USPS turmoil snail mail

216: Direct Mail Tips During a USPS Controversy

Nothing is just news anymore. It must be a controversy, and that controversy quickly spins into conspiracies. The same holds true of all the chatter right now around the United States Post Office (USPS). My friends on the left think a former Donald Trump donor is helping his candidate throw a stick in the front wheel of the November elections, giving him a built-in excuse to challenge the election results if needed. My friends on the right think Democrats are trying to rig an election by mass-producing fraudulent votes for Joe Biden and suppressing votes for Donald Trump. Bad actors have been caught, trashing candidates’ bulk mail or even destroying or changing actual ballots, which only tosses Tannerite on the outrage.

Miles from the current political debate, the USPS has been downsizing for years now. They’ve been closing intermediate hubs to create fewer stops between larger hubs. (I learned of this several years ago from my mail house, because their local hub became a beneficiary of the closure of other hubs.) Some of the changes being made now have been in the works for months or even longer. Cost-cutting measures like restricted overtime have been exacerbated by COVID, as employees get sick or have to miss work to protect a family member.

For more than a decade, my clients have told me about mail that was a month late or even years late. When those stories happen right now, their anecdotes can sounds less like the anomalies and more like evidence of something sinister or dilapidated.

It reminds me of when I asked the DMV attendant in Indiana why my vanity plates would take a year to arrive when I could get them within 30 days back home in Maryland. With a straight face, she replied, “We have slower inmates.”

Let’s assume we have the equivalent of slower inmates right now retrieving, sorting, transporting, and delivering the mail. If that’s the case, what should auctioneers do to adapt to this reality? First, it’s important to note that my recommendations have been the same for a decade now; they are maybe more critical right now. Just as COVID has both (1) accelerated the adaptation of some companies & practices and (2) fast-forwarded the demise of other businesses & systems, this USPS slowdown stands to have Darwinian effects. Here are three tips to survive as one of the fittest.

Trust the tease.

The obvious, easy answer is that we should mail earlier. If your sellers aren’t giving you any longer marketing periods, just mail quick, teaser postcards with the photos and basic information you can gather on the day you sign the sales contract or shortly thereafter (weather permitting). You can get your full info on your website when you have it. You can showcase your lineup shots, your drone photography, or your staged images in your social media ads when time allows.

I’ve seen auction mailings derailed for weeks because of multiple rounds of proofing and haggling over tiny details. With no tiny details on a piece, proofing is way faster. If people aren’t interested in the headlines, it doesn’t matter if you’ve cataloged the auction or staged the home yet. I’ve watched clients absolutely stress over a multi-page brochure print deadline when they could’ve mailed a serviceable postcard a week prior.

Use USPS presorting.

If your mail house isn’t leveraging USPS presorting, alert a paleontologist. You’ve got a dinosaur on your hands. If you’re still printing labels instead of jetting names, addresses, and barcodes on your mail, you’re just asking for late delivery. Presorting is built into most mail house software. It addresses each piece in groups by area code to make processing in the USPS post offices and transport hubs more efficient. I recommend using a print vendor that uses variable data printing to address your pieces while they’re being printed. This tightens up the turnaround time even more.

Track every mailing.

I work for seventy to ninety auction companies a year, and I don’t need all the fingers on one hand to count how many use tracking URLs on their direct mail. They have no idea how many people come to their website from their mailing, which means they have no idea how effective it is. That’s job security for me, but it’s willful ignorance for them. I’ve checked: most of my clients could get www.[theirname]mail.com and/or www.[theirname]postcard.com. If they grabbed those cheap domains, they could track in real-time from their Google Analytics how many people have come to their site via their mail and when those visits happened. During this COVID + politics + controversy season, this would be a great way to see how long the mail is actually taking to arrive. The key is twofold: (1) use that URL only on direct mail pieces and (2) keep that URL shorter and easier to type than their company name or current URL. Once someone can Google your company faster than that keying in that URL, you’ll lose data. 

For those worried about branding your URL, know that Fortune 500 companies use custom URLs to track print advertising; and we all still know who all of our favorite brands are. Corporate America has trained consumers that tracking URLs are an acceptable practice, especially when they come with a special offer. Your company brand should be stronger than your URL brand, anyway. None of us own tractors.com or realestate.com. Our URLs aren’t as precious as we’d love to think.

Whatever your political or even nonpolitical view of the United States Post Office is right now, I hope you’re using it effectively and efficiently. If you aren’t, that’s actually an auctioneer problem more than a USPS problem. The good news, though, is that you can be part of the solution, part of those adapting to changing marketplace conditions. While chickens run around without their heads or tell us the sky is falling, we can drive targeted traffic to what will hopefully be successful auctions.

Stock images purchased from iStockPhoto.com

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