Culture, direct mail, Marketing, Media, USPS

More Change In The Mail

For you marketers, the latest USPS Revenues, Pieces and Weights was just released. It is a good indicator of the health of the economy, but also reveals just how we count on the post office in a different way than what Ben Franklin had in mind.

First off, the USPS jiggles their year-end to March 31, so the numbers I show you here have been adjusted to report a full normal calendar year, January – December, 2018 and 2017.

First Class mail continues its slow descent, losing 4% of its volume over the past 12 months. That is, we mailed 2.2 billion less pieces. The big drop is again in business and financial mailings, as more and more consumers opt for email statements and invoices. Anyway, First Class mail shrank by 119,000,000 pounds, or nearly 60,000 tons.

The USS Ronald Reagan: 103,000 tons.

Marketing Mail, otherwise known as Standard, grew by 258,000,000 pieces. The percentage growth is negligible, which is mind-boggling, but considering the minimal, steady slide over the last few years, this is a big deal. Direct marketers put more money into mail. Remarkably, piece-weights are down.   Down 133,000 tons in fact. Hard to grasp?  It is a lot. Let me remind you, the USS Ronald Reagan only weighs 103,000 tons.

Periodicals, fell 7% year over year, representing 363,000,000 fewer magazines and newspapers. Put into terms you may relate to, that’s equivalent to 30 million monthly subscriptions, cancelled.  While page counts are hard to calculate, the average weight of a single magazine shrank by 0.178 ounces, too.

The rising success in postal delivery however is packages and competitive parcel services. Overall, thanks to Internet, catalog and direct mail order, the USPS volume grew 8% in 2018, by 477,000,000 pieces, or just over 1 billion pounds. That’s 530,000 tons, or for you navy folks: five USS Ronald Reagans.

Conclusions:

We are always pointing to the USPS as a struggling giant.  But it is a terrific barometer and thermometer for consumer behavior.  Why? Because it is the only organ in the U.S. that still takes the pulse of over 150 million business and consumer addresses every day.  It does not sample and extrapolate.  It measures the whole body of the nation.

Understanding that, we see the real change in ourselves: we write fewer letters and cards to one another, and prefer to get our important mail electronically: email and website.  We also shun the retail experience in favor of direct order over the Internet, and through catalog and direct mail.  Lastly, we are steadily running away from browsing the printed page for news. Instead, we go to a screen or tablet.  Still Benjamin Franklin watches.

Thanks for reading!  If you would like to see the entire USPS report for October-December 2018, check it out here: Revenues, Pieces and Weights.

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direct mail, Economics, Marketing, USPS

Geez, Wally, What Are We Gonna Do Now?

Did you ever have a little brother, or sister, look up to you, and ask how to get out of the latest jam some misadventure brought upon them?

We might wonder how the latest USPS postal increase jams up direct marketers. Bottom line, it comes down to cost per response, or indirectly, response rates. There’s a formula you need to apply now, and it’s coming up shortly.

First off, the added cost of postage is somewhere around 2.4% to 3.0%, depending upon postal densities. So if you used to pay as much as 30 cents per piece for a mail drop, effective January 27th you will fork out as much as 30.8 cents. Not insurmountable, but that heavily laden camel is looking nervously for any straw piles nearby.

But what counts in the direct marketing arena is ROI. What does the postal rate do to returns on investment?

Just because postal rates go up, say, 2.7% doesn’t mean your mailing costs go up 2.7%. The total in-the-mail-cost includes creative, art, print, list, letter shop, freight and postage. For the basic #10 kit with letter, flyer, reply form and BRE, you may be paying $450-$600/m. It’s shocking to think that half of that cost is postage, but there it is.

A USPS 2.7% increase adds $8 to a $300 postal bill. But that is $8 added to a total in-mail cost of $450, or an 1.8% increase in total cost.

Your figures will vary from this. If you are mailing simple post cards, the increase in total cost is more significant. If you are mailing expensive, feature-rich, multi-component, highly customized mail, the increase is not as noticeable.

Still, you will experience a hike in cost, and that means you will see an increase in cost per response. That means if you used to have a $450/m cost, and a 2% response, your historical cost per response is $22.50 each, ($450/20=$22.50) Add in an $8/m postal hike, and your cost per response has grown to $22.90. The 40-cent increase doesn’t seem like a deal breaker, but the accountants will point out that your entire business functions on controlling cost.

