Dec. 29 2006 11:26 AM

Direct mail marketing just got a lot more interesting. After a one-year pilot test, the U.S. Postal Service has authorized the use of repositionable notes (RPNs) on the outside of envelopes. RPNs are sticky notes 3M's Post-it Notes are the most popular brand that can be affixed by mailers, then removed and "repositioned" by customers as reminders on the refrigerator door or a calendar, for example. For direct marketers, RPNs are a compelling new tool to get a message noticed, remembered and saved long after the envelope is thrown away.


RPNs will make direct mail marketing more effective than ever before. Companies that participated in the pilot test in 2002-03 reported an increase in response rates of 37%. What's more, RPNs require very little extra effort and no extra postage.


Traditional direct mail marketing is based on certain assumptions. To generate the desired result, the mailpiece must be opened and read, and the consumer must take the desired action. As we all know, direct mail that fails these tests is consigned to the garbage.


RPNs address every principle of direct mail marketing and offer clear advantages over traditional direct mail. They are better at everything from grabbing a person's attention to persuading the person to respond to the message perhaps by refinancing a mortgage, subscribing to a magazine or buying the product the piece promotes.


How RPNs Work

Sticky notes are nothing new to direct mail. Marketers have always been able to stick a note on the inside of a piece and insert it in an envelope. RPNs are different, and the difference is what makes them so powerful.


RPNs are essentially Post-it Notes that have been modified to survive mail handling and applied to the outside of envelopes. The RPN must be used under fairly specific regulations on pieces mailed at automation rates. These regulations, which govern the size and placement of the note, are a benefit, not a hindrance, assuring the note's survival in the mail-handling process. According to the Postal Service pilot study, RPNs used according to the regulations are virtually certain to reach the customer safely.


Marketers must obtain RPNs from Postal Service-approved vendors. The first to be approved was 3M, which was the sole vendor to participate in the Postal Service pilot study, during which it adapted Post-it Notes for this purpose. RPNs can be applied to the mailpieces by a variety of means. There is even an RPN application system that applies the RPNs then prints the address and a customized message on the note in a single pass.


Why RPNs Work

Why are we so excited about RPNs? Let's look at the basic principles of direct mail marketing and see how the RPN addresses each one.


A mailpiece must be opened if it is to succeed. Getting the customer to open the piece is the first hurdle. In this regard, RPNs have a two-pronged effect, greatly increasing the marketer's chances of reaching the target customer.


First, the note itself signals that the piece is important. 3M has invested millions of dollars in making sure that customers associate Post-it Notes with something of value. Notes are never taken casually and are always read and considered. And generally a note is kept until the customer has acted on it. An RPN can be removed and saved while the rest of the piece envelope and all is discarded.


Second, the note raises the value of the envelope. Typically, the envelope is meant only to protect the items inside and is thrown away once it's opened. (That is, if it's opened at all.) The envelope carries any message printed on it straight to the garbage. If the message happens to be a removable RPN, chances are the note will be kept even if the piece is tossed.


The best pieces are targeted and personalized for the recipient. The closer the marketer can be to the recipient, even getting on a first-name basis, the better it is for the marketer's business. Again, the RPN helps in two ways.


First, it can be personalized. Apply the note, print the note, print the address. The same database is used for the address and the addressee's personal information, enabling both to be printed during the same process. That's simple personalization on the fly.


The second and more subtle benefit of the RPN is that, in many cases, the addressee isn't the one who should actually receive the offer. The RPN allows the recipient to take the note to someone else to follow through. Thus the marketer gets more than one chance to reach a buyer in an organization.


Direct mail can be tracked. The RPN can be coded in a variety of ways at the time of application. One common coding is to print the recipient's customer number in either visible or invisible barcodes on the note so that the note can be scanned at the point of use. If, for example, a marketer uses an RPN as a return coupon, it can be scanned when the customer takes advantage of the offer, and the results of the mailing can be tracked immediately. Mailing, as well as customer information, can also be coded to provide even more information about the recipient's buying habits. Since the variable information is printed on the note at the time of addressing, the use of the note for such purposes is limited only by a marketer's creativity.


Customers must receive a message multiple times. Typically, mailings must be repeated many times to reach their market. The RPN may reduce the need for multiple mailings because it generates two levels of response. When a customer receives a mailpiece, the first response is the decision whether or not to open it. The second response is the decision whether or not to save the note. With two decisions instead of just one, the marketer gains more time for success.


And with an RPN, that second decision may take longer and may be repeated days, weeks or even months from the time the mailpiece reached the customer's mailbox. Because the note is a reminder, it survives until the recipient is ready to act. Although the envelope and the rest of the contents may have been discarded, the note is stuck alongside a computer screen or inside a day planner, reinforcing the message of the original piece. Again, the marketer has at least doubled the chance of success.


The RPN Story

RPNs had their start when a direct mail advertiser got the idea of having mail carriers apply sticky notes to envelopes by hand. The cost would have been prohibitive, but the Postal Service liked the idea and teamed up with 3M to find a solution.


With 3M as the exclusive vendor for the test, the Postal Service came up with its specifications. The notes must be three inches by three inches square and must be placed on the lower left of certain envelopes or postcards. They must be able to remain in place through the Postal Service's automated processes.


Although the Postal Service notes that participants in the pilot study reported increased response rates of up to 37%, there's anecdotal evidence that responses may be even higher. One bank said it had increased responses by more than 44% when it advertised low promotional rates for automobile refinancing through an extensive direct mail campaign.


Obviously, the more effectively a note is used, the better the response will be. The most effective uses carry messages worth saving. A coupon, a date to remember or even a toll-free phone number are valuable. Printing "Open This!" on the note, however, is a waste. You might as well print that on the envelope. Nobody will bother to save and "reposition" a note that lacks a meaningful message.


Notes may be purchased from 3M or other Postal Service-approved vendors in either printed or plain form and may be purchased in smaller quantities unprinted from ASMARC. Preprinted notes are especially useful for larger mailings without personalization but with a complex graphic. Perhaps the best of both worlds is to apply variable information to a preprinted note.


Launched in April at the National Postal Forum, RPNs are destined for success. Some fallout can be expected as the program ramps up, but because the notes match direct mail principles so well, they will not fail. The Postal Service has created a new and powerful way for direct marketers to reach their audiences and to profit from the effort. It will be exciting to see how much creativity marketers can bring to this new tool.


Ken St. John has been president of Automecha since 1980. Automecha is the manufacturer of ACCUFAST mailing products. For additional information on RPNs or the application equipment, please contact Ken by e-mail at or you can visit