Your Stamp Here

Picture postage with your company's name on it

By Larry Armstrong

I've been a big fan of photostamps since the U.S. Postal Service authorized Stamps.com to run its first market test in 2004. PhotoStamps look similar to regular stamps, but instead of a historic figure or a rare butterfly the picture on the stamp is yours. For a premium of 25 cents to 60 cents or so each over the cost of ordinary postage, maybe PhotoStamps aren't something you would use to pay your bills. But they're just the thing for the invitations, announcements, and greeting cards that make up the bulk of the first-class mail that most people send out.

Now you can use PhotoStamps for your business. In January, Congress amended a century-old law that prohibited anyone from attaching business advertising to postage. That restriction was lifted in May.

I polled a few early users, and they're jazzed. "It's the smallest details that leave the biggest impression," says Jim Hume, co-founder of Phire Branding, an Ann Arbor (Mich.) advertising, design, and branding consultant. He recommends PhotoStamps as an easy way to strengthen a corporate identity or brand, and Phire uses its own PhotoStamps for all the mail the eight-person shop sends to clients and potential clients. Denver mortgage broker J. Allston Mortgage pastes PhotoStamps with the company logo on mail that goes out in envelopes that don't already have its logo printed on them. And wedding photographer Tina Markoe puts a PhotoStamp on every piece of mail that leaves her Cherry Hill (N.J.) studio. As a gift to her clients, she even has a sheet of stamps made up with a picture of the happy couple on each one.

Getting the stamps is pretty simple: You simply upload your picture or graphic to photostamps.com (or two other vendors, endicia.com or zazzle.com) and your stamps arrive in the mail about a week later. It's much like ordering prints from an online photo retailer.

Photo stamps are an outgrowth of a 1990s initiative by the postal service to make postage available to small business over the Internet. You might want to try a more comprehensive service, known as Internet Postage, spurred by that same initiative. It's offered by Stamps.com, Pitney Bowes, and Endicia. Stamps.com has about 85% of the business, with some 371,000 small businesses paying subscription fees starting at $16 a month. That's less than leasing a postage meter for $20 a month or more, and the special pink ink that meters use can cost as much as 7 cents per impression.

Besides never having to go to the post office again, there are other advantages of Internet Postage: You can print postage directly on an envelope at the same time you print the address. You can print shipping labels for bigger envelopes or parcels, and USPS gives you a discount on delivery confirmation for using the Internet. On labels, you can conceal the amount you pay for postage, a good idea for retail businesses that charge a shipping and handling fee that's more than the cost of postage alone. You can insure packages without taking them to the post office. You can reprint postage that you screw up, something you can't do with a meter. And you can print small, peel-off labels--Stamps.com calls them NetStamps--that work just like regular postage stamps.

You don't need a Stamps.com account to buy PhotoStamps. But the company hopes to make it worth your while. In September, it's launching a new version of PhotoStamps, called Photo NetStamps. It preprints your picture on the label blanks, and you print the postage on them, in the denominations you need, when you need them. Even better, the premium you'll pay for the Photo NetStamp is about half that of a PhotoStamp. So why, exactly, are you still traipsing to the post office?

Larry Armstrong writes about personal technology for BusinessWeek magazine.

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