So what do you do?

Calculate what higher response rate is now needed to mitigate the effect of the postal increase:

(New in-mail cost) divided by (Old in-mail cost) times current response rate.

($458/$450) x 2.00 = 2.0355…..2.036% response.

Where you used to get 20 responses per thousand, you now need 20.36.

So now, we have a target, what do we do?

Go back to the basics: list, offer, format, copy.

Examine your list to remove low propensity response groups, ensure addressing is current, and at the same time consider list increases if higher densities will lower postage. Optimize delivery, too. Are you commingling and co-palletizing mail for maximum cost reductions?

Does your offer optimize pricing?  Do you include an incentive premium?  Is there an incentive with deadline?  What can you add to the offer for free?

Format changes can boost response.  Change your envelope shape and color.  Add in additional pieces: buckslip, lift note, testimonial letter, freemium, sample, cards, labels, personalization, variable graphics. Remember anything up to 3.5 ounces costs the same, so don’t be bashful.

What about your copy?  Is there another theme to test?  A letter change?  New outer envelope copy?

Your opportunities to kick up your response rates never evaporate.  There’s always more to test.  Quantum leaps in response are uncommon, but still, a simple postal increase is cause for finding those drivers that will deliver the increases you need to keep up with the USPS.

Lastly, isn’t it great to have a little brother or sister asking for advice, or better yet, to be one?  Enjoy your holidays with family!

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direct mail, Fundraising, Marketing, Media, USPS

USPS Cuts To The Chase

USPS pops you an email of today’s delivery.

140 billion images per year, some right to your smartphone.

Have you noticed what’s arriving in your mailbox these days? For many of us, getting Informed Delivery Service saves us from a trip down an icy driveway.

Over a year ago, we signed up for Informed Delivery, and I told you about it.  It’s like X-Ray vision, or electronic surveillance, though that sounds ominous.

American Girl’s catalog and URL are displayed in your email.

Their catalog arrives the same day.

The email alert provides a URL that takes you directly to their website.

The USPS emails you hours before delivery, sending a set of pictures of today’s mail.

In case you have forgotten, the USPS scans over 140 billion letters a year.

The Heifer letter follows their email.

Each of those scans creates a jpg file.  Because of the Intelligent Mail Bar code on the envelope, it tracks that mail to you.   When you sign up, they take your email address, and voila: you have x-ray vision, kind of.

What is really cool, and smart of the post office, is that they have now introduced a URL hyperlink service for advertisers to catch you at your computer, laptop, mobile phone.  Rather than wait for the hike to the mailbox, you can open the piece on line.

Hammacher is America’s oldest catalog company, and also a memorable tongue twister.

USPS knows a multi channel approach includes direct mail, email and web.

And that’s what people are doing.  Advertisers like Flemings Steakhouse, American Girl, Soft Surroundings, Heifer International, Hammacher Schlemmer are taking advantage of the USPS service to get into your heads, if not your hands, as rapidly as possible.

Soft Surroundings invites you into their catalog.

If you haven’t signed up for Informed Delivery at home, you should.  Not only does it tell you what’s coming, you are also on alert for when something does not arrive, like a paycheck, or a bill.

So: you can just wait for the mail, and pursue your daily rituals of fetching for it, or, cut to the chase, and see it now.

 

Thanks for reading!  No, I am not a shill for the USPS, but I do believe that it is taking the right steps to be relevant in a changing world.

 

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Culture, direct mail, Government, Marketing, Media, USPS

Somehow, The Mail Still Goes Through

Since we last looked, in August, the USPS has broken through another quarter, and published its latest report on Revenues, Pieces and Weights. For you marketers and mailers, here are some stats, and following that, another look at the USPS’s ironic, weird situation.

The good news: direct mail was up by 337,627,000 pieces, a 1.8% increase over Q4 a year ago.  The surge was due to the mid-term election mail, and if you are counting, in the last three months it delivered one additional piece of mail to every addressable soul living in the country.

The Princess Diamond..lost?

