Mailers Want Return of USPS Friend-to-Friend

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A mail program tested by the U.S. Postal Service in 2001 was a hit with mailers, but it has languished in the postal hierarchy since.

Mailers say they want the Friend-to-Friend program brought back. Friend-to-Friend lets marketers provide their customers with postage-paid advertiser cards that can be sent to any third party. Several marketers said they got the best results when they offered a coupon or other incentive to the person who mails the card to friends and family.

The test lasted until 2003, and 92 companies participated. When it ended, the USPS received requests to keep the program going, but publicly announced to discontinue it last month.

"Financial analysis of the [Friend-to-Friend] program indicates that there is not sufficient revenue potential for the product to justify additional investment," the USPS said a statement. "Based on that analysis and on the necessity to focus our limited resources on those opportunities with the greatest chance of success, we have decided to suspend additional activity on Friend-to-Friend mail at this time. As our own technological capabilities advance we do plan on revisiting the Friend-to-Friend mail program to re-evaluate its market potential."

Postal officials had no further comment. But sources outside the USPS questioned the financial analysis given the customer demand.

"We hope [the USPS] reinstates the entire program for our selfish reasons," said Mike Lynch, executive director of Help Hospitalized Veterans. The Winchester, CA, group provides free therapeutic arts-and-crafts kits to Veterans Affairs hospitals, state veterans' nursing homes and military installations.

The organization put Friend-to-Friend postcards on packages delivered to veterans, which were forwarded to donors thanking them for the packages. Lynch said his group mailed 500,000 cards in the two-year testing period, and 55 percent to 60 percent of the cards were sent to the donors.

Rapp Collins Worldwide said it conducted a successful Friend-to-Friend program for Anheuser-Busch in 2003.

"My client wanted to continue it and tried everything they could to get the post office to continue it, and even said they would gladly pay more for it, but [the USPS] wouldn't do it," said Robin Williamson, director of production at Rapp Collins Worldwide, Dallas.

Anheuser-Busch replaced Friend-to-Friend with something similar, but the postage isn't paid. Though the new program is less expensive, "it is not as much of a valued gift that they are giving. They are just giving the postcard," Williamson said. "Before they were giving the postcard and the postage."

Friend-to-Friend seems like a no-brainer to Charley Howard, vice president of postal affairs and special projects at Harte-Hanks Inc.

"The USPS has been trying to generate new business with new ideas, and our client base liked the idea," he said. "Virtually every one of our major retail customers has asked for it." The program offered an "inexpensive way to prospect highly qualified leads for new customers and reward their existing customers for the prospect."

The Horah Group, New York, a direct marketing production agency, also created several Friend-to-Friend campaigns in 2003. One was for Kids Discover, a monthly magazine for children 6 and older. Postcard recipients were encouraged to sign up for a free issue of the magazine by logging onto a Web site. Twenty-five percent responded even though no incentive was offered, Horah chairman Dick Goldsmith said.

"Here is an opportunity to compete with the Internet -- there is not an Internet program that does not have a 'tell-a-friend' feature nowadays," he said. "The best way to get customers is through referrals, which is what Friend-to-Friend is based on."

Goldsmith noted that two Board of Governors "testified to Congress and said that we need more First-Class volume. And here we have a program that would generate a lot of First-Class volume, and they just toss it aside."

Perhaps one reason is that the postal service may fear Friend-to-Friend could decrease First-Class mail rather than increase it. For example, Lynch said he saved $40,000 on postage costs at Help Hospitalized Veterans "because we weren't charged postage on cards that were never mailed by the veterans."

With Friend-to-Friend, the marketer is charged only for postcards that are scanned or sent back. Without it, Lynch would have to put First-Class stamps on every postcard, regardless of whether they were sent back.


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