Brilliance in Marketing Geeky stuff Stupidity in action The Junkmail Project

The Junkmail Project: The long, long overdue summary

(Or how nerdiness got the better of me and started my quixotic quest to vanquish the windmills of spam)

If junk mail were worth its weight in gold, I would be well on my way to retirement.

I received 993.2009 troy ounces of junk mail last year, and it’s awfully nice to imagine that it would have been worth $840,992.80 as of January 2, 2008. (And nearly $900,000 as I write this!)

Unfortunately, it’s not even worth the paper it’s written on, so I suppose I should keep making my microscopic monthly contribution to my measly little IRA. In fact, it costs me money, and that’s what got me in this mess to begin with.

You see, sometime towards the end of 2006 I was dutifully doing my part to prevent identity theft by shredding credit card offers and old bills (but mostly credit card offers) when my poor, decrepit, old shredder chewed its way through its last scrap of paper. I could have thought some grateful thoughts about the couple of years worth of obedient service my faithful little appliance gave me, but instead I got angry….

And you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

Actually, you probably would. You might laugh. I simultaneously get wickedly sarcastic and diabolically nerdy.

Why was I so angry? Well, I got thinking about how much junk mail costs me. I’m not just talking about the fact that I was out sixty to eighty bucks for another good shredder. I also thought about:

  • How much cumulative time I’ve wasted shredding things
  • Cost of trash bags for the shreddings
  • Environmental cost and landfill space for all that wasted paper and plastic
  • The fact the senders of that junk got a bulk rate discount to send it. (Meaning we all paid for it with our more expensive non-bulk mail … and taxes.)

So yeah, I started counting it up, and I got mad.

I must’ve been pretty angry, because my reaction was the nerdiest thing I’ve ever done. And believe me, that’s supremely nerdy. I played Dungeons and Dragons in middle school, for chrissake. I got so mad, that….

For the entire course of 2007 I weighed every single piece of mail that I received and logged it in five categories:

  1. Account Mail – This is mail that is directly related to accounts I already have. This includes things like the water bill, increasingly thick credit card bills, paychecks, alumni association mailings, and other such things I either asked for or fully expected to receive.
  2. Non-Account Mail – I certainly could have come up with a better name for this category. But I didn’t. This category is essentially for junk mail sent to me by companies with which I already do business. Mostly, these are up-sell offers. Or those damned “access checks” that Bank of America is so fond of sending me on a weekly basis despite the fact that I haven’t used one in six years. Either way, this category is full of junk, but at the time I started breaking these down I figured I’d differentiate between junk I “opted into” as opposed to “pure spam.”
  3. Spam – This category is for mail from companies with whom I do not have accounts — companies who just “spammed” me hoping I’d think their offer was the right one for me. This includes mortgage refinance solicitations, credit card offers, grocery circulars, invitations to join the AARP, and damn near everything addressed to “Current Resident.”
  4. Magazines – Over the course of the year I had subscriptions to just a couple magazines, but the heft of the periodicals quickly outpaced actual correspondences. The dead tree edition of WIRED apparently does kill a lot of trees. Other magazines I received this year included AutoWeek and JPG.
  5. Personal – This category was strictly for correspondences from friends, family and acquaintances. Birthday cards from grandma. That sort of thing.

There’s one thing I didn’t include: Packages. I thought it didn’t make any sense to include books I ordered from Amazon or cheap electronics from Woot in my total. Those items could really skew what we’re trying to measure here, and half the time they wouldn’t be arriving via the postal service anyway. So I thought it best to leave them out.

So each day, starting January 3 (because the mail didn’t run on the first two days of the year) I would slap my mail across a postal scale before I opened it. I’d total the weight of each category and enter it into an excel spreadsheet. Then I’d throw all the junk in an enormous box, and the rest of the “legit” mail would be handled appropriately.

About two months into it I realized that this idea was a wee bit obsessive and insane. But by that point it was too late to turn back. I had already blogged about it, and several of my more “encouraging” friends weren’t going to let me back out now.

Quickly, my box runneth over. By May I was chugging along into my second box and I started to worry that storage space was going to be a serious issue. If anything, though, this certainly illustrated my point about how much waste this enterprise produces. I couldn’t wait to have a big shredding party at the end of the year and photograph myself standing on an enormous pile of shredding-filled trash bags.

