Adding Intelligence to the Mailstream

On January 28 the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) began requiring customers who use POSTNET barcodes to transition to new Intelligent Mail barcodes (IMb) to retain their discounted pricing.

“POSTNET is not going away,” says Roy Betts, senior public relations representative at the USPS. Instead, POSTNET customers taking advantage of automation prices—discounts for flats, letters, and parcels that are barcoded and can therefore be processed via the USPS’s automated equipment—will have to transition to Intelligent Mail barcodes (IMb) to qualify for those same discounts. Additionally, Permit Reply Mail (PRM) and Qualified Business Reply Mail (QBRM) are also required to have an IMb.

“It’s to achieve efficiencies with mail, [and so postal customers can] learn about where their mail is in the system—useful information for their own planning and marketing initiatives,” Betts explains. This transition affects brands’ direct mail campaigns, but it’s the mailer companies that need to ensure their mailing software is compatible with the new barcodes. Yet industry experts don’t believe this should be a problem since IMb has been available since 2006 and it’s only now that the USPS is making them its standard, notes Judy Kalus, senior business analyst at mailing and marketing solutions provider Pitney Bowes.

The IMb combines two existing USPS barcodes—POSTNET and PLANET Code—and adds additional features designed to enhance the visibility of mail that enters the delivery stream. POSTNET barcodes include ZIP Code information, data that describes which side of the street the recipient is on, and—as of two years ago—delivery point digits that allow the USPS to automatically sort envelopes in the order by which the mail carrier will walk a route. PLANET Code adds data that shows where letters are with relation to their delivery addresses. In combining the two codes, marketers save visual real estate. “The last thing [marketers] want is another barcode on their mail piece,” says Harry Whitehouse, CTO of DYMO Endicia, a provider of online postage and shipping solutions. “[IMb] consolidates it into one nice compact thing.”

IMb also allows marketers to add several fields to their barcodes to make items more trackable. Key among them is the ability to uniquely identify each mail piece. “And that’s huge,” Kalus says. “That’s the main difference between the IMb and the PLANET Code.”

Both Kalus and Whitehouse point out that these features let direct marketers add multichannel elements to their campaigns; for instance, by sending email or contact center follow-ups after a mail piece has been received.

Marketers will also gain insight into potentially failed direct mail campaigns. John Tenwinkel, VP of digital and distribution services at print and Internet communications company DG3, described a Black Friday promotion affected by Hurricane Sandy. “It wiped out some mail facilities,” he says. “The major retailers like Macy’s had no idea if their promotions hit any doorsteps. In fact, many materials didn’t get to the consumers.

With IMb, they can track when that material was received in the mailstream and when it went to the door.” There are some limitations to the IMb tracking features. Kalus points out that IMb tracing records the last scan of a piece as it’s being placed in the mail carrier’s tray, thus it doesn’t replace certified or registered mail and it doesn’t record at-the-door deliveries.

“It’s a limited utility.” Whitehouse says. “You can only estimate when it’s been delivered; with UPS and FedEx it’s more specific.”

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