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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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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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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direct mail, Marketing, USPS

Finally Closing The Mail Gap

Out of town, or at the office, consumers can check their mailbox.

The USPS may be experiencing the continuing shrinkage in mail volumes, especially after the election season spike of 2016. But despite the trend to digital, the folks at L’Enfant Plaza, DC 20590 have come up with a winning service, “Informed Delivery”.

Householders and businesses can receive emails daily reporting what letters have been mailed to them.

You may have thought that Facebook or Instagram are the leading purveyors of new photography– the daily delivery of selfies, restaurant plates, goofy pets and family outings. In fact, it’s the USPS.  It takes approximately 411,000,000 new pictures every day.

The images are emailed, and also displayed on the user’s web portal.

The automated sorting process for letters relies on instantaneous scanning of a bar code, or a ZIP code. In 2016, Americans dropped 150 billion pieces into the USPS mail stream, and the sortation machinery looked at every one of those pieces and took a quick picture of the bar code or ZIP.

Until recently, those images were probably trashed a nano-second later. But then someone, a marketer, an engineer, a postal clerk, thought, “Hey, we took a picture, let’s post it!” Pardon the pun.

Automation machinery scans the incoming letter-sized mail.

Thus, the invention of Informed Delivery.

Every day, we at our household, receive an email from the USPS advising us of letter-sized mail making its way to us. The email includes an individual JPG of each piece, in black and white.

Now, you may feel that this is a weak attempt, a grasping at straws by a struggling old school business attempting to fight the digital tides. To me, it is enlightened genius. In a move that is worthy of a jiu jitsu artist’s praise, the USPS is using the power of digital to elevate its analog medium.

Every day a USPS email sends a photo album of coming mail.

Christmas Comes Early
For people at home, Informed Delivery may eliminate the excitement and anticipation of walking to the mailbox. ‘Kind of like peeking at your Christmas presents under the tree a few days before the event. Still, the service lets you know that a letter, check or invoice you are waiting for is definitely on the way. It also allows you to look at your mailbox, or mail-on-hold while you are out of town. ‘Kind of like scanning your voice mail–and you know you do that.

Many Happy Returns
Direct marketers will love Informed Delivery. Rather than waiting for the physical replies to show up from their latest mailing, they can see the reply envelopes as soon as the consumer drops it back in the mail. Admittedly, marketers can get digital reports now of bar coded reply mail, but Informed Delivery shows which replies, as there may be many outgoing mailings occurring simultaneously.

The USPS harnesses a digital app…who knew??

A Stronger Pitch
Every marketer considers the orchestration of messaging. We want to integrate email, social media and direct mail to complement a retail sales event. Informed Delivery alerts consumers by email of a coming promotion. The front of the envelope is the ideal canvas for the first tease of the event.

Intelligence At HQ
It should be pointed out, that if I have a dashboard of my incoming mail, so does the USPS. While you may worry that the USPS knows what I get by mail, I don’t. But if postal reform ever does get passed, the USPS may be able to offer user privileges to recipients based on the volumes of mail received. After all, if you do receive a lot of mail, you are a likely advocate of mail delivery, and to the USPS, that’s a high-five.

Kudos to the USPS on this latest innovation.  My bet is that as it takes hold, it will be leveraged, much to the benefit of one of America’s oldest and revered institutions.

Thanks for reading and sharing! If you want to see the Informed Delivery package, click on this!

(All pictures shamelessly taken from the USPS email and my personal portal.)

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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, Media, Thank You, Thanks

Running Off The Cliff

wile-e-coyote-2You know the Wiley Coyote scene where he runs off the cliff in hot pursuit of the Roadrunner. There, hung in blind suspension of disbelief, he looks at the camera before reality sinks in.

Then he falls with a vviipp or a boink. We chuckle happily at his dusty, bruised remains in the canyon below.

So it is that I now admit to a similar, sad and painful realization.

Last December 6 I advised you that despite the falling volumes of the post office, one thing blossomed like a fresh spring crocus on a sunny hill… our continued, warm-hearted custom of sending greeting cards.

Stamps 965 copy (1)Christmas, Hannukah, Thanksgiving, Halloween were all good reasons to pick up our pens and write.

I detailed in colorful charts how “Single Piece Cards and Letters” sky-rocketed in the last quarter of the year, from October to December. Poring over the figures from the regular USPS reports, I found that the numbers went up, even while general mail volumes went down.

It was, as I said, revealing our brighter side.

Mail may be an antiquity, but by golly, we are sending a card anyway.

wiley's canyonRevisiting that article, I discovered to my shock and dismay, that I had reported on revenues, not pieces. Aaarrrggghh!

Yes, patient reader, I misled you, big time.

The truth is, Cards and Letters for Q4, October 1-December 31, remain virtually the same share of the total, for the years 2004 and 2014— 27.5% to 27.7%.  Meanwhile the whole category tumbled 55% over ten years.

Do they jump up in the last quarter as our good intentions begin to materialize?

Yes, as always.  In 2004, an uptick of 18%, and 2014, up 22%, just in time to make delivery by Christmas.

But who’s going to calibrate a blip…a minor swelling…a mild burp in goodwill based on these numbers?  The fact is, we have laid down our pens.

With that, Wiley Coyote looks down into the abyss.  In his descent, he contemplates what went wrong.

wile-e-coyote-off-cliff-largeYes, email for sure.  Good grief, why send a thank you card for a dinner when a two-liner on Gmail will tick that off the list?  Want to bang off a birthday greeting fast?  Hit “send” and it’s done.   And is there any need to spin post card carousels in some tourist trap when you can celebrate your vacation on Facebook?   Hardly.  And so much for mailing pics of the Grandkids when there’s Instagram.

“Ahhh, to heck with it,” Wiley concludes as the ground rises before him, except… there is one factor to consider…

The physical delivery of the letter made a big, personal-brand impact.   When someone took the time to compose, and write, in ink, on a nice card, address and lick an envelope, buy a pretty stamp, and find a mail box, it communicated in ways far beyond digital.

It’s a nice thought.

~Splat.

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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 bedrock..an 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.

Slide1

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

Slide2

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.

 

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