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, 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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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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direct mail, Government, Marketing, Media, Thank You, USPS

Their Appointed Rounds

The United States Postal Service closed out their fiscal year September 30.  Never mind that the rest of the world goes by the annual calendar; the USPS wanted to beat the Christmas rush.

All in, the giant continues to perform well, within the confines of its quasi-government walls.  I wish the rest of the Federal government departments spent as much time looking after their own performance and expenses as does the USPS.

But from the latest Revenues Pieces And Weights report, here are a few glimmers of surprise and excitement.

  1.  It is a $69.6 billion dollar enterprise.  In the Fortune 500 list, it hovers around #37, bigger than Target, and smaller than Procter & Gamble, both good neighbors.  Like both of these companies, the USPS is an indicator of the USA’s pulse rate, though we will admit that it has slipped a bit.
  2. In 2017, the USPS revenues fell $1.8 billion.  We know why.  The Web, social media, email have all disenfranchised much of the USPS core business: first class mail and standard mail.
  3. First class mail continues to fall, $1.9 billion.  Compared to last year, it delivered 2.5 billion fewer pieces of mail, a drop of 4.1%.  Why? Because we receive our invoices, checks and statements electronically.  We pay electronically too.
  4. Standard Mail, now called Marketing Mail, dropped 2.6 billion pieces, about 3.2%.  Why?  Last year was a mail-infused election year.  It was distinguished by huge volumes of mail, from you know who, despite his predilection for Twitter.
  5. Overall, in its market dominant categories, that is, where it holds monopoly rights, revenues fell just over $4.0 billion.
  6. In the open competitive markets, ie., parcels and packages, revenues were UP over $2.2 billion, a 12.5% increase.  Wow! Who knew?

The Web Taketh, And It Giveth

Here’s what I find impressive about the USPS.  Despite the constant nagging of the digital futurists who want to write the Obit for the post office, it continues to hold its own.  In an environment where Internet media are running rampant, the USPS has found a broad new niche: parcel delivery, a $20 billion business.  If anyone should be worried, it will be the brick and mortar retail stores. Ask Sears.  Ask Toys R Us.  Ask Amazon.

American consumers have taken to the Web in all respects, but at day’s end, they need physical product delivery, and the USPS has risen to serving that need.  After all, they were coming by our house anyway.  Their two main competitors are UPS and Fedex, the latter using the postal carrier to make the “last mile” delivery.

Neither Rain, Nor Snow, Nor Gloom of Night…

Postal carriers are the only American entity which visit 157,000,000 addresses every day.  They delivered, all in, 149 billion items in 2017.  They lifted 24 billion pounds, or 12 million tons, of physical product: mail, checks, magazines, parcels and yes, live bees and plants. The USPS has over 500,000 career employees and another 140,000 part-timers.  While this may seem like a wildly aggressive employer, I put it to you that the postal employee actually delivers, a claim many can’t make for other government institutions.

So hats off to the USPS.  It continues to fight the currents, and with astonishingly little help from its political friends, it far surpasses its governmental cousins.

Thanks for reading! If you would like to take a look at the USPS 10-K for 2017, click here!

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