direct mail, Economics, Marketing, Media

Awakenings: What Happens When USPS Cuts Prices

Spoiler Alert: This Is All About Direct Mail Math

It was not a well publicized announcement, 10 days before Christmas, that the USPS will most likely cut the price of a first class stamp by 2 cents, April, 2016.  That’s a 4% cut!

Whether the consumer figures out that a letter will mail for only 47 cents is a question, but for the direct mail community, the news is big.

First of all, direct mailers don’t talk cents. They communicate in thousands. (‘000’s.) A 2-cent drop in mail cost is worth $20 per thousand pieces mailed.

Hopefully the marketing folks at USPS have now awakened to the merciless mathematics of direct mail. In the civilian world, when we experience a cost of living increase, we suck it in, or look for a raise in pay to compensate.

In direct mail however there is a brick wall facing an increase in mailing costs.   The reality is, mailers don’t manage by total program cost. Rather, they manage by cost per response.

For instance, if a charity spends $1,000 to mail 3,000 letters, it is because they expect to get a 2% response…60 donations, at a cost of $16.66 each.

That cost per response (CPR) is anchor around which all other budgeting decisions are made. So when the USPS issues a 1% increase in postage, the CPR goes up, which is unacceptable.

The Story Behind The Story

When the post office raises its prices, we experience the inelasticity of direct mail performance, because mailers must preserve that cost per response.  The only way to do that is to spend less on something else, and that is exactly what happens: smaller envelopes, fewer pages, cheaper paper, less ink, for example.

The bogeyman in this reduction process is that the cheaper the package, the lower the response, which drives up the cost per response again!

The end game option in this vicious circle is to cut out lower responding markets, by mailing fewer pieces, and diverting funds to other direct media.

None of this helps the USPS.

Mail Trends 2008-2015 Prove The Point

In 2007 the USPS delivered 104 billion pieces of direct mail, its highest performance in a 240-year history.  Next year, the U.S. economy had a collapse, and there was a 4.3% drop in direct mail.  In 2009, there was another drop of 16.8%, eroding 21 billion pieces over two years.


From 2007 to 2015 Direct Mail volume shrank 24 billion pieces.

Revenues likewise fell from $20.8 B in 2007 to $17.3 in 2009.  $3.5 billion dollars–gone.  Looking for cash, the USPS raised its prices nearly 13% from 2006 to 2009.

The bottom line is that the USPS has held direct mail revenues in the $17 B tier ever since, with three more price hikes from 2009 all the way up to 2015.  Its actual revenue per piece has gone up from 20 cents to 22 during that time.  Direct mail volumes have stabilized around 80 billion pieces, down 23% from its stellar 2007 year.

What You Don’t See


Revenue per piece grew 10% while weights decreased 13%.

While the USPS has been able to weather the economic storm, the quality of mail has deteriorated.   In 2007 the average piece weighed 1.83 ounces.   In 2015 that shrank to 1.60 ounces, a 13% decline in paper, ink, pages and envelope.  More post cards, fewer envelopes, fewer flats.

The irony in this is that the USPS is actually earning more money for every ounce delivered: 11 cents in 2007, versus 13.8 cents in 2015, a 25% increase.

The Good News

A 4% reduction in postage in 2016 may not mean much to the consumer, but to the direct mailer, it opens the door to better creative, design, and production.  These lead to better response, lower cost per response, which drives up mail volumes.  Whew!

This price cut is good, good news.

PS: Kudos to you for getting through this important math lesson!  Please share.

PPS: You can check all the numbers by reviewing the USPS Revenues, Pieces and Weights report which they faithfully publish very quarter.


direct mail, Economics, Marketing

How You Make Personalization Pay Off


A 24-page color calendar, replete with country roads, cabins, barns, flowers and birds…lots of birds.

Personalizing a mail piece comes with expense. You are about to see the motherlode.

Gracing the letter with the reader’s name is one thing, but it’s quite another to match that to the envelope. For the fully committed direct marketer, there are personalization payoffs, and Father Flanagan’s Boystown shows us how.

Boystown Envelope

An outer envelope promising lots, and delivering, too.

BoystownBooklet Bird Jan

January.. from the 36-pager booklet, with more birds…growing in numbers.

Just before Christmas we received a 9 x 12 envelope from Boystown announcing their 2015 appeal. The donor acquisition kit weighs about a third of a pound, which is huge. The outer envelope calls out, by name, that FREE Special Edition Gifts are enclosed.

“Free Gifts” is right. They send three calendars: a 24-page hanger for the wall, a 36-page purse calendar booklet, and an 8-1/4 x 10-3/4 calendar card.

Boystown    color labels

The color label sheet. High quality and keepable.

