Online collaborative proofing, variable data printing and digital asset management are examples showing that technology has made its way into the direct mail production process. From prepress and data processing to printing and mail processing, almost every step of a mail piece’s life cycle has been improved through new technologies.
Though soft proofing and variable data printing get the headlines and create the most buzz among direct marketers, several other technologies are gaining a foothold in direct mail. Two of these are online inventory management and automatic match mailing verification. Though used at different points in the mail production cycle, both hold advantages for customers and vendors.
The advantages of invisible ink. As direct marketers seek to raise the level of personalization on mail pieces, coordinating the data that drive these complex campaigns can become daunting. This is especially true of campaigns that use multi-part packages. When multiple personalized pieces are placed in one package, a system is needed at the printing and mail processing services provider to ensure all those components match. All the personalization in the world won’t generate great response rates if John Smith is asked to send back Shirley Davis’ reply card.
Direct mail services providers use various methods to check matches on multi-part mail packages. Often, this is still a manual process in which names, addresses and other identifiers are checked by hand during mail processing. This process is every bit as time consuming as it sounds, and the added risk of human error makes it even more dubious.
These limitations have led to the development of automated mail matching systems. Many direct mail services providers have systems that use optical character recognition technology. In these, OCR cameras take “pictures” of the name and address information on mail pieces, then scan subsequent pieces and compare them against the stored picture to verify a match. Barcode or sequence number matching systems are another variation of an automated matching system. These systems print small barcodes or unique sequence numbers on each mail piece component and scan them to create a match.
While the speed and accuracy of the barcode matching systems are outstanding, the main drawback is the presence of a printed code on each piece. For that reason, some direct mail services providers use invisible ink technology to verify match mailings. In these systems, ultraviolet ink is used to print the barcodes or sequence numbers. These codes are read easily by scanners, yet they’re invisible to the human eye, which means no more unsightly codes on your mail pieces.
As invisible ink scanning systems spread in use, direct mailers have the potential to use the technology in various ways. Invisible barcodes can be placed on any mail piece without the worry of interrupting the piece’s design. That means pieces may be scanned to provide automatic job tracking information, which can be made available to customers online. Multiple barcodes may be printed, allowing pieces to be scanned at multiple times and by multiple parties to provide a nearly limitless amount of information throughout a mail piece’s life cycle.
Keeping track of it all. Coordinating and managing direct mail projects can be frustrating and time consuming. Unfortunately, most direct marketers lack a system to track their inventory. Reorder requests often are made when someone discovers that they’ve run out of materials, and determining appropriate quantities to produce involves sifting through purchase orders. Such a cumbersome system is rarely effective, but few people in our industry have the time to maintain anything more elaborate.
Several direct mail services providers have created online inventory management solutions that are a boon for their overburdened customers. These systems give customers a comprehensive, up-to-the-minute snapshot of their inventory, past and present. Depending on the sophistication of the system, customers instantly can access job numbers, quantities produced, quantities mailed, mailing and production dates and more. In some cases, customers can view an image of every product in their inventory, which helps them determine whether to keep or destroy certain items. That can save money as they order only the quantities they need.
Online inventory systems also can be designed to allow automatic approval and requisition, which allows multiple users from the same customer to schedule shipments or reprints, or to request that outdated product be destroyed. Those requests can be routed to a single contact for approval, or be processed automatically. This is particularly helpful if a customer has personnel in several locations by allowing for centralized ordering and shipping. It also saves time by freeing personnel from the back-and-forth needed to coordinate these activities offline.
Customers who mail several packages on a regular basis may elect to receive automatic reorder cues once inventory dips below a particular threshold. Likewise, customers can be alerted to product that has been in storage for a certain period of time to help determine whether to keep or destroy the items. Since these functions are automated, customers don’t have to invest an employee’s time to keep track of them.
Customers also can access comprehensive history reports. These reports help track what products have been mailed, destroyed, reordered or stored. This information helps customers determine not only which packages to produce, but when to have them produced and what quantities they’ll likely need.
Both of these technologies illustrate how technological innovations can improve the direct mail production cycle. In their current form, they help make customers’ lives less stressful and the mail production process easier to manage. They hold the potential of providing direct marketers the information to improve their campaigns.