A new investment in address quality

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The U.S Postal Service is taking an aggressive move toward eliminating undeliverable-as-addressed mail with its Aug. 1 implementation of CASS cycle L. Yet many mailers are still completely in the dark about what CASS is, why this is happening and what investment is required to retain their postage discounts and predictable mail delivery.

CASS is a certification program created by the USPS to test the accuracy of address quality solutions provided by various software vendors. It provides a benchmark by which software and hardware products can be tested to determine if they standardize and correct addresses in a consistent manner.

The CASS cycle, which is designated by a letter, runs from Aug. 1 to July 31, with vendors usually testing their software each spring. We are currently operating in CASS cycle K, which ends July 31.

Software vendors process a file of 100,000 addresses, provided by the USPS, through their products and return the results to the USPS' National Customer Support Center for grading. If the results pass a specific threshold (98.5 percent, for example), then the software product is considered CASS-Certified for that year's cycle. Automation-rate discounted mail must have an address processed through CASS-Certified software to be eligible for the discount.

However, prior to CASS cycle L, there was never any guarantee that an address was deliverable, despite being processed using CASS- Certified software. Starting with this next CASS cycle, the primary number of the address must be validated using DPV data and the address must be updated using the LACSLink.

These two additions to the CASS certification process will not only help to reduce UAA mail but also begin eliminating the $160 million spent each year by the USPS to handle incorrectly coded addresses.

Adding the DPV and LACSLink products to CASS-Certified software requires an investment by vendors, mailers and the industry as a whole if we are going to continue to reduce UAA and improve the value in our mailing.

Investing in CASS cycle L comes down to three key areas:

Performance. DPV and LACSLink data are sizeable, and it can take additional processing time to validate and update addresses using these products. Make sure you understand your software settings to take advantage of built-in caching technology. Some vendors may also require additional hardware investments to mitigate the performance impact. Prepare now so that you don't cause a significant impact in your production later.

Implementation. In some cases, upgrading to CASS cycle L software will simply require installing the latest version. In other cases, though, it may mean additional investments in technology. Some vendors may choose to fulfill the DPV and LACSLink data via DVD, which may require you to install a DVD reader. Other vendors may require a change or upgrade to your operating system. Make sure your IT department is aware of any changes now so that you are able to continue processing mailings after Aug. 1.

Policy. The data in the DPV and LACSLink products are encrypted using a special secure hash algorithm. This is done to comply with Title 39 and other privacy laws. The USPS must ensure that mailers cannot reverse engineer the DPV data and thus create a mailing list. Therefore, there are seed records placed into the data that, when encountered during address processing, will cause the CASS-Certified software to stop. To restart the application, the user must obtain a restart code from the software vendor.

Users of CASS-Certified software need to know how this process works and put a policy in place to deal with the highly unlikely, but very real, possibility that this might happen. Address lists that inadvertently contain these seed records must have those records corrected or removed so that future stop processing does not occur.

The USPS is serious about reducing UAA mail. In fact, it has recently provided a letter, signed by Anita Bizzotto, chief marketing officer at the USPS, and USPS' senior vice president of intelligent mail and address quality Charlie Bravo, confirming the Aug. 1 implementation date of CASS cycle L. Many mailers are already getting ready for this date by purchasing and implementing the DPV and LACSLink products with their CASS cycle K software now.

Looking ahead, the USPS has additional plans in store for mailers. CASS cycle M has already been announced. Fortunately, its requirements are far less complicated than cycle L. In fact, some vendors could probably take their cycle M test today, were it available.

Perhaps the next major change in address quality will be in July 2009. That is when the USPS proposes to require processing addresses through CASS-Certified software to obtain any postage discount. This will be CASS cycle N, and it already appears to be the next significant investment for the industry if we want to reduce UAA mail by the 50 percent outlined in the USPS' transformation plan.

Technology has allowed today's rockets to have advanced guidance and targeting systems. But if the coordinates are wrong, they'll miss every time.

We're living in a dynamic environment. Almost 14 percent of American households and 20 percent of businesses moved in 2005, filing more than 43 million Change of Address orders with the U.S. Postal Service. It is essential that mailers and marketers make the investment in address quality to maintain pace with target audiences.

The USPS delivers to 145 million addresses six days a week and adds about 1.8 million new addresses annually. Marketers must manage their address lists to avoid the risk of missing their target audiences, while losing a great deal of time, money and effort that lost opportunity represents.

Mail with inaccurate or outdated addresses is considered undeliverable-as-addressed mail and is handled in three ways: Forward the mail, delaying delivery and response; return the mail, resulting in lost opportunity and revenue; or discard the mail, ultimately causing a marketer to lose that customer completely.

The most recent (2005) figures show that UAA mail accounted for almost 10 billion pieces of mail of the total 211.7 billion pieces of mail processed by the Postal Service that year, representing an estimated $1.9 billion in costs.

Marketers can combat this growing problem of poor quality or outdated addresses and help eliminate unnecessary UAA volume and costs by implementing an Address Quality strategy. Businesses should standardize, validate and update address files on a regular basis using the products and services developed by the postal service: ZIP + 4, CASS-Certified Address Matching Software, Deliver Point Validation, Address Element Correction service, NCOALink, Address Change Service and OneCode ACS.

These tools will help clean address files and have a positive impact on overall costs associated with printing, production and postage. Response rates will increase as each mail piece reaches its targeted, intended customer. A higher return on investment will be reached.

Consistent use of these products and services provides a competitive advantage at a very low cost. Making a small investment now to manage address files will yield enormous benefits to a company's bottom line.

Christopher Lien is director of commercial mail marketing at Business Objects, San  Jose, CA. Reach him at clien@businessobjects.com

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