Mail is dying.

It must be true, because I keep reading articles, tweets, and posts that proclaim it to be so. Admittedly, most of this content is generated by people who know little of postal matters, so you have to be pretty good at filtering. The publicity generated by the financial state of the US Postal Service has recently shown a bright light on our industry. And that has encouraged a lot of non-mailing people to make dire predictions and propose simple solutions to an extremely complex set of problems. They make for good headlines, but aren't really helpful.

Cries for privatization or dissolution of the Postal Service are fueled by a perceived lack of value by some, and the specter of a government bailout in the minds of others. But lately there has been another angle that has been recently added to the mix - digital postal delivery.

Remembering EBPP
There seem to be a lot of folks that believe products like Zumbox, Volly, Doxo, and Manilla are poised to hammer the last nail in the USPS coffin by virtually eliminating bills and statements from the physical mail stream. Not likely, I say.

Don't get me wrong. I think digital mail delivery has its place. And it could be a gateway to some exciting developments that improve communications between companies and their customers. But right now, the vast majority of the benefits associated with digital postal delivery go to the mailers. There are not a lot of compelling reasons for consumers to abandon their paper documents. Until consumers see value in digital delivery, I don't think they are going to rush to convert.

Does this sound familiar? Remember the grand predictions for EBPP (Electronic Bill Presentment and Payment)? Billers were all excited about saving tons of money. Their customers did not share the enthusiasm.

Ten years ago, experts thought EBPP would eliminate 30% - 50% of the paper bills that were being printed and mailed at that time. As we now know, actual adoption rates were much lower. And even though companies are still trying, voluntary paper suppression hasn't really taken off. Just as with digital postal delivery today, there were competing EBPP solutions. There was no standard method that faithfully mimicked the familiar physical mail box. And just like today, all the value was to the billers. Besides the environmental argument, consumers had little reason to switch.

We're in much the same place with digital postal delivery.

I don't think the environmental angle has improved. It's still pretty hard to argue that all the computers required to create, distribute, and store digital mail are better for the environment than a bill that is printed on recycled paper. And as long as there are competing digital postal platforms, the promise of a centralized mail repository won't be happening either.

Drivers for Digital Delivery
There are some events that could hasten the adoption of digital postal delivery. A severe degradation in the level of service from the USPS could cause some mailers and their customers to look more favorably upon an alternative channel. Rising postage or mail preparation costs that mailers feel compelled to pass along to customers could be a factor. Postal Service strikes, slowdowns, or other labor problems could be an influence as well. If any of those things happen the digital mail vendors may have a more compelling story to tell. More consumers might switch and physical mail could suffer unrecoverable losses.

On the other hand, creating and distributing relevant and compelling physical documents delivered through the mail could actually have a negative impact on digital conversions. If consumers are gathering useful and expected mail from their physical mail boxes anyway, continuing to get their bills and statements that way is not a hardship. Switching to paperless isn't quite so attractive if desirable mail will still be printed and delivered in hardcopy.

I don't think mail will ever return to the level of prominence it once held. It wasn't so long ago that mail was the only personal communication channel companies used for outbound customer communications. There are a lot more choices now. But there are still advantages to physical mail delivery that cannot be replicated in a digital channel. Mailers who exploit those advantages as part of a comprehensive customer communications strategy will be fine. And the mail will live on.

Mike Porter is an expert in Print and Mail operations and 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. For more tips and commentary visit www.printmailconsultants.com and sign up for Practical Stuff - the free newsletter for document operations. Your comments are welcome. Send them to mporter@printmailconsultants.com.