The bad news: full year direct mail was down 1.4%, or missing by 1,066,486,000 pieces.  In fact, the shortfall totaled 115,925 tons of mail.  That’s the equivalent of losing the Princess Cruise Lines’ Diamond, which by the way carries 2,760 passengers.  Imagine if it had gone missing.

The bright spot on the USPS horizon however is the growth of parcel delivery.  Package service mail and parcel delivery revenues are up 12% for the year, a happy indication of the robust growth of online ordering.

“Just leave it in between the doors.”

But just when you are feeling that the USPS has a rosy future in parcel delivery, be warned that companies like Amazon, Walmart and Target, the post office’s largest three customers, are now researching ways to do their own “last mile” deliveries.  Watch out, a robot may drop through your roof sometime soon.

Indeed, the parcel delivery business has its own costs, not the least of which are fuel, trucks, planes and drivers.  Did you know that there is a shortage of truck drivers?  USPS transportation costs in the past year were up 8.6% , or by $623,000,000.

Overall, the USPS reported nearly $71 billion in revenues from operations, placing it just behind Target (#39 on the Fortune 500 with $71.8B) as a business enterprise.  As the media enthusiastically reports, the post office missed its bottom line by nearly $4 billion, half of which is owing to pensions and health benefits accruals.

Which is a major source of consternation at the USPS.  Indeed much of the company’s 10K discusses the burdens of pre-funding according to federal government department rules, much different than the private sector.  As a result, it takes the expense on the books, keeps the cash, and adds it to its liabilities.  To date, the USPS must pre-fund $67 billion to employees’ and retirees’ health and pension benefit funds.

For your information, there are 497,000 career employees and 600,000 retirees to provide for. The USPS is the #3 employer in the United States, right behind Amazon, USPS #1 customer, which had 589,000 on the payroll.  The country’s top employer: Walmart, #2 USPS customer, with 2,300,000.

The bigger irony of the USPS is that it is a business, run by business people, but by government rules.  By law, it cannot make changes in products, pricing or service without federal approval.  Its wages, health and pension obligations are modeled on federal department standards.   And isn’t it rich then, that its Board of Governors is subject to Senate approval, and has been short four governors since 2014, the last time the Senate voted to approve them.  It cannot raise a quorum.

In return for federal oversight, it is granted monopoly rights to make door-to-door delivery of mail.  Only recently has its parcel service entered the competitive arena, where it is growing nicely.

Remarkably, despite the USPS financial shortfall of $4 billion, it receives no tax dollars.  Compare that to 18 Federal departments which are entirely tax-funded.  In terms of tax-funded budget, the USPS’s closest federal cousin would be the EPA with a budget of $5.7 billion….nowhere near the Departments of Education $68B, Energy $28B, Homeland Security $44B or Health & Human Services $65B.

Compared to these budgeted costs, it is distressing to see the public criticism the post office endures.    Fortunately, the White House has taken initiative to turn the situation around.

Still, the business continues to grow and manage.  Last year it added 1.2 million new addresses to its rounds, and processed 37 million address changes. It delivered, and picked up 148 billion pieces of mail, six days a week. All in, it drives and walks by 157 million addresses every day.

At a supposed cost of $4 billion, that’s not bad!

 

 

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Culture, direct mail, Fundraising, Marketing

It’s All In The Bag

A max-sized lumpy day-glo envelope from Disabled Veterans National Foundation

October comes around, and the non profits are making their first of several strong pitches for another discretionary dollar donation. I find my mailbox full, and refreshingly, with some new twists.

Kudos to the team at St. Joseph’s Indian School who have brought in some new creative to overlay their basic control kit.

St Joe’s gift vouchers go full color.

The Dream Catcher is the most unique gift of all.

As always, the Dream Catcher is a unique keeper. I have several, which make their way to the grandchildren. But the kits also deliver more colorful coupons. We’ll see if they repeat…or does the sterile, sober-looking appeal still trump happy colors?

As yet, St Joseph’s is not twigging to my male gender: I am getting stunningly beautiful foil labels with flowers and butterflies. I can’t use these, not even on my golf clubs.

The Post-It Note goes pointy for more attention.

Another St. Joseph first for me: a pointy Post-It note. It’s a little different, and catches my eye.

Certificates, suitable for framing deliver a message.

