21 Apr Only letters can deliver a truly magical moment
Richard Travers heads up the Wholesale and Revenue Integrity unit for Royal Mail, which includes the letters side of the business – and sponsorship of the SMP – falling within his remit. Here, he talks about the challenges currently facing Royal Mail, how mail can become a key element of digital campaigns, and the vital role the SMP has in shaping future initiatives.
When Richard Travers was just seven years old and living with his parents in the Solomon Islands, the arrival of a letter from his granny thousands of miles away in England was a truly magical moment. He clearly recalls the excitement of a letter landing on the doormat – and how delighted his mother was when her copy of Vogue also arrived.
The family were based in the Solomon’s for five years in what Richard describes as a fairly isolated community, while his father worked as the inspector of schools for the British government.
The pleasure a letter can bring is something that’s remained with him to this day – enabling him to fully appreciate the way that mail can touch its recipient in a way that emails and texts simply cannot match. And the personal connection mail brings is one of the reasons he says it has a vital role to play in the future of communications.
And the personal connection mail brings is one of the reasons he says it has a vital role to play in the future of communications.
A career at Royal Mail
Richard’s current remit includes the wholesale side of the Royal Mail business, which encompasses letters, as well as revenue integrity across the business’s entire portfolio – essentially ensuring the company is fairly paid for its services.
Having joined the company in 1990 on the graduate finance scheme, he has been with Royal Mail ever since, with the exception of a brief three-year stint elsewhere. During his time at Royal Mail he has performed a broad range of roles across the organisation, from regulation to operations and commercial. As his roles have changed, so too has the organisation itself and the challenges that it faces.
“Obviously, there have been many changes in that time, from the vanilla to the seismic!” he says.
His current role includes heading up the letters business unit, working on products, prices, incentives and contract management. This includes ensuring the letters offering remains relevant for businesses, supporting companies with their customer journeys both now and in the future.
While the letters market undoubtedly faces significant challenges in 2021, Richard describes moves to include barcodes on stamps a pivotal move that will enable the business to improve customer service and ensure Royal Mail is fairly paid for the services that it provides.
A pilot scheme currently under way will see 20 million barcoded stamps sold through Royal Mail online as a prelude to an anticipated full roll-out in the autumn. The barcodes sit alongside the main body of the stamp and will be colour matched to the stamp itself, separated by a simulated perforation line.
He sees barcoding as playing a vital part in an exciting future for the market as a whole. “We are essentially a 500-year-old industry but we are evolving and adapting,” Richard said. “The markets are changing rapidly and, like in most sectors, the adoption of technology creates both a challenge and an opportunity for us and our customers – and that’s what we need to grasp.”
He anticipates that the use of data will be key to integrating mail into the wider marketing mix, as brands becoming increasingly reliant on it. While guidelines may change – the introduction of GDPR, for example – he cites the development of partially addressed mail as an example of how different industry partners can work together to create new opportunities for brands to advertise their services.
“Going forward, we will increasingly see data in general as a lifeblood for our industry. It enables so many different things, including truly personalised communications and more effective integration of mail as part of a wider media campaign. Today, brands have far more data than they’ve ever had before. This reliance on data and how it’s used by companies becomes really important, and I believe mail has a key place in that.
“We are now able to integrate letters more fully into the marketing and business environment, using developments such as Mailmark Direct Data, that enables our information to be incorporated into our customers’ data sets to provide more live information. We are committed to investing in how we can make letters relevant in the media choices that our customers have – and we will continue to do so.”
Incentives’ role in coping with a black swan event
With a global pandemic on top of a predicted year-on-year decline of 5-7% in letters, coupled with unprecedented parcels growth, the past 12 months have presented unprecedented challenges for Royal Mail. However, Richard views the Covid-19 crisis as a one-off step change when many industries experienced decline or growth at an accelerated pace.
Despite continuing uncertainty in the letters market, Royal Mail’s ability to offer relevant incentives at a time when customers most needed them has provided some resilience. The Open for Business and Back to Business incentives pinpointed customer pain points then offered solutions that were eagerly taken up.
Both schemes achieved significant traction in the market, with Open for Business and Back to Business both generating millions of incremental mail items.
“What is clear is that incentives have a role to play in bringing people to our services,” Richard said. “We will need to continue to review our offerings and their role throughout 2021 to ensure they remain relevant and convenient for our customers.
“Mail is competing with other channels that are perceived to be cheaper, so we do absolutely need to drive on brands’ understanding of effectiveness as well as efficiency.”
“The introduction of our economy product, for instance, will be extremely beneficial for customers who are looking for better value for non-time critical deliveries. The important thing is that we continue to ensure our products and incentives are as efficient and relevant as they can be.”
Advertising mail revival
Richard predicts that the recent resurgence in advertising mail will continue as businesses understand the vital role that mail plays in the marketing mix. During lockdown, research illustrated a heightened response to physical mail, with people touching and acting on communications more than ever – an increase of around 70% during the first lockdown.
Crucially, mail was used to drive online engagement, underlining its role in a multi-channel approach that creates value for customers, supporting e-commerce activities and online purchases.
Trusted industry sources such as JICMAIL demonstrated that mail drives people online, with online purchases driven by mail up by 19%. Almost half (42%) of such behaviour was among the key demographic of 15- to 44-year-olds.
Mail has also undoubtedly played a vital role in communications delivered throughout the pandemic. Richard worked with both NHS England and NHS Scotland to ensure critical information on the vaccination programme was delivered effectively and as part of a mix of channels.
Millions of letters in distinctive blue envelopes were used along with phone calls and texts to deliver crucial information such as vaccination dates and times. This even prompted people to take to social media to describe the delight they felt at receiving such important information through their letterbox.
Integrating mail into digital channels is something Richard sees as crucial in the long term. Making mail as convenient, quick and as relevant for customers is a challenge the industry and its partners need to address, with collaboration between industry partners vital.
This, says Richard, is where the SMP and its members have a key role to play. “We see the SMP as a really important industry player,” he said. “It’s helped shape our future product offering, and long may that continue, and offers a better understanding of the markets and its challenges. It takes us away from being inwardly focused and to consider the wider picture.
“For mailing houses themselves, it provides a real central point into which members can feed ideas, improvements and innovations to Royal Mail as well as being an invaluable networking space where like-minded businesses can share challenges and ideas to learn from each other and with each other. There are also some great wider member benefits such as free or heavily discounted training that the SMP organises very well.
“I am extremely proud to be the sponsor of such a successful ongoing partnership.”
Richard added: “I think there will always be letters. There will always be a place for this market. The challenge for us is to make it as convenient and as relevant as we can for our customers – and to ensure it remains an integral part of the marketing mix.”