Once upon a time, not so long ago, if you wanted to get in contact with a friend, relative or business associate, you’d have to send them a letter through the post – a real, physical object. Inevitably, it would take some time to get there, if at all. Literature and legend are replete with tales of postal near (or total) misses – how differently might things have turned out for Romeo and Juliet if only Friar Laurence’s letter had not been delayed? Even if your letter did arrive safely at its intended destination, you still had a good wait on your hands before you could expect a reply.
All that changed once email came into common usage. Although the sending of text-based messages via computer networks has been a possibility since the 1960s, it was only in the 1990s, with the advent of the Internet, that email really came into its own. Suddenly, we were able to communicate via the written word near instantaneously, at minimal cost. Magic. This was a new world of efficiency and precision for the Information Age – science fiction come to life.
However, as with most technologies, the gloss of email has worn off over time. As I write this, I currently have 1,012 unread messages in my inbox; I am sure that this is a situation familiar to many. It has become so simple to dash off a note, CC a colleague, send out a mass mail, that some argue email has become a hindrance to speed and productivity, rather than a facilitator – these days, we all seem to be locked in a constant battle with our inboxes, trying to avoid exceeding our mail quotas, or searching for that Really Important Message that Mark sent you two weeks ago.
Speedy and inexpensive though email may be, it no longer carries any sense of excitement or anticipation; if anything, it’s quite the opposite. Since 2013, government agencies in both France and Germany have made moves to restrict the extent to which email governs workers’ lives, arguing that the ‘Right to Disconnect’ at evenings and weekends should be sacrosanct for all.
Against this background of increasing antagonism towards the relentless, anonymous expansion of email into our lives, the humble handwritten letter is starting to make a comeback. It takes time and care to select stationery, write a message by hand, seal and address the envelope and put it in the post. Where once its slowness was seen as a disadvantage, in today’s cultural context the handwritten letter has once again become a resoundingly positive object, standing for care, craft and sincerity. And it isn’t only in the personal sphere – brands are becoming increasingly aware of the power of the personalised written message in communicating meaningfully with consumers, and a range of service providers are springing up to meet their needs. Take Thankbot, for example; this US company offers a range of services for all occasions, from informal one-off notes to extensive direct mail campaigns. All messages are written out by hand and carefully proof-read by Thankbot staff, allowing brands to present themselves as painstakingly thoughtful and personal – but without the considerable investment of time. Similar services are offered by Handwritten Letter in the UK, which does exactly what it says on the tin.
But, ah, you might say – what if you send multiple messages to a client, purportedly from the same person, and the handwriting keeps changing? Well, there’s even a solution for that. Bond, a New York-based direct mail solutions company, allows you to provide a handwriting sample which can be used to program an electronic scribing machine, so that your typewritten text can be converted into handwriting that’s all your own.
So what are the advantages of handwritten direct mail, and how can brands benefit? Cincinnati-based company Mailography offers some convincing data to support its own handwritten mail proposition: where regular print mail has around a 56% open rate, handwritten mail enjoys an exponentially higher opening rate of 98%. In a sea of printed labels, a handwritten envelope stands out from the rest. Once opened, a handwritten message can signal brands as caring and personal, addressing the consumer as an individual, not just a number on a mailing list. Boston-based Century Bank has instituted one such handwritten direct mail campaign, sending customers a hand-signed greeting with an enclosed gift card. As recipient Chris Harrington says, “the personal touch to a handwritten letter or envelope is second to none”, and claims that the bank has won his business forever.
Email is certainly here to stay, and in 2016 vastly outnumbers so-called ‘snail mail’. However, rumours of the handwritten letter’s demise have been much exaggerated, and the personal touch that it carries is something that can reap rewards for brands across a range of categories.