The Great Postage Debate: Can it Really Pack a Punch?
Oh, the plight of poor, misunderstood postage. You certainly can't send mail without it. In truth, an outer envelope looks rather bare with an empty upper-right-hand corner; yet, mailers seem to harbor mixed feelings over just how neutral this territory actually is.
One camp regards postage as nothing more than an expenditure, perhaps part of a tertiary round of testing (at best) reserved for only the largest mailers with equally large budgets. Others raise postage out of the confines of inconsequence and deem it an integral part of creative development. Caroline Zimmermann, president and CEO of The Zimmermann Agency, even goes so far as to regard it as the "unsung hero" of a direct mail package.
In any case, when an issue is marked by such strong, divergent opinions, it's often fruitful to take a second look. That choice might just turn out to be worth much more than 39 cents.
What's Your Type?
While specific ideologies differ, direct marketers have found common ground on at least one point: "[Postage] can play a strategic role in helping get the piece to the right person ... and making it look so intriguing that it gets opened first," summarizes Pat Friesen, president of Pat Friesen & Co. When chosen with the right amount of care, each of the various types of postage has the power to connote something specific to a prospect that will both support the overall feel of a mailing and act as an impetus to get it read.
- Stamp. In the postage hierarchy, live stamps often are revered as king. Friesen relates, "I believe when a person gets a piece of mail that has that little piece of artwork in the corner, they look at it differently." Why? Doug King, a team sales manager for the U.S. Postal Service, suggests that it supports the private, almost intimate, power of the mailbox. By taking on the form of friendly correspondence, a package with a stamp becomes a personal piece and earns the right to make it past the gatekeeper and into the living room, he says. But, everything does have a place and time. "Take the power of the mail and use it ... [but] don't send a double message," he advises. Meaning: If it's obviously an advertising piece, using a live stamp will do little to help your cause.
- Meter. Although you can't put your recipient's name up there, it can be argued that the meterbe it live (stamped with a machine) or faux (indicia with the look of a meter)has earned a place on the personalization bandwagon. According to Jay van Wagenen, owner of Pittsburgh-based JVW Direct, you have the option to speak to your audience through a choice of specifically designed slugs (e.g., an American flag for a package that targets veterans). Further, a meter brings to mind mail on a less-grand scale, as though it'sbeen hand-stamped by a small-businessowner. It bridges the gap between personal and professional, Zimmermann says, because it retains the idea that a mailing was touched by a human being while retaining a businesslike aesthetic.
- Permit indicia. Generally, the permit indicia holds status as the more formal postage option. Financial institutions, corporations and most B-to-B mailers often will use an indicia because, simply, it is easier, more cost effective and, according to Zimmermann, contributes to the more pristine look of large-scale mailings. An indicia can help make a big print impression (especially if mailed First Class), notes King, or be made to look relatively inconspicuous so as not to interfere with messaging, a tactic Zimmermann sometimes employs. Either way, an indicia is a more economical choice, as it is paid for through an account with the Postal Service and lacks any special effects, keeping the balance between postage cost and ROI on a more level playing field.
- Customized postage. The U.S. Postal Service currently is partnering with vendors Stamps.com, Endicia.com and Zazzle.com on a market test of customized stamps for commercial mailings. During this one-year test, which is scheduled to run through May 2007 but may be extended based on response, mailers can design First Class stamps that include brand elements, like logos and URLs, or effort-specific messaging. Beyond these stamps, other opportunities exist for customizing postage, asserts Friesen, who encourages her clients to test indicia of their own creation (using Postal Service guidelines). "I've seen that done in some very interesting ways. Again, it makes your piece stand out and makes it more intriguing," she says.
Why You Aren't Testing ...
Postage testing might be a crafty way to ensure your piece becomes something special in the mailbox, but the practicality of it seems perpetually to be called into question. Even consultants who want to encourage the idea don't because many mailers tend to resist even the thought of including it in their budgets.
