Culture, direct mail, Media, Science, Thank You, USPS

You Are Still On My List

A written card, delivered by mail. Old fashioned, and meaningful.

This morning, CBS Sunday Morning with Jane Pauly featured the story of a father in Valdosta, Georgia who has sent over 20,000 post cards to his kids since 1995. The kids have saved every one, and their bookshelves are packed with volumes of fatherly words to his children.

As a devout postal fan, I was intrigued and pleased that there was a fellow writer who still believed in sending cards and letters.  Indeed a while back I wrote about the beauty of the written thank you note.

It drove me to look at the latest USPS Revenues Pieces and Weights report that measures the postal pulse of the nation. What I found was both disturbing, and a little puzzling.

Direct mail surrendered some market share to the web.

We know that mail volumes have conceded their dominance to email and online transactions. Even direct mail, which is a vibrant, robust medium has also given up share to the web.

But what was revealing about our culture are the declining totals of personal mail for the last three months, from October to December, 2017.

Simply put, we stopped writing.

Year over year, the Q4 volume of “single” letters slipped 5.9%. A blip? No, because single letters had dropped 5.1% the previous Q4 as well.  A single letter is typically a bill payment, a business letter, or a personal letter.  Or perhaps a greeting card.

The Greeting Card Association reports 7 billion cards are produced every year.

Percentages don’t really tell the story though. This past quarter, the single letter volume dropped 313,044,000 pieces.

To put that into terms we understand, I remind you that every Q4 we celebrate Halloween, Remembrance or Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and approximately 75,000,000 birthdays.

The USPS counter selection is not encyclopedic, but it is enough to trigger the impulse.

The Greeting Card Association reports that we purchase over 7 billion greeting cards every year.  And it turns out that the USPS delivered 17.5 billion single letters in 2017.   Maybe the remaining 10.5 billion single letters are just business and bill payments.  So, did we stop sending personal letters, or did we stop paying our bills?

The answer again pops up in the USPS reports.  In 2017, Presort First Class letters, aka, bulk business letters dropped over 5%: 787 million fewer bills and statements going out; fewer checks coming back.

It further develops, according to the USPS 2016 Householder Diary that Americans sent 3.6 billion letters “household to household”.

Conclusion: consumers are doing their business online, receiving and paying their bills electronically.

This is a huge relief to me, because it means that we are still writing personal cards and letters…I think.

For certain, the volume will never drop to zero, because of the persistent efforts of a father in Valdosta who still writes his kids every day.

How often do you?

Thanks for sharing!  If you would like to see the USPS reports for yourself, click here!

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Culture, direct mail, Environment, Government, Marketing

Don’t Leave The Lights On

Got a light?

Just a few days ago we received a handy tool from ComEd, our power supplier. We have a light bulb guide.

ComEd’s 3 steps to lighting your home.

What seems like 10 years back, somebody governmental decided unilaterally that we should do away with those high-energy-consuming incandescent bulbs which we have been using since Edison. No longer would we squint in the warm glow of a 60-watt bulb while reading the newspaper.

This was because someone, probably in Shanghai Xiangshan, thought we were better off screwing mini-helical fluorescent bulbs into our light sockets. Touted as energy-saving devices, the ‘cool light’ replacements would use less electricity, and last 5 times longer. Incandescents all but left the market, unless you looked in an old variety store off a back road.

So we were prodded into changing out all the old bulbs.

The bright idea: mercury infused fluorescence!

Once all the houses in America were transitioned over to the helix models, then the mercury sleuths woke up, and said we could not dispose of the bulbs. Because after all, they do burn out eventually, and to my disappointment, faster than claimed. But who’s going to China to file a complaint?

Terrific!

So now the incandescents have returned, like swallows to Capistrano.

From watts to lumens. At the speed of light.

But at the same time, another Edison protege has risen, to suggest disposing again of all incandescents in favor of LED bulbs.  The light-emitting-diode bulbs are very efficient indeed.  Not only do they use less power, but they are also blindingly brilliant.

