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Hybrid mail is a broad category of messaging where physical post is sent as an electronic document to a printing location near its destination, only traveling in physical form for a small part of the journey.

Because the printing, mechanical sorting and shipping is redirected to a service provider, hybrid mail can reduce corporate communication costs and be more environmentally friendly than traditional mail.

Origins

Hybrid mail systems have been present for decades, although early implementations were highly proprietary and focused on large system implementations. The United States Postal Service implemented a service called E-Com in 1981. That service was troubled by regulatory objections, and was eventually scrapped within 3 years.

Other proprietary implementations followed, but the rise of the Internet has led to more practical and cost-efficient ways to gain the benefits of Hybrid Mail. The Internet implementations of Hybrid Mail include both Web and E-mail-based systems, and their capabilities and capacities vary depending on specific vendor offerings. In all cases, Internet-based Hybrid Mail provides an opportunity for companies to outsource their outbound communications to service providers who handle the complexities of physical mail preparation and distribution.

In the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom there are a several § internet-based hybrid mail services. From the local print hubs, the post is handed to the Royal Mail for the final few miles under downstream access agreements. These providers are also known as mail forwarding companies that provide virtual post-office boxes.

See also


Hybrid mail is a term that has been in use for well over a quarter of a century. Its meaning has evolved and adapted over that period, particularly as the potential of the internet has begun to be better understood and exploited.

The classic postal definition of hybrid mail assumes digital data being transformed into physical letter items at distributed print centres located as close as possible to the final delivery addresses.

As new forms of communications have developed, so a wider definition of hybrid mail has evolved, which presumes that delivery to the final destination does not have to be in physical form but may be via e mail, mobile, SMS etc.

Research published by Triangle Management Services reveals that postal operators in the developed world have wide-ranging views as to whether, and how, to incorporate hybrid mail into their product portfolios.

A number of posts, particularly in the Nordics, have a declared strategy to meet the total communications needs of senders and recipients, receiving data and delivering data in whichever formats their customers’ require. Hybrid mail however defined is but one way of meeting those needs.

Other posts have incorporated hybrid mail as part of a range of services in support of a strategy of moving up and down the mail value chain. Swiss Post and La Poste France are good examples of this.

A number of posts have invested heavily in the classic distributed hybrid mail model. The market leader by far is Poste Italiane which is the biggest single producer of hybrid mail in the world. Correios Portugal and Australia Post are other major players.

Then there are the developed posts who, for different reasons, are not really players at all, such as USPS and Royal Mail.

In the developing world there is some evidence that posts are increasingly using hybrid mail solutions to leapfrog historic lack of investment in up to date infrastructure and service quality. It is somewhat similar to a country without an extensive landline phone network moving directly to mobile.

Developments in technology are providing new opportunities for private operators. There is a real feeling of energy in the hybrid mail industry with many new service providers entering the market. In the UK in particular there has been a mushrooming of service providers because of the particular regulatory conditions which require Royal Mail to offer advantageous downstream access postal rates to providers of hybrid services.

In France, the growth in hybrid mail service providers could be attributed to the accepted use of electronic document management solutions and attractiveness of lower mailing costs.

Over the last decade there has been a technological revolution that has resulted in much better quality and reliability being offered by distributed print providers, removing many of the concerns that had led large mail producers, in particular, to resist the hybrid model. High quality, high speed cost effective digital printing and more sophisticated inserter technology are just two examples.

Perhaps most importantly of all the introduction of web-enabled virtual printer drivers has removed the requirement for small volume desktop printing. Letter data can now be transferred easily and printed downstream at professional facilities more cost effectively, with the possibility of consolidation of volumes and lower postal prices. Virtual printing and simple direct marketing software also open up possibilities to generate more mail by simplifying direct marketing for SMEs. These easily accessible technological developments open up a huge potential market for hybrid mail.

Service providers are consolidating volumes from multiple customers. The technology removes the need for minimum quantities of items generated (print on demand).

Hybrid mail also supports the development of e-government, something of increasing importance and focus around the world. In parallel there is a need to improve standards of data security, simplifying the use of accredited digital signatures and so on. In consequence, both the European Union (through its CEN group) and the Universal Postal Union are taking an increasing interest in hybrid mail standards, both for physical and digital delivery. The UPU has recently launched .post, which is an initiative to take the core postal attribute of trust and extend it from the physical to the virtual world.

Triangle’s research identified the main reasons why users are attracted to hybrid mail. These are, in descending order of importance: • Internal labour and time savings; • improved security and data protection; • better document traceability with simplified proof of delivery processes; • external costs savings (printing, enveloping, postage etc); • improved management information and cost monitoring; and • the environment.

Other benefits include improved cash flow. Invoices can be delivered immediately after despatch of purchased items, accelerating customer payments. Whilst hybrid mail users are generally positive about the solutions they use, we found evidence of quite low levels of awareness of the attributes of hybrid mail amongst non-users, including concerns about data integrity and data security. There is also some confusion as to the difference between simple remote printing and ‘proper’ distributed print and delivery of hybrid mail. We conclude that the industry supply side needs to work harder to raise awareness of hybrid mail if it is to achieve a really significant breakthrough.

Given the economic downturn of 2008-10 and slow global recovery, pressures to make cost savings will continue to drive decision-making, and the trend to outsource non-core functions is likely to accelerate. In this environment the fact that hybrid mail does offer significant reductions in costs without risk to print quality or data security should support continued growth. Hybrid mail also delivers potentially enhanced speed and quality of service compared to conventional end-to-end processes.

Whilst environmental concerns are not currently the most important decision making factor, our view is that the perceived ‘greener’ image of hybrid mail compared to end to end physical mail will mean that it becomes a more important delivery channel in the customer’s communication mix. The evidence is that there has been continued growth in distributed print hybrid mail during the last decade, including the period of the global recession, even as traditional letter volumes have declined. This implies a shift from physical to digital and hybrid.

Reliable volume statistics do not exist. However, based upon analysis of the data available Triangle’s estimate is that distributed print hybrid mail has about a 2% share of the global letters market. This, of course, hides huge variations between countries – ranging from virtually zero to over 25%. Our current volume estimate is around 8bn items of distributed print hybrid mail out of an annual global letter market of 440bn. The good news is that at least two thirds of this volume is, at least conceptually, convertible to hybrid, some 300bn items.

At various times over the last two decades evangelists for hybrid mail have declared that its time has come. There have been a number of false dawns even as interest in the concept seemed very high. Triangle suggests that a powerful combination of economic, social, technological and environmental factors may just be sufficient to move distributed print hybrid mail much closer to centre stage for both mail users and service providers in this second decade of the twenty first century.

See also

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