The magazine industry needs to rethink many of its direct mail practices.

My mantra of late has been, "Our industry needs to self-regulate or Congress will regulate for us." If we don’t take serious action ourselves to eliminate marketing to children, marketing to the deceased, and all of the other sins we’ve gotten into the habit of committing, I’m afraid that we will become as popular as the telemarketing industry was several years ago, just before it was legislated out of business.

Aggressive Mailings

Earlier this year, I received a credit card in the mail that I didn’t request. Before cutting up the card, I called the company to cancel the account. I was told that I couldn’t cancel the account without first giving them my mother’s maiden name and/or other personal identity information. I couldn’t understand how they could create an account in my name without my permission and then demand that I jump through hoops to cancel it. Needless to say, I was steaming and vowed never to do business with this company.

Our industry appears to be having a similar effect on many of our consumers. When they become sufficiently upset, their resistance to direct mail grows until they finally get upset enough to call or write their Congressman. They may even sign a petition or join a protest group. Whatever action these consumers take, it’s bad for the future of our industry.

What Can We Do Better?

Almost everyone that you talk to seems to have a story about unwanted mail. Even worthy non-profit causes that are initially viewed with great favor quickly wear out their welcome when a simple donation results in list sharing and a deluge of solicitations from other organizations. People who have never thought of themselves as environmentalists suddenly begin to wonder what it is that justifies the sheer tonnage of coated stock that seems to be passing through their houses and offices. Over time, I’m convinced that consumers are going to do a slow burn on this issue until it reaches the boiling point. While every publisher wants to help the environment, we also can’t abandon our mailing efforts. What can be done better?

Responsible Mailings

First, all of my postal colleagues and I need to become the champions of good mailing practices within our companies. Yes, the marketing people tend to call the shots, because they "generate revenue" while we postal geeks are a "cost center." But any CEO worth his or her salt will support us once they are given the facts. Next, we have to look at things from the consumer’s perspective and think about what works and what upsets people. I recently subscribed to one of Time Inc.’s magazines and four of its competitors. I created a database of what I receive from each company and can determine best (and worst) practices from the consumer’s point of view. Finally, we need to develop programming that omits children from credit card mailings, more accurately de-dup lists, capture household moves more quickly, and pay strict attention to the feedback that we receive in our customer service areas.

In discussing this issue with my industry colleagues, I have been told on more than one occasion that studies show that mailing to recently deceased people yields positive results. Evidently, once someone passes away, you’re pretty much guaranteed that an Executor or family member will open their mail. That’s just great, let’s all keep mailing to the deceased list because it pulls. If we don’t change our behavior soon, it will be our industry that winds up on the deceased list. P

Jim O’Brien is director, distribution and postal affairs for Time Inc.