ComEd has taken the initiative in nudging the switch along by mailing us a helpful little card.  On one side, it converts incandescent strengths to LED, which is like shrinking a bagel to a Cheerio.

It goes from watts… remember him? ..to lumens, which is like from energy consumed to instead, brightness delivered.

A Canadian bookmark for the 1970s, still in use today.

But before I go any further, I just want you to consider a similar transition from ancient Canadian history.  Back in 1973 the federal government, of course, decided to change from Imperial measure…remember the Queen?… to metric.   This was purportedly to rationalize and expand Canadian exports to the non-U.S. metric world of commerce.

I think the real reason was to hoodwink the car-owning public.  We shifted gas prices from 45 cents a gallon to 15 cents a liter overnight– without a shred of understanding.  To further bamboozle the public, the government then commanded that car fuel efficiency should shift from mpg, miles per gallon to… kilometers per liter?….no wait for it,  liters per 100 kilometers!

What the heck is that?

Lenticular: lighting your home, as Kelvin would like it.

Not un-coincidentally, while this huge shell game was in process, the Feds decided to start a government-owned company called Petrocan to sell us gas for our cars!  They bought up all the Sunoco stations, changed the signs, and raised the prices like great Caesar’s ghost.  We didn’t have a clue.

So back to ComEd, which so far is not a government entity.

Lord Kelvin

The other side of the ComEd lightbulb card is a lenticular lens which shows you what your home will look like using LED lighting.  It’s pretty clever, and a great device for direct mailers to use.  When you wiggle the card, it changes the brightness of the living room pictured on the card.

You have three exposures: DAYLIGHT, SOFT LIGHT and BRIGHT WHITE.  Below each setting a number tells you what the bulb’s color temperature is, in…Kelvin?…remember him?

Of course you do.  Water freezes at 32′ Fahrenheit, or 0′ Celsius, or 273Kelvin.

Anyway, we now have a card to buy the right bulbs, defined by lumens and Kelvins.

The only remaining question, how many civil servants does it take to change a light bulb?

 

Thanks for reading!  Please illuminate your friends by sharing!

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Agriculture, Culture, direct mail, Fundraising, Wildlife

The Forest, The Trees, Or The Beans?

It’s not a secret any more that I enjoy reading direct mail. Not much of a life, you might suggest. Still, it guarantees a walk to the mailbox everyday, and a chat with our favorite USPS mail carrier.

My current discovery revolves around the offer I could not refuse, straight from the Arbor Day Foundation.

These good folks in Nebraska City, Nebraska are on a mission to blanket the country in a thick, variegated quilt of forests.  So when they selected me to represent a small portion of the people in Illinois, I was hard pressed to decline.

Why?

Premiums often trump the original product offer for appeal.

It is a fact that in many successful direct mail offers, it is not the product that gets the sale, but the premiums which come along with good behavior.  Good behavior in this case is responding quickly, and munificently.  In other words, pay up, fast.

The survey is a powerful engagement device, selling all the way.

In return for my promptness, albeit somewhat stingy in retrospect, I might receive Arbor Day’s special rainforest, cool-shade-grown coffee for a year.  Wow!  I am supporting Starbucks right now, but I can be swayed.

It was with this initial buzz on my coffee nodes that I rushed to complete the Arbor Day Tree Survey, carelessly pushing aside any concerns about what would happen next.

The Arbor Day Tree Survey for Illinois is an excellent example of powerful sales rhetoric.

It helps that I am a tree lover.  We live on a third of an acre, and have 17 trees.  I feel rich, and enjoy the annual blooms, the blossoms, the pollen, the seed drops, and the mounds of leaves I rake.

Arbor Day is celebrated nation-wide, thanks to the Foundation’s efforts.

I think the survey deftly gets all the right answers from me.  It lulls me into a positive frame of mind.  I race through the harmless queries.

They ask, ‘have you ever climbed a tree?…when you were a child, did you ever play under or amongst the trees?… did you ever collect leaves, acorns, or pine cones for a school project–or just for fun?’

