Commentary & Analysis
Suppose There was a Do Not Mail List?
by Noel Ward,
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: August 4, 2003
by Noel Ward, Executive Editor August 4, 2003 -- There was a lot of response to last week's articles about how direct mail is likely to change in the near future. One of the more intriguing came from Mr. Alan Winslow who noted that the Do Not Call list could well serve as a precedent for a Do Not Mail list. Always eager to play Devil's Advocate, the same thought had occurred to me as we prepared last week's issue. "Many people don't appreciate the bulk mail they currently receive, and with trash disposal rates going up all the time there could be a push against increases in bulk mailings," Mr. Winslow pointed out. "Further impetus might come from the environmental sector regarding the recycling of these materials." The waste factor is just one issue. While the growing ability to target specific groups of customers and even individuals will make direct mail far more efficient and cost-effective, it relies on managing massive amounts of personal information. Given many consumers' increasing reluctance to divulge personal information, I can see a revolt against direct mail regardless of how targeted direct mail is--and perhaps because it can be so highly targeted. As the volume of even relevant direct mail increases, it would be no surprise if consumers begin citing privacy laws and demanding legislation prohibiting companies from sharing information on people and enabling a Do Not Mail list. (I can already hear the DMA readying its lawyers and lobbyists.) Mr. Winslow suggested one existing model is the British postal service which is not supposed to deliver unsolicited mail. As I understand it (I didn't have details as I wrote this), if unsolicited mail is delivered the recipient simply writes 'return to sender' and the post office returns the mail--with the postage to be paid by original sender. It means companies must implement opt-in processes for mail solicitations or forego direct mail altogether. Imagine what such a scenario would mean in the United States. Ad agencies, mar-comm and design firms, service bureaus, printers, mail houses, and more would all feel the pinch--and more than a few would have trouble keeping the doors open and the lights on. (Would this be grounds for the government bailing out another industry?) This all fuels what Homi Shamir of Scitex Digital Printing noted last week as the way the most effective direct mail may well operate in the future. Because they are all but guaranteed to be opened, transactional documents with highly selective marketing messages may well be the preferred format for direct mail in the relatively near future. This fact is not lost on any of the print engine vendors or transactional and direct mail service bureaus. The costs of processing transactional documents and statements are key pain points for credit card providers and most banks, financial services and insurance companies. While the ongoing shift to electronic presentment serves a strategy for the future, paper documents are not about to fade away for some time. Printing and mailing these documents is expensive and these companies are all under pressure to control costs. Since it is possible to charge for use of space on transactional documents, marketing messages--targeted or not--will reduce some of the cost pressures on the transactional document side while giving marketers a way around any potential restrictions in direct mail solicitations. Transforming transactional documents in this way is not a small step for any of the companies involved. But it could well become a business imperative for many firms in the not too distant future.