The whole collection is covered in Sam Timm nostalgia art: winter ponds, chimneyed log cabins, old trucks, old boats, old canoes and birds…. enough birds to awaken Alfred Hitchcock one last time.

Boystown    028VGF Calendar

Another calendar, this one with a stylized street sign.

But the overwhelming effect comes from the personalization. Father Flanagan has managed to personalize 8 pieces in this whopper kit: the envelope, the letter, the reply form, the reply envelope, two sets of very nice address labels, a certificate and a calendar card.

Boystown  Certificate

It’s only an acknowledgement, but hey, it’s framable.

Over the top maybe?

Boystown Johnson Box

A Johnson Box, personalized and tinted, captures the gist.

Not really. Remember, good direct mail is designed to be indispensable.   It is extremely difficult to throw out a kit when your name is woven into its making so admirably.   The proof: this is a control package, or very similar to past controls. So it is working.

What’s the math that supports this?

The kit itself probably cost around $1.80. Postage for a 6-ounce Flat at non profit rates is actually a bargain, add another 30-cents. Total cost in the mail, probably $2.25 after adding list and processing.  This is a guess, only, having not spoken directly with Boystown.

Boystown Gift Certificate

Individualized gift certificates, one of three.

Now, the hard part: getting paid. Assume the average gift is $15. To break even, we need a 15.0% response. ($2.25 divided by $15.00 = 15.0%)

And the really hard part: they probably won’t get 15.0% response.   More likely, they might achieve 8-10%.   Let’s say 10%.  So given that, every response came at a cost of $22.50 ($2.25 divided by 10% = $22.50).

Boystown Donor Closeup

A strategic gift choice, Goldilocks-style. Let’s go for $15.00!

Is a new donor worth $22.50?   The answer is, “yes”!

By Father Flanagan’s 2012 financial report, they derived nearly $5 for every dollar spent in fundraising.  A very acceptable payback according to industry standards.  By the numbers above, the new donor will continue to give over time, well in excess of $113.00.

Boystown B&W Close Up revised

A set of stylish B&W labels in case I don’t want to give away the birds.

BoystownBangtail Reply

Personalized donor form and reply envelope. Note the QR code for tracking!

Again, this analysis is my perspective only, but a donor will continue to give to a worthy cause, especially one as well branded as Boystown.   And not only will they give today, but some will most assuredly make bequests after passing to keep the institution providing its valuable service.

So personalization plays a big part in winning support, and the savvy marketers at Boystown have done their jobs well in making it pay for their cause.

Thanks for hanging in to read all those numbers!   FYI, Boystown provided nearly $192 million in services in 2012, and in 2013, served 122,000 children and families across America.

direct mail, Sports

The Irresistible Offer, and Making Money

Golf 2014-11-19 739 short

There is no shortage of advice for this game.

The mailbox is a limitless supply of surprises. Today, it presented a special offer from Golf Magazine, one that I could not refuse.

In direct mail, there are offers, but more important, there are deals, and Golf’s latest was a doozy.
This simple envelope expressed a blunt sentiment: ONE TIME ONLY!

Golf 2014-11-19 740 deal

“April is 5 months off, but we want you NOW.”

Does that sound like something your parents would have said?

How about Golf’s business manager, in response to the giddily optimistic circulation manager who came up with the crazy deal?

Golf 2014-11-19 740 six free

Half a year in the upper midwest is golf-free, so why not?

This was in fact a renewal letter. An advance renewal, 5 months out from April 2015, which is the last issue date.
So here’s the deal: 12 issues for a year, PLUS six more issues, for $10.  Basically 63 cents an issue.


Digging through my recycle bin, I found a September Golf blow-in card offering 12 issues for $16. That’s 75 cents each.

Golf 2014-11-727 yellow deal

Relax, there’s always a better deal coming.

At this juncture, one could decide to defer, just because, who knows, golf may never occur again on the planet due to snow, so what’s the point?

But then the real deal emerges. In addition to the 6 free issues, the renewal also came with a 90-page expert guide: “The Best SHORT GAME Instruction”. Downloadable with paid order. Sweet!


Lining up the three wood for a water hazard.

Let me perambulate for a moment to say that I play the short game very well.

I can shoot a 56, +/- 2 strokes in 9 holes consistently. I don’t need to play 18 holes to break 72. I can do it in 12, no sweat.

But maybe the book could offer some consolatory advice.

The question we should ask, is how can Golf make any money giving away the magazine almost for free?

Golf 2014-11-19 738

The circulation director shuddered with this deal.

As it turns out, Golf needs me as much as I need their Instruction book. You see, they promise to their advertisers to deliver 1,400,000 magazines a month to avid readers like me.

Looking at Golf’s 2013 rate card, one will find that a full-page color ad goes for $207,100. That’s about the price of a house trailer in Fort Myers.

