Greening the Mail Stream - It's Good Business!
The increased environmental awareness that is once again building in this country is a great thing. I'm all for protecting our planet. There are news stories on the subject every day and lots of companies in many industries have quickly developed programs that change the way they do business, making their processes and products less impactful on the environment. Even the activism of some environmental groups who have been using the upsurge in consumer awareness as a platform from which to launch attacks on the direct mail industry has some value. That activity has brought some practices into focus that probably needed to be addressed.
"Going Green" is a worthy cause on its own, of course. But even without the higher goal of saving the planet, there are some solid business reasons for making the mail more environmentally-friendly.
The Business Impact of Do-Not-Mail
There have been plenty of articles published that discuss the merits of do-not-mail legislation. Personally I think that the impact of direct mail advertising on the environment is quite a bit smaller that what the do-not-mail proponents may be leading consumers and legislators to believe. Regulating what mail can or cannot be delivered to consumers - a service that is provided at absolutely no cost to the recipient - seems like a heavy-handed approach that is off the mark.
Honoring future do-not-mail registries and adapting to changes brought about by the possible resulting decrease in mail volume could be a significant challenge for our entire industry.
We currently enjoy the benefits of a stable, reliable, and relatively inexpensive postal delivery service. I am concerned about what will happen to rates and services for all classes of mail if the proposed legislation results in a significant decrease in direct mail advertising. With millions of fewer pieces to sort and deliver, will the US Postal Service have the revenue to allow them to invest in upgraded equipment without a huge increase in postal rates? Will they have to cut mail delivery down to fewer days per week? Lengthen delivery times? Will small businesses and consumers stop getting door-to-door service?
The mailing industry might have an opportunity to avoid the negative impacts of a do-not-mail registry, however. With some effort we can show the concerned groups and legislators that we care about the environmental impacts of mail and that there are other approaches that would produce results that are just as beneficial as those generated by a do-not-mail registry - without devastating an industry that is so important to our economy. Mailers should be making changes now to make sure that consumers and businesses get only the mail pieces that are relevant to them, that they don't mail duplicates, and that every piece that goes into the mail stream has a high probability of getting delivered to the intended recipient.
We Have the Tools
The good news is that we already have all the technology and data that is necessary to make our mail more effective, cost-efficient, and therefore, less impactful upon the environment. There are several ways we can improve on our product and multiple avenues of access to the software, processes, and databases. There is really no excuse for not utilizing these tools to make our mailings better.
Not only would we help out the environment by saving trees and burning less electricity and fuel - issues that concern the environmental groups, but we would save our companies money and improve the image our organizations have with their customers at the same time.
We're Not Doing All We Can
While some companies have taken the issues to heart, industry-wide waste is still abundantly evident. I have personal examples of First Class mail that is still forwarded to me bearing my old address from almost year ago. How is it possible that the mailer checked the National Change of Address database before processing their mailing list? What will happen to this mail after my forwarding order expires? How many other pieces are being sent as Standard Mail, still addressed to my old place, and are just going into dumpsters as undeliverable mail?
Here's another example: Earlier this week we received two catalogs at our home, addressed exactly the same, delivered on the same day. The covers and inside pages were identical. The only difference was the company name. Apparently the same company does business under multiple names and we're on both lists. Wouldn't it have made sense to de-dupe one list against the other? What is the benefit of sending duplicate catalogs? I also regularly receive many duplicate credit card offers and other duplicate mail as well. I even get duplicate mail pieces from the USPS!
My point is that our industry has a way to go before we can hold our heads high and proclaim that as a group we are being as environmentally conscious as we can. Ironically, it still seems that the extra effort required to clean our lists and eliminate irrelevant, non-productive messages or duplicate records is not worth the savings to some mailers. I think this is a tactical mistake and a lost opportunity.
Steps Mailers Can Take Right Now
Here are some things that just about anyone creating mail can do to lessen the impact on the environment and increase the impact on their bottom line at the same time:
Remove duplicates - This can be more complex than it sounds. Each mailing might have a different definition of what a duplicate is. But at least get rid of the obvious ones. For most mailings, one piece delivered to a household is sufficient.
Mail to the current address - Run the lists through the National Change of Address database and print the updated addresses on your pieces to start with. Important customer notices or bills with due dates won't experience any delay caused by forwarding. Standard Mail pieces won't get tossed into the Postal Service's Undeliverable As Addressed shredder.
Standardize addresses - Use USPS-approved software or service providers to correct address formats. All these products provide status codes that can be used to predict the delivery success of each address processed. Learn what the codes mean and use them to make mailing decisions. Don't waste time and money printing pieces that won't be delivered.
Remove vacant addresses - The USPS has developed a new data table to identify vacant addresses as part of the Delivery Point Validation product. It can be used to flag any house, apartment, or office that has not been occupied in at least 90 days. Don't even send "Or Current Occupant" mail to these addresses.
Update your files - Have a plan for correcting bad addresses once they have been identified. You might also consider the value of each customer and drop some names from your lists if the effort to pursue them isn't justified.
Verify customer information - Use every customer contact opportunity to make sure names, spelling, gender identification, and capitalization are correct. Nothing kills a personalization effort more quickly than a glaring error in a salutation. One credit card company keeps sending me mail addressed to a woman I've never heard of who supposedly works at our company. Guess where that mail goes?
Track customer responses - If a customer has not responded to the exact same offer you've sent them the last six times, does it make sense to send them a seventh identical package? Try another approach with them, change the contact interval to be less frequent, or drop them altogether.
Add promotional material to existing mail - The postage and production costs to add targeted promotional material to an existing first class business document such as a bill or statement is much less than sending the material out on its own as Standard Mail - even if adding the material turns a one-ounce statement into a two-ounce statement! Additionally, the chances of the statement envelope getting opened are far greater than they are for unsolicited direct mail. If you are planning on blanketing an area with a promotional mailing, pass the file against your customer list first. Send the promotional material to your customers with their statements as inserts, additional pages, or onserts. You can even do this selectively based upon the expanded customer data that is available at statement-generation time. By only sending the material to those likely to respond, you can reduce production costs even further and minimize the number of wasted mail pieces.
Stop sending meaningless mail - Sending zero-balance statements on accounts that have been inactive for months is probably not worth the expense. Many companies continue to send documents out automatically even after their usefulness has diminished due to changes in regulations, market conditions, or products. Eliminating mail that likely goes right from the mailbox to the trash is a prudent move.
Each of the practical improvements suggested above will take some effort to get started, but not much is required in the way of capital investment or application overhaul. Just a few modifications to some processes in the document workflow will do the trick. Once process improvements are implemented, they will generate ongoing benefits through fewer pieces of mail produced at less cost. Those who don't have the time to address these issues should get some help. The extra effort and up front cost will be repaid many times over in continued savings.
Document production managers may think that making their company "green" is a job for executive management or public relations. But in reality there are a number of actions at the operations level that can make a big difference in the environment, in the viability of our industry, in our company's image in the marketplace, and in financial results.
Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants, an independent consulting firm that helps companies nationwide be more productive, adapt to changing requirements, and lower costs in their document operations. His first book, "Take This Job and Stuff It! A Practical Guide for Document Operations Managers" is due out this summer. For more information, visit http://www.printmailconsultants.com or email Mike directly at email@example.com