Big changes are coming to a big, unloved advertising tactic.
I recently threw away a bunch of old papers and childhood stuff, and found a few things it took me a minute to recognize: Handwritten letters, sent to me from friends. Through the mail, with postage stamps. Other than post-wedding thank you notes, I haven’t received a handwritten letter in a long, long time. I’ll bet you haven’t either.
We’re not alone. If you’ve read the news lately — and lord, that alone can be depressing — the United States Postal Service is having severe budget troubles. That people aren’t mailing letters anymore is only a fraction of the problem.
A number of proposals to change the USPS have been floated. Privatizing the service. Closing many of the offices. Cutting back delivery to five, or perhaps three or four, days a week. All of which have implications for advertisers and marketers.
In an era where the email, texting, the iPad, and online bill-paying have taken over, what’s the future of direct mail?
I’m not here to defend all direct mail — it’s often called “junk mail” for good reason, and it’s got plenty of other people willing to advocate for it — but it’s a fallacy to say it wouldn’t be missed on some level.
Having just moved cross-country recently, I’ve seen how some very important documents — insurance records, utilities setup, banking and financial services items, magazines — still get sent via snail mail. Emails and PDF documents just aren’t acceptable for some companies. So the USPS still serves a vital purpose.
And since direct mail is largely contributing to the revenue the USPS still has, it’s more important to the service than ever. Just like online marketers find the optimal time of the day to send out emails, direct mail experts often plan their pieces to reach an audience on a specific day. Believe me, amazing amounts of research have gone into this. It’ll all need to be reassessed in an era without a six-day-a-week mail delivery.
Right now, lots of clients still rely on direct mail as part of their media mix to make their case. It’s tactile and tangible. Plus, a nicely designed piece still makes an impact when in lands in your mailbox or on your desk. I’ve had many clients who ask for direct mail ideas, particularly when combined with online response component. And these are big clients who watch every penny they spend.
The USPS is a huge whipping boy, and it’ll always be. (The title of this piece is an indicator of that.) The offices themselves seem shabby, deliveries seem problematic, and their image is much more egalitarian than sexy. Any money they spent on rebranding, upgrading facilities, or integrating digital response tactics into their direct mail services would be seen as folly, not an improvement. The Postal Service isn’t cool, and that’s the kiss of death for many old brands.
Clearly, the USPS is not going to be the same service we’ve taken for granted for so long. But the old adage is still true: they reach pretty much everyone in the country, no matter where they live, six days a week. For 44 cents, you can send a letter in Savannah, Georgia, and it’ll show up a few days letter in Fairbanks, Alaska. (And yes, that’s assuming it was intended to go to Fairbanks). For those of you who think other companies can pick up the load with no interruption, here’s a secret — both FedEx and UPS sometimes use the Postal Service to make the final leg of package deliveries and direct mail.
We’ve yet to see a medium truly disappear. Even newspapers are limping along and finding ways to get by. But any change in the Postal Service will have an impact on ad agencies, their clients, and suppliers like paper companies and printers.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Of course, I expect posts on here or emails. I doubt I’ll get a handwritten letter about it.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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