USPS’s Reblin Talks About Digital Mail’s Arrival in NYC this Fall

URBANSKI:  Hello, everyone, and welcome to DC Direct, where we talk to movers and shakers in Washington about issues facing direct marketers.  I’m Al Urbanski, Senior Editor of Direct Marketing News. Today we are pleased to have with us the Postal Service’s VP of Innovation and New Products, Gary Reblin. Gary has one of the more interesting challenges in his dealings with the U.S. mail, that of merging it with digital methods and developing it as an integrated channel for a new age. Today, Gary has some exciting details to share with us about a new pilot program slated for New York City this fall called Real Mail Notification, also known as digital mail. Gary, always great to speak with you.

REBLIN: Great to speak with you, also, Al.

URBANSKI: So tell us about what Real Mail Notification is and how it works within the Postal Service’s existing process.

REBLIN: Okay. Real Mail still uses the host mail piece as the primary mail piece. So anything in Real Mail Notification first and foremost will be delivered to that customer that day. What Real Mail does is it also provides an e-mail message to the customer every day in the morning before they receive their mail, and what it does is it shows them the images of the mail piece that they’re going to receive that day so that they get a preview of what will be in their mail every day in the morning before they receive it.

URBANSKI: So this is going through your sorting machines, and your sorting machines take a picture of everything, right, to read the barcodes? So what they’re going to see are… are they going to be black-and-white reproductions of just the front of the envelope?

REBLIN: Right. Well, yes, that’s exactly what it is. So today, our sort equipment, in order to sort it and read the barcode, has to take a picture of the mail piece. What we’re doing is we’re repurposing that picture and giving the customer the option of having that picture also sent to them. We do not store it. It’s simply passed along, aggregated for everything for their address, and then passed along so that they can also view it to see what’s — what will be in their mail today.

URBANSKI: Got it. So they sign up for this service, right? Is it like an app?

REBLIN: Exactly. They will sign up. We will have an app.  So there will be various ways in which they can get it.  They’ll be able to sign up and have it e-mailed to them each day.  We’re also going to make it available in My USPS, which will be an app from the Postal Service which today shows them just the packages, but will also show them their letters for Real Mail in New York City.

URBANSKI: Got it. So now they’re going to get this e-mail, what, in the morning? I mean, when does it go out? Because you’re going to want to get it to them during the day, right, before they’re going to get home and see what’s there?

REBLIN: That’s exactly it. So they’ll get it in the morning, so they have a preview.  And they’ll be able to sign up as many residents of the household as they want. So if you’re traveling, you’ll still be able to see the mail pieces.  If you’re at work, you’ll be able to see them. And if you have a spouse, you may be able to call out if you see a mail piece that’s particularly interesting to have them hold aside so that you’re able to view it when you get home.

URBANSKI: Got it, got it. So the idea there is that our readers, who are direct mailers, they’re probably going to get some added eyeballs, and maybe some added opens because of this service.

REBLIN: Well, yeah. So they’ll definitely get some — some different impressions, because a lot of times — and what we know about the mail is, you usually have a CEO of the mailbox. And in my case, it’s my wife.  But now with Real Mail Notification–I’m in the northern Virginia pilot that’s going on right now–I get to see the mail as well, and I don’t receive an edited version of the mail, I actually get to see everything that’s in the mailbox. And on many occasions I’ve been driven to the mailbox to see pieces that, before, my wife wouldn’t have known to hold out for me, or didn’t want to because she was afraid I was going to buy some new golf clubs or something.

URBANSKI: Interesting. So you talked about the pilot in northern Virginia. Tell us about that. Can you give us some of the results from that? How did people like it? How long has it been going on? What have the results been?

REBLIN: The results have been great. I mean, the consumers love it. We’ve got—not only have we done surveys which shows that the customers look at it every day within two hours of receiving it, but we’ve got a ton of subjective notes back telling us everything from customers that have said they’re over 90 years old and they love to receive this every day to customers that have said that they didn’t know that they wanted this, but once they got it they can’t live without it.

People have talked about how they’re on travel, and they’ve received important mail pieces, and it’s been great to be able to see what’s in their mailbox. So we’ve got nothing but positive [comments].

