December 20, 2007

Future Mailstream Growth Opportunities

Not surprisingly, I get asked about the future of mail. People point to the decline in personal correspondence, the tendency of large transaction statement providers like banks and insurance companies to encourage customers to receive bills and statements on the Internet, the decline in magazines and newspapers on newsstands and through the mail, and the likelihood that catalog and direct mail recipients will find ways to stop getting mail they do not want to receive.

Every one of these parts of the mailstream has different future prospects. Paper-based consumer-originated personal correspondence has been declining for a long time. Transaction statements are a mixed bag. Some bills and statements are going electronic, such as bank and insurance statements. Others, like health care statements, are growing as we all spend more on health care. Mass circulation magazines and newspapers are declining, but a high-end publication like The Economist is growing nicely.

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has just launched a new mail preference service that will allow mail recipients to register to receive more of what they want and to eliminate or reduce what they do not want. The DMA has delivered a significantly enhanced service for mail recipients who want to have more control over what they receive.

But regardless of what happens to these categories of mail, there are some great growth opportunities in the remainder of the mailstream.

I have discussed remote commerce a lot in this Blog and in public speeches, so I will not elaborate on my view that when people receive something they need through the mailstream, rather than having to experience the inconvenience of driving somewhere and waiting to be served in a retail process, this is a great use of mail. For example, think about the difference between receiving your motor vehicle registration in the mail, as opposed to waiting in a long line to be served in a motor vehicle bureau.

But there is another potentially big opportunity, and it is described as the growth in businesses, non-profits and even governments having regular dialogues with their customers, some of which will go through the mailstream.

In the business world, retail establishments generally are remarkably poor in getting to know their customers, and communicating regularly with them. Most successful retailers understand that they need a great location for their store, the right products and services at the right prices, good presentation of the offerings inside the store, and, depending on the amount of assistance needed, the appropriate quality of in-store personnel.

However, they do not take advantage of what they can learn about a customer while he or she is in the store, and what they can communicate and learn when the customer is away from the store. In effect, they do not have an institutionalized knowledge base about the customer that helps them get to know customers as individuals. When I refer to an “institutionalized knowledge base,” I mean a usable computerized record of critical information about the customer.

The transaction history is a good place to start, but many retailers either retain a transactional framework that involves cash, debit cards, or credit cards, none of which are designed to give individual retailers a comprehensive transaction history about an individual customer.

There are three easy ways to get customer information:

  • Granting credit and billing the customer through a retail account relationship;
  • Creating a loyalty or reward points program; and/or
  • Getting customer data through techniques as simple as soliciting business cards for a drawing or requesting that customers complete survey forms.

None of these approaches are expensive or complicated, but few retailers use them. The Customer Evangelism blogfurther reviews the advantages of implementing and maintaining a comprehensive customer database.

Non-profits also need to get to know donors better. Most still do “elephant hunting,” meaning that they go to big organizations like the United Way, large corporations, or large foundations to solicit funds. They need to get wealthy individuals to donate, but finding a wealthy donor is like finding the proverbial “needle in a haystack.” The easier way to get larger individual donations is to nurture those who have given small donations in the past, and to get them to increase their donations over time. In the Getting Attention blog, nonprofit marketing expert Nancy Schwartz reviews strategies nonprofits can use to enhance their marketing programs. In this post many of her recommendations are centered around improved communications and targeted messaging.

Personalized mail that conveys relevant and powerful information is an essential tool in both the business and the non-profit processes. Sometimes the mail is nothing more complicated than a thank-you note, a reminder, or a postcard suggesting a link to a web site. Sometimes, it is a newsletter or a survey. Sometimes, it is a seasonal greeting card that has a personal touch to it. But, whatever the technique used, it needs to be part of a regular dialogue to keep an organization connected to its customer. Yaro Starak discusses the need for more personalized contact in his blog Entrepreneur’s Journey. While the specific post I have cited focuses on email, the philosophy can be applied to all forms of communication.

Even government can improve its use of the mail. When it sends out its reminders on motor vehicle or drivers license registrations, it can include public service messages the citizens would find valuable. It can also send postcards to notify citizens about public hearings broadcast on the local cable TV channel. Where I live, Cablevision broadcasts state government meetings on Channel 84 and local government meetings on Channel 79.

The efficiency of mail is further debated in this Branding & Marketing blog post. The author feels that a combination of both online and offline communications is the most effective approach at establishing and building relationships with customers.

Customer, donor, and citizen engagement through the mail as one channel in a multi-channel relationship or conversation is a tremendous growth opportunity for those who sell mailing solutions. I always get tremendous satisfaction when one of our sales professionals breaks through with a customer to teach the customer how to use the mailstream in this very effective way of growing its business.