A Lesson in Bad Direct Mail List Preparation–from the USPS

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A Lesson in Bad Direct Mail List Preparation–from the USPS

I am a born and bred direct marketer. I learned about direct mail from the legends of the industry – Ed Mayer, John Yeck, Paul Sampson, and Rose Harper – at a seminar for college marketing students sponsored by the Direct Marketing Association in the 1970s.  And though I often recommend social media and other marketing strategies to clients of my marketing agency, direct mail is still my first love.

Like all direct marketing practitioners, I’ve been dismayed to watch the U.S. Postal Service struggle for survival. As the organization tries to right its ship by cutting costs, it’s also trying to grow revenue by drumming up new business from mailers.

That’s the right thing to do, but perhaps not the way the USPS is doing it.

Case in point: The latest USPS direct mail campaign mailed to my marketing firm this week. Here’s where the USPS went wrong and how to avoid this mistake in your smart marketing strategy.

Nice Mailing, Terrible List Prep

The USPS is using direct mail to promote its shipping services to businesses and they’ve done a lot of things right with their latest direct marketing campaign. They’ve selected the right target market and the right service, created an attractive, three-panel selfmailer, and made a good offer: a free shipping kit. There’s a strong call to action, a personalized URL (PURL), and a QR code, many of the elements of effective business-to-business (B2B) direct mail.

So what’s wrong with the mailing? The addressing.

Our marketing agency got five copies of this promotion and all were addressed to us at our old office suite number, though we moved three years ago.

Even worse, only two are correctly addressed to individuals who still work here. Two were sent to me, one correctly addressed and one to Gean Gianfagna, an erroneous spelling of my name from an old, compiled B2B list that never seems to go away.

USPS-Side-1-300x168Two others are addressed to former employees who moved on more than five years ago. One of these former staff members got the mailing in her maiden name and she’s been married for 10 years.

Yes, we received all the mail, so they effectively delivered it, and that’s to their credit. But how effective is the message when it’s sent to the wrong people? Especially people who are no longer at the address?

The Shoemaker’s Children?

What’s most ironic about this direct marketing campaign is that the mailer with the list problem is the organization whose job is to deliver the mail.

Why didn’t their merge/purge pick up the likely duplication between Jean and Gean with the same last name at the exact same address? Why is the suite number wrong on all the mail? And how did they end up using a B2B mailing list with data that’s at least five years out of date – and in our case, 10 years?

Unfortunately, much of their investment in good creative and the postage they spent to send it to us, five times over, is wasted on an outdated list and a bad merge/purge.

The Key Lesson for Your Smart Marketing Strategy

As a marketing consultant, I strongly believe in the value of direct mail in a marketing plan. I also know that every mailing list has errors and B2B lists are notoriously difficult to keep current.

But that’s what list hygiene is for—to correct mistakes and get as much of the mail as possible delivered to the right people at the right place. To achieve this, you need to start with the highest quality mailing lists and follow the industry’s best practices for data management.

The most important lesson direct marketers can learn from this example is that no matter how creative your direct marketing campaign is or how valuable your offer, if you mail to the wrong people at the wrong addresses, you’ve wasted your money.

I hope the Postal Service will be able to apply this lesson to future direct mail campaigns with better list selection and preparation. Direct marketers like me are counting on their success.

  • James E. Sullivan

    My client, the USPS, wanted to mail out a 10 lb box of 25 sales literature to 20,000 USPS Locations to upsell the small business community in those 20,000 locations. 5,000 of those boxes were returned as un-deliverable and went back to my fulfillment house, who were not very amused. This was 16 years ago… The post offices had moved, closed or burned down. Either way, 5,000 boxes came back to haunt them. I collect disaster stories, I have lots of others, please tell me yours.

    I can’t make this up.

    Jim Sullivan
    Project Director

    November 8, 2011 at 11:18 am
  • Badtux

    One point: There was no actual postage involved in the USPS mailing you this, because it was mailed for the marginal cost of sending a single letter, which is somewhere in the millicents. The vast majority of the USPS’s costs are infrastructure and personnel, which are fixed costs which do not change with mail volume (thus the problem when mail volume declines but these fixed costs do not).

    Furthermore, the incremental cost of printing these flyers was only ink and paper, because the USPS already owns their own printing presses (for printing stamps) and has the personnel on staff to run those presses (ditto). My guess is that they did the math and figured out that printing an extra three or four flyers per business at a total incremental cost of maybe one cent per flyer was cheaper than hiring a consultant like you to do a mail merge and mailing list update. I.e., hiring the consultant in their case would be both penny foolish and pound foolish.

    Now, do these facts regarding the USPS apply to any other business in America? No. So you have a good point. It’s just applied to the wrong example.

    December 27, 2011 at 4:17 pm
  • Direct Mail Campaigns

    Nice blog, these key lessons are very useful for direct mail marketing.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:50 am
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