Our Chief Digital and Information shares his thoughts on why a letter delivered in the post is as important as an email.
As you would likely expect, as a technology leader I am a strong advocate of digital communication and firmly believe that a time will come when physical delivery is the sole reserve of birthdays and Christmas.
As such the title of this piece, may at first glance appear odd. Why would a technologist be extoling the virtue of paper based communication above the wide variety of options on offer in the new omni-channel world?
The simple answer is that I truly believe that physical communication continues to play a key role in a cohesive customer communication strategy and if overlooked organisations can miss some great opportunities to strengthen the customer relationship, enhance the customer experience and ensure vital messages are delivered successfully.
Wider opinion on this topic generally leans towards digital but more often than not this is motivated by cost reduction first and foremost and then by a desire to consolidate and simplify customer communications across an organisation. These two motives often go hand in hand and there can be a perception that this in turn will lead to a better customer experience. There’s no doubt that digital delivery is quicker, has multiple channel options and in the long run is cheaper however improvements in speed, range and cost do not always translate to a better customer experience.
There are many reasons for the enduring relevance of physical delivery and customer experience is central to this thinking but most importantly if used effectively physical delivery can help businesses ensure that messages reach the intended audience and land effectively.
I’ve tried to capture the main topics below.
According to ONS statistics UK household access to broadband has flattened off in recent years with 93% of households now able to get online in some form. With 27.6 million households in the UK that’s circa 1.9 million households without access.
Furthermore, as most middle agers will attest, having explained how to use email (or any other digital service) for the ‘nth’ time to an elderly parent, internet access does not immediately translate to ‘technology literacy’.
KeepMePosted.org.uk, a consumer group championing the right to choose paper bills, cites that 4.5 million adults have never used the internet, 20% of those in debt had no access to the internet and a high percentage of vulnerable people either have no access to the internet or find it difficult to navigate.
It’s a common assumption that everyone is living online, it’s simply not true.
It also worth noting that older technologies such as SMS are limited in content and enjoy only seconds of attention; and email, whilst considered the de facto successor to post, often falls foul of filters and can easily be lost in amongst the constant barrage of communications that people receive every day.
Whatever the short comings of physical delivery, the delivery address is static and pretty reliable and even if the intended recipient doesn’t pick up the letter you can be sure that someone else in the house will open it, out of curiosity if nothing else.
Effect and Impact
But choosing paper communications isn’t just about ensuring delivery it also represents an opportunity to ensure a message is digested properly and to demonstrate to the customer that their loyalty is truly valued.
According to a survey of 3000 consumers in the UK run by KeepMePosted; 82% who received a paper statement remembered it accurately versus 32% for online statements and 75% assessed the paper statement accurately versus 48% for online statements. Other studies have also shown that the percentage of people distracted whilst viewing information online is significantly higher than that for people reading from paper. Finally, whilst book and magazine sales have fallen there are still many advocates of the physical medium, evidence enough that people value something they can touch.
A physical delivery also offers the opportunity to ‘wow’ the customer in ways that don’t necessarily translate to digital. Personalisation, inserts in envelopes, pictures for the children to colour, perhaps Sudoku or word searches in the white space. There are many creative ways of making a paper communication something special, that endears a customer to a brand and reinforces human and caring values which are held dear in the modern world.
Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that digital communication isn’t durable (it sticks around for ever in most cases, even when you delete it) it can sometime be hard to find even with the best search engines. SMS suffers from a very similar problem.
It’s also probably fair to say that we rarely print off an email and pin it to a notice board or put it on the side for later. ‘Hardly a reason to send via the post’ you might say. But consider this, every day that the letter holds pride of place on the kitchen table is another day where your brand is exclusively on full display to every member of the house every time they walk past. As subliminal marketing goes that’s about as good as it gets.
In terms of delivery durability you can’t beat a post man, they come to our doors in rail, hail or shine and are the bell weather for reliability. Of course I’d be foolish to say that the technical services I deliver are unreliable, they are anything but, however the same cannot be said for home computers, mobile phones, laptops etc. If the household PC is off line so is the delivery channel and let’s face it, that can also be a very convenient excuse for not responding.
Finally, indirectly related to customer experience is regulation. Whilst not all market regulation demands physical delivery, regulatory bodies invariably require businesses to ensure vital communications are delivered effectively.
The financial services market regulation is perhaps the best example of this where the BCOBS sections of the FCA handbook set out clear guidance in relation to communication but specifically in relation to statements;
‘A firm must provide or make available to a banking customer on paper or in another durable medium such regular statements of account as are appropriate to the type of retail banking service provided’
Clearly regulation will change over time and it’s not inconceivable that this type of prescriptive guidance will fall away however the spirit of such guidance is driven by the need to protect those customers who cannot access digital communication of which there continues to be a surprisingly large number.
So, having made the case, I wouldn’t want the reader to think I’m anti-digital, ultimately digital communication is the overwhelming direction of travel and it’s hard to ignore that the costs of physical delivery can be several times higher. However neither can we ignore the many millions of people who have no access to technology and those who struggle to navigate and understand the bewildering array of digital communications.
For these customers paper communications continues to be the only realistic means of delivery.
Also as noted paper isn’t just for the vulnerable, if used effectively as part of a broader strategy it has the power to make customers smile and to establish a lasting positive brand impression.
After all everyone loves a letter don’t they?