These questions are softballs, and I hit them all out of the park.  “Yes!  I climbed a tree!  I lived in a tree!…I built a small condominium in a tree!..Yes! I played under a giant Beech as a child!…Yes! I just finished a vast collection of leaves with my grandson!  Yes!  Yes! I did all of that!”

Sophie’s Choice: pick one. But how?

These are soothing thoughts.  For a moment, I slip into a gauzy reminiscence of TV’s defense lawyer Ben Matlock, asking woodsy questions in his unassuming, folksy manner.

But that reverie is smoothly swept aside by a troubling vision of Patrick Jane, the thoughtful, boyish, enigmatic Citroen-driving sleuth in CBS’s TV show, “The Mentalist”.

The questionnaire asks,  ‘Which ONE of the following is the single most important function of trees:    Providing shade?  Providing oxygen? Being a source of beauty?  Absorbing carbon dioxide?  Filtering water? Saving energy by cooling our homes? Providing habitats for birds and animals?’

Like, how to choose?  This is some kind of arboreal Sophie’s Choice, with the bark left off.

The motherlode of premiums: plant your own forest!

Really, the questionnaire does focus the reader to the countless benefits provided by a our forests, here and around the world.  So kudos to Arbor Day for the survey approach.  It segue’s to some opinion questions, and then asks for a donation which opens the gates for premiums.  Big premiums.

Because I have asked for them, I will be receiving 10 Norway Spruce Trees, 2 Fragrant Purple Lilacs, a copy of The Tree Book, and a Rainforest Rescue Calendar.

And the coffee, for a year, I hope.

It turns out that the coffee offer is part of a sweepstakes.  The fine print is found on the inside of the envelope.  500+ words in 10-point sans serif type, arranged in block paragraphs with no indents.  My hopes of those rainforest-cool-shaded coffee beans are evaporating like dew drops on a hot car hood in July.

The 10 x 14 envelope costs extra, but its impact, complete with faux label does the job: it gets opened.

Speaking of envelopes however… I do applaud the package.  It measured 10×14 inches, for no good reason other than to dominate the mail box, and to get my attention.  It was printed to look like brown kraft.  A knockout on the face presents the image of a label, but looking closely I find it is a varnish over the original white stock, masterfully done.  This kit looks impressive, official, and urgent.

The power of data-driven variable imaging: customization.

Inside, there is a personalized letter, and it has a personal note referring to the spruce trees, just right for Libertyville, IL.

Alongside, I find a set of address labels, which are pretty much table stakes in fundraising, but they are optimistically entitled, “Arbor Day Foundation, 2018 Supporter”.  That must be me!  Their 2018 calendar further alerts me to Illinois’ Arbor Day being April 27th.

The mandatory address labels of fundraising, but tastefully designed.

So, I wait.  The trees are coming next spring.  The book and calendar, who knows?  The coffee, fearfully a long shot.  What I do know is that with every delivery, there will be a further prodding and arm-twisting for a gift.

While I am desperately trying to find a place to plant those trees, I’ll give it a thought.

Thanks for reading! If you would like the full appraisal of the Arbor Day Foundation, it is available here, at Charity Navigator.

 

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Culture, Mystery

Gone To Press

Self-published books are easier that ever, thanks to digital technology.

A few months back I sat in a shaded bedroom with a gaggle of kids all waiting for a bedtime story. Not being that spontaneous, I resorted to an old campfire story game to get these primary schoolers ready for bed. Yesterday I published the entire story “Roarg– A Dragon’s Quest” in paperback form.

This was not in the plans, actually.

The kids, count six of them, all huddled on two bunk beds staring at a flash light in the middle of the floor, which was our token campfire. I led them on a tiger hunt. In this story game, there’s lots of slopping in swamps, swishing through tall grass, crunching over rocky terrain, jumping away from gators, all in pursuit of a hungry, giant cat which is trying to eat us. Much slapping of hands, raspberry sounds and other bodily noises punctuate the dangerous trek.

The story was begun to put them to bed. But that’s not where it ended.

