Online Start-Up Offers Users Free Stamps

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Marisa Dottori was exasperated with a ritual associated with the mailing experience: driving around, looking for an available parking spot, then standing in a long, glacial-paced line at the post office -- all for a 33-cent stamp.


So, the former marketing executive and her fiancé David Krop put their heads together and last week launched Miami-based Postage4Free.com Inc.


"We thought it would be great to make postage stamps more easily attainable," said Dottori, now the company's executive vice president. "After throwing a few ideas around, we thought it would be totally revolutionary to give away the stamps for free by allowing advertisers to subsidize the cost by placing ads directly on the envelopes that are pre-stamped."


Visitors to the Postage4Free.com site fill an online application and, in return for viewing advertising messages, special offers and coupons, four to six weeks later will receive a packet of 10 pre-stamped envelopes.


The online application seeks demographic details like age, family status, sex, and personal habits and tastes. Though not mandatory, the visitor will be asked to volunteer the e-mail addresses of three friends. These associates will then be informed of the Postage4Free offering.


"This data will be used to directly target the ads and special offers each consumer receives with their pre-stamped envelopes," said Dottori, confident that users will be honest in their answers.


Postage4Free will start mailings sometime next month as the database grows and the printing of the first batch of ad-emblazoned envelopes concludes. The database will be built from ground up to give it a real-time touch, Dottori said, adding that the company won't rent any mailing lists.


The marketer is negotiating with undisclosed advertisers in such categories as consumer products, beverage and fast food, pharmaceuticals and health, beauty care, airlines and automotive. Revenue will be pulled from advertisers who sign up.


The ads will be splashed on the envelope's back flap and back panel. Such advertising will be more generic in nature and limited to one advertiser per batch of 10 envelopes. Two ads or coupons, targeted to the recipient, will feature as tearaways from the envelopes. Another three ads will adorn the main package that contains the 10 envelopes.


Advertisers will also be able to insert samples of their products in the packages of envelopes mailed to users. Each package will contain a single sample, which will have to be thin, like CDs or sachets of beauty products.


Postage4Free's reach will be enhanced through a re-order program that allows the user to return to the site every two to three months for another batch of Postage4Free envelopes if the e-mail addresses of three friends were not volunteered. As an incentive, users who initially furnish the e-mail addresses automatically receive a fresh batch of 10 envelopes every two or three months.


"It's targeted direct marketing and it's opt in to the degree that if you're interested in certain types of offers then those coupons will come your way," said Alan Alper, senior analyst at Gomez Advisors, Lincoln, MA. "And that is the power of the Internet in that you can have a targeted direct marketing campaign."


Dottori and Krop, both 31, are so chuffed about their privately funded venture's success that they have trademarked the Postage4Free.com and FreePostage.com names, and have sought a patent for the business model, both online and offline. There are currently six employees, with plans for more.


Prior to founding her start-up, Dottori was director of marketing at Solar Cosmetics Labs in Miami. Co-founder Krop ran 311 Direct, a Miami-based touch-tone phone information service in 12 cities in Florida and Georgia. He sold the business last year.


Though there is no ad campaign in the works, Postage4Free will be marketed through strategic alliances with other complementary companies and online services. Its site currently boasts affiliate links to such marketers as GoTo.com, Amazon.com, CDNow.com, Priceline.com, SportsLine.com, Web site host houseit.com, barnesandnoble.com, Staples.com, and Dell.com.


Gomez's Alper isn't worried so much about advertisers or potential partners for Postage4Free as much as consumers wary of revealing more about themselves.


"Are people so caught up in saving for postage that they're willing to give way personal information just to do so? I don't know." Alper questions.


Postage4Free's Dottori is aware that online privacy is a hot-button issue and holds her site's membership of TRUSTe as proof that all user information will be secure.


"Our privacy statement informs users we will never reveal, sell or disclose any of their information, including name and address, to anyone, ever," she said.


Dottori said the potential of this market is huge, since all Internet users use stamps for some purpose or the other.


The United States Postal Service last year delivered 107 billion pieces of first-class mail, which accounted for $34 billion, or 56.6 percent, of the $60.07 billion in overall revenue recorded in fiscal 1998.


"Someday," Dottori mused, "we hope to become one of the United States Postal Service's largest customers of first-class postage stamps."
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