July 11, 2007

What Consumers Really Want From Marketing Mail

What Consumers Really Want From Marketing Mail

In a previous posting, I talked about how “Do Not Mail” proposals were misguided from an environmental, privacy, and public policy standpoint. But it’s not enough to oppose initiatives that resonate with many well-educated people who generally understand and agree with the value of mail and who intellectually understand why broad-based “Do Not Mail” registries are bad ideas.

Consumers want choice and control over their lives, and they have much more of it than ever. They have multiple entertainment choices regarding what they watch on a TV, including movies they can acquire through the mail and, increasingly, over the Internet. They can screen out e-mails, phone calls, and face-to-face sales professionals.

Mail has been a bit of an outlier because elected officials have mandated six-day-a-week delivery of everything that is properly mailed, unless recipients go through a fair bit of effort to get removed from mailing lists. Mail is not intrusive like other communications, and it is highly valued, but that does not matter. Consumers want the same ability to screen out unwanted mail that they have with the remote control device and the Tivo system relative to TV.

Unfortunately, mail screening is far more complicated than providing a remote control device. A TV program is not “delivered” until someone turns on the TV at the proper channel. A mailpiece is delivered before the recipient has any ability to know that it has come.

Technology is available to change all of this. If you authorize someone to receive and screen your mail for you, someone could scan the envelope and give you an image that would enable you to decide whether you want it. This gives the recipient the ability to express a desire not to receive something with a single click of a computer button. We offered this service after the anthrax crisis in 2001, but, ultimately, most customers did not want to pay us to screen the mail for them.

Today, there are products that allow those moving to let catalog companies and magazine publishers know what movers want to continue or start receiving. That’s easy to do for people who are moving because they interact with the Postal Service at that time, and, as a provider of fulfillment services, we can ask them some questions online or on an insert in the Move Update kit.
However, trying to reach everyone with a comprehensive list of all of what they could receive is beyond anyone’s capabilities.

I believe that, over time, consumer profiles will need to be built that will help them decide what they want and don’t want, and we will be able to screen out most of what they don’t want, and, like Amazon.com, prompt them to tell us more of what they do want. I firmly believe that these changes should be and will be led by the private sector, and not legislated by Congress and/or State Legislatures. As technology and consumer preferences are changing constantly, the private sector is best equipped to launch these products and adjust them over time to changing needs.

One thing is clear: consumers want us to help them make choices that make their lives easier, not to saturate them with choices that complicate their lives.

On this last point, I would note that there was a period of time when we gave our employees with 401(k) plans over 50 investment options. They found that confusing and unsatisfactory. Today, we offer a much smaller number of choices, and we provide investment packages suitable for people at particular life stages.

What do I conclude from this? Consumers want choices, but they want a manageable number of them. They want a trusted partner that will help them make those choices.

The mailstream has to evolve to create an environment compatible with consumer choice and help for consumers to find what they want in the mailstream.