Even in today's digital world, mail remains relevant. In fact, mail is becoming an even more critical driver of global commerce as more businesses connect physical mail to digital technology to boost its value and enhance its effectiveness.

Mailing technology is compressing delivery times and allowing an unprecedented level of customer targeting. In addition, this technology is enabling businesses to integrate their physical mailings with digital forms of communication to extract even more commercial value from the physical mail channel.

Businesses can now take a multi-channel approach, combining an array of communication vehicles. They can build customer relationships through email, mobile apps, QR codes, catalogues, and mail pieces. As new technology helps tie together the physical and digital worlds, it's easier for businesses to conduct more effective marketing campaigns and reach prospects around the world. According to Forrester, 86% of marketers say that combining online channels with offline marketing as part of an integrated campaign is critical to long term success.

Direct mail is a leading channel to drive to web. The Direct Marketing Association (U.K.) found in its From Letterbox to Inbox (2013) report that the top three actions consumers take after receiving direct mail from a brand they're interested in are:
Ø 44% visit a brand's website
Ø 34% search online for more information about the product
Ø 26% keep the mailing for future reference

The growth in global ecommerce has also spurred a significant increase in the volume of parcels, which is growing at double-digit rates in most major markets around the world. Adding digital capabilities to the mail infrastructure is paving the way for parcels to play a bigger role in mailing. Some observers believe that, over time, packages could become the backbone of the mail stream.

Global Reach
Connecting physical mail and packages to digital technology can help businesses reach markets worldwide. It's no secret we live in a borderless, connected world and it's important for more and more businesses to operate globally.

Cross-border shipping involves much more than just the actual parcel delivery - there are customs, duties, and tariffs that must be met and collected. This can be difficult for small and medium-sized organizations to manage. Here, digital capabilities can be effectively deployed to facilitate buying, selling, and shipping physical products.

New ecommerce solutions can dramatically simplify cross-border shipping and enable merchants to provide buyers a fully landed shipping cost, including all customs, duties, and tariffs. These digital commerce solutions make it possible for companies of any size to export their goods and services around the world. In other words, any business can now participate in the global market.

Intelligent Visibility
Since everything going through the mail today is more "intelligent," it's also more visible, thanks to sophisticated digital tracking capabilities. This in turn is creating more business opportunities.

The USPS is leading the way with innovative new service offerings, ranging from seven-day delivery to SMS notifications, all of which are underpinned by greater visibility and intelligence around each mail piece and package. The USPS is driving the use of the information rich Intelligent Mail Barcodes (IMb and IMpb) on every piece of mail, mail container, and package. Mailers now electronically transmit key information about the mailing to the USPS before it is dropped off in order to qualify for the best rates.

Embedded within the IMb is a host of information: who is doing the mailing, the class of mail used, special or extra services being requested (such as Address Change Service), where the piece is going, and a serial number uniquely identifying the piece. These barcodes are scanned as the mail pieces are processed and tracking events are recorded and made available to the mailer.

New tools help mailers extract business intelligence from the raw data to drive decisions or initiate action, thanks to new levels of visibility. For example, destination tracing for outgoing mail can provide continuous information about the status of the mail piece and predict when it will reach its destination. If mailers know when their mail will be opened and responded to, they can coordinate a follow-up email or phone call and staff their call centers accordingly to handle responses.

In addition, origin tracking options for incoming mail enable mailers to know when the mail is on its way back and who is sending it in response to an offer or to make a payment. This business intelligence allows mailers to take more effective control of key business processes, making their decisions armed with real information delivered in a timely manner.

Increased visibility and business intelligence around the mail removes uncertainty and enhances the effectiveness and value of mail. Mailers now have answers to these key questions:
· Does the USPS have custody of an individual mailpiece?
· When is the mail being delivered?
· How many days did delivery take?
· Was the mail delivered as addressed?
· Which pieces were forwarded or returned?
· Whose remittance is in the mail?

This valuable insight can help improve business performance. Mailers can compare targeted in-home dates to actual delivery dates. They can do a better job of anticipating cash flow needs through tighter tracking of remittances. They can effectively handle any client delivery questions, resulting in a better customer experience.

Digital Drives Shipping
The USPS is also raising the bar for parcels with innovative digital technology. The Intelligent Mail Package Barcode (IMpb) gives the USPS the ability to provide customers with robust package tracking and visibility as the parcel travels through-out the system. The USPS has increased the number of scan events on every item to give shippers more information about the location and timing of their deliveries.

The USPS offers a highly competitive rate structure with valuable new features, such as "baked in" insurance for Priority Mail, and free tracking. System enhancements include email or SMS text alerts with post-delivery actions and a delivery information summary for all packages. Digital technology will soon make it possible to receive SMS notifications of delivery status.

Mail is not only relevant in today's digital world; it is a critical driver of global commerce. The industry will continue to develop innovative tools to integrate digital technology in the physical mail stream to unlock even greater value for business mailers.

It's no longer a question of physical or digital, now it's physical and digital.

Patrick Brand is Vice President and President, Pitney Bowes Mailing, North America.