For Whom the Bell Tolls

I recently read a USA Today front page article by Rick Hampson, titled “Bell tolls for the U.S. Mail, as we know it.” The article serves as a wistful retrospective glorifying the historical significance of the USPS, calling it a “national treasure.”

But things always look better in the rear-view mirror; think how childhood memories gather fondness over elapsed decades. Hampson comes across as a Luddite in one paragraph, yet proselytizes the faster and cheaper communications enabled by the Internet in the next. I know certain people have newspapers to sell, but it may not be smart to throw the $1.1 trillion mailing industry and its 8.4 million jobs under the proverbial bus.

I used to be cynical about marketing messages, but with an economy that relies on consumer spending for 70 percent of its GDP, we need people to keep consuming. Phil Kotler, the father of modern marketing, defeated my cynicism at a recent speaking engagement:

  • “Marketing educates and connects people to products and services that will make their lives better.”

That makes it actually sounds noble, and marketing has helped to create the largest and most vibrant economy in the world. Hampson rightly acknowledges that the mail is, over time, becoming a marketing channel, but he lacks respect for what that means for marketers and for consumers.

Hampson cites specific people’s claims of mail “as an annoyance.” I would take the Pepsi challenge on how getting mail compares to the receipt of a telemarketer’s call in the middle of dinner. My wife prefers mail.

Marketing messages need delivery channels to develop new business and connect needs to consumers, and direct mail is quietly insistent. It doesn’t interrupt anyone, and the “mail moment” is a positive event that happens at the recipient’s discretion.

Hampson cites a website operator in Seattle who alludes that halting direct mail is akin to saving trees. This claim is preposterous to this audience, which knows trees are grown as a crop and that there are more of them in this country now than there were 30 years ago. But the layman is unaware of those facts, and this claim resonates in a similar way that a “do-not mail” list resonates.

A third-generation printer, Dustin LeFebvre delivers his vision for Specialty Print Communications as EVP, Marketing through strategy, planning and new product development. With a rich background ranging from sales and marketing to operations, quality control and procurement, Dustin takes a wide-angle approach to SPC

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  • brianarmstrong0

    Important words for us to hear.

  • rio_longacre

    Excellent post, Dustin. It’s very important to understand that the mail is quickly evolving from a general communication channel into a marketing channel – and a highly effective one at that. One could even argue that as overall mail volumes decrease, the overall effectiveness of the channel for marketing communications will rise in lockstep. Service providers that grasp this point this will be well positioned for success in the future. – Rio

  • Sobieski

    Fyi… There are more trees today in the USA than when Columbus found the New World.

  • Roy Furr

    Yesterday I spent roughly 30 minutes standing in line at a USPS post office to buy $27 worth of stamps. I would have used the automated machine but my wife wanted a specific design the machine didn’t have. As I stood in line, I watched the two attendants behind the counter as they helped customers. There was a middle aged woman and an older man. The middle aged woman was processing about 3X as many customers as the older man. As I got to the 2nd in line spot, it must have been break time for the woman because she put the sign up and left. Gone. Note: the line was out the door. The woman who was first in line had about 10 boxes with no postage, and she stepped up to the older gentleman and it took about 10 minutes to process those 10 boxes. As this was happening I watched — along with the 20 or so people in line, there were about an equal number who came in, saw the line, and left. Finally it was my turn and I got my 60 Bansai stamps and left. I never saw the woman come back, even with the line out the door. The post office is losing money at an alarming rate — it was recently announced that they expect to lose $92 BILLION dollars by 2016. This will come at the taxpayers’ expense. There are a number of reasons for this, but there is one solution that would work. Give UPS, FedEx, DHL, and any worthy competitor the permission to deliver to the mailbox. Direct mail is not what’s dying — in fact many marketers who switched to online are switching back. But the USPS is mismanaged, and needs to be axed — otherwise it will continue to be a horrific drain on taxpayers. By privatizing mail delivery, competition will force only the best combinations of service and price to survive. We’ll get the best possible service at the best possible price. And most importantly, those who use the mail will pay for the service, and it won’t be a continuous drain on the economy. Will this mean prices rise? Probably — it’s clear $.50 is too little to pay to send a letter across the country to keep this operation profitable. And it may be too little for any company to stay profitable. But competition between providers will give people the opportunity to choose lower prices or better service — and pay appropriately.

  • Roger Keeling

    Good thoughts here. I’d add that, as a writer in the sub-category of direct mail fundraising for non-profit causes, I’ve always looked upon direct mail as a unique and vital component of what Walter Lippmann referred to as "the dialog of democracy." How else is it possible for even rather small groups to seriously get their messages out to targeted, but widely scattered, potential supporters? And how else is it possible to tell your story in DEPTH? Most other means of reaching out involve little more than headlines and flashing images: radio and TV ads of 20 seconds don’t allow for much, Twitter and other social media are poorly targeted and limited to a handful of characters. Email can come close in length, but is always tied to a computer or phone or iPad, and in any case is a rough road indeed on the cold prospecting end. But in the mail, you have the luxury of sending 4, 6 or more pages of text — solid information. And it’s the post office that makes all that possible.

  • Bob Minchak

    Even though communications is faster and maybe less expensive via the internet, the USPS is still the only communication method reaching virtually every address in the United States. I am speculating, reaching every address today in the United States would be more expensive using the internet based on the cost to assemble such an address database, let alone the penalties of it not being Cam Spam compliant.

  • PeterL

    Here in Canada, we recently experienced a lock-out of our postal union that resulted (temporarily) in a cut-back to two or three mail deliveries a week. I can tell you that no one (except, perhaps the weeky magazines) missed daily mail delivery. And we Canadians haven’t had Saturday delivery for years. Somehow our economy has survived (and, these days, is stronger than the U.S. economy). Two possibilities that (as a direct marketing creative) I hope the USPS is considering.

  • Hopeful

    Interesting, yet we can’t ignore the writer’s motivation for the article. Just as the founders of blackberry, circuit city, MySpace, and countless others found out… We must stay ahead of technology and consumer desire, or we are destined to fail. One day, even direct mail advertising, the USPS, or printing for that matter, will be looked at in the rear view mirror. Nothing can escape the desire for something new.