Despite being deemed an “essential business,” USPS mail volume was hit hard early in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In early February 2020, the United States began to hear about a new virus that was rapidly spreading worldwide. Despite everyone’s best efforts, COVID-19 entered the United States and caused massive shutdowns of bars, restaurants, gyms, and retail establishments. Only businesses deemed “essential” by state governments were permitted to remain open for their essential workers to continue working.

For a few weeks in March and April, mailing service providers were uncertain whether they could remain open. Thankfully, the USPS issued an industry alert that clarified that the USPS and the mailing industry were indeed essential businesses to fulfill the universal service obligations as outlined in Title 39. Unfortunately, the impact on mail volumes from these shutdowns had already begun, leading to double-digit declines in Marketing Mail volume in May, June, July, and August.

As the nation entered the election season, all hopes were on a record increase in both political and election mail, which seemed to occur. According to the USPS, total mail volume surpassed 4.5 billion mail pieces for both Political Mail and Election Mail tracked, representing an increase of 114% compared to the 2016 election cycle. While this helped somewhat with the year-to-date volume impact from COVID-19, the USPS expects mail volume for 2021 to continue to decline.

According to the USPS FY2021 Integrated Financial Plan, overall mail volume in 2021 is expected to decline by 10.2%, resulting in a total volume of 116 billion pieces. The hardest hit class will be Marketing Mail, with an estimated decline of about 9.5 billion pieces, another double-digit hit to this mail class.

With such dramatic declines in mail volumes, many direct marketers and mailing service providers wonder what, if anything, can be done to either curtail these projections or somehow add value to those mail pieces that remain. Fortunately, a trifecta of technology is now available for astute mailers.

Adding Value to Your Mail

Address quality is always the perfect place to start to improve the value of mail. With mail volumes declining and businesses trying to connect to customers, keeping addresses complete, correct, and current is more important than ever. CASS™ Certified software is simply a foundation for a complete address. To ensure that the address is actually deliverable and entirely correct, however, mailers need to carefully review the return codes from the software as part of the address quality process to leverage additional address quality services. Having a ZIP+4 for a high-rise apartment’s default address may earn you a postage discount, but it doesn’t result in a completely deliverable piece of mail. An apartment append and advanced address resolution service is the best way to obtain the essential secondary address information. Fortunately, many software providers offer such a service through their CASS Certified solutions.

Despite a pandemic with quarantine requirements, the move rate for families and individuals is expected to increase in 2021. With low mortgage rates and businesses that have shifted to work-from-home options for employees, many families and individuals are on the move. Keeping up with these customers will be a key challenge for mailers in 2021, and fortunately, there are new solutions to leverage. NCOALink is the perfect way to comply with USPS Move Update requirements and can be easily accessed from CASS-Certified software provided solutions. However, this only provides permanent changes of address that are filed with the USPS, and that is estimated to represent, at most, 60% of the actual moves. In order to find all the changes of address, a proprietary change of address (PCOA) solution is needed. This leverages new address information from additional sources, such as warranty registrations, to compile a change-of-address database. Some software providers have combined these two technologies in order to create a service that goes beyond simply complying with the USPS Move Update rule and can significantly improve delivery rates for prospect mailings.

The other technology that continues to evolve is mail tracking, which was particularly useful during the 2020 election cycle. The USPS Informed Visibility service has come a long way in the past years. It is rapidly emerging as a primary conduit of postal communication that can be leveraged to strategically time omnichannel direct marketing campaigns. Software companies are providing mail tracking services, including Informed Visibility. Additionally, Informed Delivery scans are sent to mail service providers, who, in turn, can present dashboards to the mail owners, showing them when the pieces were inducted into the USPS, where they are now, and when they will arrive. These three value propositions of accountability, visibility, and predictability represent growth opportunities for service providers and assurances to direct marketers that their direct communications are being delivered.

“Snail mail” is a term that has been used ever since the advent of email. While mail service performance took a regrettable hit this year, in part due to changes to the supply chain by the new Postmaster General, mailers could at least be assured that the pieces would ultimately arrive at their intended destination. That, of course, assumes a correct address and leveraged mail tracking. Though it may be slow compared to email, direct marketers are starting to find that they’d rather have “snail mail” than “fail mail,” which results from email messages that were never even opened or read.

Direct mail by itself continues to outperform any other single channel of direct marketing. And with Informed Delivery, mailers now have an opportunity to easily bridge physical to digital as part of an omnichannel campaign. Over 30 million Informed Delivery subscribers can now begin engaging with a mail piece even before it arrives in the mailbox later that day. This provides substantial attribution potential to direct mail and further increases its value to astute direct marketers.

COVID-19 has hit the mailing industry hard and in unpredicted ways. Volume declines, especially for Marketing Mail, will be felt as we continue through this pandemic into 2021 and may have a lasting impact on the industry. Fortunately, technology continues to evolve, and by leveraging advanced software and services, we can increase the value of mail to ensure its continued use in the years ahead.

Chris Lien is President, BCC Software, a BlueCrest Company.

This article originally appeared in the January/February, 2021 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.