Postal Product People Attended the AFCP Conference
The entire USPS Product Team with responsibility for the type of mail products used by free paper publishers attended, and connected, with publishers and product show venders at the annual AFCP Conference in Baltimore. As guests of AFCP and MACPA, with Donna Hanbery, executive director of the Saturation Mailers Coalition (SMC) as tour guide, the team got a "deep dive" into all things free paper.

Steve Mills, the product manager with responsibility for saturation mail, and the director of product management mail services, Elke Reuning-Elliott, made it a commitment and a priority to attend most of the conference sessions Thursday and Friday. Tom Foti, the executive director of product management and head of the USPS Product department, participated for much of the day on Thursday, making his stop at AFCP while en route to attend the Postal Forum in San Antonio.

Taking advantage of the trade show break-out sessions, Donna introduced the team to Tim Bingaman at CVC, and the industry education materials produced by Paper Chain, to give a tutorial and oversight on the reach and readership of the free paper industry. While introducing the team at the Thursday awards luncheon, Donna credited Foti for his work in the past to help free papers send their mail with an unaddressed option, and applauded the Postal Services' recent lifting of the breakpoint from 3.3 ounces to 4 ounces as a step in the direction of serving the needs of free papers.

The breakout time was also a great opportunity to network and meet other publishers, including members of SMC's Steering Committee and longtime users of the mail, Carol Toomey, Steve Harrison, and Dan Alexander.

Everyone that spoke to the postal team was impressed by their engagement and sincere willingness to listen and learn about the industry. On Thursday, Steve and Elke attended two TLI courses. They saw Elaine Buckley demonstrate how to sell the value of mail, including mailed free papers, by its ability to target, saturate, and in the case of free papers, provide a readership vehicle that connects consumers and advertisers.

The Friday morning SMC/Postal break-out session was well attended with many mail publishers, and publishers that are not currently mailing, coming with questions and in some cases concerns about their mailings.

Elke and Steve were engaged, open and candid with the group. On many issues, Elke and Steve explained that some decisions and dilemmas were matters that needed to be handled on a local Postal level. Several publishers lamented the lack of promotions for 2018. Steve explained that the Postal Service had five promotions cued up and ready to go, but the current lack of an acting, independent, Postal Board of Governors prevented the Postal Service from getting the official approvals needed to go forward with any special pricing programs. Even annual price adjustments like an annual rate increase could not be filed or handled at the present time. Steve explained that the Postal Service's most recent price adjustment had been authorized and planned by an emergency Board Committee that was formed when the last Postal Board Members' term ended over eighteen months ago!

Steve and Elke assured the group that the Postal Service appreciated the value of promotions to its customers, and the way that promotions allowed the USPS and mailers to explore integrated media and advertising solutions. Steve stated that the Postal Service already had promotions in line and under consideration for 2019.

One of the highlights of the SMC/Postal break-out session, and indeed the entire time that the Postal team spent at AFCP, were the many comments that were made by publishers and vendors about the high level of engagement and interest that the Postal Product team was paying to each mailer, vendor, and publisher they met. Business cards and contacts were freely exchanged. Steve was at work collecting copies of papers and taking down questions and concerns for future follow-up actions.

One suggestion that received a positive response from the team and break-out session attendees was the idea of holding a periodic conference call or occasional webinar for the Postal Product group or other postal representatives to interact more with publishers that were currently mailing or considering mailing. One sentiment that the team heard again and again was that many publishers would like to mail, or mail more, or go back to the mail, if the Postal Service could just find a way to reward its best customers that are mailing a regular product such as a weekly paper, or bimonthly or monthly magazine, with a "better than retail" rate that recognized frequency as a value to the Postal Service. If the Postal Service could design a product or rate category for mailers/publishers that committed to a stated schedule, and a reliable time or window for mail entry (something that helps the Postal Service plan its labor force) and a higher weight allowance, the USPS could attract and keep a lot more publications.

Even publishers with their own home delivery carriers or working with private carrier companies were impressed by the curiosity and courtesies of the Postal participants. Steve and Elke were seeking information on private carrier options and the benefits that private carrier delivery could provide to publishers. Conference Award winner Karen Sawicz gave a tutorial about how her home delivery network helped her achieve a guaranteed weekend delivery and did not result in higher distribution costs, when she had as many as twelve inserts in a paper. But even Karen admitted that she would be interested in trying to mail if the USPS could find that sweet spot that rewarded weekly publications with a guaranteed delivery date window and a reasonable fixed price that did not vary greatly with weight.

Before leaving, I had nothing but positive comments and encouragement from Tom, Steve and Elke about the meeting and the opportunity to meet and engage with free papers in the future. The consensus from the Postal Product team was that AFCP stands for "The Association of Friendly, Charming People". After they left, I had nothing but positive feedback and follow-up from the publishers who had attended the SMC/USPS break-out session and other AFCP members. It is my hope that this Postal/Publisher get together is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and that the new Saturation Mail Manager becomes many of our members' "new best friend".


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