Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Future of the Document is the Future of Mail

In order to understand the future of mail, one needs to first understand the future of the document. The word "document" immediately congers up an image of a written, printed format. That image is too narrow in today's multi-modal communications world that includes information that can be provided printed on paper but also in numerous forms on a computer display or in text-messages, or other format on a wireless smart phone.

At the recent Document forum, Craig Le Clair of Forrester Research illustrated that companies develop three types of documents: Structured documents - identical or nearly identical documents that are sent to a large number of recipients at the same time;
On-demand documents - documents that are created in a way that allow the recipient to receive the document on their own schedule; and
Interactive documents - documents that use personalized information to create a document designed for one person. A fourth type of document, called Transpromo, represents an interaction between structured and interactive documents. These documents reflect the ability of new digital printers to develop personalized documents but print them as if they were a structured document. As such they neither fit the structured or interactive category but fall somewhat in between.

As the chart above shows mailed documents are primarily structured documents and to a lesser extent interactive documents. In both types of documents, and the transpromo documents that fall in between, the sender determines the schedule that the recipient receives the document.

The recent declines in mail volumes and shifts in mail mix reflect the growth of on-demand documents and a shift from structured and interactive mailed documents to their digital alternative (e-mail.).

Shift from Structured to On-Demand Documents
The documents that have shifted rapidly in this direction include financial payments and printed news and opinion, price lists and big-book catalogs. Travel and college brochures and catalogs are other examples of structured documents that have been replaced with websites that allow the recipient of the message to view information that once was printed.

Shift from Interactive to On-Demand Documents
The entire process of distributing specific prices to specific customers has changed so that much of this is produced. The use of web forms allow customers to do the paperwork on their own schedules that once required printing in an office. (Just think of how different the process is of opening a bank or brokerage account or making changes to the account. While a bank officer can combine your personal information into the loan documents in the branch off of the bank's computer, individuals can now do it on their own schedule without requiring the bank employee to act as an intermediary.)

Shift from Mailed Interactive to E-mailed interactive
This is the shift of personalized documents from printed to digital form. Business correspondence reflects this change. Also collaboratively produced documents that once were sent hard copy to other writers by mail or Express, now are sent as file attachments to that all parties can edit digitally, allowing the original author to make changes faster than ever before. E-mail also allow writers to use structured digital documents, whether in the form of pdf files that cannot be altered by the recipients in formats that are less restrictive.

Shift from Mailed Structured to E-mailed Structured
E-mailed structured documents are mass mailings from one sender to many recipients. These documents include:notices of bills and statements, newsletters, notices of new web content that is available for viewing, advertisements from vendors that the recipient has allowed to send e-mail and pernicious spam promoting get-rich-quick schemes or spreading viruses.

In many ways structured e-mail is nothing more than an digital glossy envelope. The real content is either an attachment to the e-mail or on a site which can be accessed by clicking on the link on the e-mail.

The one problem that senders have with e-mailed interactive and structured documents is that the recipient treats the messages, attachments and links in a similar fashion to on-demand web content. The more e-mail that the recipient gets the more likely that a particular message will be ignored until after the sender would like the e-mail viewed. The sender wants the recipient to look at the attachment or click on the link and take the appropriate action. For example, companies that e-mail bills want the link clicked so that the bill is viewed and payed. Advertisers want the advertisement clicked so that the advertisement is read and a sale made.

Senders of digital documents have found that mail can help increase the value of the documents that they have shifted to digital formats. Mail sent in conjunction with e-mails increases the sales that the the e-mail generates. Websites that offer a full catalog of products, describe a college, provide information on resorts or the schedule of a theater or outside venue will more likely be be accessed if potential customers receive mail enticing them to look. The combination of mail with e-mail and website content is receiving the greatest attention among advertisers but those sending bills and statements may find that combining post cards with e-mail bills may increase the speed that customers pay.

The mail sent from now forward will be different than what was sent before. Many mailers will find that electronic delivery is sufficient without supplementary encouragement of mail. For these senders, mail will become a legacy delivery method available only existing customers who have not chosen to switch to electronic delivery or to those new customers that request it. This is the expected direction of transactional mail, mail that represents over half of First Class volumes.

Those customers that that still use mail will use formats that are smaller and lighter generating less postage per piece. The proportion of letters, flats and cards will shift as customers experiment with formats that minimize their paper, printing, and postage costs. J.C Penney has announced that this fall it will send its last big book. J. C. Penney is not abandoning the mail. Instead it will send smaller specialty catalogs tailored to the interests of the recipient, directing them to the website for both a wider selection of options and the order process. Eddie Bauer has replaced some of its catalogs with post cards that direct the recipient to the website to see all of the deals available.

In the next six months, various parties will propose business models for the Postal Service. The viability of these models will depend on whether they will allow the Postal Service to adjust fast enough to decisions senders make regarding how they will produce and send documents and the impact that this will have on mail volumes, Postal Service revenues and the operating networks necessary to sell, collect, transport, sort and deliver mail.

Note: If you would like a clearer picture of the drawing, e-mail me at alan.robinson@directcomgroup.com and I will send the PowerPoint slide.

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