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What’s the hype with Hybrid Mail?

If ALL your correspondence is electronic, then this article is not for you. But if, like many publishers, you still print and mail a proportion of your correspondence direct from the office, then read this very carefully – considerable savings could be just around the corner! Ian Phillips explains more.

By Ian Phillips

It’s not often you find real innovation coming from 20th century industries like print and mail, but not a lot of people realise that there is a service which is fast becoming the 21st century solution to printing and mailing a 20th century communication ie. letters. Actually it’s not new. Hybrid Mail has been around in some form or other since the early 70s but has really come into its own over the last decade. You’re not alone if you’ve not heard of it yet but with more suppliers entering the market, you soon will.

How it works

I’ve always hated the name ‘Hybrid Mail’ because in my experience, the term only confused people. In its simplest form, Hybrid Mail enables customers to reduce the amount of time, effort and money it takes to mail any volume of letters or documents for little or no capital outlay. All you need is a desktop PC and with the help of a Hybrid Mail service you can print AND mail a letter for approximately the same price or less than the cost of a 2nd class stamp.

It works by enabling users to send individual or multiple letters or documents created on any PC or laptop to a central print site via the internet. The finished letters are printed, merged with letters that printer has produced for other customers that day and sorted into Mailsort order ready for posting.

At the end of each day, the mail is then despatched via a bulk mail service supplied by Royal Mail or one of their DSA competitors. Simple!

Once people understand what Hybrid Mail is and how it works, they usually start to think about whether the service will be of benefit to their organisations. In my view, any business printing letters via a desktop printer will probably save time and money by switching to a Hybrid Mail service. Even organisations with larger in-house operations or employing third party suppliers such as Subscriptions Bureaux to print their customer service letters, invoices, renewals or statements can save money. And I can say that with some confidence too. I’ve been lucky enough to read research completed by Xerox which identified that the true cost of printing and mailing a single page letter onto colour headed paper is anything up to £1.20. The equivalent cost of the same letter printed and mailed via Hybrid Mail is typically over 50% cheaper. Hybrid Mail can even compete on price and service for large promotional mailings such as direct mail campaigns which are commonly placed with 3rd party printers.

Xmas cards too!

I’ve been watching how the service has evolved over the last five years or so. Technology and the internet have brought us to the point where I can see a time in the not too distant future where both business and private individuals will use a Hybrid Mail service to print and mail all their letters and documents, including postcards and Christmas cards. I can even see the day when back issue orders will be printed and fulfilled through a hybrid channel on a single copy basis. That point isn’t quite here yet, but we are close. Indeed many suppliers are already offering postcards and Christmas cards as part of their service offering.

That said, we are at the point where I now see how and where Hybrid Mail can deliver cost and process benefits to the publishing industry. Subscriber renewal and customer service letters, customer invoices, statements and direct mail are just a few examples of documents commonly mailed by publishers which could all be printed and mailed via a Hybrid Mail service. Any company producing these types of letters in house really should be picking up the phone and calling one or two Hybrid Mail suppliers for a quote.

Buying Hybrid Mail is not a complicated process but there are some key things to consider. Unlike most print and mail services, the cost is not dependent on the volume being mailed. It doesn’t matter if you are mailing one bespoke letter to one recipient or 200 standard letters to 200 recipients; the unit cost is usually the same. Furthermore, the technology has evolved to the point where many services, though not necessarily all, will easily accommodate variable text, images and pages per letter. This can be a real benefit when creating a mailing of say invoices or sales literature which contain text or images specific and / or tailored to the recipient.

Value Added

Hybrid Mail doesn’t just offer cost and process savings either. If you shop around a bit, you will find it is possible to correct inaccuracies in your customer address data free of charge, through integration with the Postal Address File.

By standardising your letter head and corporate identity across your hard copy communications, you can quickly and easily take full control of your brand integrity without the need to engage with and pay redesign costs with a multitude of third party suppliers. Some Hybrid Mail services will even allow you to set, limit and control spending at an individual user or departmental level which should appeal to your FD.

The final value added benefit I will mention is the significant reduction in the carbon footprint of each letter mailed. Letters mailed via a Hybrid service are printed on presses which are considerably more energy efficient than a desktop printer on a per unit basis. Furthermore bulk mailings cost less to transport and deliver across the country, which further reduces the carbon footprint of each letter. Between the two, Hybrid Mail can reduce the carbon footprint of each letter by anything up to 50%.

Quality, Security and Certainty

If there are two issues people worry about with Hybrid Mail, the first is the security of the service and the second is the reliability. They need not worry though. The best and most secure services on the market all run over the same https secure internet connections the banks use for their online banking services and the print centres are ISO27001 accredited. At the lower end though, you still get a standard internet connection and / or an ISO9001 accredited print centre which is usually enough to satisfy all but the most security conscious.

With regards to the reliability of Hybrid Mail, in my opinion, it compares extremely well if not better than all other forms of printing letters. I can’t speak for every supplier but as far as I am aware, most suppliers monitor every letter in every mailing throughout the production cycle to ensure they can be 100% certain each letter has been printed and mailed.

Limitations and Considerations

Whilst I’ve been harping on about the good things Hybrid Mail has to offer, the service does still have its limitations and there are other points which must be considered before deciding if Hybrid Mail is the service for your company. The first thing to consider is how you access the service. There are three common access models:

1 Website access

2 Downloadable print driver access

3 Embedded software commonly referred to as an API (Application Program Interface)

Personally, I much prefer the simple web or print driver models which are easy and usually free to implement and don’t require any IT maintenance at the customer end. This compares favourably against the API model which can be slow, problematic and expensive to implement and may require regular support, maintenance or upgrading from internal and external IT specialists.

Additional inserts, bespoke or pre-printed outer envelopes and letters to be mailed overseas will cause most but by no means all suppliers a real problem. That’s not to say it’s not possible because it is. However, because Hybrid Mail is designed to standardise the production end of the supply chain, not every supplier will be able or perhaps willing to accommodate bespoke requirements but there are some that can and will. The time of day by which letters must be submitted should also be taken into consideration. If you want your letters printed and mailed that day, no matter who the service provider is, there will be a cut-off time by which letters must be submitted to hit that day’s posting. This is usually between 2pm and 6pm Monday to Friday.

Finally, if you are looking into Hybrid Mail, I implore you to consider the print quality before making a decision. I’ve seen examples of items printed via a Hybrid Mail service which were not trimmed properly and others with dubious print quality. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the printer was to blame, particularly if the graphics supplied by the customer were of a low resolution. However, some service providers operate a network of printers across the country to reduce their operational overheads. Unfortunately, despite regular calibrations, this can mean there is a slight variation in the look and feel of the items printed between each site. Similarly, please do enquire about the quality of the paper, envelopes and card being used and request samples or a free trial from each supplier under consideration. There is no doubt that paper quality can and does vary between suppliers and in my experience, suppliers at the cheaper end of the market may be using a cheaper grade of card or paper to keep their costs down. I’ve also seen outer envelopes which are so thin the contents of the letter inside can be easily read.

Hybrid Mail is here and I firmly believe that it will become THE service business and personal users will turn to, to print and mail their letters in the 21st century. In the last five years alone, it’s grown to the point where a number of well-established industries who traditionally generate additional revenue and profit from the letters they print and mail on their customers’ behalf are rightly getting worried as more and more customers move their mail to a Hybrid service. Some have adopted the service for themselves but those that haven’t could do worse because I can’t see it going away anytime soon.