Direct Mail Doubling Days Taking Longer

February 15, 2006       Mark Hrywna      

Nonprofits are tweaking the traditional forecasting tool they use to measure the success of mailings, so-called doubling days, in the face of what some say is slower mail delivery.

Ellenor Kirkconnell, acting executive director of the Association of Nonprofit Mailers, said she’s seen the deterioration of mail delivery during the past several years. She plans to meet with officials from the United States Postal Service this month to “figure out what’s at the heart of the problem,” and determine strategies to address it.

“It has been a problem for a few years. It’s coming more onto people’s radar screens,” she said, because the Postal Service is going through some growing pains.

The Postal Service is seeking to become a more streamlined organization, and along the way its hiccups have a ripple effect across the nation, Kirkconnell said.

There’s been discussion of consolidating several postal facilities and as facilities change, the Postal Service will seek to determine the best way to handle different kinds of mail and distribution, Kirkconnell said. Meanwhile, she said, “horrible problems are arising.”

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in December sent a letter to Postmaster General John E. Potter asking him to look into delivery problems in the Los Angeles area following numerous complaints from constituents.

Postal spokesman Gerry McKiernan said there hasn’t been much change in the service performance the past several years, with first class delivery scoring in the mid-90s and two- to three-day delivery in the high 80s. The Postal Service’s performance is measured independently by IBM consulting services, he added.

There are periodic, occasional delivery problems, McKiernan said, and the Postal Service currently is working through issues in San Diego, New Mexico and Central Florida. “We usually find in those instances, delivery problems occur right after holiday deliveries, which trigger route adjustments,” he said. Generally, those issues occur in areas of high migration and population increases, in the Southeast or Southwest, and in the more affluent areas.

The Postal Service did close a processing facility in Marina Del Ray, Calif., “but that’s not what resulted in the L.A. problems,” McKiernan said, as some believe. “Those likely are route adjustment issues.”

How quickly mail gets to its destination is critical to Nonprofit mailers. Just as important, if not more, is being able to tell when mail gets to its destination. Mailers forecast how successful an effort will be before it’s done.

“If you want to mail aggressively, you can’t wait for it to be over and then measure it,” said Rick Christ, senior consultant for npadvisors.com in Warrenton, Va. “The ability to use doubling days to measure direct mailing results is very important.”

The key to doubling day — the day when you can expect that half the responses have been received — is knowing the halfway point of the mailing, based on previous efforts.

“Doubling day is a very important prediction tool, but only if it’s consistent,” Christ said.

It used to be that you could count on doubling day to be about 16 to 18 days for standard mail. “It’s more like doubling month now,” said Richard Viguerie, president and CEO of American Target Advertising in Manassas, Va. He explained every mail class has been going up a minimum of about three days in delivery, so much so that it’s exceedingly hard to count on. “Every so often, it will double at 18 days,” but most items generally double at about 20 days, more likely 25 days for nonprofits.

For decades, first class mail used to double at 10 days, Viguerie said. “When first class goes from 10 days to 13 or 14 days…something is happening out there. I’m not sure what it is,” he said.

Larry Jones, CEO of Oklahoma City-based Feed The Children, said slower mail delivery may just be a matter of quantity. “You can handle only so much mail. We just try to go with the flow.”

He explained that, “From time to time, we move something back a couple days because we want to make sure it gets there by the end of the month.”

Several people in the industry seem to relate the slower mail delivery to the September 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax scares almost five years ago. The Brentwood postal facility in Washington, D.C., reopened in December, 2003 as the Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr. Processing Distribution Center, named for two postal employees who died from inhalation anthrax. The 14,000-square-foot facility underwent a $130-million decontamination and was closed for more than two years, but mail delivery has not returned to pre-2001 regularity as was expected, according to those familiar with D.C. mail delivery.

For nonprofits, forecasting mailings can affect not just visibility but also the bottom line.

“How long a delivery takes can have a significant effect on revenue for nonprofit organizations that are doing mailings,” said Geoffrey Peters, president of Creative Direct Response in Crofton, Md. Nonprofits are “mailing to optimize revenue; they don’t want to be mailing on top of another mailing.”

