Mail Drop. (News Analysis)

Article excerpt

Responding to the public's anxiety about contaminated letters, publishers have revamped direct mail campaigns to eliminate plain envelopes and are considering telemarketing and e-mail efforts so consumers will know a solicitation is on the way.

In mid-October, as the anthrax scare escalated, Postmaster General John Potter appeared on television almost as often as President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. From NBC to CNN, Potter made the media rounds attempting to allay fears that the United States postal system had been turned into a weapon of bioterrorism.

On October 24, however, Potter finally had to admit that there were no guarantees that the mail was safe. The statement was later softened by healthcare officials who said the chances were small that residential mail would be contaminated-but it was too far past the turning point.

The fear of anthrax-laden letters had already changed the way the public views anything that lands in the mailbox. So many Americans had shied away from local post offices that, by early November, USPS mail volume had dropped 10 percent--creating an even greater strain on the financially battered USPS. And magazine publishers, who depend on the Postal Service to deliver everything from direct mail solicitations to bills and renewals, are now in for some anthrax-induced anxiety of their own.

HOW BAD WILL IT BE?

Heightened security and logiams in corporate mailrooms will almost certainly hurt direct mail response in the business-to business sector, say publishers. The closing of contaminated mail centers and a general slowdown in service may cause cash flow concerns for some media companies as bills go unpaid. And while the scare is not limited to the mail stream-the cornstarch-based powder used by printers to keep magazine pages from sticking has stirred hysteria in a handful of consumers who thought it was anthrax--its effect on subscription solicitations will certainly prove the most challenging.

Direct mail generates about 65 percent of all consumer magazine orders, according to Dan Capell's editor of "Cap ell's Circulation Report." So publishers are nervously trying to gauge just how damaging the effects of the anthrax assaults will be. Direct Marketing Association president and CEO H. Robert Wientzen told Folio:'s sister publication, Media Buyer's Daily, that he expects the overall drop in direct mail response to be less than 5 percent. But some publishers foresee steeper declines: Ken Turtoro, circ director for the Advertising Age Group, expects response for a mailing that dropped September 7 to be 10 percent below original projections. And orders at F+W Publications, Jnc.--home to Writer's Digest and Popular Woodworking--were 27 percent off-plan during September, according to David Lee, F+W's vice president of corporate marketing.

Anecdotal evidence collected by the Magazine Publishers of America indicates that mass market titles will be "hit hard," while more targeted niche magazines may fare better, says executive vice president and general manager Michael Pashby.

TIME TO REVAMP

The timing of the anthrax scare was not the most propitious. When it comes to direct mail campaigns, December is the busiest month, for that's when response is the highest. Publishers can't afford not to mail, says Pashby. And at press time, all publishers interviewed said they were indeed going forward with their original mail dates.

The one reprieve is that circulation executives have had time to review and revamp direct mail solicitations to avoid using plain envelopes, hand-written personalization and other elements that might now be viewed as "suspicious. …