April 13, 2010

Wasteful Words


By Sara Holoubek

There was a time when communication was sacred. Thoughtful attention was given to what was communicated and how it was communicated. After all, carving in stone was an arduous task that did not allow for error. While parchment was easier to dispose of, production required three weeks of hand labor. The Guttenberg did not have automated spell check. The cost of a Pony Express service was initially $5.00 per 1/2 ounce, and it only left 1-2 times a week, contingent upon the season. Carrier pigeons could not be recalled once set out.

Help Me, I am Drowning

Call me a Luddite, but there are moments when I wish that all communication, and marketing in particular, did need to be carved in stone. This is especially true when I go to my tiny New York City mailbox and extract a small tree's worth of mail. What exactly do these people want from me? Why is it that Citibank keeps pestering me to get a credit card I already own? And what is it with Pottery Barn Kids pushing at my biological clock?

My complaints to marketers usually result in a conversation along these lines.

Marketer: "You obviously did something to receive that catalog."

Me: "Obviously? Like ordering a gift online, to be sent directly to my brother-in-law in Wisconsin?" Hmm, you're right. I deserve to receive quarterly fishing lure catalogs to a Manhattan address."

Marketer: "But Sara, direct mail really works."

Me: "Well, direct mail would work if were direct. But it really isn't so direct these days. How on earth did I end up on the International Male list?"

Marketer: "Well, you are probably just an outlier."

Damn it, I am tired of being the outlier.

Super Size This

And so I embarked on a month-long journey through communication. For 31 days I logged all of snail mail, email from my Gmail account and my cell phone calls. While this is only a fraction of my communication, I quickly realized that it would be a pain in the ass to log anything more than that. Here's a quick schema of my excel worksheet:

1. Email
- Inbox: The number of email trails left in my inbox by the next day
- Deleted Trails: The number of deleted emails by the next day
- Spam
- Emails out

2. Cell Phone
- Calls in
- Calls out

3. Snail Mail
- Catalogs
- Magazines/Newspapers
- Junk direct mail
- Relevant direct mail
- Bills, shareholder reports and statements
- Personal mail

Yes. I am neurotic.

By day 5, I was exhausted by giving all this crappy communication extra attention it didn't deserve. Simply logging its existence seemed a waste of energy. I thought about taking pictures or weighing a week's worth of junk mail, but I couldn't stand the sight of it. So down went another bag of paper to the recycling bin.

June 1: Pay Back Day

Over the course of May, I received or sent 2,689 units of communication within the above categories. While that number might not sound insane, think back to a time before email, when every message sent was expected to receive a certain amount of attention.


If I were to spend 10 minutes contemplating each piece of communication, I would have spent 448 hours, roughly 18 full days, just going through it all. Ok, so no one spends 10 minutes on each piece of communication. But I can guarantee you that the marketer who crafted that catalog wishes you did.

Needless to say, 75% of my communication was email. Interestingly, the bulk of email communication was deleted email, the trails that served no purpose after 24 hours. By my estimates, I probably spent about 8 hours of May briefly reading and then deleting such trails.

My cell phone scored 20% of the log, and snail mail came in at 5%. While this might seem small, perhaps it is the physical existence stack of poor creative that makes it so annoying. I was mildly surprised to see that relevant direct mail made up the majority (27%) of it. Junk mail was a close second at 25%. Apparently I need to get some pen pals, because personal mail came in at a lowly 4%.

Communication Arts

This is where the story about one consumer's hike though a forest of poor communication comes to an end and the lesson is to put the arts back into communication.

Sara Holoubek is a free agent consultant serving the interactive sector and its investors. She can be reached at saraholoubek@gmail.com.

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