However, it wasn't always this way, van Wagenen attests. She recalls postage being one of the eight to 10 creative tests included in each mail drop by the insurance company where her career first began. While she found that "things would do really well that you wouldn't dream would make a difference," it's clear that postage often doesn't capture enough of a buzz to justify spending testing dollars on it. Even Zimmermann, who regards postage as a crucial element, says, "I really don't test it because no one wants to spend the money. ... Everybody's got really tight budgets these days and [it's] not what they're thinking of as the next big thing."
... And Why You Should Start
Exceptions to every rule do exist and, as Friesen relates, "In some cases, [postage] can make a significant difference." So how can a mailer determine whether postage will be a deciding factor in the success of a package or an irrelevant add-on? The answer lies in the creative blueprint of the mailing as a whole. Van Wagenen suggests, "I think postage has the same weight as any other design or copy element on an outer." Zimmermann agrees saying, "It has to work hard, just like everything else on the envelope has to work hard."
Some things to ask yourself:
- Is there a specific approach to the package? (personal, businesslike, etc.)
- Can specially designed or additional postage support branding?
- Is the package obviously direct mail or is it more discreet?
- What type of company is it? (e.g., corporate, nonprofit)
Both King and van Wagenen indicate that if your outer envelope creative is especially powerful or forthcoming about the nature of the mailing, postage won't change your outcome much. However, when integrated into a clever creative strategy, it can have a measurable impact on a mailer's bottom line.
Friesen references a well-known control package from environmental advocacy group Sierra Club, which has a conspicuous, multifaceted postage design featuring three faux stamps (produced as one sticker with white perforation marks separating the images) alongside a red faux meter. Each sticker includes a word from the nonprofit's mission statement and an image from nature. It might seem over-the-top, but Friesen suggests that it could be a part of an overall branding effort. "I'd like to think they [tested] because it looks like it could add quite a bit of expense. [The sticker isn't] real postage, but it affects the perception of the postage ... plus it supports the brand message, which makes the money work even harder," she suggests.
In the same vein, King cites a consultant he knows of who, on a past package for an insurance company, used an indicia made to look like a meter (eagle and all) as part of its official-looking design goal. "They found that very successful ... it's given them about a 12 percent increase ... and it's now their control," he says.
The main takeaway from these stories is that postage can create strong feelings in the mind of your recipient and, thus, instances exist when it can earn its keep in the world of testing. Van Wagenen agrees: "It's there on the envelope, it's getting noticed whether it's subliminal or not ... why not make it work for you?"
Five Tips to Try
Want to give postage a more exalted place in your creative design? Or, perhaps, even start testing? Read on for five helpful tips from Caroline Zimmermann, president and CEO of The Zimmermann Agency.
1 Color Commentary. More than 70 percent of the big-name publishers whose vouchers Zimmermann has in her collection use red, live meters, as opposed to standard black. "The red gives a little more bang for your buck. ... It stands out there a little more," she says. Plus, red ink typically is reserved for First Class mail, which could be enough to get it fast-tracked to the recipient's high-priority pile.
2 Season's Greetings. Because it's marked by an influx of mail, Christmas typically is when to opt for a stamp. You're going for a whole different sell, Zimmermann maintains, so the personal approach really works.
3 Move It. On a notable Kiplinger's package, Zimmermann transferred the postage down from its traditional spot in the upper-right-hand corner to the same area of a faux address label. It's eye-catching because it looks like something's missing, she says, adding, "and the minute you get somebody's attention, you're on the way to getting them to open your envelope."
4 Disappearing Act. If postage will interfere with a message, make it as inconspicuous as possible. Play with contrasting colors in the same tint so that an indicia is clearly readable but not punching you in the nose, Zimmermann says.
5 Something Like the Real Thing. What's a cheaper alternative to a live stamp? Zimmermann offers this solution: Put a "ruffled" box around your indicia, a little tint behind it and the meter marks to the left, and emboss the entire thing so it raises up a little bit. It will look and feel like a real stamp.