Plus, I have received a colorful, feather-imaged gold foil, embossed certificate of appreciation, on laid stock, no less!   Veterans of Foreign Wars sent me a similar recognition.

These certificates really are quite classy, as ‘thank you’s go. I am not going to frame them, but that doesn’t mean that someone somewhere else won’t frame theirs.

VFW targets the CD-player crowd with Christmas carols.

VFW also sent along a CD of Christmas carols! This may seem early to you, but actually is just in the nick of time: our new car no longer has a CD drive, but hey, it’s the thought that counts. I do have a cassette player in the basement, a.k.a., Santa’s Workshop.

Father Flanagan’s Boystown has sent me a Puzzles and Brainteasers booklet. You know, I mean to give it to the kids, but in an idle moment, I look at them too.

Beautifully designed gift bags are the pride of several organizations.

In an additional kit I was also treated to a colorful paper gift bag. These items show up across several charities, and I suspect there is a traveling paper bag sales rep who is shipping bunches of orders back to a printing plant in Shenzhen China.

The tote bag is a premium-with-donation offer from VFW.

Veterans of Foreign Wars has kicked the bag up a notch. They offer a full-sized  tote as a premium with donation.

DVNF throws in the bag and a T-shirt with their request for donation.

At the top of the pile however is Disabled Veterans National Foundation (not to be confused with Disabled American Veterans) which sent the whole bag, and a T-shirt, in a day-glo yellow max-sized envelope.

I am now thinking that there are regular flights for printing sales personnel from U.S. to Shenzhen.

St. Joseph’s vinyl totes are small, but classy.

Truly, the most impressive were printed plastic vinyl tote bags courtesy of St. Joseph’s, that aside from their modest size, sported quality designs.

Lateral Thinking

There is an artful expansion of thinking on applying postage stamps to the reply envelope.   Pasting real postage on a reply envelope is a riveting issue.   Donors shudder to waste the stamps, and I am sure the charity’s accountants aren’t thrilled about giving away postage.

But here’s the thing–you may remember in my book Many Happy Returns, the story of the fundraiser who coaxed the donor to please supply their own stamps. The reply envelope said, “Your stamp will save us money.”  In a manner of speaking, it did. Average dollar gifts rose 6%, but response rate dropped 15%. Go figure!

DAV fronts all of the postage on the reply envelope..50 cents worth.

Anyway, the pioneer in applying the full 49-cents (or so) postage was DAV. They primed the pump, and happily cashed our flood of checks. We Baby Boomer donors can’t see a stamp go to waste.

But now, there are some diversions in the path.

VFW fronts only 5 cents, but appearances count in their favor.

VFW provides 5, one-cent stamps to the postage paid BRE, and the USPS will charge the rest. The modest nickel cost looks like a lot of stamps–but it’s not 50 cents’ worth.  This effectively cuts VFW’s in-the-mail costs by $450 per thousand, while still appearing to offer the more expensive stamps.

St Joes includes a faux return address label with 3-cents postage.

St. Joseph’s sharpens their pencil a little more, and only provides 3 one-cent stamps, but adorns their BRE with a faux return address label in my name.  How can I throw this out?

Boystown decorates their BRE with zero-value greeting stamps, but they look great, regardless.

Not to be outdone, Father Flanagan applies 4 Greeting Stamps of no value whatsoever to their BRE, but they look great!

Who can deny the effort?

To date we have 46 greeting cards in inventory. Production quality is high.

Throughout all of the recent spate of mailings I have received, greeting cards still predominate. I counted 46, all high production quality, and which are now stored in one of those pretty paper gift bags.

We have a bucket of pens, but St Joe’s are the classiest.

As well, I have been issued with numerous writing pens…lots of them, and some very tastefully designed, courtesy of St. Joseph.

And speaking of writing, I have a mountain of note pads, some die-cut, none of which can be discarded.

A pencil case for the pens. A lunch box may be next.

They get used.  And when not, where do they go?  Into a pen and pencil bag, supplied by St. Joseph’s!  Wow, what’s next…a lunchbox?

There is an ongoing debate, stirred up by loyal donors about the exorbitant expense taken in these mailing pieces.  How can a charitable organization spend this much, and then ask for more money?

