Over the past several years, the United States Postal Service (USPS) has been diligently working to find a plan to offset its declines in revenue and the decreases in mail volume. With every new mandate or regulation the USPS has put into place, business mailers have had to adjust operations or invest in new forms of technology to keep up. Most recently is the transition from POSTNET and PLANET barcodes to the Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMb). By May 2011, business mailers are being encouraged to convert to the basic version of IMb in order to receive maximum postal automation discounts. Mailers that don't comply may face paying the full rate for every mailpiece when the mandate is put in place.

Although the use of IMb is currently optional, business mailers that are choosing not to adopt this USPS "intelligent" initiative should take several things under consideration. First, it is important to understand the value the technology brings and evaluate the impact IMb will eventually have on your business. As a mailer, you will also want to assess the two levels of service that IMb is available - Basic or Full Service - and find which one makes the most sense for your business. Finally, you will need to plan for the potential changes the technology may bring to legacy systems, business unit applications, document creation, database management and other business processes when it does become a requirement.

While many seek how to justify implementing IMb and question its ROI at this time, medium to large-volume business mailers should consider moving to at least the Basic, if not Full Service, IMb solution. The intelligent technology not only ensures your business will continue to receive postal discounts, but also provides access to data-rich tracking systems and information beneficial to your customers.

Fulfilling the USPS's intelligent mandate

IMb is known by most as a new barcode symbology that offers expanded data capacity, combining a variety of information - class of mail, special services, mail owner and preparer identification, individual mailpiece identification and destination ZIP - into a single code that supports multiple USPS special services. According to the USPS Intelligent Mail Technical Resource Guide, "Intelligent Mail is the next generation in the evolution of Postal Service barcode technology, offering a more effective alternative to existing barcodes by increasing the amount of information that is present on letter and flat mail piece."

As mentioned earlier, the USPS offers IMb at two levels: Basic and Full Service. Basic IMb allows business mailers to immediately qualify for automation discounts and requires less start-up time than Full Service IMb. While Full Service IMb requires business mailers to meet stringent standards, those that elect to implement the Full Service option gain access to significantly greater mailing capabilities and data than they have today. Business mailers deciding between Basic and Full Service IMb should evaluate the following criteria: cost, value proposition for mailing clients and ramp-up time.

For example, up until recently the USPS provided address correction notices at no charge to mailers participating in Full Service IMb. However, in September of this year, a Federal Register Notice issued by the USPS states that address correction notices will be available to First Class Mail letters and flats at no charge for just 95 days after the first notice for a specific change of address or nixie notification is provided. This type of change has the potential to impact a business mailer's case for justifying the deployment of Full Service IMb.

In order to comply with the Full Service option, mailers must meet several requirements, including placing the Intelligent Mail barcode on letters and flat mailpieces, trays and containers, submitting postage statements and mailing documentation electronically, and scheduling appointments for drop-ship mailings. Although barcode uniqueness to each mailpiece within a mailing is an important aspect of the Full Service option, there are two exceptions to the unique serial number requirement for letters and flat mailpieces. Both exceptions exist for mailings less than 10,000 pieces that either have postage affixed to each piece at the correct price or contain pieces of identical weight that are separated by price. Furthermore, the Full Service IMb option provides start-the-clock information at no charge to notify mailers when the Postal Service takes possession of mailings.

Paying Dividends

Business mailers utilizing IMb are able to offer customers access to services that improve mailing efficiency and accuracy, including Destination Confirm - tracking all outbound mail and understanding the date and time at which mailpieces dropped - and Origin Confirm, which gives visibility to payments that are en route via reply mail. Other advantages of IMb vary from unique identification of up to a billion mailpieces to more detailed information about mailings - enabling marketers to make better business related decisions.

With successful implementation of IMb, mailers can provide marketers with an increase in mailpiece "real estate" by eliminating the need for multiple barcodes, the ability to determine which delivery day yields the best response and the knowledge of when mailings are received. Additionally, IMb allows marketers to keep their customers more satisfied by better managing late payment notices. Because marketers will be notified when their customer's payment has entered the mail stream, they avoid having to send out past-due notices or make follow-up phone calls on an invoice when the customer has already put their payment in the mail.

Capitalizing on Mailing Efficiencies

While IMb requires an investment with substantial planning and development to be done internally, business mailers taking the wait and see' approach may find themselves in a scramble when IMb becomes mandatory. So preparing to employ the USPS's solution that promises to raise the level of service you provide now will offer key advantages to your business in the future. Implementing IMb provides the basis for mailers to develop and deploy a comprehensive mailpiece tracking system, affording mailers opportunities to access USPS tracking services, improve delivery and viability of mail, increase operational efficiencies and maximize postal discounts - all indications that the benefits of IMb reach well beyond the mail center.

Harry Stephens is President/CEO, and founder of DATAMATX, one of the nation's largest privately held, full-service providers of printed and electronic billing solutions. As an advocate for business mailers across the country, Stephens is actively involved in several postal trade associations. He serves on the Executive Board of the Greater Atlanta Postal Customer Council, Major Mailers Association (MMA), PCC Advisory Committee (PCCAC), and the Board of the National Postal Policy Council (NPPC). He is also president of The Imaging Network Group (INg), an association for Transactional and Direct Mail Marketing service bureaus. As an expert on high-volume print and mail, he has frequently been asked to speak to various USPS groups, including the Board of Governors, about postal reform and other issues affecting business mailers. You can contact Harry at hstephens@datamatx.com. Find DATAMATX at www.datamatx.com.