Most fundraising appeals are mailed just as another has reached its peak and is declining, that way there’s a package working throughout the year, Peters said. If the total cycle time for a mailing is 30 days, hypothetically that means a nonprofit can do 12 mailings a year. Should the cycle time grow from 35 to 45 days, that would cut the number of pieces of mail per year by a third.

“It changes the dynamics of the costs of the mailings because it ties up your money for so much longer,” Viguerie said. “And, you can’t get back in the mail quick.”

Soliciting a donor too often is also a problem caused by the slow mail. “The biggest concern for us, because we’re in the mail so often, we don’t have a lot of time for our mailings to get money back on return,” said Scott Wood, director of annual giving for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington, D.C., said. “When mailings start landing on top of another…we lose a lot of revenue from that first mailing.”

Since the fund is mailing so often, Wood said, they cannot move up mailing dates. “We’re locked in because we’re mailing so often.”

Historically, Wood said, they use a doubling day of about 17 days, but delivery really has ebbed and flowed, particularly last fall when the group experienced very slow times before delivery seemed to get back on track in December.

Lori O’Brien, senior vice president of national direct marketing for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., said her doubling day has crept up a bit in the past few years. What once took about 20 to 24 days to double now more likely doubles in 28 to 30 days.

Toward the end of the fiscal year, O’Brien said, she might back up mail dates to ensure revenue is received in time. “There’s more impact toward the end of the fiscal year than any other time.”

The American Cancer Society ( ACS) has experienced a deliverability increase the last two years, said Karen Gleason, mass market CRM lead for the ACS. “It seems to be getting worse the last 12 months,” she said.

Typically, the society’s acceptable window is 10 days, but some areas during the November campaign took up to 26 days, including longer-than-usual delivery times in Dallas, Los Angeles and Oklahoma.

“We articulate our concerns quite frequently to our USPS representatives” and various channels, Gleason said, but the lack of recourse is frustrating.

Given that it’s standard mail delivery, and not first class, sometimes it’s a matter of “you get what you pay for.” Not everyone concurs that mail delivery has slowed in recent years.

The Postal Service is in the midst of reviewing its processing facilities, but McKiernan emphasized that it’s not expected to affect mail delivery.

“It’s no secret to anyone that there has been a steady decline in first class stamped mail. And when you have a decline in first class stamped mail, you need fewer facilities to cancel the mail. If you can aggregate where you’re doing that,” he said, you could save time, effort and money by centralizing where mail is being canceled.

For the first time in two years, first class mail volume actually increased by 1.4 percent, he said, but that increase was attributed to pre-sort mail, which doesn’t need to be canceled. “People are moving in other directions, especially business. It’s more practical for businesses to prepare mail for us.”

Others have taken matters into their own hands to ensure the predictability of mailings.

“We’ve definitely seen a trend” of slower delivery, said Todd Baker, vice president of marketing and brand development at Masterworks, a marketing and development agency in Poulsbo, Wash., near Seattle.

The firm, which counts nearly 20 nonprofits as clients, has taken a creative approach to combating slower mail delivery. Masterworks has been identifying facilities where mail seems to flow quicker in the wake of the Postal Service eliminating some processing facilities. “Like anything, some people are going to work faster than others,” Baker said.

“We know which…are real quick, which are really picky as to pre-sorts,” he said. “We’ve identified various centers throughout the country we avoid,” Baker said. “ California was hit very hard the last year so we know how to avoid these centers.”

Baker said the firm’s mail mapping strategy has enabled the agency to consistently predict the timing of mailings, which is critical to clients in terms of cash flow and donations.

Mail delivery, Baker said, is progressively getting worse, and he believes it correlates to the post office attempting to be more profitable, equating it to the federal government closing military bases.

“I don’t think it’s purely financial; I think they try to be effective. In the middle of change, it’s always going to be painful. It takes a while to streamline, handle that kind of volume.” DRFE