As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, this was a one year project that started last January, yet I’m posting this summary the first week of April. Here’s the deal. Shredding that much junk was a more onerous task than I had anticipated. It was a chore. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t finished yet. I had other, more important things to do. So far this year I’ve spent nearly a month traveling. I had a lot of work to do. I have a yard that would get me kicked out of most homeowner’s associations. (Thank Jeebus my neighborhood doesn’t have one.) So I let it slide.

I also destroyed ANOTHER shredder about a third of the way through this stuff. So I’m taking my time, lest I come up with another stupid project like this one.

By now you’re aching for me to just get to the point and tell you how much mail I got, aren’t you?

Yeah, I thought so.

So what did I end up with?

Just over 68 pounds of crap.

Out of 104.5 pounds of total mail, over 68 of it was pure crap. Stuff I never wanted. Stuff that I would have tossed to the spam filter, if that were possible with snail mail.

More precisely put, I received 30,892 grams of junk mail, out of 47,409 grams of total mail. That’s 65.2 percent.

It’s absolutely overwhelming when you look at it as an aggregate.

If we want to put that into some “real world” perspective, a single dollar bill weighs pretty darned close to one gram. Now, if these people had sent me $30,892 in crisp new Washingtons, I wouldn’t be complaining. (Although my bank might think I’ve taken up a new career if I walk in with a gigantic bag of singles.)

But what they sent me was a little more like this:

Honestly, I’d rather have the gigantic, slimy carp than what I got.

As a whole, damn near two-thirds of my mail was junk, as my patented “Pac-Man Puking a Rainbow” graph clearly shows:

If I had it to do all over again, I would’ve measured differently. I counted things like my bills by the entire piece. Everything within the envelope counted as “account” mail. About halfway through the project I realized that half of the weight of my mobile phone bill was more advertising material. Next time (and believe me there will not be a next time) I would throw those flyers in the “non-account” pile, because I think that would be more reflective of the true nature of this stuff. Advertising materials could very easily be more than 70% of what I received.

I should also mention that this could have been even worse. I received my 68 pounds of crap despite being opted out of “prescreened” credit offers with the major credit bureaus.

What have I learned?

I’ve learned that I get even more junk mail than I had imagined.

I’ve learned that you can’t send a year’s worth of junk through a shredder in one afternoon.

I’ve learned that some companies will send you just about anything, as long as the ROI is positive. (Hey CapitalOne … Bubble wrap? Really?)

I’ve learned that it can be a royal pain in the ass to try to prove a point.

With all of that said, there are a few things you (and I) can do about this, and I’ll devote an entire post to those in the semi-near future.

Until then, watch out for paper cuts and keep your shredders set on “stun.”

The Junkmail Project

50 Pounds!

It’s been a while since I posted an update on the Junkmail Project. So how much do I have now?

Watch It Grow

There you go. I’ve received about 38 kilos of mail, and almost 24 kilos of that mail is pure junk. That means I now have more than 50 POUNDS of spam. (See it as a percentage here.)

I know what you’re saying now. You’re saying, “50 pounds! That’s a lot, right?”

You’re darned right it is!

For some perspective, here’s a video of people dropping 50 pounds of silly putty off the roof of a parking garage:

The Junkmail Project

The Junkmail Project: Like 30 pounds of crap in a 5 pound bag

It’s been a while since my last update on the Junkmail Project. (Here’s a link to all the previous posts on the project if you need to catch up.) I had about a month’s worth of mail recorded and then didn’t have time to make that post before I left town for about a month. My family was nice enough to swing by the house and pick up my mail while I was gone and vigilantly saved all the junk for me so the project could continue.

So where are we now?

What Have I Got? - Update 6

That chart is in kilograms. And you see that right. I’ve received over 14 kilograms of spam so far. That’s almost 32 pounds of pure junk! It’s more than doubled since April!

The spam has crept back up to just over 65%, and you can see two big spikes in the spam in this next chart.

Watch it Grow - Update 5

Those are both from gigantic catalogs that really beefed up the totals. One was over three and a half pounds by itself! Can you imagine how much that campaign cost to send?

The Junkmail Project

The Junkmail Project: Welcome to the AARP!

I’m 6 months away from my 30th birthday. Standards keep getting lower every day, don’t they?

As of the end of the first week of April, I have now received over 10 kilograms of mail. Just over 6 kilograms of that has been junkmail. Thanks to a strong showing by magazine subscriptions (particularly by this month’s WIRED) the spam ratio has slipped to just a hair under 60% of the total mail. Magazines now make up just over 25% of the stack. I’m sure once the next issue of JPG shows up, it’ll cause it to slip a little further.

