinations)




35 cents

34 cents

Here are some tips for taking advantage of the reduction:

  • Understand the mailing products that are affected by this reduction. They include First-Class Letters, First-Class Large, Envelopes (Flats), First-Class Postcards, Presorted (First-Class & Standard), and Non-Profit.
  • Some customers may need to change their meter settings to print postage to three decimal places. Metered First-Class 1-Ounce Letters will decrease two cents from $0.485 to $0.465, retaining their 1% discount over retail stamp prices.
  • Follow the USPS Postal Explorer for confirmed rates and other spring 2016 rollback pricing files at You can also visit USPS Service Alerts to subscribe to near-real-time announcements regarding disruptions or suspensions to domestic and/or international mail due to weather emergencies, natural disasters, and other events.

As direct mailers and marketers, you already know that every penny counts. Based on this expected rollback in spring postage rates for most envelopes, it turns out that every two pennies counts.

Winning Direct Mail Campaigns Start With the List

Selecting the right mailing list is the key to a successful direct mail campaign. Getting an offer or a call-to-action delivered to the right audience is critical to the success of a direct mail communication. Unfortunately, the most common mistake marketers make in direct mail campaigns is not selecting the right mailing list.

Budget dollars are wasted on producing and sending out mail if it never reaches its intended target. An attractively designed direct mail piece with a great offer means nothing if it is sent to people that have no interest in the offer. Picking the right list starts with understanding the types of available lists.

They all basically fall into two general categories:

  • A house list is an organization’s internal list of active and former customers, members, or employees.
  • Purchased lists are available from many sources and can be rented or owned. These lists are customized to fit characteristics of the target audience. There are several different types of purchased lists ranging in cost and appropriateness for reaching an audience, but key types include:
    • A specialty list targeting a select audience (e.g. new parents, health enthusiasts, accountants, IT professionals, Fortune 1000 companies)
    • A custom mailing list based on select customer criteria
    • A cloned list that finds customers similar to an organization’s best customers

The quality of a list is of paramount importance. The correct mailing list will contain your most valuable prospects. The more careful you are in analyzing and selecting direct mailing lists, the better your chances for success.

A good mailing list has a few important characteristics:

  • It is updated on a regular basis. Lists need to be cleaned or “scrubbed” to remove duplicate entries, undeliverable addresses, or names on do-not-mail lists. They must be kept up to date, and this means adding, updating, and deleting entries on an ongoing basis.
  • It focuses on the market segments and or geographic coverage that you need.
  • It is formatted to comply with the latest postal regulations, and comes in a form you can use.

Let’s put the importance of maintaining list quality into perspective with an example. Each year, over 40 million Americans change their addresses. Updating mailing lists reduces the volume of undeliverable mail. The United States Postal Service (USPS) formally calls this type of mail Undeliverable-as-Addressed (UAA) and has mechanisms in place to reduce it. Not updating lists can result in the forfeit of postal discounts.

Here is list of questions to ask when evaluating a mailing list.

  • What sources are being used to create the list—where do the names come from?
  • Are new names continually added? How often is the list updated? And when was it last updated?
  • What demographic selections are available?
  • Have other mailers used the list recently? If so, what for?
  • Will the provider suppress your client database against their list? (You don’t want to purchase list full of your existing clients.)
  • What are the terms and costs for one-time use and multiple uses?

There are four main sources for purchasing or renting mailing lists. A good provider will work with you to identify your target market and select the lists best aligned with your strategies and goals. Here is a description of list providers:

  • A list broker’s primary role is to rent lists from other companies. Usually, a list broker researches what lists and segments will work best for what you’re trying to accomplish.
  • List managers supervise and promote the rental of specific mailing lists that they manage. Before giving approval to rent the list, they typically ask the prospective list renter to provide a copy of their direct mail piece for review. The list manager may decline renting the list if the piece is too competitive with the list owner’s own offer, or it might offend the list owner’s customers.
  • List compilers manage lists that they’ve assembled using multiple sources, such as warranty cards, government records, corporate reports, telephone directories, Yellow Pages, credit bureaus, etc.
  • A list manager/broker is typically the most versatile source for renting lists because they offer their own lists and those created by others.

Your mailing list can make or break your direct mail campaign. It’s important to invest the time upfront to select the best list. Mailing to quality prospects leads to higher conversion rates and more revenue for your company.

