USPS's Digital Mail Program Will Go Nationwide in 2017

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Postal Service CMO Jim Cochrane is itching to deliver paper mail to email inboxes. "It's a game-changing moment," he says.

Though the linchpin of USPS's digital strategy—Informed Delivery—is now but a 67,000-person beta test in New York and Virginia, Chief Marketing and Sales Officer Jim Cochrane is confident he'll be able to meet his boss's 2017 deadline for a national roll-out of the service.

In her keynote address at last week's National Postal Forum, Postmaster General Megan Brennan committed to the aggressive time table for Informed Delivery (ID), a free app that sends people visual notifications of what awaits them in their mailboxes each day. Letter mail sorters take pictures of each envelope running through them and Informed Delivery takes those, corrals them by address, and emails them to subscribers.

What Informed Delivery currently does not do is provide pictures of catalogs or packages. Nor does it offer up color renditions. Both of those deficiencies need to be corrected for USPS to profit from the service. If brands are going to pay for interactive services linking digital images of mail to sites or landing pages, they're going to demand high-quality creative.  

Cochrane doesn't intend to leave that money on the table any longer than he has to. “This year we have to modify every delivery barcode sorter in our fleet,” Cochrane says. “We're working with the biggest camera companies now. When you're introducing color, there's more data and there's an effect on readability.”

There's also an effect on productivity. The gray-scale cameras currently installed sort 14 letters per second. If color cameras only manage 12 in the same amount of time, the slowdown would be unacceptable. But with an eye toward a 2017 roll-out of ID, Cochrane insists it's doable. “We're engineering it and we'll get it done,” he says.

Color quality will likely prove more of an issue for letter mail than for catalogs. Cochrane prefers to obtain JPEGs of catalog and magazine covers from the publishers and use those images in the ID emails. “ESPN, for one, is eager to give us their cover images in advance of mailings,” Cochrane says. “Catalog companies all have set times for their drops and they could do the same.”

This week the Postal Service will begin tests of interactive marketing pieces with a few brands, according to VP of New Products and Innovation Gary Reblin, who's shepherded Informed Delivery through its developmental stages. He sees the service erecting a new paradigm in the marketing business. “This isn't print to digital,” he says. “It's print to digital to digital. This uses digital technology to create an early impression for a mail piece and gives people another digital option to act on it immediately.”

Cochrane figures that Informed Delivery immediately increases the value of direct mail by doubling the number of impressions—one physical and, now, one digital. Marketers, he says, will run with the concept from there.

“Marketers will figure out the ways. We just have to create the linkage for them,” he says. “If you can do a QR code interaction on a mail piece, you can do this. But what we can do is measure when [recipients] engage with Informed Delivery and then when they go to your site or convert. This is going to do a lot for the attribution issue.”

It might also make postal history. “This is a game-changing moment for mail,” Cochrane says.

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