There is no doubt that we operate in a diverse and expanding multichannel world. On one hand, ubiquitous broadband, new digital devices and innumerable "apps" are adding more flexibility and capability in how businesses and consumers interact. On the other hand, more traditional communications channels such as mail continue to play a vital role in how consumers conduct their business, and will for quite some time.

Tremendous economic and competitive pressures add to the challenge for organizations as they navigate today's increasingly complex communications landscape. Few organizations can afford to turn their backs on channels old or new.
In this changing world, it is possible for mailers to meet consumer demands for choice, security and comfort while managing productivity and costs. To compete today, you must understand and address consumer demands for choice, convenience and control of customer communications.

The Communicator's Challenge
Consumers have embraced the "where you want, how you want, when you want" mantra of this age. Never have there been so many different ways for customers to interact and transact with businesses - physical, digital, batch and real time interactive, social CRM, location aware and, of course, traditional brick and mortar. For businesses looking to connect with customers, the successive waves of technology adoption impact cost structures, processes and infrastructures in significant ways. And, the pressure is on for companies to offer a range of services and support that they never had to deliver before.

Driving Consumer Choice
When it comes to choosing the ways in which consumers interact, transact and communicate with businesses, customers' expectations and choices are shaped in a number of ways.
Preference and choice for communications must support their ability to be:
· More responsive. Communications across the board seem to be moving at a faster pace, and consumers look for ways to respond faster and more efficiently to their employers, friends, neighbors, parents, children, schools, places of worship, organizations and everyone they do business with.
· More time-efficient. Today's tough economic environment compels more people to work more hours. Time is at a premium as the "sandwich generation" is caught between caring for both children and aging parents - juggling employment with community service.
· More security conscious. Consumers are taking greater care to protect themselves from identity theft. Paper shredders are more commonplace, and with reports of mail theft - theft of personal mail from mailboxes - some early adopters have embraced the online environment for their credit card and banking transactions.
· More in control. With all that is happening in consumers' lives, individuals look for ways to assert control where they can, so the need to control how they communicate is more essential than ever before.

Consumers are seeking an ideal mix of digital convenience; personal traditional processes for handling bills, correspondence and other mail; and the need to feel secure in their own choices.

Competing in a complicated world
For businesses, the challenge of managing amid the rise of new and disparate types of channels is compounded by additional factors beyond their control. In many cases, these new channels are competing for bigger portions of smaller budgets. At the same time, most businesses find that they need to pursue a multichannel strategy to attain customer acquisition and retention goals.

Whether you call it "customer relationship management" or just plain "knowing your customer," consumers expect organizations to understand the fullness of their individual relationships regardless of which channel they use - and businesses are scrambling to meet that expectation.

Organizationally, where businesses were once often siloed by product line, they now are further siloed by communication channel. And, just when costs should be more controlled, the proliferation of new communication channels is placing huge financial burdens on companies worldwide.

Common Ground
There is a common ground between consumers' preference for choice, security and comfort and businesses' quest to address those preferences while managing productivity and costs. By replicating - and improving upon - the familiar mail experience in a digital environment that retains the customer's valued choices: comfort, convenience, control and security.

In many cases today, high-volume mailers have configured high integrity automated document factories (ADFs) to produce their mail; these ADFs are essentially creating communications in a digital environment, then printing and mailing them.
Today's ADFs even have advanced capabilities for creating digital variable print, which enable the creation of one-to-one as well as one-to-many communications with high degrees of personalization and opportunities for branding. Almost all ADFs already deal with customer communications digitally in the form of print streams - streams of data that operators must modify and enhance to generate printed matter. The most advanced high-volume production operations also incorporate advanced customer relationship management (CRM) platforms that enable businesses to track, evaluate and adjust content and channel to reflect what they learn.

By leveraging the automated document factory businesses can knock down many of their channel silos. Consumers will still have a choice of how they interact and transact, but the engine that drives that choice becomes simplified - and, along with it, managing and integrating with emerging channels becomes vastly easier. A multichannel approach to secure content delivery helps ensure that mailers can stay connected to consumers as the channel mix shifts and evolves.

Bernie Gracy is Vice President, Pitney Bowes.