Direct Mail: Reliable, Trusted, and Gets Read

Despite the surging popularity of digital marketing, direct mail continues to hold a significant position in today’s industry. Direct mail is a reliable, trusted, and effective marketing tool for compelling recipients to act, attracting new customers, increasing customer loyalty, boosting brand awareness, reactivating dormant accounts, and delivering profitable results. In fact, over 100 billion pieces of mail (catalogs, postcards, letters, brochures, and flyers) were sent through the mail in 2014. Nevertheless, it’s not just marketers who are keeping direct mail alive—consumers agree that direct mail is still an effective form of communication.

Consumers are reporting that they do read their mail! In the recent InfoTrends study Direct Marketing Production Printing & Value-Added Services: A Strategy for Growth, consumers report viewing two-thirds of the direct mail that they receive. Furthermore, when consumers were asked what they did with their direct mail, 82% reported reviewing their direct mail pieces for a minute or more. Over a quarter of respondents—28%—will take at least two minutes to read their direct mail. Perhaps most significantly, over three-quarters of consumers agree that direct mail is an effective means of communicating.

Direct Mail Cuts through the Clutter

In 2015 U.S. companies sent an average of 1.47 million e-mails per month, most of which can be considered spam. Of all e-mails sent globally, 71% to 80% are spam. That’s a lot of unwanted e-mail for a consumer to receive, it’s no wonder that 79% of consumers will act on direct mail immediately compared to only 45% who say they deal with e-mail straightaway.

Direct mail is an effective marketing tool for many reasons. It can compel recipients to act, attract new customers, increase customer loyalty, boost brand awareness, reactivate dormant accounts, and deliver profitable results. According to the DMA, direct mail is the preferred channel for receiving marketing from local shops (51%) and banks (48%), while e-mail is preferred for events and competitions (50% each). Further, according to an Epsilon study, as many as half of U.S. consumers prefer direct mail over e-mail.

One key reason for direct mail’s popularity is that it is able to accomplish certain things more effectively than other types of marketing. Many consumers read direct mail because they prefer a tangible form of communication that they can experience with more than just their eyes. Unlike e-mail, television, or radio ads, a consumer can hold a direct mail item in his/her hand and even keep it for a period of time. Some forms of marketing are fleeting and forgotten, but a letter, brochure, or catalog can serve as a lasting reminder of a marketing message. Emails and other digital marketing tactics can be easily ignored or scrolled by. On the other hand, many people actually open envelopes. 70% to 80% of consumers say they open most of their mail, including what they label “junk.”

Direct Mail is the Cornerstone of a Multi-Touch Campaign

A third of the U.S. consumers that responded to InfoTrends’ direct marketing study reported reading direct mail more than e-mail, while 34% said they opened and read e-mail and direct mail with equal frequency.

1 Key sources are the United States Postal Service (USPS), CanadaPost, and the Direct Marketing Association (DMA)

Are you more likely to read an e-mail with a sales/promotional offer OR to look at a piece of direct mail?

Direct Mail Pie Chart

Since consumers engage with both print and e-mail, communicating with them using an integrated marketing campaign will drive higher results. In addition, direct mail can be a part of an interactive customer experience when used in conjunction with mobile devices and associated mobile apps. There are a number of tools that can enable a printed piece to trigger an interaction from a smartphone, including image recognition, augmented reality, NFC tags, and quick response codes. More and more direct marketers are integrating interactive elements with print both outside and inside the envelope to connect consumers to videos or mobile-enabled websites so they can learn more about a product or service, or creating mobile landing pages that enable consumers to take advantage of a coupon or discount. In addition, a direct marketer can point the consumer to a website or a personalized URL that can be accessed from a PC.

What Does This All Mean?

While direct mail has faced competition from e-mail, social media, and other types of electronic media, marketers have discovered that it still is an excellent channel for reaching consumers and driving response. Direct mail is a tried and tested media form, and it continues to be a staple marketing technique for companies of all shapes and sizes the world over. Today’s consumers and businesses are operating with all channels on, so service providers must be channel-agnostic and build business models that can generate revenue from printed and digital content. As the technology evolves and marketers continue to blend content from the print and online worlds, direct mail looks more promising, and exciting than ever. The statistics speak for themselves—people read direct mail and respond to it. In short, direct mail remains successful because it works!

Direct Mail Delivers Results!

Marketers of all sizes are coming to the realization that direct mail delivers. Direct mail is an integral part of the overall marketing mix. It’s vital for acquiring new customers, retaining existing ones, and reactivating dormant accounts. According to research findings from The Direct Marketing Association, the response rate for targeted direct mail is 4.3% while the e-mail response rate is only .12%. Take notice of the word “targeted” in that last sentence—targeting direct mail, whether through personalization or a segmented list, is what makes the connection.