The scene is reminiscent of the new movie “The Battle of the Sexes” starring Steve Carrell and Emma Stone.    There is a delicious moment early on where his character, Bobby Riggs, is noisily and boisterously guiding his son, jumping from one $5,000 couch to the next one in his wife’s expensive and stately living room, all the while loudly warning of the perils of falling off the couches and into the jaws of the gators which swarm the Persian rug below them.

Anyway, in our story, we dumped the tiger in favor a more evil and ominous foe, Magu, who was a powerful monster with a ruthless disposition. Magu threatened the livelihoods of all the kids, and it was their job to get Magu. To compound our perils, enter Roarg, a dragon, who is equally horrific to think of, and before I knew it, we were into a saga.

Chapter V: Trouble On The Mountain. Illustrated by Finn Brown.

After about 15 minutes of much noise and screams and action, I said we would continue another time. Magu and Roarg were in deadly conflict, on the mouth of a volcano, I think, or on a mountain top, or maybe in an ocean whirlpool.

The kids all collapsed, and I figured that was the end of it.

Not so!

Our grandson continually prompted me on every following visit to continue the story…up to the point that he knew it better than me. I felt I had to write it down.

Over the next few months every time we spoke, he brought up the tale, and asked how it was coming along. Well, I took action, and some 15,000 words later, I completed the suspenseful, adventurous and comprehensive tale of Roarg– A Dragon’s Quest.

Self-publishing is easier now than ever. I contracted with a publishing site called http://www.blurb.com, and without a lot of error successfully printed up my book.  As a side item, did you know that there are more than 1,000,000 new books released every year?  Publishing sites like Blurb and Shutterfly make it possible.

Roarg is a good story, complete with danger, suspense and a clever ending.  I have tested it out on our two 11-year-old grand daughters, and they were thumbs up.

If you have kids, grandkids, nephews, nieces or even a nice young neighbor who is a reader, this is an exciting and fast moving tale. You can get a copy of Roarg at blurb.com.

And think of this too, you actually know the author!

Thanks for sharing! I hope you like the book!

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Culture, Media, Science

Tip-a-Tip-a-Tap-Tap-Tap-Ching

Typewriters deliver a physical honesty.  No spellcheck!

My 8-year-old grandson cautioned me that to write important stuff in an email for posterity was not a very good idea.   “It’s technology'” he explained, and pointed out, “it’ll get lost really fast.”

After 40 years in the writing, printing and mailing business, I experienced a moment of happy vindication.

He made a good point. Despite the pervasive and indelible nature of social media, unless you know what you are looking for, ten years later, that little nugget of an email is crystallizing somewhere in a cloud far away, never again to fall to earth.

I have spent most of this summer reading hundreds of hand-written letters dated between 1943 to 1947. These nearly daily journals record my mother’s life in England as the war was finally won, and reconstruction had begun.

Mom’s letters to her dad 1944-1947.

It is a safe bet that had the stories been written as emails, they would never have resurfaced. But these did, unbidden, and made for an arresting and revealing read.

They appeared in a box from her estate, neatly tied together with a shoelace. The bundles were collected and saved by her father, in New York. No internet cloud at work here.   But without doubt, their physical presence could not be ignored; they had to be saved, and they were.  As a result, her story was available to be read, 70 years later. I’ll share more on that another time.

The workhorse 1915 Underwood–engineering marvel.

Along with the letters, I also inherited her Underwood typewriter. As a child I recall working this machine, struggling with its keyboard, stumbling through sentences like a child inebriate, unable to find the right letters, the right case, the right push.

Last year I purchased some new ribbon to replace the one that was now leathery dry. The new reels came from England.

Today I installed the ribbon. It’s black and red, and very, very fresh.

Changing a ribbon: lost on today’s digerati

The Underwood is about 100 years old, and is an elegant, and beautifully engineered piece of machinery. It is built on a solid black cast iron base, and probably has about 500 moving parts, all in perfect working order. A priceless possession.

The Underwood’s engineering was as intricate as a Swiss watch…or a steam locomotive.

The QWERTY keyboard is easier to manage now, after a career of hammering away on computers. But there are some niceties, too. An exclamation mark (!) is accomplished by striking the apostrophe (‘) key over the 8 key. Back space, and drop in a period. Voila!

