I've grown weary of reading articles and news items about the benefits and the successes of intelligent mail barcodes. In almost every piece about Full Service IMB, mailpiece tracking is prominently mentioned as a benefit. Rarely is there any attempt to distinguish the two. To the average reader, it must seem that embracing Full Service intelligent mail is the path to the promised land of tracking your mail.

In truth, you can mail pieces bearing the intelligent mail barcode without using the CONFIRM tracking service. And you can use CONFIRM today without an intelligent mail barcode. Also, Full Service Intelligent Mail has never been a requirement for tracking, yet it sure seems so by reading the published material.

The Postal Service, vendors, journalists, and consultants are all guilty of associating the trackability of mail with printing an intelligent mail barcode. I include myself in that group. Early on, I didn't make a clear distinction either. But since then I have written pieces and given talks where I made sure my audience understood that mailpiece tracking is a separate service that costs money. It is merely invoked through the IMB and it is certainly not included in the price of postage. This point is rarely made.

Here are some characteristics of mailpiece tracking that mailers should understand:

--Receiving piece tracking information from the USPS requires a subscription to CONFIRM. Subscription prices vary according to volume. Most mailers would need plans that currently cost between $7,500 and $25,000 per year. Mailers may pay to sign up with a third party and make use of their subscription.

--Scan information from the USPS needs work before it has any real business value. It is raw data. For instance, it may be necessary to link the scan data to an actual account number or to a direct mail campaign. The cost of this technical development is borne by the mailer.

--Many mailers will sign up with a third party to collect the USPS scan data for them and generate reports that are useful to the mailer. This is an additional cost, but probably worthwhile.

--CONFIRM is available on either Basic Service or Full Service intelligent mail. The costs and the service levels for the tracking are the same.

--The costs and service levels for One-Code CONFIRM (invoked via the IMB) are substantially the same as the current CONFIRM service (invoked via a PLANET code).
My question for mailers that mention tracking as a justification for their IMB conversion is, "If mailpiece tracking is important to you, why haven't you been doing it all along?"

One answer might be the physical limitations on the mailpieces - no room for both the Postnet and the PLANET codes. Or, the inclusion of all those barcodes just made the pieces unattractive. Although design issues are not a deterrent in every case, they can be valid reasons for a mailer to adopt CONFIRM today, using IMB.

Another answer could be that some mailers have been unaware of the CONFIRM program. The publicity for IMB may be alerting more mailers to services that can be of value to them.

I just wish a connection between Full Service IMB and mailpiece tracking wasn't so strongly implied. Mail center managers who get project approval to convert to Full Service based on popular misconceptions that tracking is included may have some explaining to do. The price of the benefits can be higher than expected.

Mike Porter is an expert in Print and Mail operations and President of Print/Mail Consultants, a consulting firm that helps companies nationwide be more productive, adapt to changing trends, and lower costs in their document operations. He welcomes your comments. For more information visit www.printmailconsultants.com or email Mike directly at mporter@printmailconsultants.com.