Direct mail is changing, for certain. It has been a mainstay in business communications for decades. Ten years from now, direct mail will be the conduit from which intensely strong connections are built. It will engage in ways we have yet to fully embrace.

We often focus on the changes within our industry: the technologies, the regulations, the market demands. Yet these changes do not affect reality on a deeper level. Consumers long for a connection. They want to be reached, recognized and understood. And no other medium can get in front of a consumer with the reliability and impact of a physical mail piece.

Ten years from now, our industry will be different-and yes, the pace of change will only accelerate. However, as you consider the seven-point forecast below, chances are you will recognize yourself. For if one thing is constant, it's that leaders in the print and mail industry will take advantage of every tool possible to deliver the most dynamic, most welcome, most personal communications.
In 10 years, direct mailers will excel in these seven areas:

1. Data-driven print. Offset printing and pre-printed stock will fade as the print and mail processes become even more integrated. Each mail piece will start as a plain piece of white paper, and every component, from the envelope, letter and insert, will be digitally printed and assembled as part of a single in-line operation. Software advancements will make it possible to optimize space, automatically making real-time decisions on page count and page layout based on the recipients' potential ROI.

Some production houses have already invested in these capabilities, but in the years ahead everyone will need to become experts at monetizing data and intelligence.

2. Total personalization. Spraying on a name and address won't cut it in the direct mail industry of the future. Increasingly, marketers recognize that mail is a visual media - and the most compelling sales pitches will utilize bold, personalized imagery. Today, mailers may test what color headline works best overall, in the coming years they will know what color works best as it relates to each and every mail recipient.

As email open rates continue to erode, look for direct mail open rates to improve. Mailers will take advantage of more relevant, more targeted messaging and imagery on envelopes-with equally convincing payoffs inside pleasing the recipient.

3. Real-time analytics. With the volume of data doubling every 18 months, the science of direct mail will rely on more sophisticated business intelligence in the years ahead. In some ways, digital marketers have taken a lead in this area (think Amazon recommendations)-but print and mail professionals will close the gap.

Analytics will take center stage in targeting. While mailing lists may be assembled weeks in advance today, in 10 years you will be crunching data right up until the moment a mail piece is produced-continually fine-tuning models to pinpoint most likely responders. Tracking information will feed directly into centralized communication dashboards, providing the insights needed to make instant adjustments that will improve ROI.

4. True multi-channel integration. Years ago, multi-channel efforts meant trying to coordinate stand-alone efforts across channels, such as following up a mailer with a phone call or email. Today, mail often acts as a catalyst for sales in other channels, as marketers add personalized URLs and QR codes to postcards, letters and catalogs to drive online response. Once they arrive at a digital destination, those visitors who were first engaged by mail spend more time and more money online.

Going forward, mail will be increasingly linked to online experiences-through widgets and apps that have not yet been invented-which will only serve to increase the impact of mail. In the next five to 10 years, the same data and analytics will target messages via the physical world (mail) and whatever digital innovations evolve. Imagine how a customer will react when they add an item to their online shopping cart only to be reminded that they had received a coupon in the mail for this item, and the discount will automatically be applied.

The explosion of digital communications will extend the life and value of a printed mail piece in many ways, opening the door to an infinite array of videos, online content, demos and information-each tailored, customized and targeted to the individual mail recipient.

5. Just-in-time content. Advances in data, analytics, digital print and multi-channel integration will enable mailers to become more flexible and customer-centric. Face it, we all know what it feels like to receive an offer in the mail for a product we just purchased-or already made a deliberate decision to refuse-because the decision to send you that offer was made weeks in advance.

An event like that should never occur in 2022 as we add "best-next-action" intelligence to our content generation systems... systematically identifying the most appropriate offer based on the most current information available. In fact, when we increasingly integrate online experiences with mail, marketers will be able to adjust and fine tune offers even after the mail piece is printed and mailed, because the digital content on the other side of that QR code can be updated right up until the point of mail delivery.

6. Smallest ever job runs. If you think job runs are getting small today, you can look forward to a day when single-piece jobs may become the norm. In the new age of real-time digital printing and inline production, printers and mailers soon will be able to consolidate jobs from different companies, products and purposes in what will become an "always on" operation.

From a marketing perspective, these capabilities will provide for a new level of intimacy with prospects and customers as mailings can be produced and delivered in direct response to actions and events. For printers and mailers, this environment will open new markets as small- and medium-sized businesses will be able to take advantage of the cost-efficiencies associated with high-volume runs.

7. Near-delivery production. Automation, work-cell consolidation and advances in color ink technologies may work to lower cost-per-piece and improve ROI. The same cannot be said for transportation and delivery costs, which already account for the majority of direct mail expenses.

When we reach a point where small production runs are just as efficient as today's million-piece jobs, the opportunity to eliminate cross-country or inter-state transportation costs may take the current trend of inducting mail closer to its delivery point to a whole new level.

In the end, some will view the next 10 years as a time of challenges, frustrations and new competition. Others will see innovation, growth and profitability. So the question is: Where will you land in 2022?

If the actions of market leaders are any indication, this is an exciting time to be in the print and mail industry.

Even as we have seen an explosion of digital media-from email and Web, to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter-the unique attributes of mail stand apart. Today's direct mail pioneers are embracing the data-driven, digital capabilities of the online world to delivering a stronger connection on paper that is more dynamic, more welcoming, and more personal. Direct mail will thrive.