By Pat Friesen, direct response copywriter and creative strategist
“What’s new in direct mail?” is one of the most frequently asked questions I get from colleagues, clients and readers of this column. These people aren’t asking about the latest USPS postal regulations; instead, like you, they want to know about new practices, formats, offer incentives and other elements they should consider testing.
With the new year just around the corner, this month’s column is devoted to products and business ideas that have recently come to my attention. Some are brand-new; others have been around but recently jumped back on the radar. Check them out, then test those that fit with your business goals. 
Corny Carriers 
Clear carrier envelopes may not be new; however, the latest generation is both clear and green. You now can mail carrier envelopes made from a sustainable agricultural product as well as biodegradable polypropylene. Shapes and sizes include catalog envelopes, DVD sleeves, badge holders and jewel pak CD/DVD sleeves. 
While there are probably other eco-friendly fabrications available, Univenture’s EarthFirst PLA (polylactic acid) film is made from annually renewable corn. Crystal clear, this film doesn’t look any different from petrochemical-based clear film, and in many cases, it prints better because ink dries faster on it. Because PLA is compostable, EarthFirst PLA film is accepted by most public compost facilities and normally composts within weeks, according to Univenture. 
If you already use clear carriers, consider testing corny carriers and informing your customers about why you’re using them. If you don’t already use clear carriers, this may be one more reason to test the idea. 
Envelopes That Lead Double Lives 
While we’re on the topic of eco-friendly carrier envelopes, here’s an update on the latest generation of reusable carrier envelopes that double as reply envelopes. 
But first, a brief history lesson. Tension Envelope’s Walt Hiersteiner created and patented what probably was the first two-way returnable envelope almost 30 years ago. The newest two-in-one envelope with patents pending was created in 2002 by Ann DeLaVergne, founder, president and CEO of ecoEnvelopes. Like many entrepreneurs, she created her first prototypes at her kitchen table using her sewing machine. Since then, her company has worked with the USPS to adapt that original kitchen table design to make it compatible with USPS mail handling equipment. 
EcoEnvelopes are manufactured in a variety of business sizes in two versions from FSC- and SFI-certified papers, using up to 100 percent postconsumer waste. They are printed with soy and water-based inks and use bio cell window films. The window envelope version has the postage indicia showing through the window with directions for reuse on the back. The unique, tear-off patch version accommodates an indicia, metering or stamps as postage. Again, reuse directions are on the back. Both are USPS-approved and can be used with high-speed inserting and processing equipment.
Prepaid ‘Credit’ Cards 
OK, maybe these aren’t brand-new, but they are worth mentioning. Prepaid cards like the MasterCard and Visa cards from Springbok have the look and perceived value of a credit card, but work like a universal gift card. From a direct marketer’s perspective, prepaid cards have myriad applications.
You can customize them with your message or logo, or leave the visual focus on the MasterCard or Visa logo to maximize the perceived value. They can have one-time value or be reloadable, require activation/registration or not. Marketers can mail a replica card printed on cardstock, then send the actual plastic card to those who respond. Prepaid cards can be used to generate trade show traffic, encourage Web site visits and registration, and more. 
In fact, prepaid cards are a perfect fit for the Direct Marketing Association’s 
finding that nearly 33 percent of people respond to direct mail online. That’s how I qualified for my $10 prepaid card. I received a lead-generating postcard in the mail from Springbok, then registered online. Now Springbok has my postal and e-mail addresses for follow-up communications.
Dynamic Mapping 
This digital printing capability is personal; practical; and the perfect solution to directing customers, prospects, donors and prospective students to hard-to-find locations. 
Dynamic mapping gives the individual mail recipient a personal map highlighting the route from his or her street address to a specific location. This “how to find us” technique has been used by churches, universities, retirement communities and even pizza locations. But there are thousands of other applications. And you don’t have to mail huge numbers to use it cost effectively. 
As I write this, Quebecor World is about to launch Store.driver, a variation on this technique. Designed to drive store traffic, Store.driver in-line formats will have the capability to include a map, paper gift card and fragrance strip. While I’m not sure of the menu of fragrances available, my imagination is running wild with all the possibilities.
Postal Mail Read Online 
If you haven’t already read about Earth Class Mail (www.earthclassmail.com), you should. This service potentially affects how your direct mail pieces are received, scanned, read and managed by your targeted audience.
Launched in 2006, Earth Class Mail allows you as a subscriber to “view scanned images of your sealed envelopes online, then choose to have your (postal) mail securely scanned into a PDF document, recycled, shredded or forwarded to you or someone else.” 
I encourage you to take a look. As my husband reminds me, “Information is your friend.” Better to know what’s going on in the marketplace, new and old, than to assume these developments won’t affect you.

—Source: Target Marketing Magazine Nov. 1, 2008 newsletter. (www.targetmarketingmag.com). Pat Friesen is a direct response copywriter and creative strategist. Reach her at pat@patfriesen.com.