The USPS Household Diary Study is one of my go-to resources for statistics about mail and attitudes toward mail. Until last week, I confidently quoted the information provided in the study without much thought to how the information is gathered. That all changed when my husband received an official looking envelope from the U.S. Postal Service. The letter inside explained that he had been randomly chosen to participate in this year’s Household Diary Study.
Broadly, the Diary Study is a Postal Service survey that collects information on mail users’ attitudes and behavior towards mail, how they use it, and how their perception of mail is impacted by technology. We wanted to share our experience as a respondent in order to give you an appreciation for the amount of effort that goes into collecting this information.
The letter gave a brief overview of the response process with assurances that clear instructions would be provided, our privacy would be protected, and payment ($40 or 100 First-Class stamps) would come 10-12 weeks after the completed diary was returned.
Prequalification was the first step in the process. The online survey included basic household information and a series of questions about “mail habits” (my term, not theirs). The habits questions asked how many pieces of mail are received and sent, whether bills and statements are received as physical mail or online, how bills are paid (mail, online, or in-person), whether magazine subscriptions are print or digital, how packages are received and sent, and so on.
The Fine Print on Categorizing Your Mail
The prequalification survey was submitted and our household was accepted for participation. The diary package that arrived three days later weighed at least a pound and was a bit daunting, although the “ask” seemed simple: “Answer questions about all the mail and packages your household receives and sends for seven days.” The Instruction Booklet had six color-coded tabs for various types of mail.
The category for “Unaddressed Mail” was the easiest to complete. We only received one mailpiece during the week that did not have any postage or an address label.
First-Class Mail was a bit more challenging. The first line of the instructions said, “All First-Class Mail may not say “First-Class” on the envelope or postcard. It is important to look at the postage and mail markings on each mailpiece to determine if it is First-Class or not. Use the following to help you determine if your mailpiece should be recorded under this type…” This was followed by a full page of text divided into nine bullet points and 18 pictures to help determine First-Class. My favorite part of these instructions was the hint in bold type. It said, “Find closest match.”
The Question Booklet was 17 color-coded pages of detail requested for each piece of mail. For example, “Sender Type” for First-Class Mail had 32 options, divided into six categories. “Purpose” had 24 options starting with “Holiday/Seasons greeting card” and ending with “Other (Specify on Answer Booklet page 4).” There was also a template that defined sizes for letter size envelopes, postcards, and flyers.
Day One of the Household Diary Study Is Daunting
The first day of our diary week (Monday) was also the heaviest mail day. We received 13 pieces of mail that had to be identified by class, size, content, and more. Each mailpiece had to be numbered and included with the answer booklet for that day. Between reading the instruction booklet from cover to cover and getting familiar with the assignment and response choices, it took almost an hour to complete the required tasks. Day one quickly became “What have we gotten ourselves into?” day. Fortunately, understanding what needed to be done made the task easier for the next six days; the time it took to complete the day’s diary entry dropped from 60 minutes to no more than 20. The seventh day was Sunday. (I admit to thinking about placing an Amazon Prime order on Friday to force a Sunday delivery but decided it would be good to have a “zero day” in our results.)
Our Input Is Just the Beginning
The biggest surprise to me in the information-collecting process for the Diary Study is that every piece of mail received has to be sent with the responses and the instructions make it clear that someone will physically inspect every piece of mail to confirm it was categorized correctly. Contents could be removed so personal/private information was protected. (I had never considered how “stealth” envelopes, often effective in making Marketing Mail look official, could complicate the Diary Study by making the sender unknown when contents were removed.)
The 2-½ hour commitment we made in completing the Household Diary Study was only a fraction of the time that will be spent on our response. Multiply that by the 5,199 other participants and I have a new respect for the information provided in the Household Diary Study every year.
Now that our diary week is over, I’m really curious about how accurate our prequalification responses were based on our perception of the mail we receive. Perhaps I’ll call the Diary Hotline to see if they measure that, too. If you have a question about mail use and attitudes, contact me here to find out what the Household Diary Study has to say.
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