How God Created Direct Marketing Using the Incredible IBM 650 Series in Rural Wisconsin in the 1960s

On the theme of church and marketing, I recently stumbled across an article from the December 1961 issue of a magazine called Business Automation, courtesy of the superfun retro-modern blog ModernMechanix. It blew what little of my mind is left since I took up boxing to beat the Minnesota winter.

Provocatively titled “Faith, Hope and Computer,” the article featured a photo of an office building at the top of the page with the amusing (to me) caption:

Society of the Divine Savior Data Processing Center

Think Science & Religion are always in conflict? Think again, padres!

Written for geeks rather than believers, the article starts with a bang: “Aided by the most sophisticated use of ultra-modern electronic data processing equipment, the world’s most efficient, most effective …” — but hold on a second! Pause tape. Rewind. The “WORLD’S MOST efficient, MOST effective” [block caps and bold type used for incendiary diabolical effect] … high praise indeed, Mr. Business Automation writer (aka Donald Young).

Young backs his bold assertion up by showing us pictures of the latest IBM 650 magnetic tape system and the Addressograph-Multigraph Series 900 data processing system, with its 943 processor that features, of course, “fully-transistorized arithmetic and logical devices in modular form.” (And costs $12,000 a month to lease.) The system is blazing fast, able to read 250 to 750 cards per minute and (through a its A-M 950 offline stylus printer) output 60,000 mailing labels per hour, while an A-M 960 high-speed line printer churns out 600-900 lines per minute of customized letter appeals. (Anybody else smell an IBM press release here?)

And he slips in: this operation is “the first of its kind in the country.” In other words, the Catholic Society of the Divine Savior housed the country’s most sophisticated [something] in the early 1960’s in an anonymous office park in rural Wisconsin. Wow. What?

You saw this coming: it’s a direct marketing operation. An outfit that claims “an unbelievable 80 percent response.” You read that right. How? Well, Young says the mission’s database:

“… is not a mere directory of names and addresses, but a carefully-controlled collection of ‘personal histories’ on every one of their past benefactors. Recorded and maintained on magnetic tape, each of these histories contains 341 characters of coded information on the donor, including when he was last solicited, how long it took him to respond, the type of appeal to which he responded, the size of his contribution, his total donations during the year …” etc.

Just wait till they start including women [sexist language “joke” – ed.]. But seriously: the mission’s technique will ring a tower of bells to those of us in the direct marketing business. It hasn’t really changed at all.

The God-data-center’s director, Father Alfred Schmitt, boasts like the oiliest Google rep:

“By electronically sorting through our files, we can pick out a choice mailing list comprising names of donors whose past histories indicate that they will be receptive to the type of appeal we have in mind.”

Trigger-based marketing! CRM! Dare I say it: segmentation modeling! It’s all there, fifty years ago. Right down to the illusion of personalization: both the monthly reminders to non-respondents and thank-yous to donors are put out by “automatic typewriters which produce ‘personally’ typed ‘thank you'” notes, which are then signed by … well, actually, “Father Alfred’s ‘personal’ signature is affixed to each letter by one of three Autopens.”

Aside from the scale and speed, this is a fully modern Direct Mail (DM) empire with what’s got to be the world’s-best-ever response rates (26% for a first touch!). Why, only yesterday I was on a call for one of our clients where we discussed the pseudo-personalized content of our monthly reminder e-mail and which one of the client’s execs would “sign” it.

In direct marketing, as in so many other things, God was there first 🙂

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3 responses to “How God Created Direct Marketing Using the Incredible IBM 650 Series in Rural Wisconsin in the 1960s

  1. Absolutely fabulous! Clearly, when God is on your side, you get the Upper Hand!

  2. Not to mention an incredible 80% response rate!

  3. Have you ever thought about including a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is important and everything. Nevertheless think about if you added some great images or videos to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with images and clips, this site could definitely be one of the very best in its field. Superb blog!

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