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Nov. 29 2011 12:49 PM

To listen to all the analysts, vendors, and consultants (including me) you'd think that every piece of mail that is produced these days is personalized, relevant, and demographically targeted.

A quick scan of your own personal or business mail will tell you that the goal of personalized communications is still in the distance. "Spray and Pray" lives on as an often-employed marketing strategy. "Dear Customer" still substitutes for even the simplest recognition of individual customer relationships. Duplicates abound. And relevance? Well, if you live in the selected zip code, it appears you're a qualified prospect.

The software to create more meaningful mail is accessible at a reasonable cost. Many document operations have the digital print engines to support the production of highly-variable materials. In most cases, the ability to create better mail already exists. It just isn't used as often as it should.

What is the Holdup?
It's quite amazing that an industry facing challenging times and an increasingly lower volume of work is so reluctant to abandon the archaic methods of bygone decades. Is there no imagination? No ambition? Or is it just that some companies are desperately clinging onto anything that can support that legacy business model that depends on volume?

Over the past several years, physical document producers have had to compete with digital delivery channels that were significantly less expensive. It hasn't been pretty. A lot of traditionally paper documents have moved to electronic versions. But while functionality has improved for both physical communications and electronic messaging, it seems the electronic world has been a lot better at implementing the technology to achieve greater results. Now, not only is the digital channel cheaper, but in many ways it's better.

The ability to track customer actions as they click on links in emails, landing pages, or web sites is an advantage over what can be achieved with paper documents. Mail can provide similar feedback by using technologies such as PURLs or QR codes. But the majority of the QR code implementations I've seen have been poorly executed or under-utilized.

Easily-Implemented Improvements
Mail has some advantages that can be exploited with just a little bit of effort. Studies have shown that a minimal amount of personalization and targeting - well within the abilities of almost any mailer with a digital printer and some decent software - can improve response rates. Simply understanding customer relationships or using elementary demographic data to craft more relevant messages can make a huge difference.

How many responses do marketers really get when they send customer acquisition pieces to their current customers? What's the success rate for pitching landscaping services to apartment renters? How many Medicare supplement insurance plans are sold to college students? What percentage of dead people refinance their homes? The response rates on direct mail campaigns with insufficient filtering criteria and a single version of the message is generally in that 1 percent or less range we've been told to expect. And yet, the practices continue.

Mail can done better. It's not that hard.

Education is Key
Educate yourself first. Seek out advice on best practices, talk to vendors if you don't have the tools you need to produce more relevant and accurate mail pieces, read articles, or call in someone to help set up some procedures for your shop. But even more importantly, educate your external or internal customers about how you can make their mail more effective. Show them how you can save them money on materials and postage and divert some of that money to yourself to pay for expert advice and additional services.

I also recommend setting up a system to consistently inform customers and corporate decision-makers about the advantages that postal mail has over other channels they may be using as part of their customer communications strategy. Some organizations initiate individual conversations, present at departmental meetings, or host production facility open houses to keep the message alive.

Another great way to keep the benefits of postal mail in the minds of customers and decision-makers is publishing simple monthly newsletters. I've been using newsletters for years. They don't cost much and have consistently provided the exposure we need to stay in the consciousness of our audience. They are so successful we're even producing newsletters now for some of our clients.

To counter the negative effects of cheaper distribution channels and uncertainty about future postal delivery services, producers of mailed communications need to step up efforts to make the mail more effective. And it's going to be up to them to make sure the people who make decisions about customer communications understand what mail can do and how it can enhance their results when combined with all the other channels that are available today.

In the long run, making mail better will be the best move for mail producers, their customers, and the mail recipients.

Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants, an independent consulting firm that helps companies nationwide be more productive, adapt to changing requirements, and lower costs in their document operations. For more ideas about how to make mail better or educate your decision-makers, connect with Mike directly. Or visit and sign up for Practical Stuff - the free newsletter for document operations. Send comments to: