© by Steven Depolo, published on flickr, used under CC License with no changes

What if an E-Mail would cost you a stamp?

It is a disruptive thought but I challenge you to think it for the next six minutes.

Forget all the 1997-style talk about “free” customer contacts, “free” distribution of promotions or the 2007-storylines of targeting and 2017 re-targeting. Forget about a “speed revolution” hitting internal communication in corporations. Forget that we all have become accustomed to emails the way they are. Also, do forget all attempts to “finally do away with email” and it’s defects - a promise at least as old as Google Wave.

Instead digest this essential thought first:

This generation is the first in the history of mankind that can communicate without direct costs attached to doing so.

Until now sending messages came at a direct cost. Every messenger since and before ancient Greece or China had to be fed and paid by kings and it took days or weeks to deliver letters or news, if they ever made it alive. Ordinary people could not even afford to send letters somewhere.

When Europe’s first regular Mail Service was started by the Princely House of Thurn and Taxis, it was on the behalf or emperors and the Vatican and took from the 13th to the 16th century. Maintaining the network of horses and coaches was a costly thing but allowed for more and more frequent exchange of letters.

Some letter exchanges made it into history and some into the history of world literature, like the one between Germany’s most magnificent writers ever, Goethe and Schiller. Over a century later some of the best and most daring pilots paid with their lives to deliver mail, including invoices, over the Andes or the Atlantic Ocean.

And while the telegraph speeded up a lot of written communication, you had to be brief and precise, because every single word came at a cost.

The longer your letter, the more it’s weight, the higher the postage. I used to send letters on special light-weight, blue Air Mail paper to save on writing my friend in the US 25 years ago. Twelve pages would otherwise have been a costly thing for a student.

Whenever you wrote a letter with a typewriter it had to be typed correctly and one spelling mistake or typing error in the last line meant that you had to type it all over again. I wrote an article about the major cultural shift brought by the keys “Delete” and “Backspace” here on Medium, too.

“Free” does not exist in the economy

“Free” email communication though does come at a cost. Because nothing is for free, as any economist will tell you. If you do not have internal costs (process costs), then there will be external costs somewhere in the overall system.

To shield off corporate Blackberry users from the flood of internal emails, Germany’s Volkswagen carmaker opted to wind down mail-servers outside woking-hours for 1,100 employees already back in 2011. Unions cited excessive stress (rumors have it that actually regular staff protested as those 1,100 wrote emails on Sunday to have staff arrive to new orders in their Monday morning inboxes).

Since there are no costs attached to sending an email, since one can always send another one if one did not ask or write everything in the one before, sending an email seems the most convenient way to cope with an issue. Indeed, if you feel busy, writing a distracting reply-email may keep the other person busy long enough until you feel you got more time.

Now, what if an email would cost you a stamp?

Please read through these questions carefully. They all deal with totally normal day-to-day behavior which we do not question.

How many emails would you send if you had to place a stamp on each of them in your email-program?

How many of those emails would be internal emails, even emails to your next door colleague?

How many of those emails would you send to customers to sell them something?

How many emails would you send to deal with customer complaints or requests for help?

How carefully crafted would your email be if you knew, that your customers have to pay and put a stamp onto their emails, too?

How many promotional emails would you send if each had a $0.49 stamp attached to it?

How many newsletters would you send if each would require a $0.49 stamp?

How would the ROI of your content-marketing look like, if each daily “helpful advice email” to your complete mailing-list would cost you $0.49?

If you had a daily budget for sending emails, how big would it have to be to cover your current sending habits?

How long would you last on $10 per day of personal emailing-budget, if each required a $0.49 stamp?

If your whole department had a daily email-budget by when would fights break out over who used too much of it, delaying a “critical” email until tomorrow because you ran out of stamps?

If personal email-budgets could be swapped among staff, by when would your first colleagues knock on your door and ask for a stamp?

If you could sell those email-stamps to colleagues, how much would you charge them for a $0.49 stamp? How much could you charge to a desperate colleague? ;-)

If you were rewarded for sending less emails than you had stamps for, would you rather save on emails and get a bonus (or higher salary from selling or auctioning off stamps to colleagues) or would you send your maximum daily quota?

If your boss would get a bonus for successfully reducing the amount of email-stamps used in his/her department, how hardly would she/he press for lower use of emails?

If your boss had targets for reducing stamp-usage, would she/he make his/her subordinates hit 25 percent of the target, 50 percent of the target or maybe even 150 percent of the target?

How much would mailing habits in your company change, if email stamps did not cost the price of a standard letter within the USA (which is $0.49 as you may have guessed) but as much as a standard letter within Germany (€0.70 is almost $0.80 at current exchange rates and would have been $1 about 18 months ago)?

Easy to implement :-)

Technically it would not be a problem to add postage to emails whenever an employee sends one out. If not for real budget reasons, it would make virtual costs visible which otherwise only get reflected in anonymous costs for mail-servers or storage space. Direct costing and cost-transparency for managers and employees does not exist when it comes to sending emails!

Email is like electricity. The latter comes out of the wall and only if our batteries need charging we feel that we deal with a scarce source. Same is true with email:

The attention of the people we write emails to is precious and scarce. And it is worth some environmental protection!

Let’s end disruption here…..

… because I need to be fair: Something that is generally seen as “free” and felt to be “free” cannot be disrupted by a pay-for model. If yes, then pay-walls within newspapers would have finished off openly available journalism long ago!

Indeed many people will argue with the “better and brighter” “new world” we enjoy, the freedom to communicate, to send and to receive globally thanks to “free” emails. Even if few of them will make it into world literature, many being (fake) invoices or un-opened newsletters and a lot of them being full of spelling or grammatical mistakes, the argument for better and new will be upheld, because it is “free”.

So many unread storylines could and would change the world if opening rates would exceed 0.25 percent, hit at least the 2.5 percent you read about in studies or be the whopping 25 percent promised in that promotional email from last week which you never received because it ended its life in corporate spam-filters.

Email is a bright, happy, pink-valley which employs a lot of people. Many of them though might struggle with their sales-efforts and storylines or would lose their jobs, if accountants ever spend money on every corporate email getting a virtual stamp for better cost-targeting.

How would you struggle if you had to attach a stamp to every email you send?

You could find out your own way:

  • Virtually attach stamps to your emails in your head.
  • Keep a list of bars besides your PC or in an app.
  • Link your mailbox with a Google spreadcheet using IFTTT.
  • Code a routine for your mail-program which calculates your spending on stamps!

Dare yourself! Disrupt yourself!