The fact is, the gift strategy works.  Especially if the gifts are exclusive and high quality.  When they are accompanied by personal, expressive letters, the efforts are rewarded by donors who are sitting on, or searching, for the summit of Maslow’s pyramid: self actualization.

Thanks for reading, and sharing.  If you wish to check on these charitable organizations, you can visit Charity Navigator, or the organization’s websites to see their financial disclosures and especially their direct mail fundraising performance.

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Culture, direct mail, Economics, Government, Marketing, USPS

USPS: Hidden Good Fortunes

Every quarter the USPS publishes their Revenues, Pieces and Weights Report. For the numerical savants out there, this is a feast of numbers beyond one sitting, for sure.

But the big story is, the USPS continues to perform in a stellar fashion, despite the ravaging onset of online displacement of hard copy as we know it.

If you think the post office is in trouble? Have another think.

Q3 YTD Results–9 Months Only
~The bad news– and what is publicly perceived, First Class revenues have fallen from $22.7 billion in 2013 to $19.9 in 2018. (off $2.7B or -12%).

~In the same 5 years, Magazines and Periodicals dropped from $1.3 billion to $984 million. (off $276M or -22%)

These two categories accounted for a $3 billion shortfall in revenue.

~Direct Mail, which includes catalogs, has ceded $294 million over the past 5 years. (off -2%) to $12.5 billion in the first three quarters of fiscal 2018.

Now for the good news.

In 2018, competitive Parcel and Package delivery has grown from $9.8 billion in 2013 to $16.9 billion. That’s a $7.1 billion growth, or 73%!

So we can certainly see how internet and digital media have blasted the legacy paper and ink communications business to smithereens.

What we did not see however was that online commerce has grown so rapidly that the USPS has found its newest niche: order delivery.

Year to date, 9 months, FY 2018, the USPS has delivered 4.2 billion pieces. Compare that to 2.3 billion, 5 years ago.

The USPS has another interesting report available, entitled Public Cost and Revenue Analysis, Fiscal Year 2017.

I like this report because it tells you how well it covers its costs of operation.  For instance, First Class Mail has a cost coverage of 210%.  Basically, its revenues are double its costs.

Direct Mail cost coverage is 153%.  Magazines and Periodicals, only 69%.  But the Package and Parcel delivery business, in the competitive markets, cost coverage is 155%.

Overall revenues for 9 months are $53.8 billion, up 5% from $51.2B 5 years ago.

These numbers indicate the ebb and flow of the door-to-door, pick-up-and-delivery business, and how the USPS is responding to America’s choices in communications.  True, the numbers do not account for front office costs, and legacy benefit and pension challenges, where there is a different story to tell.

But for making their daily appointed rounds, no one does it better than the USPS.

 

Thanks for reading!  If you would like to see these reports for yourself, have at it!

Click here: Fiscal year 2018 Q3 Revenues Pieces and Weights

and here: Public Cost and Revenue Analysis 2017

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direct mail, Marketing, USPS

Direct Mail Design: This Never Gets Old

Did you know that the USPS Office of the Inspector General performs a customer satisfaction survey every year? News to me, but why not?

The results are available for viewing below.

But the stunning and head-spinning discovery about direct mail design is worth noting. In the study’s own words, verbatim:

“In FY 2016, it sent out more than 5.7 million survey invitations in the form of a two-sided postcard that invites customers to take the survey online or by phone. These invitations resulted in approximately 71,000 completed surveys, a 1% response rate.

“In order to increase response rates, the Postal Service tested two other survey invitations. An oversized postcard did not make a significant difference, but a sealed envelope with an invitation on letterhead had a 7% response rate.

“Consequently, the Postal Service adopted the sealed envelope for all invitations for FY 2018.”

A 600% increase in response!

There are two big rules of direct mail design:

1. It takes A Letter.
2. Put it in an envelope.

As for the survey, it is itself a pot-boiler and you can “self-administer” online, or participate by phone. If you are the social scientist, you know that a 50% response rate is the minimum acceptable for self-administered surveys, because who knows that the respondents don’t drop off, or conversely, have an axe to grind, or perversely, come from Chicago and complete several forms.

All results can be read here, but first and foremost, remember the two rules above.

Glad the Inspector has come on board!

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