I got a call from the new postmaster at our local post office the other day.  Her staff had apparently discovered a sizable stack of year-old nixies from our conference promotions, and wanted to know if I would still be interested in them, for the requisite fee of course. After ruefully noting that the Postal Service is, "really hurting for money," she pretty much offered to drop them off right away if we would just have a check waiting.

I found this call remarkably sad. It's not that I have any particular affection for the Postal Service. Having been a business mailer for nearly 30 years, I have had the same mixed experience as everyone else. But at its peak, service was prompt and reasonably reliable. And direct mail marketing made money for mailers. That's why our mailboxes overflowed with catalogs and offers.

Just before the Internet went mainstream, direct marketers were being confronted with the reality of rising costs and reduced response rates. The industry was just beginning to confront a future of smaller, smarter, better targeted promotions when email arrived, a delivery channel that allowed for unlimited promotion.

Yes, unlimited promotion! Image your daily volume of postal mail if postage and printing were free. Such a visual doesn't even begin to do justice to the feeding frenzy wrought by email and its promise of no-cost, instant gratification. And that's just the legitimate marketers; spammers and scammers were the icing on the cake.

With no gating mechanism (i.e. cost), so many piled on to email marketing so quickly that recipients got overwhelmed and response rates dropped precipitously. Of course when response rates drop and email is free, the natural response is to send more email, and that's exactly what has been happening. Even today, when we talk to marketing managers at B2B companies, they report the standard response to any email campaign that doesn't generate the required revenue is to send more email. And if that doesn't work, still more email is sent. Interestingly, they all admit it's a lousy way to do business, but what's the option? After all, postal mail is so dead.

Solution? Social media. There's one great problem with social media: the "social" part. To make social media work as a marketing channel, you need a) an audience and b) something interesting to talk about. Many marketers are so desperate to tap social media they literally try to buy audiences with such things as deep discounts and even gift cards. But it's a lot harder to be interesting, especially for B2B marketers. It's kind of like walking into a bar on Friday night and trying to chat people up about your superior industrial replacement roofing solution.

The real solution is to first recognize the free ride is over. The days of "spray and pray" marketing are ending, a direct parallel to what happened with postal mail. And waiting for the next new online marketing channel to solve all your problems is no solution. Any new channel that shows even a sign of promise will be quickly over-run by hordes of aggressive and desperate marketers.

The real long-term solution is intelligent marketing fueled by data. You need to know more about your customers and prospects so you can be relevant to them, engage with them intelligently and earn their continuing interest. With that foundation, you move from having lists to having a community. This is not the easy path, because those marketers doing it right still have to cut through the clutter of the sloppy marketers doing it wrong.

Maybe with enough attention and respect, we can pull email back from the brink. The stakes are huge, and if we fail, we may all find ourselves someday trying to hawk our email bounce-backs to generate some quick cash.