Fans will quickly recognize the “I’m not dead yet” quote from the famous comedy scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and — unlikely though it may seem — there is a connection between the scene, the quote, and the state of transactional mail.
In the Monty Python sketch, bodies of plague victims are being brought out to the street for collection in a cart, when one victim brought out loudly insists “I’m not dead yet. I’m getting better!” Unfortunately his arguments are ignored by countrymen who are used to plague victims dying, and his pleas are met with a blow on the head and a spot in the wheelbarrow cart.
But the moral of the story may be that preconceived conclusions often lead us to respond with a status quo attitude. Folks go along with the status quo, and the more we hear the tale told, the more we buy into the ending. It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy theory, to some extent, if everyone says the victim will die, we adjust our thinking and expectations in that direction rather than focus our energy on helping him survive.
I see a similar phenomenon when it comes to transactional mail. For years I have heard businesses, the Postal Service, its regulators, and others in the industry talk about the decline of First-Class Mail and the “death spiral” of this medium, which includes transactional mail. The more people have talked about it and presented “data” around it, the more the industry at large has bought into the inevitability that eventually this mail will all but disappear as it is replaced with digital alternatives (the prevailing theory for why this mail volume has decreased).
But is it true? Or are we all just looking at transactional mail usage with the preconceived notion that digital alternatives are better and will continue to replace transactional mail? And if it is true that use of transactional mail has declined – for whatever reason – does that mean we should resign ourselves to a preconceived ending of its death, or should we be helping the victim get better?
Yes, Total FCM Volume Has Declined, But…
Yes, Total FCM Volume has declined over the past 14 years. That is indisputable. But do we really know why? And is there really nothing that can be done to grow FCM volume?
This is where you have to be a bit of a “postal geek” (like me!), and dig through some of the available data. If my business started losing significant sales of a particular product, the first thing I would want to know is “why?” followed by “how can we fix it?” To get to the why of FCM volume declines, however, you have to be able to dissect FCM volume by the many markets that use it, then look at the trends for each. That takes data collection and analysis that either the USPS has not performed, or that it has not shared the results of. But there is some data publicly available that at least starts this exercise.
The USPS publishes annual reports that break its FCM volume into postage rate product categories, such as Single Piece (largely consumer mail) and Presort (business mail). If one looks at trends over the past 15 years for total First-Class Mail volume, it has definitely declined. But if you separate First-Class Mail volumes generated by businesses, the trends are not the same. While total FCM volume has significantly declined each year since 2008, for instance, presort FCM volumes have not declined at the same pace, and in 2015 presort volumes actually increased over the previous year (by only a fraction, but still an increase!).
So FCM used by businesses (presort) has not declined at the same pace as total FCM volume and in recent years is actually seeing stabilization of volume and perhaps even some growth on the horizon. Why?
Better Market Data Needed
This leads to one of my main points in this discourse – if no one is collecting the right data to determine FCM market trends and why volumes are changing, and look at what industries are using FCM mail for what purpose, and how external forces (or postage rates/service) may be causing businesses to change their mailing behaviors… how can we know the real factors leading to FCM volume decline… or growth? For the FCM markets that are declining, how can we know whether there is anything that could help breathe new life into this “dying” patient? Without the data to tell us what is wrong with our patient, how can we attempt to help the patient improve? And we need to understand that this is not just one patient, this is many different patients (representing a diverse FCM user industry), some of whom may be perfectly healthy while others may need treatment!
There are many different types of business FCM users, ranging from financial industries, to medical, to legal, to telecommunications, and many more. These markets and users should not be treated as one because each has different market pressures, goals, and ways they use FCM/transactional mail. While it may be true that FCM usage is being replaced by electronic communication for some types of business users, it may not be true for others.
The bottom line is that there needs to be more comprehensive research done to identify specific markets using FCM, determine if they are declining or growing, and for those declining, identify the reasons/factors leading to the decline, and explore ways to add value to the FCM medium to make it more attractive to those business users. There are also new opportunities and new markets for transactional mail that need to be better explored, particularly in light of other business trends.
In recent years, there have been a few significant changes that could positively impact the use of First-Class Mail. First is the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and the changes to requirements that over time impact the way health care providers communicate with patients. Second are the cyber-attacks and data security issues that are plaguing most large businesses that routinely store customer data. Not only are many businesses looking at hardcopy transactional mail alternatives to digital communications, but businesses are sending customers letters about cyberattacks and their data protections.
Standing the Test of Time
I recently had the privilege to see John Cleese and Eric Idle perform live in a small theatre in Virginia, where they brought shrieks of laughter to a very diverse audience of both old and young admirers. Their comedic talent has certainly stood the test of time, and I am a believer that First-Class Mail also will stand the test of time, if we give it the attention it may need.
So as an industry, let’s not be too quick to add transactional mail to the “bring out your dead,” cart. Instead, we should be pushing the USPS and industry analysts to perform meaningful studies that identify the markets using FCM, the volume trends for those markets, and ways that FCM could be improved to make it more attractive to each market, as well as exploring new uses and markets. Let’s look at all the ways we can revive, evolve, enhance and grow this powerful customer engagement tool!
Kathleen J. Siviter is president of Postal Consulting Services Inc. (PCSi) and has over 30 years’ experience in the postal industry, having worked for the U.S. Postal Service, Association for Postal Commerce (PostCom), and a diverse set of clients with interest in the postal industry. She also serves as the Director, Community & Brand Development, for PostalVision 2020 (http://www.postalvision2020.com), an initiative designed to engage stakeholders in discussions about the future of the American postal system.)