There are lots of angles in buying ad space, but at the end of the day, a 125-page Golf Magazine carries about 40 pages of color ads, generating $8,300,000 in sales.   About $5.92 per reader.

Golf 2014-11-19 739

The essential irresistible offer: FREE advice.

The magazine may cost as much as $2 to print and mail, so that leaves nearly $4 left to create, write and photograph.  Should be enough!

And what about my $10?  Where does that go?   Well, assuming they wrote to 120,000 subscribers with an April 2015 end-date, their mailing cost is about a dollar each, all in.  $120,000.  Odds are, about 15,000 may renew, which is $150,000 to cover the mailing with something left over for the gent who wrote the SHORT GAME guide.

IMG_1141So that excited Circ manager maybe isn’t so crazy after all.

Now we’ll see if the guide can make my game any shorter.



Thanks for following the math on this.   If you have any tips on improving my game, just write!

direct mail, Marketing

DAV Makes The Numbers

I just received a mailing from the Disabled American Veterans, whose organization I frequently support.

DAV's Mailing to Past Donors

DAV’s Mailing to Past Donors

The mailing piece is illustrative of the investment DAV makes to raise money for their many services provided to America’s injured war vets.  If you have never received a DAV piece, you have not seen the abundance of gift stuff frequently mailed to potential as well as loyal donors: greeting card sets, bookmarks, calendars, and beautifully crafted address labels.   There’s nothing “junky” about a DAV appeal letter.


46 cents postage, courtesy of DAV

What struck me about this recent letter was the inclusion of a reply envelope which was already paid with 46-cents of stamps.

Claiming austerity, most fundraisers ask you to provide your own postage.  Instead, DAV pays the bill.   Does it seem contradictory to you?   Or does it make perfect sense?   My guess is that providing the postage is a tactic to increase response, not necessarily the gift amount.   In other words, if a donor normally gives $10, the prepaid return postage tactic doesn’t get more dollars per donor, but it gets more donors: those folks who won’t allow 46 cents to go to waste.  And it’s unlikely many stamps get steamed off.

But here is where it gets interesting: what direct mail manager is willing to put their job on the line by suggesting they add 46 cents to the cost of every fundraising letter they send out the door.   “Are you nuts, or just plain stupid??” suggests their boss, popping TUMS once a minute.

“Riskophilic” may be the proper term.    Daring.  Or canny.  A little bit of math may reveal the truth.

You can look at DAV’s 2012 annual report which shows some numbers worth bragging about.  They earned $97 million in direct mail donations at a cost of $32 million.   Basically, for every dollar spent in direct mail they received 3 dollars in return.   The 3:1 ratio is pretty consistent every year, and by the way, their fundraising cost is only 19% of all their expenses, which is quite acceptable.

Anyway.  The letter I received had 5 Christmas cards and envelopes, a disclosure sheet, a letter, outer envelope and reply envelope.   With outgoing postage, I figure the kit was worth 75 cents in the mail.  $750/m.    Add an additional 46 cents, and you are at $1.21 for one piece of mail.   Multiply that by 100,000 and you have college tuition at Northwestern.

However: increase your cost by 60% and you need to increase revenues by 60%, to keep that 3:1 ratio.   Sounds challenging?   Just about miraculous is how I would define it.   You don’t get swings like that.  But the beauty of direct mail is that you can test it both ways, with and without the extra stamps.   Clearly, the test proved  positive, in a good way, so the DAV is keeping the USPS afloat while making money for its vets.

There’s more at work though.   That crazy manager also has another equation in his or her head.   It answers the question: how much revenue with every piece mailed?   If each piece costs $1.21, then each piece must earn $3.63 in donations.  3:1, right?    But only if DAV gets 100% of the people to respond.   What if only 15% of the people respond?   Then a $3.63 donation won’t cover the ratio.     Now the gift changes, and here’s the revealing equation: $3.63 divided by 15% response.   $3.63/15% = $24.20.   The average donation must be $24.20.


The “ask” starts at $7.00.

Hmmm.  Look at the donation form on the letter.   DAV is asking for “$7… $10… $15…  or more”.  Whoa!   What if everyone just gives $7 dollars?    Well, again, this is what gets tested, and DAV is pretty confident that a $7 gift is acceptable.   My hunch is that if each gift is at least $7.00, DAV just about breaks even.   How’s that figured? Well, divide the piece cost by 15% response.   $1.21/15% = $8.07 average gift required to break even.  $7.00 is close.

Fortunately, my bet is that people give a lot more.   Without having any direct knowledge of DAV’s results, I can only guess that the scenario is something like what I have described.    And if it is anywhere close, DAV has some very good writers, and some very generous donors.    And some very deserving vets.

A salute to all of them!