Direct Mail: Return to Sender
The quality of the address is one of the most important components to ensure your mail is delivered. When the recipient's address is accurate and complete, the U.S. Postal Service can deliver the mail quickly and easily. But, if the address is incorrect or missing an element, or if the recipient has moved, the mailpiece could become undeliverable-as-addressed (UAA) mail.
By the Numbers
A 2004 study conducted by Christensen Associates for the USPS showed that the Postal Service handles nearly 10 billion pieces of UAA mail each year, and the annual cost for processing UAA mail is $1.9 billion. The cost of UAA mail for direct marketers also can be substantial because the expenses of package production and postage are wasted. In addition to these hard costs, opportunity costs from lost sales and reduced response rates dilute the effectiveness of your program.
Another thing to consider is that most marketing mailpieces are sent as Standard Mail. This class of mail, while efficient and cost effective, does not include additional forwarding or return services if the mail is UAA, unless requested by the mailer. However, very few mailers request these services, and nearly 98 percent of UAA Standard Mail is discarded.
So the question becomes, "How do you avoid having your mail meet this fate?" The answer is to work with your vendors and in-house data processing team to ensure the addresses used in your mailings meet the three C's of quality standards:
- Complete: Are all the required elements of the address present?
- Correct: Are all the address elements accurate?
- Current: Does the address reflect the recipient's most recent move?
Aim for Accuracy
One of the most basic tools offered by the USPS to evaluate and correct addresses is the CASS certification program for commercial software. This software is used to standardize address elements and ensure addresses are as complete and accurate as possible. It confirms or corrects ZIP+4 codes and carrier route information against USPS address and city/state files. Processing with CASS-certified commercial software is required to claim many types of postal discounts.
Address processing with CASS-certified software now includes Delivery Point Validation (DPV). DPV compares the house number of each address to a table of valid house numbers for that street, and will check unit and apartment numbers for multi-unit buildings. Addresses for which the delivery point cannot be validated will not be assigned a +4 code and will not be eligible for automation discounts. DPV also allows mailers to identify addresses on their lists that may be vacant.
Addresses that are not validated during CASS/DPV processing typically require carrier-specific knowledge and additional efforts by the USPS to be delivered, if they can be delivered at all. Marketers should consider whether the additional postage and risk of non-delivery justifies mailing to these addresses.
The USPS offers additional tools for addresses that cannot be validated or corrected using the CASS/DPV process. Problem addresses can be sent to the USPS for additional processing through the Address Element Correction (AEC and AECII) programs to obtain corrected and updated address information. These programs use more in-depth evaluations and comparison of address elements to correct missing or incorrect parts of the address.
Keep Up With Movers
More than 45 million Americans—14 percent of the population—change their addresses each year. The mobility of the American public and the resulting volume of undeliverable mail creates formidable obstacles for marketers trying to find and use high-quality mailing lists. The Postal Service has a number of programs to help you ensure your mail reaches your customers and prospects, even when they have moved.
The primary pre-mailing Move Update tool is NCOA Link, run by USPS licensees. It compares name/address records in a mailing list to the National Change of Address database, which includes all moves reported to the USPS. Most licensees match to an 18-month database on the assumption that a move older than 18 months should already be reflected in a well-maintained list. However, lists can also be matched to a 48-month database for more thorough updating. If a match is made to the database, the new address is returned to the mailer.
Due to privacy restrictions, the USPS maintains strict criteria for matching name/address records between the mailing list and the NCOA database. If the software identifies a near match that doesn't meet the criteria for returning an updated address, the record will be identified as a "Nixie" in the file returned from the NCOA Link process. Marketers should be cautious in mailing to Nixie records, as the Nixie flag is an indication of a likely move. Tracking response rates to Nixie records, compared to the balance of the mailing list, in an initial mailing can provide guidance as to whether including Nixie records in future mailings is warranted.
Another thing to consider is the timing of NCOA Link processing. The change-of-address database is updated weekly. The closer the NCOA Link processing is to the mail date, the fresher your addresses and the greater your chance of catching up with recent movers.
The USPS also offers post-mailing options to capture new addresses, with Address Change Service (ACS) as one of the most common. To participate in ACS, marketers must create a mailer profile with the National Customer Support Center (NCSC) ACS department. This profile tells the Postal Service how you want to receive your address corrections and how to dispose of the mailpiece (forward, return or discard). Mailers can choose Traditional ACS, which requires adding a participant code and an optional keyline to the address block, or OneCode ACS or Full-Service ACS, which rely on the information in the Intelligent Mail barcode.
ACS is often used when mailing to existing customers so new addresses can be captured and added to your database for future mailings.
Enhance With Third-Party Tools
As well as those provided by the Postal Service, many companies in the mailing industry offer tools for ensuring high-quality addresses, and a number of these tools use proprietary data sources to supplement USPS data. Third-party databases can make use of additional information, such as names and phone numbers, to further refine address information.
Third-party data also can enhance the Move Update process. Not all consumers will report their moves to the USPS for inclusion in the change-of-address database, but they may report their move to utility providers and other vendors. Supplementing NCOA LINK or ACS data with move information consumers have provided to alternate sources can add corrected addresses to otherwise UAA mailpieces.
You put too much time, effort and money into creating relevant, compelling marketing messages to have them delivered to the wrong person at the wrong address, or worse yet, not delivered at all. The effort to ensure your addresses are complete, correct and current will drive improved response rates and enhanced ROI for your direct mail campaigns.
Kurt Ruppel is Director Postal Policy and Marketing Communications at IWCO Direct. He is a member of the Mailers’ Technical Advisory Committee (MTAC) and serves on the Board of Directors at the Envelope Manufacturers Association (EMA), where he is also Vice Chair of the EMA’s Postal Affairs Committee. He can be reached at email@example.com.