It's time to abandon print and mail valuation strategies that are dependent on volume. Most of us who have been in this industry for any length of time have spent our careers focusing on higher productivity through automation, faster speeds and feeds, and volume discounts. Visualizing something that is radically different is a pretty difficult thing to do.

But that's exactly what needs to happen soon. We are all aware that competition from email or other electronic communication channels has had an impact on print and mail volumes. And over the last few years the economy has played a huge role as well. The recession and electronic delivery have combined to put the postal delivery systems in a real bind. These are the challenges that tend to demand most of our attention these days.

Behind the scenes, but an even more challenging development, is the fact that people have begun to think differently about business communications. I'm not so sure the industry has come to grips with that yet.

Who do you serve? What do they want?
The recipients of your mail go by many different names; customers, members, prospects, subscribers, constituents, insureds, rate-payers, employees, citizens, consumers, account-holders, etc. But one thing they all have in common is that, when it comes to customer communications, today they have a sense of empowerment and they are demanding more say about which organizations communicate with them, how often, and in what way.

Your mail recipients are tired of what most of them call "junk mail", whether that is defined as irrelevant and poorly targeted direct mail advertising, unnecessary notices, duplicate catalogs, unwanted bulletins, or indecipherable terms and conditions.

Regardless of what you call your audience or the nature of the communication you are mailing, there are some who just don't want it. And they are frustrated and disillusioned by postal mail because those wasteful pieces just keep coming.

And who can blame them? Truth be told, if I didn't know so many people whose livelihood depended on the generation and delivery of mail, I'd be trying to turn off some of my unwanted material too, just as I have done with email. The Internet has shown consumers they can have some control over the receipt of electronic messages and they want to exercise similar control over printed communications.

A lesson about valued mail
Ah, but you say, "Customers have been resisting conversion to paperless billing and statements for 10 years. This proves it - they want paper!" That is true. Those bills and account documents represent value to the customers and many of them prefer those worthy documents to remain on paper. I think that is an important lesson.

To build a more secure future for printed business communications and avoid an uncontrollable free fall of volume, more mail has to be seen as valuable. The way to increase the value of mail is to listen to the recipients. Give them that control they want. Allow them to opt out of certain types of mailings, permit the selection of documents to be delivered through a different channel, or let mail recipients specify a decrease in the frequency of distribution.

Even more so, mailers need to step up and make the hard decisions that they know will result in lower volumes while at the same time raising the value of the mail that remains. Aggressively eliminate duplicates, suppress current clients from customer acquisition mailings, remove deceased individuals from mailing lists, stop mailing monthly statements for zero-balance or no-activity accounts, remove excess verbiage that doesn't apply to the recipient as a way to reduce page counts, utilize data such as customer buying history or other demographic information to remove low-probability prospects from mailing lists, and make marketing pieces more meaningful, useful, and wanted.

Making a fundamental shift
It is not going to be easy to turn the ship. We've already seen the difficulties and pain endured by the Postal Service as they attempt to change their own business model that is based on high volumes. The rest of the industry has it a little easier than the USPS, but the old habits will be hard to break. Instead of a "one size fits all" type of mass production philosophy, document producers will have to invent ways they can honor the communication preferences of individual customers, handle on-demand requests, and incorporate a two-way communication capability with customers while still maintaining a production environment that is efficient and highly accurate. I think the tools are available. It is the implementation that will be the hardest part.

Those that make a living selling print and mail will have to educate their customers and price their services according to the increased value they can provide instead of wooing clients on a cost-per-page basis. This takes some extra work. But these companies are often creative and innovative. Some of them will figure out how to be profitable by selling higher-value mail that is produced in lower volumes to clients that recognize the shift that is happening in business communication strategies. The rest will continue to compete on price for the work they can get from businesses that are also clinging to the methods of the past.

Raising the value of postal mail
· Eliminate redundancy
· Refine targeting
· Add personalization
· Encourage two-way conversations
· Honor user communication preferences
· Remove low sales-probability prospects
· Utilize variable data
· Lower mailing frequency
· Clean lists of duplicates, deceased, & incarcerated
· Use demographic data for targeting

Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants; a consulting firm that helps print and mail facilities maximize their potential. Get more thoughts about document operations and industry trends by subscribing to the free newsletter, "Practical Stuff" at