By Ian McCue, commerce and retail reporter
⏰ 6-minute read
Serial entrepreneur Jim Fitzgerald started Taradel as an advertising service for newspapers and scaled it with a self-service portal.
The business invested heavily in direct mail marketing when newspapers struggled and fueled growth by building partnerships with big names in the industry.
Over the last few years, Taradel has adopted digital ads and seen impressive results by reaching consumers through both channels.
Despite the old-school roots of his business, Jim Fitzgerald is always looking for innovative ways to keep his company a step ahead.
Fitzgerald is the founder and CEO of Taradel, whose proprietary marketing platform allows businesses to target specific audiences with direct mail, email, display and social media ads. That multichannel marketing platform is a shining example of how the company has evolved over the past 17 years. It’s also the product of Fitzgerald’s dedication to continuously experimenting and reimagining his business to distinguish it from competitors.
This strategy has worked quite well: Taradel has appeared on the Inc. 5000 list of the country’s fastest-growing companies for 12 consecutive years. Annual revenue climbed 67% from 2018 to 2019, to about $18 million, and it’s grown an average of 24% annually over those dozen years.
Fitzgerald’s inspiration for Taradel came when he started producing advertising inserts for newspapers while working at a printer. That arm of his employer’s business never really took off, but Fitzgerald saw potential and decided to pursue the concept on his own in 2003.
To start, he marketed these paper flyers to newspaper ad reps, who then sold them to local businesses for ads. When reps placed an order of flyers, Fitzgerald’s company -- which he named Taradel -- worked with a contractor to print and ship them. The newspaper would distribute the flyers to select regions of readers, charging local advertisers 10 cents per home. (It cost the newspaper just 4 cents per home to produce the custom flyers with Taradel.)
Taradel’s early customer base grew to include more than 50 daily newspapers, including big names like The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.
The first hurdles
However, Fitzgerald’s business struggled to scale further. To overcome this initial hiccup, he hired developers to create an online self-service platform so those newspaper ad reps could upload mailer designs themselves and submit orders. Later, the company opened up this service to anyone who wanted something printed in bulk.
But as Taradel’s core customer base faltered around 2011, the company had to reinvent itself. It eyed direct mail, the marketing term for mailing flyers directly to homes (vs., say, including them in newspapers).
“We saw circulations of newspapers and subscriptions dropping, and that’s when I realized we needed to pivot, because our distribution vehicle was going away,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s when we looked hard at direct mail, and fortunately, at about the time that happened, the U.S. Postal Service launched a product called Every Door Direct Mail.”
Small business owners can quickly set up targeted direct mail campaigns through Taradel's platform.
Investing big in direct mail
Every Door Direct Mail enables businesses to send mail that’s not addressed to a particular person, so long as they send it to every address on a specific Postal Service carry route. This made it easier for companies to reach both new and existing customers. With the infrastructure already in place, Taradel switched from printing on flyers to postcard stock and started shipping mailers to post offices instead of newspapers.
It also capitalized on the Postal Service’s extensive marketing for the new service by investing time and money in SEO to rank highly for “Every Door Direct Mail” search queries. Taradel even bought the URL everydoordirectmail.com.
Over time, the Glen Allen, Va.-based business hired an in-house team of developers to enhance its self-service online portal and make it faster and easier for advertisers to launch a campaign.
“What we pride ourselves in is we’ve taken a fairly complicated process and democratized it and simplified it,” Fitzgerald said.
"What we pride ourselves in is we've taken a fairly complicated process and democratized it and simplified it."
“On our site, a small business can in minutes heat map their trade area and see the [mail] carrier routes that have the highest concentrations of the people that look like their existing customers, click on a design, enter their credit card information and complete a targeted direct mail campaign in under 10 minutes,” he continued. “That’s really how the business took off.”
Partnerships unlock thousands of opportunities
Taradel got on the radar of well-known brands like FedEx Office, Progressive Insurance and two major office supply retailers thanks to the valuable real estate it occupies in direct mail search results and its affiliation with the U.S. Postal Service. Taradel is now a white-label, third-party provider for these brands’ direct mail items. Here’s how these white-label partnerships work:
Consumers contact or visit the website of a national copy and print retailer like FedEx Office to place orders for custom mailers.
Taradel services these customers and helps them figure out which format and design they want, if they need assistance.