Here’s the truth about direct mail: It’s not dying, it’s just changing. According to Winterberry Group, direct mail spending grew 2.7% in 2014 and a further growth rate of 1.1% is anticipated in 2015. This means that direct mail spending will top $45.7 billion in 2015. The resurgence in direct mail has catapulted as a result of a few key trends that are worth taking note of in the New Year.

The Customer Experience

Delivering a great customer experience starts with understanding what your customers want and taking action to deliver it. The hard part is taking what you’ve learned and adjusting the way your company works so that your teams, processes, and technologies are capable of delivering on the experience that the customer expects. InfoTrends, the leading worldwide market research and strategic consulting firm for the imaging, document solutions, production print, and digital media industries, has new research to back this topic. According to InfoTrends’ 2015 study entitled Customer Engagement Technologies: The State of the Market, North American and Western European enterprises’ top objective for communication investments was improving the customer experience.

Figure 1: Improving the Customer Experience is a Priority
Improving the Customer Experience is a Priority

In another InfoTrends study entitled Micro to Mega: Trends in Business Communications, enterprises with 500+ employees reported that the critical factors for selecting a print provider were providing the best value, offering the broadest range of services to enable “one-stop shopping”, quality output, and access to expert advice.

Figure 2: Key Vendor Selection Criteria: Value, Service, Quality, Expertise
Key Vendor Selection Criteria

Communication Relevance Matters: It’s All About the Data!

Although some say that money makes the world go round, today’s marketers are just as likely to say that customer data makes their world go round. Data offers businesses new opportunities to better understand their customers through a variety of sources, including purchasing behaviors, interactions, demographics, and history. The end objective is to deliver a personalized customer experience that prompts the consumer to take a desired action. InfoTrends’ survey of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) and enterprises found that personalization was critical to marketing communications. According to the study, 64% of SMBs and 60% of enterprises indicated that communications would either be personalized (one-to-one) or segmented (one-to-few).

Figure 3: A More Personalized Approach
A More Personalized Approach

Customers Expect Multi-Channel Engagement

The days of high-level single channel marketing campaigns are long gone. With the proliferation of media channels in today’s world, marketers are faced with more options than ever when considering how to reach consumers. Marketers must make choices about channels, but a heavy investment in one channel may cause them to miss the potential in another. Today’s consumers have all channels turned on—they are in control of how they gather information, obtain advice from friends and family members in their social networks, and complete transactions with suppliers. This result is a new set of rules for marketers and a new buzzword that print providers must understand and add to their vernacular… omni-channel.

InfoTrends’ survey of SMB and enterprise communication decision-makers found that organizations that used more channels in their customer communication campaigns experienced an overall higher response rate.

Figure 4: Marketers That Use More Channels Gain a Better Response
Marketers That Use More Channels Gain a Better Response

A key message that print service providers must convey to customers is that print remains an integral part of the overall marketing mix. After experimenting with digital only, many marketers have returned to print and direct mail, are producing catalogs, newsletters, postcards, and brochures. They are using print to improve customer acquisition and drive customers to other channels, but it’s also a durable and shareable media for delivering valuable information.

In early 2015, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled Why Print Catalogs Are Back in Style. This article highlighted that major retailers are returning to mailing printed catalogs for one very simple reason—business results. According to Nordstrom, customers who have a multi-channel relationship with the brand spend four times more money than those who do not. Bonobos shared similar results, reporting that 20% of the website’s first-time customers are placing their orders after having received a catalog and are spending one-and-a-half times more than new shoppers who didn’t receive a catalog in the mail first.

In 2016, service providers must evaluate how they are going to participate in today’s increasingly omni-channel environment. How can you help your clients deploy campaigns in a print, mobile, online, and social world? There are tools as well as partners that are available to help. Print providers that hope to build a profitable omni-channel business need to pursue a mix of strategies that can include building, buying, and partnering to increase capabilities.

The Bottom Line

Marketers need help; they are seeking good direct mail partners to help them. Direct mail is changing, and service providers’ expectations are evolving as well. Today, your customers are seeking additional help with improving the customer experience through the use of data analytics and strategy for relevant multi-channel communications. Direct mail is a pivotal link in the marketing mix, and it’s time to pay attention to how direct mail delivers results!