Direct mail is a mainstay of the printing industry. The success and resiliency of direct mail advertising is largely due to the fact that its effectiveness is one of the easiest forms of advertising to measure. Direct mail is a key application for high-volume digital printing, which enables shorter, more targeted mailings and increased personalization. In 2008, INTERQUEST conducted in-depth interviews with major direct mail printers and mailers in North America to assess the current and future use of digital printing in this important segment of the industry. They followed up with a number of the participants late in the year to gauge the impact of the economic downturn on their businesses.

    Currently, digital printing technology is employed in three primary scenarios in direct mail printing: Ink jet heads are widely used for in-line addressing, simple personalization and mailing tables; monochrome, mostly toner-based digital printing systems are used to overprint preprinted forms; and full-color, mostly electrophotographic digital presses are used to produce personalized mailings in a single pass.

    About 90% of the digital direct mail produced by respondents to the study is overprinted. Because overprinting still dominates digitally printed direct mail, monochrome digital output continues to far outweigh single-pass full color in terms of volume. The lion's share of this overprint work is produced on continuous-feed equipment.

    Although overprinting dominates digital direct mail, 75% of the respondents to our study have full-color digital equipment. More significantly, 90% of the companies planning to acquire additional digital equipment in the coming 18 months have targeted color devices. This is not all that surprising since their color digital volume is growing about two-and-a-half times faster than their black-and-white output.

    Ink jet technology has not had the same impact on direct mail that it has had on transactional printing, where it quickly became established as a primary technology for producing single-pass transactional documents with highlight and full color content. In the survey conducted for this study, ink jet equipment accounts for less than one percent of the installed base of digital equipment. The main reasons that ink jet has yet to move beyond addressing in direct mail are related to print quality and substrate compatibility. This could soon begin changing in a dramatic way, however, since direct mail is a primary application targeted by vendors of the new generation of ink jet presses announced or showcased at drupa 2008. Over the past 18 months, a number of direct mail producers have acquired new generation ink jet presses.

    The leading trends in direct mail cited by respondents include an increase in the use of customer segmentation and data for better targeting and ROI, an increase in the use of full color digital printing and decreasing print runs. Because these and other important trends in direct mail play to the strengths of digital printing, we believe direct mail producers already seriously involved in digital printing will have more resiliency to weather the economic storms.

    We forecast that digital direct mail volume (single pass and overprint) will grow two to three percent per year from 2008 to 2013. Much of the growth will be fueled by full color single pass digital output, and much of that done on the new generation of ink jet presses. By 2013, full color digital output will account for nearly one-third of the digitally produced direct mail in North America.

    David Davis [www.inter-quest.com] is director at INTERQUEST, a market and technology research and consulting firm focused on high-volume digital printing. The full study, "Digital Printing in Direct Mail,•bCrLf can be found on their website.