As mailers and mail service providers prepare for our most active quarter of the calendar year, a number of factors are creating new challenges and new opportunities for our industry. Growing regulatory and compliance considerations, uncertainty about postal rate increases, and the continued proliferation of digital communication channels are influencing the way businesses and consumers use mail. At the same time, innovations in data collection, document design, mail production, and presort services ensure that mail will continue to play a leading role in enabling mission-critical communication and facilitating commerce throughout the world.

Churchill famously said, "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." I am convinced that if we take a realistic, but optimistic view of the challenges facing our industry, we might just find our greatest opportunities.

Growing regulatory and compliance considerations mean your reputation is on the line
Growing regulatory requirements create both a challenge and an opportunity for mail service providers. New government regulations that mandate consumer notifications usually result in more mailings. At the same time, regulated industries, including healthcare, banking and insurance, have little room for error when it comes to compliance, putting even more pressure on these institutions and the mail service providers they rely on. Mailers in regulated industries must ensure that Personally Identifiable Information (PII) remains private, while delivering mandated consumer notifications accurately and on time. Mistakes can lead to fines and legal actions, as well as irreparable damage to the public reputations of offending organizations.

If you operate in a regulated industry and have not recently revisited your own mail processes for compliance, now is the time. Here are three questions you should ask yourself and your mail service provider today:
1. Proof of content: Is the content in every mailpiece accurate and compliant?
2. Proof of production: Was each mailpiece accurately compiled, addressed and produced?
3. Proof of induction: Was each mailpiece mailed correctly? Was it inducted at the right time, in the right place?
The proliferation of mobile, web and video-based communications necessitates smarter integration of physical and digital channels and creates opportunities for those who do it well

After years of angst, some denial, and a host of dire prophesies that never came true, most mailers no longer see the proliferation of digital communication channels as a threat, as much as they view them as an opportunity. The research is generally conclusive. Direct mail continues to drive successful customer communications campaigns, and digital channels do not do nearly as well without the support of mail, as they do with it.

It has been proven time and again that combining digital and physical communications increases open rates, response rates, and ROI. In fact, the more channels you add, the better the results. A recent InfoTrends study found:
· response rates increase 27% when direct mail is combined with a web landing page OR an email address
· response rates increase 37% when direct mail is combined with a web landing page AND an email address
· response rates increase 45% when direct mail is combined with a web landing page, email address and mobile marketing[i]

This basic integration of physical and digital communications is fundamental to any effective marketing campaign. Without it, marketers put themselves at a significant competitive disadvantage.

More progressive marketers are pushing the limits of physical and digital integration even further. Innovations like augmented reality are allowing retailers to use their catalogs and direct mailpieces to trigger personalized and powerful consumer experiences. For example, using this technology, a consumer can choose a piece of furniture from a catalog; render a 3D image of that piece of furniture on their smartphone and then use the smartphone's camera to project the image to scale. She can then see exactly how that piece of furniture would fit in her home.

Innovations in dynamic print production give mail an advantage over other communications channels
Innovation in mail is not the exclusive domain of retailers and direct marketers. New technologies and printing processes are also allowing traditional First-Class mailers like banks, insurers, healthcare providers, and utility companies to turn their consumer bills and statements into powerful marketing tools. Market leaders in these industries have long made effective use of color and inserts to enhance customer engagement and reduce call-center volumes. Today, the best of these companies are also delivering powerful, full-color, personalized messaging at the first point of contact - directly on the envelope.

Sophisticated institutional mailers no longer stock pre-printed forms and envelopes. Instead, they are leveraging the latest innovations in data management, printing and finishing with White Paper Factories - end-to-end production mail solutions that transform plain rolls of white paper and envelopes into high-impact, colorful and personalized customer communications. A White Paper Factory eliminates the need for pre-printed forms and envelopes, helping to streamline print and mail processes and lower operational and postage costs, all while adding greater value to each mailpiece.

Postage optimization is more important than ever and more accessible than ever
Postage is the largest contributor to overall mail costs. At the time of this writing, we are only beginning to understand the impact recent postal rate increases have had on our industry, and there is uncertainty about the future of postage rates. Whatever the outcome, optimizing postage spend remains a high priority for all mail operations professionals, and there is opportunity in this area as well.

There is not a "one size fits all" solution to automating mail sorting to capture postage savings. Mail volume and ZIP Code density, mailing patterns, labor and space requirements, speed of delivery and concerns over privacy and control all must be considered when choosing a solution.

By allowing each page and envelope to be printed with 100% variable data, mailers using a White Paper Factory solution can combine separate jobs and print them in ZIP Code order to qualify for postage discounts. Some high-volume transactional mailers benefit from in-house sorters that can process nearly 50,000 pieces of mail per hour. Other mailers, whose volumes and ZIP Code concentrations are not high enough to qualify for postage discounts, benefit from working with a national presort services provider who can comingle mail from multiple businesses to qualify for the deepest postage discounts. External presort services help drive down operational and postage costs for First-Class Mail and Direct Mail alike. A good presort services provider meets the highest security and quality control standards, and is an expert on postal rules and regulations.

Some mailers find that a hybrid approach is their most cost effective option to achieving presort discounts. These mailers augment their in-house sorting capabilities with an external presort services provider who processes mail for geographical areas where volumes or ZIP Code concentrations fall short of the best discounts. This hybrid approach is made easier today thanks to the new Intelligent Mail barcode (IMBC) which allows mailers to track their letters and cards every step of the way, whether they deliver direct to USPS, or route mail through a presort services provider.

Perhaps mailers and mail service providers do face greater challenges than ever before, but I hope you will agree that the tools and technologies we have to overcome those challenges are also greater than ever before. The fourth quarter of the calendar year is a busy quarter for mail, as it encompasses the political mail, benefit enrollments, and the holiday mail season. It is a good time to watch for creative innovation in our industry. It is also a good time to take inventory of our own businesses and reassess processes we may be taking for granted. Are we truly fortified against compliance issues? Are our physical and digital communication channels working together? Are we making effective use of data and innovation in dynamic print production to enhance the value of our customer communications? Are we qualifying for the deepest postage discounts? Strengthening those areas of our mail operations to counter the challenges we face will create untold opportunities for our future.