With the huge growth in smartphone and tablet ownership in the U.S. and Europe, technology entrepreneurs have set their sights on traditional direct mail for radical innovation, called digital mail. There are literally dozens of startups beginning to blur the line between print mail and digital mail channels in ways we have not seen before. The impact on organizations dependent on direct mail will be significant.
Two companies with big ideas on how to revolutionize print mail are the Austin-based company Outbox, and Catalog Choice with its new MailStop service. These services, with smartphone apps, do different things but have one thing in common: they stop direct mail from physically reaching consumers.
A Look at Outbox and MailStop
Outbox is a service that allows individuals to physically redirect household mail so that it never reaches the mailbox. Consumer mail is forwarded directly to Outbox where it is scanned, securely encrypted and delivered to a customer’s mobile device of choice. The physical mail is then shredded and recycled. Bigger packages are not affected – Outbox sends dimensional mail and parcels onward to the household mailbox unhindered. Outbox is the first company ever to partner with the USPS to make this logistically possible. The company is currently in the process of testing its digital mail service before a nationwide launch.
MailStop is an app developed by the nonprofit Catalog Choice, which was just acquired by TrustedID, a for-profit identity protection firm. The app allows users to opt-out with just a photo of a mailing captured by a mobile device. A similar app called PaperKarma promises to do the same thing. Unlike Outbox, these apps do not physically take control of your mail. Using photos snapped on a smartphone or tablet, the apps collect data on the recipient, sender and type of mailing. The service then contacts the mailer directly on behalf of the customer to complete the opt-out process. MailStop’s mailer database is built on the existing Catalog Choice participant list, while independent app PaperKarma casts a wider net, opting consumers out of mailings from any company in their database.
Both Outbox and MailStop are forcing the digitization of mail today, without waiting for USPS to signal a new direction.
Big questions for direct mail companies and mailers, such as Brickmill Marketing Services
Will these start-ups take off and become as ubiquitous as existing apps such as email? Will they jump start the concept of an official digital mailbox with USPS as a central facilitator, or will we see multiple competing mail “interceptors” and apps emerge, each offering a different spin on the concept?
In whatever form, mail “interception” on a wide scale would quickly result in a movement to direct partnerships between mailers and the service providers with large customer bases.
With Outbox, the delivery mechanism for direct response mail communications could leap from physical mail to 100% digital mail at a pace limited only by the viral nature of technological adoption.
If these services spread as fast as videos on YouTube and photo blogging on Tumblr and new social media entrant Pinterest, they could reach a critical mass of millions of users almost overnight.
The forecast for smartphone and mobile tablet growth in the U.S. by Forrester Research projects 126 million tablets and 257 million smartphones in use in the U.S. by 2016.
Fueled by these growth numbers and the rising cost of physical mail, Outbox, MailStop and PaperKarma are likely to be just the first in a lineup of tech startups that want to replace the mailbox outside your home with the mobile device in your pocket.
It remains to be seen if mail diversion services will be able to win the infrastructure funding, consumer traction and marketing partnerships required to fuel a logistically complex business model. Today direct marketers can glean a simple insight from the genesis of Outbox, MailStop, Paperkarma and similar concepts: mail and digital continue to converge in creative and potentially game-changing ways.