How Data Drives the Shift from Print to Dynamic Communications


I’ve seen customer communications change drastically over the past few decades. I started in the direct mail business back when we were doing variable printing on computer-controlled Xerox 2700 laser printers. This was revolutionary back in the 1970s and the 1980s. We could print two pages a second, and we could put a different name and address on every letter.

That was the beginning of digital printing. The next big thing was digital spot color. This allowed us to put a blue signature on a sales letter, so it looked less like a photocopy and more like a personally signed document.

After that came data segmentation. In the early days, we simply sent things out to every address on a giant mailing list, but as computer hardware and software evolved, the industry changed dramatically. Improved data processing saw companies go from mailing out millions of pieces to targeting a few thousands consumers who fit a specific profile.

The Importance of Data in Direct Mail

All of this shifted the focus from the print side of the equation to the communication side. Anyone could print and ship direct mailers, but the print shops that survived were the ones that embraced the application of effective data processing to accomplish targeted customer segmentation.

In direct mail, data—not printing—is king.

In direct mail, as in any other modern business, data is king. But direct marketers use customer information in a very different way. We need to know how to find you and how to talk to you. 

Your bank needs your name, your address, and your social security number to keep track of your accounts and send you timely statements. Your doctor needs similar information to keep track of your appointments, your medication, and your procedures. But those industries don’t care as much about how they address you in communications. To some extent, it doesn’t matter what that data looks like as long as they can prove they attempted to send it to you. 

But in a direct mail piece, that simple name and address data takes on a different life. From a marketing perspective, it’s crucial that our data is correct so we can start a conversation with you. Think of the pieces that come through your mail slot. If you see something that’s addressed to “Occupant,” you throw it out. If your name is spelled wrong, you get the feeling that the mailer doesn’t care. If you’re a judge and the letter isn’t addressed to “The Honorable…” you feel disrespected.

In direct mail, these details are important to the intended recipient, and so they should be important to the sender. Then there’s the matter of getting every address right, eliminating duplicates, and making sure you are sending mail to people who are still alive and kicking. Production and postage—especially the latter— are very expensive. To avoid extra costs, you need to limit mistakes. I’ve seen entire mailings of thousand of pieces go out that are completely wrong because of a technical glitch. Getting your data right and managing the way it is used are crucial in this business.

Building a Business on Data Instead of Print

All this may be obvious now, but it wasn’t as clear to most people 25 years ago. I launched my first direct mail business in 1994, but unlike most of my peers, I didn’t start with printing and design. I started with data. I handled personalization and getting all the information right for USPS delivery, but then my clients started asking me to handle the printing, too.

They were happy with the way I did business. I built that first company on transparency: I kept my customers in the loop every step of the way. When something went wrong, we owned up to it and, more importantly, we fixed it. I don’t know if you could call it a strategy—I’m more of a data guy than a salesman—but I earned my customers' trust, and I had to follow where they led.

In 1999, I launched MJO Services, a full-service direct mail provider that offers data management and print production. I run the company with my wife—whom I met in the industry. She handles customer service and sales. She’s brilliant at that, which leaves me to focus on running the shop.

The Emergence of Commercial Direct Mail Software

Now, back in the day, I coded the data management software myself. I was a programmer for ten or twenty years before that, and there were no existing solutions that allowed me to deliver the kind of control and transparency my customers demanded. 

This put me ahead of the curve, but we were years away from omni-channel communications. At the time, we were focused on the convergence of direct mail, color printing, and data, but the best was yet to come.

As the industry embraced the digital transformation, the tools got better, or, should I say, became available to begin with. Increasingly, I found I could buy off-the-shelf solutions instead of having to code them myself. There was no shame involved in this decision. I see software as a means, not as an end. If I can’t find something that works, I try to code it myself. If there’s a ready-made application available to me, I’ll use it. The goal is communication, not the tools I’m using.

Spinning Out the Data Side of the Business

Although we’ve worked with data since I started this company, I finally branched out and created a separate division last year. MJO Data now provides all the data processing services required for marketing communications, whereas MJO Services focuses exclusively on the printing and distribution side of things.

MJO Data takes customer information in its various forms, puts it all together, and manages it. We’re trying to demystify data processing for our clients. We don’t put data into a black box and magically clean it up. We don’t check off boxes on an order form. Our company looks at the people whom our customers are talking to, and what they’re trying to say to them. With these two criteria established, we can maximize the data our customers have, and help them reach them on a higher level.

Print is still part of the direct mail game, but to survive you’ll need to expand your offerings.

One of the reasons we opened our new division is because I started seeing more growth from the data side than the production side. It’s the opposite of what happened in 1999. The industry is moving to other platforms. We’re talking omni-channel communications that include print and email, online and mobile, SMS and apps. The traditional direct mail shop as we know it is going away. Print is still a part of the game, but those who make it their primary or only focus—because it’s all that they know—are doomed.

Shifting from Print to Dynamic Communications

The launch of MJO Data was also fueled by software, specifically Quadient Ignite and Inspire. Quadient Ignite powered the data portion of our direct mail business before we branched off, whereas Quadient Inspire now powers the communications and customer experience side of things.

I started using Satori RedPoint, a direct mail data quality platform that was rolled into Ignite and subsequently acquired by Quadient. I then went to Quadient Inspire Days in San Diego to learn about the company’s production-side platform. It was the perfect tool for our shop, and so we started to use Quadient Inspire to move into dynamic, omni-channel communications on top of print.

Talk about a double whammy. I used Quadient Ignite to start a new division, and then I went back and adopted Quadient Inspire to revitalize the rest of my business. One of the best things about Inspire is its low learning curve. Our designers were able to quickly adapt their print workflow to our new dynamic communications projects.

We had some assistance from Quadient Professional Services. They helped my team build mockups and proofs of concept that allowed us to stretch beyond print. One of our customers runs a leadership university for their members. They nominate people to attend a series of classes and, once they’re done, award them a certificate. We are pitching an app that allows their managers to nominate employees for these classes. 

It’s a very simple concept, but it requires a multi-platform, dynamic communications foundation that incorporates a SQL database. My customer can query the database and follow up with members through email and text messages. They can send reminders about upcoming classes, reward the successful completion of classes, and issue certificates and other rewards.

This is only one example of what we can do with Quadient Inspire. Once we’ve built the first app, we can take the same customer data and use it to launch other dynamic communications initiatives. Quadient is the one-two punch that is driving the future of MJO Data and MJO Services.

A Renewed Focus on Business Relationships

The genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no putting it back. Direct mail is changing. If you want to survive, you have to embrace data and dynamic communications. You must accept that paper is one among many channels. The mail slot is no longer your only target. You have to start thinking in terms of desktop, mobile, and handheld screens.

You also have to change your mindset when it comes to building customer relationships. You can grow your business by adding new customers, but there’s more growth potential in adding more services.

Stay ahead of the curve by offering new services before your customers know they want them.

The more you can do, the less price becomes a consideration. If your customers know they can get everything from your shop, they won’t go to a lower-priced competitor for this or that service. Trust and convenience are stronger selling points, and a renewed focus on customer relationships will put you even further ahead of the curve.