Tapping Postal Resources
Targeting consumers using the U.S. Postal Service as your messenger can be an arduous task. But amid postal rate increases, confusion about retirement pension overpayment and presidential postal commission roundtables on the nature of reform, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) does have cost-cutting resources in place for the mailer.
A common opinion voiced by postal experts is that mailers are not educated enough about the components and benefits of the various products, services and technologies the USPS has to offer.
We picked the brains of some of these mail gurus to share how postal products such as Merlin, ABE, Move Update and Confirm using PLANET codes work; the advantages and disadvantages of each; recent
developments; and who should be using what.
What it is: Mailing Evaluation, Readability Lookup INstrumentknown as MERLINwas deployed by the USPS for the first time in May 2001. It is designed to improve the efficiency of business mail entry units, and ensure that mail received from customers is eligible for work-sharing discounts.
Basically, MERLIN is looking at how many pieces a mailer is claiming at each sortation level. Then it examines the physical mailing in the tray and the tray tag, and determines whether or not the mailer has claimed the right rate within that mailing, or a percentage of that mailing, to see what qualifies for the rate.
"The postal service is making sure you are mailing a piece according to postal regulations, sortation regulations and mail piece design," says Mary Ellen Griffin, mailing services manager and mailing liaison for CC3. "The original ABE only looked at barcodes. MERLIN looks at so much more."
Those regulations have not changed, only the method of determining whether mail meets those regulations. Prior to MERLIN, bulk mail entry clerks manually verified mail. The postal service's ultimate goal, many attest, is to verify all mailings over 10,000 pieces on MERLIN and one of six mailings under 10,000 pieces. If a mailing does not pass MERLIN, automation discounts may be lost.
Disadvantages: Throughout many lettershops across the country, MERLIN has slowly been replacing ABE (Automated Barcode Evaluator), a computerized program used by business mail entry units to check barcode readability.
According to Dick Goldsmith, founder and chairman of Horah Direct, a full-service direct marketing agency, mail that has gone out just fine with ABE is now often being rejected by MERLIN.
Some speculate that one reason may be because the cameras used by MERLIN to scan the entire tray are hyper-sensitive and often intolerant.
"If the camera has a spec of dirt on it, and it reads the barcode, it will certainly hamper results," asserts Jerry Ling, president, South Eastern Mailers Association (SEMA). "This will throw up a red flag that the mail piece is undeliverable, when in fact, the mailpiece is up to code."
Mailpieces that have any kind of color to them, even a kraft envelope, may be rejected by MERLIN, says David Lewis, president, trackmymail.com. "We think it's peculiar to reject mail because a diagnostic tool won't read it, even if [USPS] production tools will," he says.
Before MERLIN's debut, the postal service's sense was that a very small percentage of mail actually got checked and verified, so droves of substandard mail was spilling into the mailstream and generating additional processing costs.
"It's a great tool," says Griffin, "but it doesn't take into account the way live production truly runs within a mail house. I don't think [the USPS] spent enough time developing this piece of equipment with the physical maileractually on-line and in the insertion area."
There are obvious quirks with MERLIN as it ekes out its infancy, but depending on whether your lettershop has replaced ABE, you might not have any choice in the matter.
Move Update: NCOA
What it is: Under Move Update, which is designed to reduce undeliverable-as-addressed mail, mailers using automation or presort rates are required to update addresses every 180 days using the Address Change Service (ACS), National Change of Address (NCOA), Multi-source Change of Address (MCOA), and Fastforward.
NCOA is available through USPS licensees, which match mailing lists submitted to them on tape or disk against change-of-address information for the entire country from all computerized forwarding system units. If a match is made, NCOA can correct the address before it's printed on a mailpiece.
Advantages: "The ultimate benefit of using Move Update is lowering your postage and production costs," says Jack Schember, product manager, Melissa Data, a provider of data quality and mailing solutions. "It pays for itself."
Schember affirms that NCOA should be used by anyone who's doing a high volume mailing. "You're capturing 152 million addresses over the last 48 months."
Dick Goldsmith adds, "NCOA typically updates 4.4 percent of your mailing. It's foolish not to use it."
Move Update: Fastforward
What it is: Another address hygiene service that can be performed within Move Update is Fastforward, a USPS-licensed automated system that updates addresses by matching names and addresses with current change-of-address orders on file.
A mailpiece updated with Fastforward can be delivered directly to the new address rather than forwarded from the old address. Its systems interface with USPS-approved automation systems such as multi-line optical character readers (MLOCRs) and remote video encoding (RVE)
operations. The MLOCR/RVE application provides an "on-piece" address correction during mail processing
before deposit into the mailstream.
Advantages: "The benefit of Fastforward is that it can be run on a job-by-job basis," says CC3's Mary Ellen Griffin. "Right now it is only required for First-Class mail for automation. One thing is for sure: It will stop the redundant names going through our mail stream."
