Some of the mail you send out is worthless. You probably know this already, but do you ever do anything about it? Over the years I can recall encountering worthless mail in nearly every shop I visited. Usually there was no plan, other than simply sending whatever mail came out of the job.


Perhaps worthless is too strong a term. The mail certainly has some worth to the print service provider who gets paid for every piece they print and mail. There is worth to the Postal Service that collects postage on the mail pieces. And even if some pieces never get opened, the mailer has still flashed their brand before potential customers until the envelope heads into the recycle bin. There is some worth in that, I suppose.


Mail recipients, though, might assign little or no value to certain mail pieces. To them, the mail is worthless. If it's worthless to the addressee it doesn't make much sense to keep sending it out.


Causes for Worthlessness

Deliverability would be the first factor that comes to mind when identifying causes for worthless mail. Obviously, if the Postal Service can't deliver a piece it is just pure expense to produce. There's no worth in these items at all, only costs. Yes, I know some regulated mail must be sent to the recorded address, even if you know delivery will fail. For any other mail, keeping undeliverable pieces in the job after failing to assign a valid delivery address is a questionable practice.


Some organizations use post-mailing strategies such as address correction services (ACS) to provide addresses of individuals, families, or businesses that have moved from the address on file. This information is only useful if the mailer updates the databases containing the old addresses - preferably before mailing to the same bad addresses again. Unfortunately, lots of organizations lack the resources to manage the updates. As a result, companies continue to generate the same undeliverable mail over and over. That's actually worse than worthless! Mailers paying for address corrections but not using the data are spending extra money to generate worthless mail. That's like paying someone to take money from your pocket and then burn it.


Sometimes pieces bearing valid addresses can't be delivered to an individual for other reasons. Death, for instance. Or incarceration. Failing to filter out individuals in groups like these adds to project costs and lowers the return-on-investment calculation.

Relevancy is another factor that can turn a perfectly good mail piece into near-worthless paper fibers. Mailers frequently neglect to filter out individuals highly unlikely to respond. Mail is still pumped out to consumers simply because they live in a targeted geographic area. Sending mail promoting children's products to households lacking youngsters or vacation home offers to people who don't fit the minimum financial profile is wasteful. That kind of mail gets ignored.


In some cases, the individual might be accurately targeted but the content of the document has little meaning to the recipient. I've written many times about my account with the two-cent balance. I am still getting statements on a regular schedule. I've not conducted a transaction with the institution for over seven years. The balance has always been two cents. By now it should be obvious to the mailer I'm not a hot prospect. They could stop mailing to me with no notice and it wouldn't cause me any harm. If it wasn't such a good example of waste that I can use in my articles, I wouldn't even care.


Another example of waste includes duplicate materials sent to family members in the same households. The financial mailers have actually gotten better about items such as proxy ballots or annual reports. We still get multiple copies of catalogs, offers, notices, and other materials at my house though. Some of them are large full-color books which must be expensive to produce and mail. We could easily do with just one of each when they come out. The extras are worthless.


Problematic Business Model

Print and mail service providers don't really want to eliminate mail pieces from jobs they run. I get it. I worked in that business for over 20 years. We got paid for creating the documents and mailing them. Any adjustments lowering the piece count would have had an immediate negative effect on revenue. We were not encouraged to suggest mail-reduction tactics to customers.


Propping up volume by including worthless mail, though, is short-sighted. Today customers compare the expense of every prospective mailing campaign to lower-cost digital communication alternatives. Mail has to be worth the investment or projects won't be approved. Worthless mail pieces nibble away at response rates and conversion statistics. With companies cutting back on the size of their mailing lists already, the impact of non-performing mail pieces is proportionally greater than in the past. The ROI erodes and future print campaigns are jeopardized.


If the response ratio for a print campaign is too low, organizations may decide not to do the next one at all. Ultimately, a strategy to improve the effectiveness of mail is a smarter way to protect volume and retain customers.


A Longer Term Approach

A print and mail service provider, be they in-house or outsourced, can score points with customers by developing strategies for reducing worthless mail. They will gain respect by finding ways to reduce mailing expenses. As a bonus, development and implementation of such strategies will often require engagement with previously unreachable customer departments. Working directly with Marketing, Data Analytics, Legal and Regulatory, or Information Technology deepens the customer relationship and may uncover new business opportunities.


Customers view service providers blindly processing data as vendors. At the end of every contract period vendors become vulnerable to competitors that can do the same work at lower cost. Working closely with customers where the objective is helping them reach their goals, rather than mailing the maximum number of pieces, is what partners do. Their worth is greater and their tenure is always more secure. When reducing worthless mail is considered as a long-term business strategy, a small decrease in mailing fees may be worth it.


Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants, a firm that helps companies lower costs, develop future strategies, and improve quality in their document operations. You can read more at Mike's blog. Or visit and sign up for Practical Stuff, a free newsletter for document print and mail professionals.