Culture, Media, Thank You, Thanks, USPS

Will You Write Me?

Back in Delhi, my home town, everyone got their mail at the post office.   Built in the 40s, this was the largest civic building in a small tobacco town of 3,000.  We climbed, what seemed at the time, a grand set of concrete steps, and entered by a glass and steel door into the lobby which held a vault of perhaps a thousand burnished steel postal boxes, secured by brass key locks.  The vault had a permanent pungent fragrance of paper, and marble floor cleaner.

I took those steps two at a time for several years through my early teens, hopefully opening our PO box #580 in search of letters for me.  The trick was to get them before the folks got there, because these letters were my first tentative steps into romance, and I couldn’t stand the investigatory barrage I would endure, had someone else seen them before me.  Worst of all, my brother, who might be on a letter quest of his own.

What’s the power manifested in these testaments of our youth?  To clutch the page that had been in the hands of someone special, reading over the words they had written bravely, carefully, giddily, for our entertainment and contentment.  I treasured every one.  And I wrote back in kind.

I just reviewed the latest report from the United States Postal Service wherein it reports that ‘single-piece first-class letter mail’ is down 7.3% from a year ago and 48% since 2009.  Now granted, the category includes small business invoices, bill payments and volumes of responses to direct mail. But among that steadily disappearing tide of mail, swept out to the depths of a dark, unforgiving and wordless ocean, there is a loss too profound to ignore, and that is the personal letter.

The post office reported that post cards are down 11.4% from a year ago. 67% since 2009. What clearer evidence can there be that we no longer send picture post cards from a remote station at the edge of Grand Canyon, or outside a cabana in Puerto Vallarta?  Maybe off a log boom in Vancouver?  Now, it’s Facebook, Instagram, IMs and Twitter all the way.

The reality we are ignoring is that hard copy has staying power.   Despite the pervasiveness of social media imagery, if we want to leave a trail for others to study years from now, we will have to rely upon the impulsive selfies we posted as the core sample of our achievements. There will be no words to explain.

Wise beyond his ten years, my grandson cautioned me not to commit stories to email. “That’s technology. It’s gonna disappear. You need to write it out, so that it’s saved.”

Smart kid.  Long live the printed book.

But more than the written word is lost. We received a letter from a long-missed friend a few weeks ago. In it, she recounted the routine of her days, the status of her children,  and their families, her health, the current politics of their village, and what to wear to a party.

While the news touched many levels of importance and substance–both high and low– it was the actual writing of these items that made the impact. Putting it all down on paper was a commitment to her personal history. Had she merely emailed, the missive would be digested and eliminated. Instead, her letter is saved, rubber-banded with others.

All our parents wrote, and frequently.  Last summer I took the time to read and absorb about 100 letters that my mother wrote to her dad in New York City. From 1943-1945, she was a newly married war bride, making a home in England while the war continued.  By 1948 she had moved to Delhi, and to a new world.  Her tale is all on paper.

Thank goodness she hadn’t emailed her stories, or they would not exist.  I learned more from those letters than I would have otherwise, even if she had told me face to face.

Letter writing isn’t difficult.  Once you start, it just flows.  The challenge is getting paper, stamps and envelope, and time.

Time is the premium resource.  It takes time to sit and consider what to say.  Why?  Because you know that your written word will be received, read, re-read and pondered upon.  Unlike a text, a two-line email, a photographic burst on Instagram or a re-post of someone’s pithy life motto, your written letter is a physical fact, and it will be read carefully.

It’s a shame really we squander our thoughts on slippery social media choices, only to find they are misinterpreted at the receiver’s end.  ‘Would to God I never wrote that!’ is a common remorseful statement following a late-night email that really did not come out right.

If you do consider taking up the pen, a good place to start is with a simple thanks. We keep an inventory of greeting cards–blank inside– which we use simply to thank people.  Thanks for the gift, the visit, the letter, the phone call, the gesture.  Thanks for just being there.

Some would call this just good etiquette.  And old fashioned.  But that again shows how much we have fallen when even ‘thanks’ is relegated to a text.

Meanwhile I still recall the adrenalin, the blush, the quiet excitement of opening that mailbox and seeing an envelope for me.  Irreplaceable, even today.

I hope you find the time to write!

“Well I got my mail, late last night, a letter from my girl who found the time to write…”

~Gord Lightfoot, “Big Steel Rail Blues”

“I read again between the lines upon the page, the words of love you sent me,”

~Gord Lightfoot, “Song For A Winter’s Night”

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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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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, 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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direct mail, Marketing, Media, Thank You

Why Hard Copy Matters

From the time that they could open mail, I have written notes and cards to our grand children.

The goal was to accustom them to the excitement and anticipation that accompanies a successful trip to the mail box.

A real letter will always prevail over an electronic communication with the same content.

Like a personal gift, it eclipses any email. Hilly 500

Granted, the mail box delivers direct mail too, and some may object.   But compare a couple letters, catalogs and cards a day versus an earful of robo calls, or endless repeat ads on TV, and nervous, persistent popups on your favorite website, and you are prepared to give the mail man, or mail lady, a pass.

In the  social media arena, the email medium has a dark side, which I blundered into this week.

It started when scanning my email folders, I found that I had collected some spam.   I opened the “junk” folder to find a stern notice summoning me to a court hearing next week.

The subject line was ominous: County Court Summons.

Hunh?

Like a total rube, I opened the email for details. It announced that I had been summoned by a named county court officer to appear March 25.   I was advised that in my absence, the court would proceed with actions as described in the official court document attached.

“Gawrsh, holy moley,'” I said under my breath, “I better open this file, pronto!”

Screen

Uh-Oh.

When I did, the computer screen flooded with a thousand lines of code. More characters than a kanji encyclopedia scrolled before my bedazzled eyes.

In a panic, I punched keys left and right, closing the file, and dove under the desk for the power cord, to rip the laptop off the grid.

Pointless of course.

Returning to the spam folder, I found another foreboding greeting, this one from E-Z-Pass toll collections  warning me to pay off past due charges immediately.

Much wiser now, I did not open the Official Billing Notice attached.

I had been duped by the brusk, official look of the email, and should have recognized the ruse immediately.

Email builds its own insensitivities.   We are more disposed to ignore it, or save it never to read later.   It’s a casual, low calorie communication.

Conversely, without thinking, we may dive right in like I did, and open it, only to poke a bees’ nest.

2015-03-19_10-04-53_917

The real deal: Federal property carrying real value.

Regular postal mail requires much more attention, both by the writer, and the receiver.   The fact that postal mail is a Federal government enterprise, armed with regs that have brought many a crook to jail, gives me great comfort.

Esthetically, there is enormous value in every personal letter, because it’s a perfect indicator of care, concern and thoughtfulness.

Hilly 501We feel good opening a letter, and just as good writing them.

So I continue my efforts on peppering the grandkids with real letter mail, printed on paper, much in the tradition of my own grand parents, hoping that one day, they will get the bug.

It’s slower, physical, and more thoughtful.

And who knows, maybe just one day, what goes around will come around.

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