At a recent conference, the discussion turned to the "mail moment" and the important role that Periodicals Mail - magazines and newspapers - plays in fostering this moment. Former Postmaster General Bill Henderson coined the term "mail moment" to describe the excitement and pleasure that Americans feel about gong to the mailbox and discovering what is in there. A favorite magazine, a hand-addressed greeting card, your hometown newspaper - these make up the mail moments.

    Magazines and newspapers are often called the "anchor" of the mailstream because recipients look forward to getting these pieces. People expect these pieces to arrive on certain days and so it draws them to their mailboxes and excites them about mail. It's sort of like how the best basketball or football players make everyone around them better. Having that certain something come in the mail that we like and look forward to opening makes all the mail in the mailbox more attractive.

    Unfortunately, the "mail moment" is at risk. Personal correspondence (stamped First Class Mail) has been in steady decline for 15 years. Community newspapers are considering alternative delivery methods because the Postal Service is becoming too expensive and too unreliable. And magazines - that once-golden anchor of the mailstream - are wading into the waters of new technology, such as iPad and Kindle and other handheld devices. It's not hard to see how these new devices, and ever-smaller laptops, will change the landscape of the printed word and hard-copy communications.

    An entire generation of Americans is growing up with these technologies and, again, unfortunately for the USPS, they barely think about mail. They communicate by cell phone and text messaging; they read their magazines on handheld devices; they get their news from laptops or those same handheld devices. Books are now the "next big thing" to be read from a portable device. This group of consumers doesn't want to pay for "content." They expect it to be free, even if it's really paid for by advertising, which is always present - even if it's not very targeted. Those pop-up ads and sidebar offers are so ubiquitous that they actually become easy to ignore. That's the price of free content.

    This changing landscape provides a huge challenge for the Postal Service. Targeted marketing is one of advertising mail's strongest selling points. But if you have entire generations that don't even think about the mail, don't have that "mail moment," then a targeted message means very little. In other words, if the intended recipient doesn't even check his or her mail, a targeted message just missed the target.

    This is the challenge for the U.S. Postal Service. It's more than just changing the current business model to restore financial stability in today's market. It's understanding the future of hard-copy communications and figuring out how to be a player in that fast-changing, ever-evolving market. It's about discovering that next "mail moment." I think packages can provide a mail moment for the younger generation of consumers. But most households don't receive packages frequently enough to make it a daily or even weekly mailbox event.

    Many marketing experts see big opportunities in tying email marketing to complementary hard-copy advertising. Retailers (or nonprofit groups) send an email to customers directing them to look for an upcoming mailpiece with a special offer. Or, they'll send a mailed advertisement that tells the customer to log on to a website for a special offer. These types of cooperative efforts have proven to be more effective than straight email or online marketing. The Postal Service has a huge opportunity with this type of advertising, but it's not clear that this becomes the "mail moment" of the future.

    What will drive future generations of Americans to their mailboxes? It's not an easy question to answer. It's hard to imagine just what the future of hard-copy communications will look like in a world of fast-changing technology. But one thing is crystal clear: today's postal system is not structured to keep up. Much to the Postal Service's credit, it recognizes this fact and it is going to Congress asking for change. Congress needs to respond. The USPS needs to be given the tools necessary to adapt and change. It needs to be able to provide customers with the next "mail moment"- whatever that might be in the future.


    Kate Muth is President of Muth Communications, a writing, editing and consulting firm. Contact her at katemuth@comcast.net.

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