Will Direct Mail Morph Into the Internet of Postal Things?

In his farewell speech at the National Press Club in January, outgoing Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe predicted that the marketing mail of the future would be tracked and priced using Web-like metrics such as pay-per-click. “We can measure with the Intelligent Mail barcode not only what day a person got a catalog, but also when they got it within an hour. You can actually see from the address who bought something in response to a mail piece, so we should be looking at a pricing scheme that’s performance-based,” Donahoe remarked.

That might seem like pie in the sky to most direct mailers who simply want the lowest price for the highest volume, but there’s one prominent member of the mailing community who thinks the ex-PMG is right on track. “The mailing industry is at an important juncture of transformation, with Internet, telecom, postal, and courier businesses coming together in new and interesting ways,” says Ramesh Ratan, CEO of postal equipment provider Bell & Howell. “In the future I see us more as the Internet of Postal Things.”

Ratan, who ran the AT&T Consumer Lab for Bell Laboratories and served as COO of the Direct Marketing Association before taking the helm at Bell & Howell, was recently named to sit on the Direct Marketing Advisory Board of the Universal Postal Union (UPU). As a leading voice for the marketing mail industry on the UPU, which regulates mail exchanges between 192 member countries, Ratan hopes to smooth the global path for a future of delivering goods and services through physical networks that are connected to digital networks.

“Just as a decade ago we saw mailers using databases to make marketing messages personalized and relevant to the individual, a decade later personalization becomes more digital, enabling more physical commerce,” says Ratan, who thinks Donahoe chose the right course in aggressively pursuing the shipping business. The topic, he says, will head his agenda on the international Marketing Advisory Board. “We need to address the transition from the physical mail-based business to mail and commerce,” Ratan says. “What are the economics, the market forces, the physical infrastructures? How do we take advantage of this?”

Ratan also shares Donahoe’s view that the posts of the world will always be with us, if in modified form. “I’m a big believer that physical mail will never go away. The businesses of people like Quad Graphics, InfoUSA, Experian, and Acxiom are going to continually evolve,” Ratan says. “People thought the Internet would make physical mail irrelevant. In fact, it’s getting much more relevant. It’s going to be an important part of the multisensory and multichannel experience that consumers are going to be looking for.”

According to Saudi postal official Sami Alowedi, who chairs the UPU’s Direct Marketing Advisory Board, direct marketing efforts make up some 30% of letter mail worldwide.

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