Taradel fulfills the orders through its contract printers.
Taradel and the retailer share the revenue. (The exact split depends on the amount of work required by each side.)
Taradel’s success as a white-label provider earned the attention of Canada Post, Canada’s national postal carrier and now one of Taradel’s most important partners. Taradel’s platform powers Canada Post’s Snap AdMail tool, which helps small businesses design and send direct mail.
To support this expansion north of the border, the business hired French speakers and set up a subsidiary in Toronto for legal purposes. Taradel also must abide by stricter data privacy laws in Canada that limit the granularity of its targeting.
“In this instance, everything we do we’re representing that brand,” Fitzgerald said of working with Canada Post. “That affects everything from paying for translation services to the quality of the people you hire. Just because somebody speaks French, doesn’t mean they speak French the way Canadians speak French.”
Taradel customers can find their ideal audience based on information like household income, age and home ownership.
This past December, Taradel added another key partner after it won a competitive “pitch battle” hosted by real estate giant Keller Williams. That victory gave Taradel first priority at making its marketing services available through the Keller Cloud, a platform the agency’s 160,000 real estate agents in the U.S. and Canada use every day.
Taradel is currently building an integration with the Keller Cloud and expects its featured placement there to be another growth driver. Real estate agents will soon be able to design and send mailers through Keller Williams’ internal platform.
Pairing old-school and new-school marketing
Direct mail accounts for more advertising spend nationally than any other channel, including website ads. Direct mail’s response rate rose to 4.9% in 2018, a far better rate than most digital channels.
Taradel knew adding digital ads to its offerings would make direct mail even more effective and help its own business. However, the company waited to add a digital ad component to its platform until it knew this would not complicate the process for small business owners with limited marketing knowledge.
“We’re not Luddites, we didn’t just want to stick our heads in the sand and hope that direct mail would take us to the promised land,” Fitzgerald said. “We knew from our own experience [generating leads] that digital is incredibly powerful, so we just wanted to come up with a better way of integrating the two.”
"We're not Luddites, we didn't just want to stick our heads in the sand and hope that direct mail would take us to the promised land."
Customers using Taradel can now target the same people with both mailers and digital ads, a service Canada Post also offers under the name Snap Admail Plus.
The results of that strategy are promising: Taradel recently ran a study in which it sent half an audience direct mail only and the other half direct mail and follow-up digital ads. The latter saw a 38% lift in conversions, and it required just a 14% increase in spend, Fitzgerald said.
The direct mail veteran attributes this impact to the frequency illusion, a person’s tendency to keep noticing something -- a specific model of car or brand of shoes, for example -- once they have heard about or experienced that thing prior.
“If we look at the world through impression count, direct mail is an expensive impression,” Fitzgerald said. “But it is the only truly invasive medium -- somebody has to touch it and look at it. You can’t just discard it, because you don’t know what it is. When that’s happening, for those few seconds, it’s making a very powerful impact. … So now when you chase that direct mail piece with digital advertising, those digital ads are going to resonate much more powerfully than if they were just running alone in their own vacuum.”
Always in search of the next big thing
Taradel is as committed as ever to trying new things. The roadmap for its marketing platform includes adding a dashboard that shows the performance of all channels. It also plans to offer direct mail retargeting, in which a company sends consumers a mailer after that consumer visits its website by using their IP address to find their physical address. In the not-so-distant future, Taradel plans to expand into consulting, landing page and website design, reputation management and mailing list sales.
Here's an example of an email ad with a special offer sent by one of Taradel's customers.
Located near Virginia’s capital city, the business has also seen promising traction with political campaign mail for local elections. Taradel users can see all registered voters in their county, their party affiliation and voting history. This service could prove crucial with the upcoming presidential election -- the Postal Service expects political mail to generate $1 billion in revenue in 2020.
Meanwhile, Taradel’s key to growth remains this constant pursuit of new initiatives and improvement of existing services.
“We’re out there constantly switching things and changing things and tweaking things and trying new things. If there’s anything that drives growth, that’s what it is,” Fitzgerald said. “You can’t sit there and hope you’re going to save a few cents by negotiating better next year with your vendor. You’ve got to innovate and try new things and test them, go back to the drawing board and test them again. Don’t be afraid to try new stuff constantly.”