There’s a very common misconception about the history of advertising, and that’s the idea Arron Montgomery Ward started the direct-mail catalog. While Ward was a pioneer, he was far from the first.
In fact, the first known catalog dates all the way back to the 1490s – yes, as in the same decade Columbus sailed – when the first (ever) major Italian publisher to embrace Gutenberg’s press started distributing a catalog of their publications. A few other known early examples of private catalogs have also survived, including one produced in the 1740s by Ben Franklin!
For that matter, Tiffany’s should get credit for the first major American catalog. Their “Blue Book” showcased all their high-priced wares before the Civil War.
Modern marketers can learn a few things from the history of the humble mail-order catalog… especially that catalogs are still relevant to modern direct mail services!
1. Mail Order Is A Technology Leader
Mail order is truly as old as the printing press itself, and has consistently been at the forefront of technological innovation. Another early pioneer of the catalog, Sir Pryce Jones, utilized the railways of Britain for delivery in the same way Ward’s and Sears would fifty years later in America.
Nowadays? Amazon is talking about building a drone fleet so they can fly people’s purchases directly to them. It’s sci-fi today, but it could be reality within a decade. (Assuming the FAA agrees.)
As for everyone else, it’s simple to embed electronic elements like QR Codes into printed catalogs and other direct mail services. A printed catalog can now send mobile browsers straight to the website.
2. Catalogs Grew Through Niche Audiences
It should surprise no one that several of the first known catalogs were catalogs of books. It’s strange to think of today, but circa 1500, the science of the Greeks was circulating among Renaissance thinkers via mail in the same way hobbyist electronics would spread five hundred years later.
Or, Montgomery Ward was specifically targeting rural customers with his catalog. People living miles from society were a truly under-served market. Ward recognized that and used modern technology to reach out to them.
Today’s marketers can still reach niches by mail, and with plenty of success!
3. Catalogs Were Tactile
“The Feels” have been nearly lost in the electronic revolution, and that’s a shame. One great feature of catalogs is that they have always been inherently tactile. Besides the basic physical interactions of handling a large catalog, there was nothing stopping publishers from adding fabric samples like Pryce Jones did, or even using scratch-and-sniff for perfume ads.
Modern cell phones have nothing to replace this, and likely won’t for decades. A catalog could -and still can- engage the senses in a very stimulating manner, one that inspires people to engage with them further.
4. Catalogs Still Work
Here’s a much more recent bit of history that may surprise you. On a per-customer basis catalogs cost half as much as pay-per-click placements! For that matter, according to the 2011 study cited, catalogs were even a bit cheaper than email in picking up customers.
Also, while there haven’t been high-profile examples, those in the direct mail industry hear plenty of stories about mid-size operations who stopped using catalogs in the 2000’s, only to quietly reintroduce them a few years later due to sales decline! It turns out their customers flat-out preferred catalogs to electronic alternatives.
So if you think catalogs are fossilized relics of yesteryear’s media, think again! They still work, they’re still affordable, and they’ve been offering centuries of innovations no other direct mail services can match, even today.