And on the mailer side, we’ve done test mailings which we’ve actually shown the response rate has increased incredibly because one of the things that we’ve created the capability of doing is being able to click on the image and go to a website as well.

So if the person with the image — in other words, a direct mailer — wants to give us an HTML, then we can actually make that piece click through to their website, so it can create a buy-it-now experience.  So not only would the end mailer get more impressions, but they also create the easy capability to be able to click through and purchase.

And when we ran a test, we actually were able to increase response rates considerably with that functionality. So we believe that this will have a real positive—positive effect on the end ROI of the mail piece.

URBANSKI: That’s a pretty revolutionary step on the integration of physical/digital, right? Because now what we’re saying is, “Here’s the mail. It goes out, and somebody can actually open the mail digitally, quote-unquote, without opening their—their physical mailbox at home, and during the day if they see something.

REBLIN: Well, I think it’s important to say we’re still going to protect the privacy, see? So we’re actually not allowing you to see what’s inside the mail piece, only the cover. What you can click through is to a public website.  Because this piece is to a household, we’re not allowing—and sometimes a group people live there—we’re not allowing any private information associated with that. But we will allow you, for example, on a direct mail piece, to go to a website to make a purchase.  

URBANSKI: Yeah, that’s what I mean. But you could connect with—with the mailer, which is all they care about, is getting a conversion?

REBLIN: Absolutely, Al. And I just wanted to make sure we made that point, because we recognize people’s need for privacy and that we’re going—we’re not going to be having any private information turned on through this—through this click-through.

URBANSKI: Understood. So tell me about this New York pilot. Do we have a launch date for it? Will New York residents have an ad campaign telling them that they can do this? And how many people do you think will be involved?

REBLIN: Well, yeah, we’re planning a marketing campaign right now. A lot of the initial one will be—will be going out to customers that are currently active on or have signed up for My USPS. Those are going to be the first targeted customers, existing customers that use our website frequently. And we’re going to begin that in September. So our first phase will be customer acquisition.

In October is when we really start to try and bring the mailers on. And that’s when we’re going to start to show the images and start aggregating them out to the end customers.

URBANSKI: Got it. So as far as any mailers who are listening to this that are interested in it, should they contact you now?  Should they just wait until October? Is it going to be open to whomever wants to take part, or are you looking just for a finite set of test participants?

REBLIN: Well, right—we are looking for a finite set. However, right now any mailer that’s interested can contact me directly at [email protected], and we can get them in hold of the right people to be able to participate.

Now, it’s important to note that mailers that the end consumer would see all their mail pieces.  What we need is, if they want to participate and give us, for example, a click-through website, that’s the only time that they need to to get in contact with us, because we’ll give them a methodology to be able to do that.  And we’re working through that procedure right now.

But for the test, if they’re worried about that, it could be as simple as sending us the barcodes on the mail pieces and the website that they want us to go to, and then we’ll arrange the rest.

URBANSKI: And is there an added cost to the mailers for that—the click-through option?

REBLIN: No, not for the pilot. That’s the purpose of the test, is to look at all the economics associated with it and make the determination.  There’s no charge for the consumer. There’s no charge in the pilot. And what we’re doing is, we’re evaluating it, and then we’re determining whether or not we believe this pilot is popular enough to bring us additional revenue through market share, in which case we might make a decision not to charge. Either that, or a small, nominal click-through charge.

But that decision hasn’t been made yet, so that’s something—that’s one of the reasons why you run a test, so that you can get a better feel for how this—how this pilot could work, and the value proposition associated with it.

URBANSKI: Great, Gary. Well, very interesting development, digital mail in New York City this fall, right?

REBLIN: Absolutely. And if you want to know the exact ZIP codes, the ZIP codes are 100 through 119 and 066 and 069.

URBANSKI: Great. Hey, Gary, thanks a lot for imparting this valuable knowledge to our listeners today. I think they’re going to find it very interesting. And good luck with that test—or pilot, I should say.

REBLIN: Thank you very much, Al.

URBANSKI: Great. That concludes today’s session of DC Direct. Thanks for listening. Thanks to Gary Reblin for joining us today. And please, share the link of today’s podcast with colleagues who might benefit from these valuable tips. This is Al Urbanski signing off for DC Direct and Direct Marketing News.  Have a wonderful day.

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