A publication passed across my desk today. It’s called Deliver, a slick business magazine published by the U.S. Postal Service. Even though I didn’t order it, the magazine was addressed to me. Such are the wonders of direct mail.
Part of the magazine’s content decried social network marketing. One column begins, “The real danger with social media is in marketers expecting too much from it.” Another begins, “Social media takes up more time than it does money.” But the coup de grace is the back page. It features a full-page “Last Word > Found in the Trash” piece showing a crumpled piece of paper with a chart labeled “Percent of Adults Who Use Social Media, 2005-2009.” Above the chart, a nameless executive has written “Why are we paying so much attention to this if HALF the population isn’t?” The scribbled answer: ” ’Cause it’s the cool new thing.”
There’s nothing wrong with a media choice or outlet defending itself, or seeking to increase its validity at the expense of competition. However, there is something very odd about a quasi-governmental organization that may lose $5 billion this year spending public money to bash the wrong competitor. (Yes, that’s billion with a B.)
The Postal Service doesn’t need more direct mail. Nor do consumers. Direct mail of all sorts already makes up more than half of all the items delivered to our mailboxes every day. What the Postal Service needs — desperately — is more personal mail, the letters you and I used to send each other before long distance calls got so cheap and e-mail became so ubiquitous.
Sadly for your postman, a return to the personal mail levels of the 1980s or even the 1990s is highly unlikely. Without that kind of volume, the Postal Service will be unable to continue its Faustian bargain with the nation’s large direct mailers. The facts are simple. Even though direct mail makes up an increasing share of postal volume, its share of postal revenue sits at about 20 percent. That old Vaudeville line, “I lose a buck on every sale, but I make it up in volume!” applies here with a vengeance.
For decades the imbalance didn’t seem to matter, as long as the deep discounts given to direct mailers could be offset by stable amounts of personal mail. Now, everybody involved will have to pay more and get less. To make a bad situation even worse, the Postal Service has pension overhang as bad as any Detroit automaker ever endured. The agreement pushed through Congress in 1993 might have brought relief, if e-mail had never been discovered.
What is needed now is a bitter dose of reality — not a slick magazine. We will always need a postal service. But we need a service that serves the people of this nation, not businesses grown used to unsupportable discounts. “Deliver” should be mantra of this service, not the title of a marketing campaign.