Until now, the customer's mailbox has largely been a "fire-and-forget" receptacle. Stationary. Static. If it's the one at the end of a driveway, the checklist started and stopped at: document sent. You did not know if it actually reached the destination.

If it's the one on the other end of an online transmission, the checklist could extend to confirming that the document was delivered and that it was read.

Now, it's being refashioned as a "fire-and-follow-up" mechanism, for improved customer service, between mutual funds, brokers, advisers and their clients.

A new generation of digital mailboxes will present "the opportunity to reach out to the customer," said Rob Krugman, vice president of e-strategy and business development for Broadridge Financial Solutions, which handles the distribution of about 800 million mutual fund prospecti and 400 million proxy statements a year. Mailboxes that will not only allow customers to receive documents but act on what's inside them "allows funds, brokers and other suppliers to provide better service," Krugman said.

Here's how Krugman sees that working. Let's say a broker has sent a corporate action notice to 10 customers, on a merger that requires a yes-or-no vote. Using a financial e-mail service such as Broadridge's four-year-old Investor Mailbox, the broker can see not just if the notices have been delivered, but how many of the customers involved have opened what they got. For those who did not, the broker can reach out, urge the individual to take action. And, perhaps, extend the conversation with other services or recommendations.

In addition, Broadridge now sees a bigger opportunity, one that applies around the globe for issuers of stock as well as the funds and brokers who work with them.

At the turn of the year, Broadridge said it would start marketing a new type of digital uber-mailbox service in conjunction with Pitney Bowes, which built its business in the static era of postage meters and machines.

Pitney Bowes has developed a "digital delivery service" called Volly, that its chairman, Murray D. Martin, believes will allow financial firms "to better communicate with their customers, using the channel they prefer" without forcing them to jump "from website to website."

The idea is to consolidate and simplify how electronic mail is received and contents dealt with. With Volly, digital mailboxes will not be identified by usernames, passwords, e-mail addresses or domains. Just like mailboxes on posts in the ground, they will be identified with names and street addresses. Period.

That is a practical result of cloud computing. Even if a customer moves from 7 Main Street in South Salem, New York, to 6170 Landover Hills Lane in Arlington, Texas, the mailbox will be good for that individual. The individual can elect to keep receiving mail, in fact, that comes to him or her at either of those addresses. An old mail address does not become defunct after a year. As long as the name and address match, a piece of mail will still go into that person's digital mailbox. Over time, all mail for all addresses a person has had in a lifetime could still go to the same mailbox.

This opens up the possibilities for digital mailboxes offered by mutual fund companies or brokers to their customer bases. Instead of just being repositories and action centers for proxies, prospecti and other financial documents, they can become action centers for any kind of mailing. The same mailbox will be used, Pitney Bowes believes, for bank statements, bills, catalogs, coupons and promotions. And the mailbox will automatically organize the incoming mail, by type, and put on a calendar the date by which a particular action needs to be taken, before expiration. The principle will apply to proxy votes and credit card payments, alike.

The idea is to make it possible for mutual funds and other financial firms to offer their customers a "one-stop shop" for receiving mail that matters, that requires just one sign-on. Done right, such a digital mailbox could become "the preferred venue to receive and access information," said Chuck Callan, senior vice president, regulatory affairs of Broadridge. And act on it.

In the case of a large issuer of stock, simplification that leads to widespread use of unified mailboxes could significantly impact shareholder votes, for instance, Krugman said.

A company that mailed out 500,000 proxy statements could see that 300,000 have been opened. And only 150,000 votes cast.

The company then could urge all the other recipients to vote. Or just a subset, if they could identify likely voters and are close to getting the required quorum.

To date, existing versions of financial mailboxes have not been widely accepted. Broadridge's Investor Mailbox, which can be used to manage proxy votes, deliver key documents and account information, is now available to 15 million online accounts, Callan said. But only two million are in active use.

Broadening the use of investment mailboxes into all-purpose digital mailboxes also will take a leap of both faith and usage. To date, research sponsored by Pitney Bowes shows that customers aren't willing to give up paper statements on accounts. While 65% of Americans now use online banking or bill payment services, 84% still elect to receive paper statements, it found in August 2010.

When Broadridge and Pitney Bowes begin to put marketing weight behind the digital delivery and online action service in mid-year, Volly will also need to have a large lineup of utility companies, communications companies, cable companies, department stores and other billing firms lined up to make such a service competitive. Banks such as Citibank and Bank of America already basically provide one-stop shops for receiving and paying bills on their sites.

The advantage of the Volly approach, Krugman said, is that, even in the banking case, one mailbox would serve all end points. The user would take in documents and statements from any financial or other firm-and make payments through whatever banks they choose, for each purpose.

For Broadridge, the opportunity is global. If it can foster widespread signup and usage of digital mailboxes of this nature in the United States, it can become the switching point for delivery of financial documents in other nations.

Roughly two dozen European and Asian countries already have digital mailbox systems in place. Eventually, the working theory is, an issuer such as Exxon Mobil could send out corporate notices and proxy statements to Broadridge, for all shareholders throughout the world and Broadridge would act as its post office, making sure that each document got to the right digital mailbox, in each system, in each country.

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