Fastforwardas its name suggestsalso bypasses the forwarding process, getting mail to its destination quicker.
In certain situations, some mailers prefer NCOA over Fastforwardwhich also contains six months of non-forwardable movesbecause they can take the address changes made on NCOA and update their databases. Fastforward, according to Schember, performs daily, small, on-the-fly processing.
Disadvantages: "We think NCOA has more benefit for the mailer because they're making their mailing list better," says David Lewis. "They are taking the updates made in NCOA and putting them back into their main list. We don't think mailers are accomplishing that with Fastforward."
Donald McCloskey, executive vice president of operations for CC3, says Fastforward will catch the names of individuals who move and fail to contact the USPS or the mailer.
"It's going to eliminate bad addresses and give you better delivery," says McCloskey. "In certain cases when merge/purge has not been done on the file, Fastforward will clean those bad names out."
Jack Schember concurs, but cites a notable disadvantage to Fastforward in that it does not return nixie codesclose, but not exact, matches to the NCOA database. When you run the NCOA process, he says, you are matching your list against the postal service's massive file of movers to root out any duplicate names. A nixie code would warn the mailer of the close match below:
Fastforward shoots off a caution flare to the mailer of the near-identical match. The mailer could then adjust accordingly, or ignore the reading if it thinks the individuals are two separate and distinct prospects.
"The address hygiene service mailers use very much depends on the equipment they have to work with and their method of doing business," says David Lewis.
Recent Developments: USPS Manager of Finance Angelo Wider announced in late February that the USPS will start reclaiming postage discounts from First-Class mailers who do not comply with its Move Update rules.
The reclaimed discounts will be only for the portion of mailings not in compliance. The decision follows tests last year in several areas, including the New York and Washington metro areas, which revealed some mailers did not use Move Update properly. The discounts can be reclaimed as early as this month.
"The USPS has started to crack down on mailers who are saying they are cleaning up their lists, but really are not," says Schember. "Up until now, the USPS has not been effectively monitoring data cleansing."
Confirm Using PLANET Code Barcodes
What it is: Confirm is a product from the USPS that uses a special barcode called PLANET to electronically track First-Class mail and Standard mail, letter-size and flat-size items, for both mail sent to customers and reply mail that customers send back to the mailer.
Confirm offers two forms of service: Destination and Origin. Destination Confirm notifies you as to when outgoing mail is about to be delivered. Origin Confirm notifies you when a customer is returning a mailpiece.
To use Confirm, the mailer must place two barcodes on outgoing mailpieces or reply mailpieces: the regular POSTNET barcode and a PLANET barcodea 12- or 14-digit barcode. The Postal Service sorting equipment reads both barcodes and makes them available to a centralized network server. The mailer can then receive data electronically and learn when outgoing mail is nearing delivery or when reply mail is on its way.
Advantages: According to experts, Confirm Service using PLANET code barcodes offers the following benefits to the mailer:
* Knowing that customers are about to receive direct mail efforts.
* Increasing response rates by synchronizing telemarketing with the delivery of direct mail efforts.
* Having documentation that you sent your mail and that the USPS has begun processing the pieces.
* Knowing that your customers receive fulfillment of mail orders.
* Using accurate information to improve customer service.
* Using delivery information to efficiently staff call centers.
"The real value of Confirm is knowing when the mail gets delivered, not knowing if it gets delivered," says David Lewis, whose firm, trackmymail.com, supplies customers with PLANET code numbers and tables of delivery results. "Our clients certainly see value in knowing when their direct mail efforts go out the door. We have retail clients who are having sales at different stores, and knowing that their mail can hit the customer before the sale starts has real financial value to them."
Recent Developments: Postal customers have reported that they typically receive scan records for less than 60 percent of their PLANET-coded flat mailpieces. USPS analysis largely attributes this to two factors: a notable amount of flat mail bypasses processing equipment and does not get scanned; and a number of smaller plants do not have automated flats equipment.
Lewis says that partly due to bad publicity, mailers really don't understand the benefits of Confirm using PLANET code yet.
"A 60-percent flat scan rate: People hear that and think there's no validity to it," bemoans Lewis. "If you're trying to use this information to find out when your mail is being delivered, a 60-percent sample is wonderful."
Same with letter size mail, he says. "You may only get a 90-percent scan rate, which to some is not 100 percent, and therefore they think it's substandard. It tells you everything you need to know about when your mail is being delivered. You can't track every single pieceit doesn't replace certified mailbut still, the data that you get is tremendously valuable," Lewis says.
For individual mailings, the expected scan rate will depend on the destination area and on the percentage of the mailing that is five-digit presorted. For some mailings the expected scan rate could be 80 percent or more, while for others it could be substantially below 60 percent.
"I think as awareness grows, the PLANET codes will grow as well," says Lewis. "It's a standard that hasn't really caught on yet."