5 Production Improvements You Need to Ask About
From printing and proofing to data and mail processing, technology has improved every aspect of the direct mail production process. The tighter production processes and increased customization possibilities that have resulted are opening up a host of new opportunities to help you attract the eyeballs of your audience.
Here are five such technologies aimed at helping you enhance your direct mail communications by improving personalization, refining handling and tracking, or simply getting you more for your direct mail dollar.
The advent of "soft" proofing is one of the most important advancements in direct mail production technology. Soft proofs, often in the form of PDF files, allow you to view and make corrections to your printed pieces digitally. This process is much faster than exchanging printed proofs via fax or courier.
Until recently, one of the main challenges of soft proofing in direct mail applications had been the exchange of the proof files themselves. Often attached to e-mails for transfer, particularly large PDF files proved cumbersome to download and difficult to open and view. To address this issue, some service providers have added secure Web-based soft proof viewing options that allow you to make changes to even the largest, most complex files online, without taxing your e-mail networks.
Web-based systems offer several advantages. Multiple users can log in simultaneously, allowing everyone involved in the approval of a project to make changes as a group, even if they are thousands of miles from each other. This cuts down the time spent in the proofing process, and eliminates the confusion of passing around multiple proofs via e-mail.
In addition, the integrity of the file itself is not compromised when proofs are viewed on a secure Web site. In systems such as Creo's InSite (the one we use at EU Services), you can view a file that resides on the printer's own servers, giving you an accurate idea of what your projects will look like when printed. Changes to the production files are made only when "approved" by authorized online users.
Another challenge of soft proofing has been the inability to view personalization data and multiple versions of a project. While no single solution exists currently, some service providers have found success with layered PDF files. In this process, address, salutation and other data is imposed over the piece by merging the data and graphics files. Although they can be cumbersome to proof, layered PDF files give you the most accurate view of how all pieces will appear without actually printing them.
One of the most pervasive mailing problems has been the inability to track pieces to determine expected delivery dates. The U.S. Postal Service has moved to address this issue with its PLANET (Postal Alpha Numeric Encoding Technique) code process. PLANET codes allow a mail piece to be tracked anywhere in the United States if it includes a PLANET bar code. When the code is scanned before delivery, the Postal Service can report back to you with a general geographic location.
While PLANET codes are not quite as comprehensive as the tracking services provided by carriers such as FedEx or UPS, they do provide an approximate delivery date for a certain area of the country. PLANET codes can be applied to your mail pieces using laser printing equipment, and only a few pieces per ZIP-sorted mail tray need to carry a code to allow for accurate tracking.
There are several online information services available today that provide user-friendly reports and updates of PLANET-coded mail. Check with your service provider to find out which systems it offers.
Direct mail service providers use a variety of methods to check matches on multi-part mail packages. Today's automated mail matching systems typically utilize optical character recognition (OCR) technology. In these systems, OCR cameras take "pictures" of the name and address information on mail pieces, and then scan subsequent pieces and compare them against the stored images to verify a match. Bar code or sequence number matching systems are another variation of an automated matching system where small bar codes or unique sequence numbers are printed on each mailing component and then scanned to create a match.
While the speed and accuracy of the bar code matching systems are outstanding, the main drawback is the presence of a printed code on each piece. For that reason, some service providers now utilize invisible ink technology to verify match mailings. In these systems, ultraviolet (UV) ink is used to print the bar codes or sequence numbers. While these codes are read easily by scanning equipment, they're invisible to the human eyeno more unsightly codes on your mail pieces!
Invisible ink scanning systems have the potential to offer you even more functionality. Since invisible bar codes can be placed on any mail piece without the worry of interrupting its design, multiple bar codes can be used to offer a great deal of information about a piece. For example, an invisible bar code can be used to provide automatic job tracking information, which then can be made available online. Pieces also can be scanned at multiple points and by multiple parties to provide a nearly limitless amount of information throughout a mail piece's life cycle. It also doesn't hurt that invisible ink can make mail pieces look more personal without obvious bar codes.
By now, you've likely heard of MERLIN, the Postal Service's Mail Evaluation Readability and Lookup Instrument. Its main purpose is to automate the process of evaluating letter and flat-rate mail pieces to determine their qualification for discounted automation rates. One of the tests MERLIN performs is for a minimum level of bar code readability (a requirement for automation compatibility).
Until recently, minimum levels for readability were 90 percent for letter-size pieces and 80 percent for flat-rate mail. Effective July 31 of this year, however, the Postal Service raised the minimum bar code readability for flat-rate mail to 90 percent as well.
According to the Postal Service, 94 percent of flat-rate mailings pass the 80-percent readability threshold, however it will phase in the higher readability requirement by offering a partial discount for pieces that pass the 80-percent readability rate but fall short of 90-percent readability. Pieces will still fail altogether if they don't pass the 80-percent readability rate.
As MERLIN continues to be improved and automation compliance standards continue to be raised, work with your service providers to ensure that your mail pieces exhibit the highest quality possible and qualify for the lowest postage rates.
Customized MarketMail (CMM) is a new mail classification that seeks to make it more attractive to create mail pieces in almost any shape or size you desire. While the intent was well-placed, the requirements of the classification have made it difficult to implement. In addition to special addressing, production and mail preparation requirements, postage costs have made it prohibitive for large-quantity projects.
The Postal Service recently relaxed some of these requirements in an effort to attract more interest in CMM. You now can attach items such as reply cards, coupons and thin magnets to your mail pieces for added appeal. In addition, standard delivery addresses now can be used for CMM. However, CMM pieces still must be drop shipped or delivered to the Delivery Destination Unit (DDU) via Priority mail for final distribution. Size guidelines for CMM pieces specify that they must weigh 3.3 ounces or less, and be between 3.5" and 12" in height, 5" and 15 " in length, and .007" and .75" in width. At present, CMM postage remains 57.4 cents for Standard mail and 46 cents for Nonprofit Standard.
These technologies are just a few examples of how the Postal Service and service providers are creating value for you. Even more possibilities will become available as these technologies increase in their scope and functionality, and service providers and mailers team up to create mail campaigns that get the results you're looking for without breaking your budget or filling your schedule!
Sylvia Konkel is vice president of marketing for EU Services, a full-service direct mailing production facility based in Rockville, Md. EU Services offers educational seminars and publications on several direct marketing topics, including direct mail production tips aimed specifically for nonprofit organizations. Contact Konkel at (301) 795-6308 or firstname.lastname@example.org.