USPS Codes Provide Better Results

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Direct mailing professionals need timely deliveries and good information. To help, the U.S. Postal Service has developed a "planet code" system that allows mailers to track how their projects are doing as mail processing occurs. Then, real-time decisions can be made to improve both current and future results.


The planet code concept began with the advent of the Mailers' Technical Advisory Committee. This organization's mission is to develop solutions that mutually benefit postal customers and the USPS. MTAC developed planet codes and, although the system has been operational for First-Class and Standard-A mail for a while now, it just went online for flat mail, such as catalogs, this summer.


A planet code is an additional barcode usually placed within the address area that identifies the job, mailing services company and postal client. As planet-coded materials pass through automation postal equipment, transactional data are captured, stored and returned to the mailing services company. For instance, if planet-coded mail enters the postal stream at a Washington bulk mail center and flows through any California BMC, sectional center facility or destination delivery unit, processing data would be captured at each of these four postal facilities.


Among the various types of planet codes, this article will consider two - destination confirm and origin confirm.


If postal customers want to track their outbound mail, they need to use destination confirm codes. This allows them to know the status of their mailings at any particular moment and make reasonable assumptions about in-home delivery by ZIP code. For example, if mail has just been scanned at a destination SCF, final delivery most likely is two to three days away in most geographic areas. Or, if it just traveled through machine casing equipment at a DDU (a local post office), a reasonable assumption is that delivery will occur within three to eight working hours. When using destination confirm codes, typically they need to be applied on only a few pieces of mail per ZIP code.


On the other hand, if you need to track the response to your mailing as it is happening, use origin confirm codes on every mail reply device.


For example, when a mail recipient in Sioux Falls, SD, responds by dropping a coded business reply card in the mail, you will know exactly when the local post office begins return processing. This gives you a heads up as to how strong your response will be. If early indications are that you are getting a good response, you can make operational decisions such as ramping up response center staffing or ordering more product to meet anticipated demand.


If initial response to a limited-time promotion is lower than expected, perhaps you can boost your campaign with more promotional activity. Either way, with the use of origin planet codes, you can reasonably expect about a two- to three-day warning about what's happening.


According to Charley Howard, a founding member of MTAC, origin planet codes also can be used to pay bills. When a consumer receives a bill with an origin planet code on a reply device and mails it, as soon as it is processed on the first automatic postal processing machine, relevant account information is immediately "pushed" to the billing company and the payment is recorded. Since the physical piece of mail is now obsolete, it is pulled from the mail stream and thrown out, simultaneously streamlining the bill payment process and reducing postal traffic.


The following are examples of planet codes in use:


o A major U.S. retailer frequently mails marketing promotions in quantities ranging between 20 million and 30 million pieces each. Since these mailings are time-sensitive, the retailer needs to know that its mail arrives at its destination in the right time frame. Since this company is a longtime MTAC member and has been using destination planet codes since their inception, the company has built up a wealth of postal data pertinent to its needs. The company has discovered patterns of mail processing problems and has taken two concrete steps to improve mailing performance. First, it changed its mail preparation and drop shipping sequences to compensate for problematic delivery areas. Second, the company has given the USPS tremendous amounts of mail flow data so internal problems in the system can be fixed.


o A national wholesaler was experiencing low response rates on promotional mailings to resellers and needed to take corrective action. Since its mailings were only about 1 million pieces each - relatively sparse for nationwide delivery - and were delivered primarily to rural areas, management thought that slow USPS delivery might be to blame. However, when destination planet codes were applied and results compiled, the wholesaler discovered that the USPS was doing a pretty good job of getting mail to its destination on time. Armed with this information, the company began changing its mailing creative and promotional offers. The wholesaler quickly saw better results.


o One of the big three U.S. credit bureaus got involved with planet codes for a different reason. When people request copies of their credit reports, by law they have to receive them within a specified time period. Prior to using planet codes on outbound credit reports, this bureau generated and mailed a second one whenever customers complained about nonreceipt. Now, the bureau accesses planet code data while a customer is on the phone and explains exactly where the report is within the mail system. In addition to significantly decreasing the number of duplicate reports generated, it stops most complaints dead in their tracks.


Select a mailing services partner that knows how to apply codes, process mail to meet your specific needs, capture planet code data from the USPS, convert it into meaningful reports and give you feedback in a timely manner. Regardless of whether you need staggered in-home dates or simultaneous mailings, choose a company that can help you in either case. You need a mailing services partner with a wealth of knowledge about the postal system and the ability to adjust its mail preparation sequences, commingling and drop-shipping schedules to suit your needs.


The bottom line is this: Demand better information. The USPS isn't always proactive in revealing its problems, but at least it has developed the planet code system to help mailing professionals develop work-around solutions. Start taking advantage of USPS planet codes and expect better results


Ken Boone is president of Harte-Hanks Baltimore, a direct mailing company that offers print production services.
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