Interactive Print: How Augmented Reality is Revolutionising Direct Mail
In this digital age, businesses have access to a wider range of communication and marketing channels than ever before. From email marketing and text messaging to social media platforms and search marketing, businesses are spoilt for choice. So where does print and direct mail stand in the current environment? What has the impact been and is it still a relevant communication and marketing channel?
The Impact of Digital on Direct Mail
After reaching a peak in mail volume at 213 billion units in 2006, the US Postal Service (USPS) experienced a decline with mail volume 129 billion (USPS table facts). Online account statements and paperless billing have been listed as the main contributors to the decline in mail volume. The move by businesses to reduce costs and to make the shift to digital substitution has certainly affected mail volume. Meanwhile in the UK, Royal Mail reported that they were delivering on average around one letter per household a day in the UK, a drop by around 22% in the five years to 2019/20 (2020 Postal Services Briefing Paper for the UK Parliament). However, the British company witnessed its fortunes turn last year as the pandemic boosted 2020-21 profit by 116% (Reuters).
While this may paint a grim picture for the future of direct mail, make no mistake. Just because the number of pieces is down does not mean direct mail is in decline. The fewer pieces there are in mailboxes, the less clutter, and marketers know this. The experience of opening the mailbox has evolved and so has the sentiment towards receiving mail. Because there is less volume compared to over a decade ago, 57% of people claim that receiving mail actually makes them feel more valued. Today, a brand that sends mail is seen as creating a more genuine relationship with the consumer. This sentiment is echoed in the Royal Mail MarketReach paper where 70% said that mail gives those who receive it a better impression of the organisation (up from 55% in 2013).
Direct Mail ROI
At 29%, direct mail has the third highest marketing ROI, after email marketing, 124%, and social media, 30%. Direct mail performed better than popular digital channels such as paid search which recorded a marketing ROI of 24%, and online display at 16% (DMA Response Rate Report). According to the USPS Customer & Market Insights, 50% of consumers have tried a new product, service or establishment in the past six months after receiving a direct mail advertisement. And with the average household receiving only two pieces of direct mail a day compared to 157 e-mails, it is clear that direct mail is a powerful communication channel with less noise. Despite being called the digital generation, Keypoint Intelligence-InfoTrends has revealed millennials to be the demographic most likely to engage often with a mailpiece. And let’s not forget that millennials have overtaken Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation at 72.12 million (Pewreseach.org). We are now looking at the world’s largest future generation.
Augmented Reality and Direct Mail, the New Power Combo
Augmented reality has come a long way since it was first invented in 1968 by Harvard professor and computer scientist Ivan Sutherland. Yes, it was invented in the 60s. But it was the launch of Pokémon Go in July 2016 (Harvard Business Review) that really exposed the global population to Augmented Reality. Overnight, 45 million users discovered the concept of Augmented Reality.
Today, brands have discovered the power of Augmented Reality as an incredibly powerful communication and marketing tool. BMW and Audi have used AR to provide customers with true-to-scale, three-dimensional visual representations of car models based on customised features such as paint color, wheel design, and interior aesthetics. And Lego has created a whole new playing experience using a companion AR app which animates Lego characters springing to life (Science Daily).
With less clutter in mailboxes and the rise of AR, business categories or industries are leveraging digital elements and combining that with direct mail. In fact, direct mail now has a new category — AR-enabled Direct Mail. It’s never been easier to design an AR-enabled direct mail campaign. In fact, there are plenty of AR platforms that are easy to use even for beginners or companies with small marketing budgets. For example, Augmented Reality company UnifiedAR allows its users to easily create a campaign within minutes. All it involves is uploading artwork and corresponding video or 3D animation and the campaign is ready for launch.
Leading Postal Services Already Adopting AR-Enabled Direct Mail (Interactive Print)
Forward-thinking postal service organisations are also crossing into the digital territory to leverage integrated digital technologies such as Augmented Reality. In America, USPS launched their Irresistible Mail which included bespoke augmented reality enabled direct mail and print solutions, and have followed this with Informed Delivery, a platform that allows customers to access and interact with a digital preview of their incoming direct mail.
In 2019, Royal Mail launched an Augmented Reality (AR) parcel sizer in the UK as part of the latest update of the Royal Mail App. The parcel sizer helps users find the right format size and price of their item and then purchase postage directly via the App. A spokesperson for Royal Mail said, “The new features of the Royal Mail App are part of our commitment to investing in technology that improves the customer experience for both senders and recipients.”
Clearly, both USPS and Royal Mail not only recognise the benefits of innovating direct mail with technologies such as AR, but through active promotion, encourage customers to adopt such technologies to help improve their direct mail performance and results. Ryan Kiley, director, Strategic Production Services, Commercial & Industrial Printing Business Group at Ricoh USA, cites that in 2016 USPS drove more than 13.5 billion mail pieces that took advantage of AR promotions. “When AR was incorporated [into marketing campaigns], response rates jumped from 2-3% to 35%,” Kiley says (Pi World).
What’s Old Is New Again: AR-enabled Direct Mail
Using AR, print material can be brought to life and that’s called Interactive Print or making print AR-enabled. Interactive Print (AR) takes printed collateral to the next level by adding immersive, interactive content. Communication and marketing materials like direct mail are the perfect medium to be paired with AR. If previously, print and AR seemed to exist in two separate worlds, today AR is what makes print and direct mail the new hero in omnichannel marketing. But how does it work?
The basic idea is that as long as an item can be printed with a QR code that links to a predetermined web URL, it can be AR-enabled. Things like direct mail, brochures, press adverts, booklets or signage can be easily AR-enabled and be transformed by interactive print. Making the print collateral AR-enabled also means that you are unlocking new capabilities for your print marketing — tracking campaign performance, improving engagement, setting predefined customer journeys, and even creating a seamless bridge to digital platforms. Suddenly, the results of direct mail become defined and trackable. AR-enabled direct mail provides marketers the ability to measure numerous metrics on consumer engagement and the performance of print to digital campaigns as well as integrate additional tracking codes for use across other channels.
Interactive Print/AR-Enabled Direct Mail Ideas
Here are a few ways you can use Augmented Reality in Direct Mail:
- AR enabled postcards
- AR enabled envelopes
- AR enabled product brochures and catalogues
- AR enabled event invitations
- AR enabled fridge magnets and calendars that can provide different promotional content each time they’re scanned
- AR enabled political mail
- AR enabled flyers (eg. property listings and open homes).
In a competitive market, brands, printers and mail service providers need to leverage on these digital assets to create an approach that is truly omnichannel. Augmented Reality can be the differentiator that allows a brand to stand out from its competitors and create sustained recognition. Direct mail is hardly an antiquated marketing tactic. With the power of AR, it is more relevant than ever.