One reason snail mail feels so good to receive is because it wasn’t easy to send. When a letter lands in your mailbox, you know the mailer put thought into it—writing a note, scrounging up stamps and an envelope, and seeking out a blue box to drop it in. Paradoxically, it’s that same effort that makes the U.S. Postal Service less and less appealing to use.
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It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the rise of the internet hasn’t been great for the Postal Service. Americans are sending less mail than they used to, with overall volume falling 43 percent since 2001.
The key, it seems, is to focus on feelings. While pen pals and fan mail aren’t the cool traditions they once were, the OIG report bets that the emotional sentiment behind them can be bottled up and repackaged. In fact, 75 percent of survey respondents said receiving personal mail “made them feel special”—and we all know how much Millennials are supposed to like that.
Moreover, USPS market ruesearch shows that even though younger Americans send and receive less mail, they feel pretty good about the Postal Service overall: 80 percent of Millennial respondents said they were either somewhat or very satisfied with USPS.
Something to hold on to
Still, the desire to hold notes close has never gone away. Even the telegram, developed in the late 19th century, didn’t become the new social outlet some expected. “When you get the telegram, you don’t have the evidence of the physical presence of the sender,” said John. “People did not conduct love affairs or intimate long-term correspondences via telegram.” (The large-type STOPs probably helped kill the vibe.)
Snail mail, but tech-savvy
But survey respondents also want the post office to adapt to a more technological world. They like convenience, self-service options, and advanced notice of mail delivery. They want a rewards program, like the one at their local coffee shop. If the post office wants to engage the next generation of mail users, they’re going to have to reconcile the tension inherent in these findings, says John Althen, the other co-author. “The effort is intrinsically valuable, but that doesn’t mean that the process can’t be frictionless.”
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An extreme version of the post office digitizing the personal is its experimentation with augmented reality. Grandma could send a recording of her singing “Happy Birthday” along with a card; or colleges could accept you with a letter and an admissions video. “If there was a way to make postcards or actual cards have an augmented reality like that I would consider using the USPS much more often,” one respondent said. “I would look forward to receiving advertisements in the mail from companies that would use that.”
And while things sometimes get lost in the mail, at least they aren’t as susceptible to NSA surveillance. As data breaches and Russian hacks get more common online, DeBlois says the Postal Service could encourage young people to use mail as a more secure alternative: “Your snail mail isn’t going to be hacked.”
A new generation
A less promising finding showed that Millennials’ level of engagement with the mail service correlated closely with their living arrangements. Those who co-habitated with a partner were 44 percent more likely to send personal correspondence than those who lived alone, with parents, or with roommates. Bonus points for Millennials with kids, who were 57 percent more likely. That demographic is shrinking, though: In 1975, 57 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds lived with a married spouse; in 2016, it was only 27 percent.
The solution for USPS might be “getting engaged with them at several points of their life,” Althen said. If Millennials are renting more, they’re moving more. What many of them don’t know is that the Postal Service will send you online coupons for things like home decor when you file for a change of address.
“You can blame Millennials for a lot of things,” said John, who is 59 years old and has a teenaged daughter. “But you can’t blame them for killing mail.”
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