Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the eighth PostalVision 2020 conference. This visionary gathering of stakeholders involves conversations about the future of postal services and other delivery operations. It’s a great opportunity for those of us who work closely with the U.S. Postal Service to consider what postal delivery in this country could look like in 10 or 15 years, and how we’d like to shape that transformation.
Much of the focus of the event was on innovation, especially how innovative tools such as routing software and autonomous (often electric-powered) vehicles can make the delivery process more efficient. We also discussed how “posts” around the world are adapting to people’s changing use of mail, reinventing themselves, and what lessons the U.S. Postal Service can learn from its international peers as it looks to shape its own future.
Mail’s Role in Omnichannel Marketing
Kathy Siviter of PostalVision led a discussion that considered the role of physical mail as a gateway to digital experience. She began the discussion by describing herself as an “evangelist for mail.” Panelist Steve Monteith, USPS VP Marketing, said the Postal Service is working to make mail more engaging to continue to drive consumers to their mailbox every day. He said his definition of omnichannel was combining physical and digital communications to create seamless connections across channels, such as the Postal Service’s new Informed Delivery (ID) product that offers recipients a chance to preview their mail before they get to their mailbox—giving marketers the opportunity to have a digital touch organically embedded in their direct mail campaigns.
Brody Buhler, global managing director of Accenture’s post and parcel industry group, described ID as “the most interesting experiment in the space.” He went on to say that Accenture’s models show that “if this gets to scale,” it could drive a 3% to 5% increase in related direct mail volume.
What Does the Mail Industry Need from the Postal Service?
Siviter also led a panel of mailing industry association executives. Steve Kearney of the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers observed that the mailing industry needs consistent rates, predictable on-time delivery, and reduced uncertainty about the future of the Postal Service. He noted that it is difficult to focus on the many advantages of mail as a marketing and fund-raising channel when there is a consistent “background noise of pessimism” surrounding the Postal Service.
Several executives cited Congress as being an impediment to innovation by the Postal Service, noting that the political climate in Washington, DC had become not just risk averse, but “risk intolerant.” Maynard Benjamin of the EMA lamented that Congress was “sitting on its hands” while an important American institution is allowed to drift in an unhealthy direction. He also expressed concern that the low appetite for risk in Washington was impeding the ability of the Postal Service to embrace innovation and work with industry leaders to bring new products to market more quickly. Pierce Myers of the Parcel Shippers Association also noted that Congress’s inability to find a way to manage USPS legacy costs, such as pensions and retiree healthcare, limits the ability of the Postal Service to invest in the resources necessary to keep up with the marketplace.
Mike Plunkett of PostCom observed that the U.S. postal system needs more market-based accountability and incentives to drive needed innovations that would create a secure financial future for the Postal Service. He suggested that the Postal Service needs to take a more segmented view of its mail products to better reflect widely varying price elasticities among different types of mail.
Looking at the Future of the Postal Service: Getting to 2030
The final panel, titled “Imagine!” was tasked with addressing where the U.S. postal system needs to be by 2030 and how we get there. It was led by former Postal Regulatory Commission Chairman Dan Blair. Like the industry association panel, this group expressed concern that fundamental change is needed in the business model for the Postal Service, but shared the belief that Congress seems to lack vision for reshaping the Postal Service so it can adapt to future needs. Lori Rectanus of the Government Accountability Office noted that doing nothing was more risky than rethinking the role of the Postal Service. Blair suggested that it was up to the mailing industry to create the needed vision of the postal future: Congress “can’t do this themselves,” but if the industry and other postal stakeholders provide Congress with a path forward, they are likely to embrace it.
Like Kathy Siviter, I’m an evangelist for mail. We know the unique attributes of mail bring value to omnichannel marketers. Direct mail has changed over the years, but it remains one of the most effective marketing channels available. We just need a Congress that will give up its fear of innovation long enough to look ahead to the bright postal future that innovation could bring us.
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