Mail has a reputation issue, and part of it is generational. Although mail is effective and accepted among all groups, the relationship between people and their mail varies among the generations. Print/mail service providers should be attuned to those differences so they can make adjustments that ensure their products remain relevant in the digital age.

In my house, I get to see how Millennials and Generation Z individuals react to their mail. My daughter-in-law and her children have some of their mail delivered to my address. Mail sits on the coffee table until they drop by every few days, sit on my couch, and go through it.

Most striking to me is the speed of mail evaluation. A glance is all it takes before these young mail recipients determine the fate of a mail piece. Sometimes they don’t even open the envelopes. I’ve heard the comment, “I know what this is” several times — a determination made by scanning only the outside of the mail piece.

Though popular stereotypes suggest otherwise, this group puts their phones down (temporarily) and seems interested in discovering what has come for them in the mail. Unfortunately, most of it is unimpressive, and my relatives send it quickly to the recycle bin. This behavior tells me three things:

1. Mail still holds an interest for these generational groups. Going through the mail is one of the first things they do when they come over. I can sense their anticipation and occasionally even a bit of excitement.

2. Mailers have a short opportunity to communicate value and relevance. Marketers can’t bury the benefits of an offer at the end of a long sales letter. The young people inspecting their mail at my house will never get that far unless something caught their attention almost immediately.

3. Judging by the handfuls of mail going into my recycle bin, few of the materials directed to younger generations are making the grade today.

Good News: Young People Pay Attention to Mail

The situation isn’t entirely gloomy. Last night, I noticed my 14-year-old granddaughter looking through a catalog. She was engaged with the content, looking at every page and making comments about featured products.

On the other hand, the 18-year-old complained his bank had sent him two separate notices about changes in his account. It turns out the letters weren’t identical; the communications referred to two different accounts. But his point is well-made. The bank should have sent one letter listing both accounts. This Gen Z’er noticed the inefficiency, which reinforced his perceptions about the usefulness of mail.

Focus on Results, Not Volume

Technology allows print and mail service providers to make the improvements necessary to attract the attention of mail recipients and encourage them to act. So why do we generate so much mail that is unlikely to convert? I think the answer partly lies in the way print and mail service providers (and other parties) make money. Most companies in this industry earn revenue based on volume, not on results.

I worked in the print/mail service provider business for two decades. I understand why, under the current conditions, a print/mail company or department would resist changes that purposely decrease the number of mail pieces they produce. When you get paid for generating each piece, regardless of its chances of triggering a satisfactory result, there’s no incentive to be selective. Practices like sending two letters to the same customer on the same day will continue until service providers recognize a financial benefit to combining them or clients insist on householding.

Mail already has advantages over digital communication channels. Mail comes out on top in areas like less competition in the mailbox, higher trust levels, and better conversion rates. The cost to communicate via the mail is the biggest disadvantage. Mail skeptics often cite the cost of materials, production, and postage as reasons to avoid mail and concentrate on email, social, search, and online ads.

If the overall cost of communicating by mail was reduced and performance improved, would clients of print/mail service providers put more of an emphasis on mailed communications? I think they would, as long as someone could explain how to accomplish those two things.

If mail service providers could increase the ROI of mail by sending less of it, while simultaneously earning the same net profit by providing additional services, would they take the chance? I hope so. Otherwise they are choosing to take part in what could be a viscous cycle of lower volumes and higher costs.

Data Is the Key

Marketers can mail to fewer prospects but retain the same level of response by using data wisely. If the target is a Millennial or younger, the content can be edgier. Marketers can include hashtags and contemporary language, or encourage interaction via social media. For baby boomers, mailers should alter the images and text so recipients won’t dismiss the messages as irrelevant. If a prospect’s demographics, browsing history, or buying patterns don’t match the buyer profile, then mail to them less frequently or remove them from the list. Use techniques like variable messaging or images on envelopes to attract attention and increase open rates.

As marketers begin to deploy artificial intelligence more often, the unresponsive prospects dropped from mailing lists may be replaced with previously unidentified individuals that share characteristics exhibited by the best customers. Over the last couple of years, direct mail advertising response rates have been rising. This will continue to improve as targeting gets more precise and mailers bravely drop unlikely prospects from their lists.

Mail is still relevant. With some adjustments in how businesses use it, the medium will continue to connect companies with customers and prospects regardless of the generational group to which each prospect belongs. Finding ways to make mail better, rather than seeking strategies for propping up the volume seems to be the best path to long term viability.

Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants helps his clients meet the challenges they encounter in document operations and creates informational content for vendors and service providers in the document industry. Follow @PMCmike on Twitter, send a connection request on LinkedIn, or contact Mike directly at

This article originally appeared in the January/February, 2020 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.