The U.S. Postal Service has never asked our opinion of their marketing, online or otherwise, but it seems like an interesting thought experiment. After all, the Postmaster General showed up on lots of channels last week explaining that the PO was giving up Saturday delivery because people no longer wanted their services. “You can’t beat free!” he wailed. He made dramatic gestures illustrating how people were just giving up using snailmail.
Imagine a small business saying, “It’s not our fault that we’re not doing well financially. People just don’t want our goods and services, that’s all.” Instead of finding out what customers actually do want and perhaps making some changes, the company in question decides to close up shop one more day a week. Would you back them?
The Postmaster General went on to describe reducing services as a “win-win.” I was hoping he’d explain how the customers would win, but he didn’t get around to that. He did say that the post office would save money by doing this. At no point did he suggest that people might want something that the post office had to offer, or that they would be making improvements of any kind.
You have to wonder — are they bad at marketing?
The USPS website offers lots of tools. You can track a package, look up a zip code, schedule a pickup, print out a shipping label. The site is professional looking and up to date.
There were some issues with the tools. They require you to create an account before you can print out a postage label, they failed to identify the post office nearest to my address, they require you to type in city, state and zip code (umm… if you type in the zip code, shouldn’t they be able to cover the city and state part?), and they charge $1.25 shipping and handling to send you a book of stamps, which I could totally do for 50 cents merely by mailing the book of stamps with a first class stamp, and they probably get envelopes cheaper than I do. “Excuse me,” I kept wanting to say, “aren’t you actually the post office?”
Still, these aren’t marketing issues. They may even be intended to force visitors to give up and go to a physical post office (just don’t believe them when they claim they know the closest one).
The website itself also has some issues, though. Stamps are sold in units of 1, apparently, for prices like $9.20 and $22.10. You have to scroll down quite a ways to find the actual number of stamps being provided. They’re unconvincing in their claims, too. For example, they’re selling PO boxes as ways to get your mail “where and when you want it,” but I think we all know that you have to go to the post office for it.
There’s very little marketing going on — I encountered “Why Use USPS?” on a mysterious page about learning and growing that offered certification in using the post office. Pursuing this intriguing idea, I found that I can attend a presentation on postal rates in Kansas City for $25. This seems like a lot to charge for a panel presentation on rising prices, but I suppose there must be people willing to pay. Why should we use USPS? Well, “Free Saturday Delivery**” was one of the biggies, along with being able to choose when and where to interact with the post office — as long, I think, as you’re willing to go to the post office when it’s open and stand in line.
There seems to be a general feeling that people have no choice and will therefore be willing to go to all kinds of trouble to get information or stamps, but the central issue is that we now do have a choice.
FedEx, for example, knows where my nearest office is, and they have a blog, too.
How’s the PO doing on social media? They’re on Facebook, with an enormous announcement of that “win-win” cancellation of Saturday service. Their posts include ads for products you can buy at the post office (when it’s open, and if you don’t mind standing in line), company news, a few community-building questions like “What does courage mean to you?” and service disruption announcements that stop just short of cheeriness: “Are you snowed in from Winter Storm Nemo? If so, your mail delivery could be interrupted as well.”
It doesn’t say, “So nyah nyah nyah,” but it stops well short of compassion.
Here’s the Google Places page for my local post office. No effort there. They have a review which shared their phone number, something they weren’t willing to do.
The post office is also on Twitter, where they have the same things as they have on Facebook. Twitter’s better than Facebook or G+, actually, since they sound human and have an occasional retweet, though it’s still pretty much all about them.
They’re also on Pinterest, though they don’t mention it on their website or promote it on Twitter or Facebook. They also have a total of 876 pins — far less than the average bride using Pinterest to facilitate her shoe and cake decisions. Most of their pins are pretty ad-like, too.
The USPS brought out a commemorative stamp on Rosa Parks’s birthday. What a fine opportunity that would have been to link to sites offering information about Ms. Parks! Instead, there were repeated post office-centered announcements, the “What does courage mean to you?” question, and a video showing the unveiling of the stamp.
The controversy over Saturday delivery? Not covered. There are lots of announcements, including repeated assurances that 7 out of 10 Americans are in favor of the move, but overall the social media message is, “Your service may be interrupted, it’s not our fault, buy our stamps!”
So what if the post office took a less defensive posture, moved its ads to its website instead of tweeting them, and provided some good content? Would people go back to using physical mail to pay bills? Probably not. But a campaign on how exciting it would be for people to get an actual physical letter might be a hit. Valentine’s Day is coming up — why not go all out on how much more romantic it would be to send a physical love letter than to email an electronic greeting card? Why aren’t they rocking Pinterest? This is an organization with some serious history and very photogenic products. Why, when online shopping is increasing exponentially, aren’t they working harder to get ecommerce sellers to choose USPS for shipping — where’s the valuable content for small ecommerce companies at their website and the connection with such companies in their social media?
They’re just not trying.
There’s a point at which a company — and that’s what the post office is, since it’s not supported by taxes — has to face up to change and make some changes itself, or lose out. Being cross with erstwhile customers for abandoning them when there’s a better option isn’t a great business move. Embracing online marketing and doing it right would be a very good business move.
So, USPS, here are some suggestions for you:
- You have lots of nice tools at your website, but how about some valuable content for your customers? Your competitors are doing it! Start blogging, at the very least.
- Social media is not actually supposed to be indistinguishable from advertising — nor is it merely a handy place for you to make announcements of bad news. How about answering the people who are talking to you, and maybe even talking to people?
- You have fame and history on your side — people will definitely listen to you. How about making better use of that power? “You can’t beat free!” shouldn’t be the most memorable thing you say when you have the whole country listening.