Part II: Decoding the Intelligent Mail Barcode
In part one of this feature, published last month, postal experts reflected on the rules and challenges marketers face when implementing the U.S. Postal Service's new Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMB) system. From that discussion, experts agreed that full service was a more attractive option than basic service and implementing IMB before the May 2011 deadline could take anywhere from a couple of months to two years, depending on your organization's existing IT infrastructure.
Looking past all of the requirements and technicalities, the creative benefits of Intelligent Mail are great, promising to improve tracking, measurability, list hygiene and cross-channel marketing. Here's a peek into some of the best practices and approaches the mail industry is taking.
Make Mail More Malleable
With full-service IMBs, each piece of mail will have an electronic trail of information tracking it from the mail preparer to the delivery point. Many mailers and mail suppliers have been preemptively leveraging data using the POSTNET barcode and costly USPS Confirm Service to track their mailings and analyze campaign data. However, full-service IMBs are an improvement over this method because they are universal and house data about the mail owner, mail piece, recipient and delivery through the postal system.
IM's digital reporting capability gets even more exciting when marketers sync up this data with customer relationship management, e-mail and other automated systems. "With the visibility in the mail, you can tie campaigns together to understand when to either precede or follow up with e-mail, or when to time release of TV, radio or newspaper advertisements," describes Thomas Day, senior vice president of Intelligent Mail and address quality for the USPS.
For those with fulfillment processes tied to the back end of a campaign, he says the ability to anticipate high order volumes and staff fulfillment centers accordingly greatly improves campaign performance.
Reporting at an individual piece level arms vendors with more information to then provide clients with predictive analysis. "We can extrapolate the predicted results based on complete delivery, so you can get up-to-the-minute analysis of where you are and where we expect you should be after all the pieces get through," details Rio Longacre, co-founder and VP of operations with Indros Group, a software developer and reseller based in Brooklyn.
Research Available Software Solutions
The move from a paper-based to a digital environment is what Day calls the most critical and technically complex aspect of full-service IM. When the USPS was developing its systems, it was difficult to honor all of the requests and suggestions made by participating mailers. As a result, some USPS customers will have to modify their own systems to meet the specifications of the IM acceptance and reporting schemes. "We've got to build the system, be able to process the data and then provision the data back to those customers-and you can only accommodate so much variation," Day notes.
The situation opens some great opportunities for software vendors to get involved and bridge the gap between the Postal Service and those customers who need to comply with IMB. One example is Indros Group, which offers solutions from barcode generation onward through an entire multichannel campaign, including direct mail pURLS and triggered e-mails. "If they are already using POSTNET, we provide the mailer ID and the rest of the information. It's kind of plug and play; we can create the IMBs, and we've done the integration with the USPS. As long as they create the barcodes with our technology and print them on the pieces, everything is tracked automatically," Longacre says.
Be Careful When Coding
IMBs will open up some real estate in the address block for those who currently use two barcodes or other service-type identifiers. In addition to downloading the IMB coding and font software at www.ribbs.usps.gov/OneCodeSolution, there are changes to mail production and preparation to consider.
For example, from his experience in the IMB pilot program, Charley Howard, VP of postal affairs for Harte-Hanks, a direct and targeted marketing solutions provider, recommends using a font with an adjustable x-y axis, especially when coding for mail trays. "You need to have a font that you can adjust the x-y axis on. You can't just click and drag and make it fit because if you do that, you make it an unreadable barcode, and you're going to have a problem," he explains.
In preparing millions of pieces for clients, Howard has had to rethink his company's quality control (QC) systems. "One of the things that a lot of people don't realize that you have to invest in is the QC. You can't read this barcode. And even using a scanner, how do you know what's there is what belongs there?" he asks. The solution, he says, is to develop systems that interlink, so when you scan a piece, all of the necessary data is in front of you. Updating QC alone can mean sizable investments of time and money for printers and fulfillment houses.
Improve Your Trigger and E-mail Campaigns
The availability of pURLs, landing pages and variable data technology has enabled mail marketers to conduct trigger campaigns, where a customer or purchase behavior leads to another marketing communication. Adding postal delivery information to a trigger campaign or CRM cycle creates an enhanced opportunity to make timely, relevant customer touches down the line.
"The barcode provides us information on when the piece is being delivered, and then based on that we can have further communications go out," Longacre details. He adds that he cannot imagine doing a marketing campaign without IMB technology, now that he's experienced its benefits.
Chris Duncan, senior director of promotions for OfficeMax, says IMB is more about strategy than compliance. "If we have multi-
tactic campaigns, we can time our tactics better. So if we're going to mail someone a catalog and then follow up with a phone call, we can make sure that follow-up phone call is timed correctly," Duncan explains. Longacre says his clients that send e-mail reminders 48 hours after a direct mail campaign hits its in-home date experience a 25 percent to 30 percent boost in response.
Focus on List Hygiene
Improved data hygiene is another feature of IMB's all-electronic acceptance and feedback. For full-service IMB customers, Address Correction Service (ACS) comes free for First Class mailings, but with Standard mail there's a caveat that all corrections be applied within a 30-day time period, punishable by a fee.
For those mailers sending millions of Standard mail pieces, Howard believes 30 days is a bit of a stretch to avoid getting penalized with a fee. In this way, the ACS requirements almost incentivize increased hygiene activity during preproduction. "Best practice is actually to use the suite of NCOALink products before you do the mailing. But also use ACS because even in NCOALink there will be things that are missed, so you want to use both premailing and postmailing solutions to keep your lists up-to-date," Day shares. "Most of our client base for example, they use NCOA, and they either do their database every 60 days or so or they do their mailing file," Howard adds.
Day says IMB will force many mailers to take a closer look at overall database management policies. "IM raises the bar. What you have to do is really understand the architecture of your system and the various databases you are maintaining. You've got to coordinate among multiple databases to make sure the correction information gets to all of the databases. In an ideal world, you'd have one single source of address data; unfortunately, there's many companies that use more than one source," he says.
"Direct mail works, but it only works if it gets there in the window that it's targeted for. We need reliability and consistency," Howard asserts. Ultimately, the IMB system promises to benefit mailers and the USPS by providing crucial data which will improve future performance. "We can measure how mail performs at certain [service] levels, so we can tell that the stuff that seems to be late is always this type of mail. If you can identify that, then you can do something about it, as a vendor or as the post office," Howard enthuses.
Duncan's goal is to invest in IM strategically, in order to improve his bottom line. "IM can be used to help grow sales, enhance customer experience and grow your customers," he concludes.