(Don’t forget, you can still vote for my latest photograph submitted to JPG until April 11. GO HERE TO VOTE. Your support is greatly appreciated!)

Anyway, back to the mail …

In this graph you can see how the roughly 23 pounds of mail stacks up:
Watch It Grow 3

And in this graph you can see that PacMan should probably still consider visiting a doctor:
What Have I Got? 3

The Junkmail Project

The Junkmail Project: Rain, sleet or snow, the postman Marches on

It’s been a while since I’ve posted an update on the Junkmail Project. Rest assured, I haven’t lost interest yet. I’m still keeping track, I’ve just been a little too busy to summarize the progress recently due to traveling. Thankfully, even though I’ve been on the road, those who have picked up my mail in my absence have done a great job of keeping each day’s bounty separate from the next. (Thanks Mom and Sis!)

Before I get into the meat of the update, I want to take a moment to keep the record “fair and balanced.” (No apologies to FoxNews.) In my last post I harped on the Budget/Avis car rental company for a cheap, underhanded direct mail piece they sent me. Lest you get the impression that I think all direct marketing and “junkmail” I get is the spawn of Satan, I’d like to highlight a positive piece as well.

A few days after my Budget rant, the fine folks at Gillette sent me a free Fusion razor. I’d never bothered buying the fabled 6-blade razor in the store because, well, quite frankly I thought the concept was ridiculous. It seems that every time the razor manufacturers are ready to one up each other, they just tack another blade or two on the end of the shaver and give it a funny new name. My three blade razor did the job just fine. (Especially now that I work at home and don’t generally bother to shave until the scruff grows out to the point it starts to itch.) This is just a way to part those looking for the latest/greatest thing from their money, right?

Well, the free razor did the trick. I laughed at first, but this razor is pretty slick. And it has lasted longer than my triple slicer model usually does. I mocked the three blade razor before I switched. I suppose I’ll think twice about making fun of the 37 blade razor that’s sure to come out next month. For the cost of an item that retails at about nine bucks (and probably cost them about a buck to produce and mail) they’ve bought a long-term customer in me. Why can’t more companies take such straightforward marketing approaches? Kudos Gillette. Thanks for believing in your product enough to let consumers make an honest choice. Great job. (See Dad, not all of us professional marketers are evil.)

Now, back to the rapidly filling junk box in my home office…

As of this update, there have been 56 days of mail delivery this year. I have received almost exactly 8 kilograms (17.6 lbs.) of mail, and of that 4.9 kilograms (10.8 lbs.) of that has been pure unsolicited junk. The bulk of that non-spam weight has been magazines.

I’m starting to wonder if I should have included periodicals (that I actually subscribe to) in this count, as it seems to skew the overall total making the spam look proportionally smaller — especially since I’ve subscribed to a fantastic, but thick and heavy new photography magazine. (You can vote for my recent submission to the magazine here.)

But, at the same time that I recognize the shift the magazines put on the mail totals, my journalistic roots give me faith that you, dear reader, are intelligent enough to decide for yourself just how much it matters. So the category will stay.

This graph shows that Pac Man has definitely eaten too much ghost recently.

Looking at the graph above, you can see that Pac Man’s bulimia has gotten worse in the last couple of months. Because of the increase in magazines (the green) he has to open a little wider to get it all out, but he still comprises about two-thirds of the overall chart himself. Personal correspondence and account-related mail still only makes up about 8% of the total volume. (If you want to compare, the original graph can be found here.)

See how the mountain of mail has grown?

To provide a little perspective, this washing machine doesn’t have enough capacity to wash all of the unsolicited mail I’ve received so far in a single load.

The Junkmail Project

The Junkmail Project: Budget, you blew it

When I started to collect all of my junk mail to try to measure the extent of the “snail mail spamming” going on (read more here) I figured I’d mostly just be reporting on aggregate data focusing on the volume of mail received, but the other day I received one small piece of mail from a company that had a bigger negative impact on my opinion of them than the accumulated piles of offers I get from high-volume junkmailers like CapitalOne. I thought it merited its own post.

Last year I spent a little more than $200 with Budget Rent-A-Car. This year I plan on traveling even more, and likely spending proportionally more on car rental this time around.

Budget/Avis, you’ve just lost every dollar of my business.

Recently I received a “check” from Budget that looks remarkably like a rebate. A little slip of paper in the envelope has the highlighted headline “RE: MONEY BACK ON YOUR CREDIT CARD PURCHASES” that leads into a paragraph thanking me for past patronage, knowing that I have “a choice of car rental companies.”

You’re right, Budget. Now, thanks to this cheap, misleading marketing piece you sent me I’m going to choose some other car rental company anytime I have a choice.

You see, this wasn’t really a “rebate” or a “check” at all. Looking at the very fine print in the endorsement section of this check I discover that this is really an “enrollment form” that would immediately be processed if I chose to deposit it into my bank account. It would sign me up for an auto-renewing $130 per year service called “AutoVantage” and the service fees will be “conveniently” charged to the credit card I last used to rent from Budget.

These sort of check offers aren’t new. Less-than-reputable phone companies used to send these things to trick people into giving permission to switch providers, and then would hit them with outrageous fees and shoddy service. The church I grew up in has been hit by these telco scams twice in the last 5 years. Do a google search on “slamming” and you’ll read all sorts of horrible stories about how people have been ripped off by companies like these.

You know, I expect to occasionally see that sort of behavior from a shady little fly-by night company. But not from a 50-year-old corporation traded on the NYSE. (Coincidentally, the top eight news stories currently on this company’s Google Finance page are all about a couple of their execs being convicted of accounting fraud. Suddenly I’m not so shocked.)

Next step: Writing a letter to Budget/Avis letting them know how much business this “offer” just cost them.

Brilliance in Marketing The Junkmail Project

Wait a minute, Mr. Postman!

Wait a minute, Mr. Postman!

Junk email gets a pretty bad rap, the vast majority of that well deserved. You see commercials for companies like AOL and Earthlink bragging about their spam protection systems. Yes, it’s a nuisance for most consumers, and nightmare for systems administrators. But have we completely forgotten its direct ancestor? (Today Merriam Webster might call them “consanguineous.”) How much do you really hear about junk snail mail? And what is your post office doing to protect you from it? As much as your ISP?

Towards the end of 2006 I cleaned up my home office and carried a couple of bags worth of grocery circulars and shredded credit offers to the curb, and it got me to thinking about how much waste the direct mail industry produces, be it pure junk, or even just upsell offers from companies with which I already do business. This year, I’m conducting a little experiment to see just how much junk mail gets shoved into my box on the street. I bought a postal scale so I can weigh all the mail as it comes in and track it in an Excel spreadsheet. There’s only one thing I’m excluding to keep from skewing the results: Packages I’ve ordered from retailers that are delivered directly to the house. Most of those come via FedEx and UPS, so the issue’s pretty much moot anyway.

As I write this, it’s early morning on January 17th. There have been 11 days so far this year with mail delivery, and three non-Sunday days without mail due to two national holidays (New Year’s and MLK) and one day of national mourning for the passing of President Ford. How much have I received so far?

What Have I Got?

If you look at the pie chart above, you’ll notice that it looks remarkably like Pac Man puking up a rainbow. Granted, that observation doesn’t really explain much (about the mail) does it?

Here are the piles I’m stacking the incoming mail into:

  • ACCT — Mail regarding accounts I have with companies
  • NON-ACCT — Junk from companies with which I have accounts
  • SPAM — “Pure spam” from companies I have no existing business with
  • MAGS — Magazines
  • PERSONAL — Personal correspondence

So, with those categories in mind, you can see that our little Pac Man is composed entirely of “pure spam” — and he makes up roughly two-thirds of all of the mail I’ve received so far. Considering that some surveys say that two-thirds of all email is spam, it will be interesting to see if this trend holds up over time. If it does, it might poke holes in the theories that “pay-for-play” systems could help curb the tide of spam.

If you look at the numbers on Pac Man, you’ll notice that I’ve already received over a kilogram of spam. 1.2 kilos, to be more precise. Why am I measuring in the metric system when the post office uses the good old fashioned imperial system? Well, because I’m lazy and the math is a lot easier. For those who aren’t sure how much that is and are too lazy to look it up themselves, it’s about 2.7 pounds.

Anyway, put subjectively, it’s “a lot.”

If you look at the growth over time (the scariest view, IMHO), it looks like this:
Watch it Grow

I look forward to seeing how this project evolves. I’ve already told you a little of what I hope to learn from this. What about you? Anything you’re curious about? What sort of things would you like to see me comment on in future updates?