Thursday, March 5, 2009

Green Options - Zumbox: A Viable Paper Mail Killer?

As part of Eco-Libris' ongoing content partnership with Green Options Media, we feature a post that was originally published by Jeff McIntire-Strasburg on February 27 on Sustainablog. Today's post is about a new creative online service called Zumbox.

zumbox mail view
What are the environmental costs of “snail mail?” That’s easy, right: paper-based mail has a massive footprint when one takes into account the harvesting of trees, the production of paper, and the disposal of much of what we receive in our mail boxes.

What’s the answer? Electronic mail… right?

Well... maybe. If you have someone's email address, or can easily find it, email as currently configured does provide a viable alternative. But, ever tried to email everyone on your block? If you're a marketer, ever tried to simply email everyone on your snail mail list? For the most part, unless you've taken steps to gather those email addresses, you can't complete these tasks: email addresses have no immediate connection to a physical address.

Enter Zumbox, a start-up based in the Los Angeles area. Their solution to the paper-email dilemma: create an electronic mailbox for every physical mailing address in the United States.

Yes... rather than offering a service to remove you from mailing lists, or scan your paper mail into electronic format, or complete tasks like bill-paying online, Zumbox has created a platform that they hope will create a viable, all-inclusive, paper-free alternative to snail mail.

Confused? That's OK... Zumbox is doing something quite different. Company president Glen Ward provides an effective example on the Zumbox blog:
Suppose your dog or cat (perish the thought) goes missing. With Zumbox, you can send a notice with a photo (and video, if you like) to all of your neighbors...digitally. You don't have to know their email addresses, and you don't have to walk house-to-house. And since Zumbox is a closed system-mail is sent from one Zumbox to another-it provides total accountability. You know precisely where all of your Zumbox mail is coming from. If your neighbor sends an overwhelming number of missing pet notices or Bar-B-Que invites (it can happen), you can opt to block mail from that sender. In this sense, Zumbox represents a new way to communicate and connect with your community (or not).

When I talked to Rob Read, who's handling social media outreach for Zumbox, I was really curious about what he labelled the "chicken and egg" challenge facing the company: if both sender and received have to be Zumbox users, won't that make it difficult to get this venture off the ground? It's not like email, where I can send a message to anyone with an email account anywhere: I and my neighbors have to be Zumbox users for the above scenario to work. The upside, he told me, is cost: in many cases, a user can send a message through Zumbox for free. For direct mail and other business/bulk mailings, the costs will be significantly lower than US postal rates. Add the environmental benefits and convenience, and there are definitely a number of advantages to the system Zumbox has created.

As Rob and I were talking, it also occurred to me that this should be a godsend for the direct mail industry. I don't know if companies like MailStopper (formerly Greendimes) are cutting into their profits, but this gives that industry another way to do what it does without trying to recreate databases with email addresses. Zumbox also makes it easier for the consumer to get off a mailing list (or, at least, block particular mailings).

Lots of bloggers weighing in on Zumbox: go see what our friends at Eco Child's Play, EcoGeek, Triple Pundit, and MNN have said. Of course, I'm interested in what you have to say... whaddaya think? Paper mail killer? Or not...

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