Can Interactive Marketing Save the Post Office?

I recall a piece of research a few years back that ranked the everyday things people most look forward to, life’s small but reliable pleasures: dessert, a hot bath, playing with their children. High on that list was checking the mailbox.

The fact stuck with me because it seemed so quaint and quirky — and true. Back in the pre-Internet era, getting the mail did spark a tiny rush of anticipation. Maybe you’d get postcard from a friend or a magazine you’d looked forward to all month. Best of all was a check. Hope, however slim, sprang eternal. It ameliorated the daily inevitability of bills… and advertising circulars.

Hope, as it relates to postal mail, is dwindling, if not altogether extinguished. Checks have morphed into direct deposits. Friends and family send digital communications. Publications are read online (just look at plummeting circulation figures). Packages are more likely to arrive via FedEx or UPS than by the USPS. Billing, for everything from mortgages to mobile phones, has moved online, as has paying all those bills. Postal mail’s role, as a pleasure or even a necessity, is close to zero.

I really got to thinking about this in Washington, D.C., this week where I spoke about interactive to a group of mostly traditional direct marketers. Unlike my forays of recent years into the world of paper, everyone in the audience I addressed was doing at least some form of online marketing. They very clearly intend to do more. Yet purveyors of paper, envelopes, print services, and labels overwhelmingly dominated the event’s exhibit hall. Most were complaining audibly about the drop in both attendance and business at the event. “Freakishly empty” is how one conference veteran described it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Mail isn’t going away anytime soon. But it’s increasingly irrelevant, marginalized even. Although there’s plenty of talk about integrating cross-channel marketing campaigns, most of that talk centers around media buys, rarely direct mail collateral. Sure, there are exceptions, and they usually fall squarely into the area of consumer control. I love getting DVD rentals at home. I signed up (online) for Claritin coupons. But I’m more likely to renew a magazine subscription if a URL is provided on the expiration notice letter.

These are exceptions. Not a day goes by when I don’t get a postcard pushing broadband services from one of four providers (current provider very much included). Charitably, that’s ridiculous. Realistically, it’s inexcusable. I live in a city where car ownership is the lowest in the entire country (in my Zip Code, it’s probably the lowest in the developed world). Yet my mailbox is bristling with offers to get my wheels in shape for summer driving. One very extravagant, elegant portfolio suggested a Jaguar. I also get plenty of mail from big-box stores with no retail presence in any of New York’s five boroughs. (If they buy me a Jag, and underwrite the parking and insurance, I promise to patronize their stores.)

And those big, glossy, costly catalogs? Mine come in duplicate: the home copy and the office copy (blame separate shipping and billing addresses, I guess).

Postal has become sloppy, costly, and an expensive waste. This needn’t be the case. Major national brands have the tools and technology necessary to target and segment their postal lists, and the Web is an important addition to that arsenal. Just a few of the most obvious ideas include email append, reverse append, site registration, and URLs on print collateral allowing users to opt in and out of postal lists or to request more information about products and services.

Yet according to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) only 7 percent of consumer marketers and 13 percent of business-to-business (B2B) marketers have bothered to integrate their email systems with CRM (define) or field sales databases. On average, marketers have associated email addresses for roughly half their postal lists. Are they mining that data? Apparently, not enough.

List cleansing? The DMA says 59 percent of marketers clean their email lists monthly. Only 16 percent clean postal lists that often.

If marketers, most particularly brand advertisers, don’t begin to leverage the technology they already have and to integrate their marketing silos, they’ll further pollute the commons — if not wreck the direct mail channel.

Meanwhile, the Internet is opening up inexpensive advertising opportunities to local merchants, whose budgets and reach traditionally limit them to only a few marketing channels, direct mail being one. It will be interesting to see how local search, directory listings, and free microsites for small businesses affect direct mail marketing in that category.

In the run up to spam legislation, positive and negative comparisons of junk email and junk postal mail were common. A lot has changed in the last year or two, particularly in the realm of consumer control. CAN-SPAM allows you to opt out of junk email (hold your fire — some email, but it’s a start). The Do Not Call (DNC) Registry allows consumers to opt out of telemarketing. Yet when the DMA asked marketers how they planned to reallocate telemarketing dollars in the wake of DNC, the overwhelming majority (85.7 percent) said they’d channel that money into… direct mail.

Thanks, guys.

Here’s where this is going (in my household, at least): I can go two or three days without even remembering to check the mail, unless I’m expecting a DVD (they notify me via email); or it’s Monday (The New Yorker comes — my two other subs are quarterlies). The rest of the time, everything, excepting the occasional alumni mailing, goes straight into the recycle bin.

A member of the audience at that Washington conference asked me if I saw a future in direct mail. The real answer came when I arrived home that night after a couple days out of town. My significant other greeted me with, “Oh! I forgot to pick up the mail. Want me to run downstairs?”

“Thanks, but don’t bother,” I replied. “It can wait.”

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