Our industry is large and fragmented, and we are often overwhelmed with the flood of information. We know that issues and trends in the broader business environment may affect us, but we are called upon to take action before we fully understand the complexities. We may retreat to the familiar themes and metrics within our own segments. What do we really need to know?

The Health of the Ecosystem
The industry generates about a trillion dollars annually in sales and employs about eight million people, according to studies by the Envelope Manufacturer's Association. This makes the paper, print and mail industry an important part of the American economy, but there are no convenient metrics to determine how the industry as a whole is doing. There are, within the different segments, a range of relevant measures - the state of American forests, recycling and sustainability, shipments of printing paper, printing industry sales, mail volume and others, including tracking some of the larger publicly traded firms in the industry. Most of these measures currently indicate that the industry is more robust and resilient than many have assumed. Even the decline of mail volume has slowed as the economy recovers.

Focusing on Providing Relevant Solutions to Customers
Our industry is in a competitive race to provide relevant solutions to our customers. There is a danger as we read our specialized journals and attend the conferences in our industry segment that we may lose the focus and cohesion necessary to drive success. Is there a vision that unites the industry?

The Purpose of the Mailing Industry: Building a Better Business and Household Tool
· Helps people connect and build relationships
· Helps businesses grow

In the postal segment, we talk about mail categories, prices, service performance and the state of postal finances. These are important, and so are the metrics relevant to other industry segments. But how well do we really know how mail is working as a tool for businesses and households to do things important to them? Do we know what we need to do to make mail work better? Are we focused on the right performance metrics for the industry?

Leveraging Mail, the Postal Infrastructure, and Related Services around Market Needs
· Billing and Payments
· Customer and Personal Relationship
· Informing and Entertaining
· Attracting customers to online or physical site
· Planning shopping
· Shipping merchandise

All these markets remain important and are growing. But it will be harder than it has been for paper, print and mail to succeed - simply because now we have intense competition.

This will require more knowledge of customers' current and emerging needs in each segment, more effective analysis and better product development, and much improved sales efforts.

There are sufficient studies that mail remains effective in these markets. The industry needs to do much more to improve the effectiveness of the content delivered by the channel. The Postal Service and industry entrepreneurs can collaborate more effectively to create related products and services that support and extend the value of mail and create new capabilities and applications for customers in each of these markets. Forget mail for a moment and consider the potential value of a trusted and connected personal representative visiting every address in America every working day - one with a personal relationship with many customers on the route and detailed knowledge of the neighborhood.

Adapting to the New Realities
· Digitalization
· Print Production
· Information (Big Data) and the Internet of Things
· Social Connections
· Multi-Channel Communications
· Globalization
· Trust

The "digital front end" of mail will relentlessly transform the industry. The current value chain is too complex, and it is too hard to develop a mailing. Technology is driving simplicity, especially at the customer interface. This is likely to enable mailers to easily and conveniently do things that previously required specialized intermediaries. Mailings can be designed and digitally sent to distributed networks of printers close to the point of delivery.
The industry was once in the forefront of leveraging new technology. Scanning, inserting, sorting and processing were automated, and postal address information helped lead the way towards effective customer targeting. This story can be repeated, as new technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence and other advances remake the design, printing and processing of mail. The industry has been lagging behind in the effective implementation of these basic technologies (the "guts" of the industry).

The Postal Service is becoming an "information powerhouse" and is creating a flow of data that will also remake the industry. The initial impact will be improvements in managing internal postal operations, reducing cost and improving service. Mailers will be able to apply this information to their own operations. More importantly, the wave of information surrounding the mailings will have its own value that will provide significant benefits to those who can take advantage of it - especially as they combine it with non-postal data streams, and the new streams of data that will be created by "things talking to things" (variations on machine to machine communications), enhanced personalization, and increased customer control.

The industry has also been hesitant about the impact of social media and multi-channel communications. No one should be. Mail complements other channels and can be connected ever more effectively with other channels. Mail can also be enhanced with various digital applications that will become more commonplace. There are sufficient case studies that demonstrate how well mail and social media work together, but that is only the first step in industry use of social media to connect partners in the value chain, collaborate more effectively, and involve customers in critical feedback loops that will generate better responses, especially for e-Commerce.

The industry, once intensely domestically oriented - often with a local bias - will continue to become global. Issues such as terminal dues, customs clearance, global addressing standards, payments and returns processes, tracking and customer service will be addressed and resolved.
Finally, issues such as customer service and consumer protection, security and privacy, familiarity, brand identity and other elements of trust cannot be ignored. The industry must take action to invest in and extend these fundamental values.

Looking Forward
Many elements of strategic change in our industry have not received the attention they need for the industry to thrive.

These are the key issues for creating a common future vision for the industry, across industry segments. While postal policy issues - governance and business model change - remain important, they already have considerable industry attention. Many of the other elements of strategic change in the industry - creating new capabilities and applications - have not received the same level of attention.

Kent Smith has 38 years of experience in the mailing industry, and has served as Manager, Market Research and Manager, Strategic Business Planning for the United States Postal Service. He is currently Research Director for Ursa Major Associates, a global consulting firm sponsoring the annual PostalVision 2020 Conference, being held this year in Washington, D.C. on March 10-11, 2015.