Wordwrap had not yet been conceived, let alone invented, so there is the iconic bell to warn that the margin is in sight. Better than that, there is NO spellcheck. What you type is what you get. The typewriter  has a physical honesty about it that today’s word processors cover up like embarrassed parents viewing a child’s essays.

Dad’s portable Corona was the picture of efficiency

At the same time I acquired the Underwood, I also received my father’s Corona portable. It comes in a cardboard leatherette case, tied together with a length of electrical cord. This machine is remarkably lighter, only 10 pounds.

The 1914 Corona flipped open to reveal a tiny keyboard

Opening the 100-year-old container, I discovered that the upper half of the machine, ribbons and all, flips over revealing a modest set of keys. These are faithful to QWERTY, but there is special efficiency in the Corona. The actual slugs have 3 different characters each. An informed operator can do upper case, lower case and special figures off of the small keyboard.  My father wrote his doctoral thesis on this relic.

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Three characters for every slug, a clever design.

Again, I marvel at the care and diligence of the engineers who designed these machines. They are quite exquisite pieces of working technology.

I recently read a book entitled, “The Iron Whim – A Fragmented History of Typewriting“, by Darren Wershler-Henry. This Canadian author has assembled a fascinating thesis about the role of typewriters in our culture. After our 30+ years of PCs and laptops and smartphones, his book is a brilliant perspective on how we have developed.  You think it’s just about stenos and typing pools?  Get the book.

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The #5 Underwood, 25 pounds of literary punch 

And then there’s Tom Hanks and John Mayer, who have just concluded a documentary “California Typewriter“.  They too are quick to tell you about the beauty of typewriters, especially as Hanks says– his typewritten messages “can never be hacked by the forces of evil.”  Apparently Hanks also has a book in the works, featuring three stories involving typewriters.  He has time on his hands?

So, returning to the advice of my grandson, I will continue to use my laptop, and thumb my way through the iPhone keyboard, but I am much more respectful of his intuition on these things.

Hard copy doesn’t go away, and especially in the long run, is probably easier to find.

 

Post Script: October 26–I just finished Hanks’ new book, “Uncommon Type”, a series of short stories written by the actor.  A great read!

 

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Culture, direct mail, Marketing

USPS: It’s Worth The Weight

Flipping through old photo albums is a fearsome task. We used to look better. The forces of gravity and time didn’t seem so obvious.

The post office isn’t immune from these effects either, but it is still eye-opening to see how direct mail has aged with some elegance.

Direct mail dropped 22% in the past ten years, but First Class dropped even more: 37%.

I took a moment to compare 2016 USPS results against 2006. If you are a USPS employee, a printer, or a person who lives by the mailbox, read on.  By the way, I converted these to a normal calendar year.

We all associate the USPS with letter mail: invoices, statements, and personal mail. This past year, the USPS delivered 62 billion First Class letters. Ten years ago– 98 billion letters…a 37% drop in personal mail.

On the other hand, direct mail only dropped 23 billion pieces, or 22%.

But here is where direct marketers have managed to carve out a path to serve some 150 million homes and businesses with advertising every day.

Direct mailers have managed to make a respectable living with the USPS by slimming down. While the rest of the world has acknowledged that our bodies are bigger than in the past, direct mail has successfully dropped a few sizes.

To wit: in 2006, the average piece of direct mail weighed 1.86 ounces.  By last year, that had slipped 15% to 1.55 ounces.

Direct Mail has slimmed down in the past decade.

This may not seem like a big deal, but it reveals a lot about the reading public.  Direct mail designers have essentially cut down on paper and ink.

Envelopes are smaller, and contain fewer pieces.  In fact, Flats, which are larger than 6-1/8″ by 11-1/2″, dropped a staggering 51% in the last 10 years, down from 13 billion pieces to 6.3 billion.

The landfill protesters and tree huggers have to be thrilled.  But despite their glee, most direct mail is entirely recyclable, and much of it is made from post consumer waste paper anyway.

The super-sized Flat, large enough to hold a placemat is fading.

The rapid weight loss has provided a financial dividend for the USPS.  In 2006, the revenue per ounce was $0.107.  Ten years later it is $0.139, which is 12 points better than the rate of inflation.

The irony of the slimmed-down direct mail piece is that the USPS charges the same postage for a 1-ounce letter as it does for 3-1/2 ounces.  This would be the same as your favorite airline designing all the seats for a 300-pound row mate.  You know that is not the case, but the USPS is much more generous.

Given that allowance, it would make sense for direct mail designers to plump up their product.  Postage is the highest proportion of the in-mail cost, yet it is not leveraged.  Instead, parsimonious design has cut out the frills and treats that used to adorn productive direct mail.

My trips to the mailbox are disappointing.  It’s all two-dimensional post cards.

New age designers have lost the urge to embellish the kit, forsaking the 3.5 ounce opportunity to “load it up” like these.

What you don’t see anymore are great works of art that pleased and intrigued the reader.

The stuffed envelopes have been flattened.  The labels and stickers are gone.  The samples are gone.  The origami is muted.  Member cards, scrapped.  The shiny foils no longer announce a prize.  The extra letters and testimonials are removed.  The textures are smooth and sterile.  Reply envelopes?  Naah….go to the website.  Brochure?  Website.   Buck slip?  Phifff–what’s a buck slip??

So direct mail has entered its age of demur elegance: slim, sleek and stylistically boring, but somehow pleasing to the agency head who doesn’t absorb sentences longer than a gnat’s breath.

An experienced designer once told me, “you will make more money by adding to a kit than you will by taking away.”  What would he think today?

But let’s give the contemporary designer their kudos.  They have won the war on weight, but they have lost their way on  beauty and bucks.

 

Thanks for reading!  Please share with your direct mail associates.   Just like people who have rediscovered the beauty of vinyl records, there will be a time when “gangbuster” direct mail will return. 

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Culture, Government, Politics

How Do You Like Your Eggs?

We don’t, as a social strategy, plan ahead to get involved in every thing that is beyond our comfort zone. We just want to live our lives. In local politics, that can be hazardous.

Once, a young couple were the parents of an infant boy, who from his first appearance in the world, never uttered a sound. Not a peep.  They worried over his silence as he grew into a young scamp. He had friends at school and played with the others, but without a murmur from his lips.

A long progression of doctor visits in those early years were fruitless. Specialists shook their heads, and told his despondent parents, “We don’t know what ails him, we are sorry.”

One morning, as his mother stood beside him at the kitchen table, he picked up his knife, and cracked his customary 5-minute egg. The yoke splashed out of its shell and onto the plate.

All at once, he exploded, “What the…?? What is this??”

Shaking his dripping fingers at the plate, staring at his mother, he spat out, “I can’t eat this! Look at the yoke! It’s all runny and gooey. The egg’s cold, and the toast is all soggy…yikes.. this is..this is… yucky, Mom!!”

His mother, at first shocked, stepped back, and then hugging her son, she beamed and looked up to the ceiling, and cried, “It’s a miracle! You can speak! Thank merciful heavens!”

Then she looked tearfully at her boy, and sobbed, “It’s wonderful! I am so overjoyed with happiness! What happened to you??”

The kid looks up, shrugs and says, “Well, up until now everything’s been okay.”

This may be a hyperbolic analogy of our times, but it certainly illustrates our typical lifestyle: as long as everything’s okay, leave it alone.

The continued public dialogue over the troubling, denuded 40-acre parcel of land that sits within our view is a good example of how we can be divested of our comfort zone.  And perhaps just in a nick of time.

After living for 27 years within the forest shadows of the sunsets over the property, we woke up one day to find the woods gone, and loggers carting away the trees in wood chip containers.  With the blessing of our village government, too.  Only then did I realize I should have spoken up earlier.

Regardless of my regrets, I now pay much more attention to those events that happen outside my daily environment, and in the process, extend my comfort zone to include them.

I suspect it is like that for many of us.

 

Thanks for reading!  I hope you too are mindful of how things pass us by without much ado, and how they often present themselves later in startling poses.  Thanks for sharing! 

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