I’ve been attending industry events and conferences lately, covering various aspects of the document industry, including transactional print, commercial print, and mailing. While the focus of each event is different, one main theme has been present in all the programs: data. This topic is on the minds of market-leading companies that send their employees to industry conferences. Presenters and exhibitors are explaining how to leverage data to address the rapidly changing customer communications landscape.

Not everyone can attend the informational forums that keep customer communication professionals up to date, so I thought it would be helpful to summarize some interesting trends and discussions I’ve encountered as I spoke with exhibitors and listened to informational sessions over the last few months.

Data Is the Key… Everywhere

Everyone’s talking about data. It’s clear that if your company isn’t investing in people and technology necessary to capture, manipulate, and use data, competitors will grab market share. This goes for the service bureaus creating bills and statements to direct mail marketing agencies, commercial printers, or practically anyone else in the customer communications value chain.

Data helps you run your business more efficiently, save money, create effective solutions, track results, and more. Here are a few items that caught my attention:

1. Gathering consumer preference and behavior data to deliver communications in a channel more likely to get noticed.

This effort goes beyond asking customers to choose between paper and electronic document delivery. Organizations are now beginning to watch communication channels for individual customer activity. Some companies are now linking traditional customer contact data like names, postal addresses, and email addresses to social media or web browsing activity. Connecting with data from online sources helps companies build profiles of behavior and interests. This information allows businesses to make better decisions about how to connect with their customers.

2. Matching results from mailing campaigns to customer databases (lead scoring).

There’s no reason physical mail activity can’t contribute to customer profile information maintained in CRM or marketing automation systems. Returned mail or addresses unable to receive an IMb barcode should decrease a lead score. Scores for customers who click through from an Informed Delivery campaign, scan a QR code, or visit a PURL would increase.

3. Enhancing mail list data with outside information to enable better segmentation.

Determining which prospective customers are most likely to respond to offers and deciding which offer to present is the next step in segmented marketing. The right decision requires extra data about purchase history, web browsing habits, proximity to physical locations, and more to fuel the variable data print engines emitting highly targeted messages.

4. Reinforcing direct mail marketing with internet re-targeting ads.

I didn’t even know this was possible. Vendors now claim they can connect internet IP addresses to postal addresses with 90% or better accuracy without relying on browser cookies. Matching is most successful if the mailing file includes an email address or phone number. When companies perform IP matching, advertisers can serve online digital ads to mail recipients before or after physical mail pieces arrive in the homes. This technique reinforces the offer, collects engagement statistics, and fosters brand awareness. Matching can go in the other direction as well, connecting IP addresses of anonymous website visitors to actual postal addresses. Today, organizations can send direct mail triggered by browsing activity.

5. Interpreting USPS data to fix bad addresses (returned mail and ACS).

This isn’t a new problem, but discussions conducted in conference sessions indicate many organizations are still struggling with how to apply address corrections to original data files. Mail service providers are correcting addresses on the fly, and many are providing their customers with updated addresses, but the customers aren’t changing their data files. Service providers correct the same bad addresses time after time until move update records drop off the National Change of Address (NCOA) file. After 48 months, the USPS will deliver the mail to the wrong people or return it to the mailers.

New emphasis on enriching data files (see item three above) makes recording address corrections even more critical. Organizations often use standardized postal addresses as match keys to merge data stored in unconnected databases or to append data files with consumer-specific demographic information. Outdated address information thwarts data consolidation efforts.

6. Sending mail to targeted consumers even without an address list (Informed Addressing).

Informed Addressing is the newest innovation the USPS has added to the Informed family of features. Mailers will not see this program rolled out nationally for a while; it is just beginning a pilot project. The initial scope for Informed Addressing is modest, but this technology has potential if the Postal Service can encourage enough mailers and consumers to participate.

Informed Addressing works with the Informed Delivery database. The USPS will ask Informed Delivery subscribers to select certain categories for which they would like to receive offers. Mailers can request lists of Informed Delivery subscribers that match their selection criteria. Subscribers who showed an interest in fishing, for instance, would populate a data file requested by a mailer of catalogs aimed at outdoor enthusiasts. The USPS supplies coded addresses to the mailer. The actual subscriber names and addresses are not revealed, but the postal carrier can still deliver the mail to the proper residences. The mailer would add the coded addresses to Full-Service mailing labels and ship the catalogs. Marketers would want to include an Informed Delivery campaign and a call to action, since all the catalog recipients would be Informed Delivery subscribers.

Will consumers opt in to receive advertising mail in certain categories of their choice? That remains to be seen. Without consumer participation in the Phase One pilot program, Informed Addressing may not become a viable USPS product. Because it’s based on the Informed Delivery database, continued growth in that program will also affect the success of Informed Addressing.

Phase Two of the Informed Addressing project could be more interesting. According to a USPS official, mailers may someday send their list of email addresses to the USPS and receive back coded address records of those consumers whose email addresses match Informed Delivery subscribers. With this feature, mailers could create mailing campaigns to reach Informed Delivery consumers for which they have no postal addresses. The USPS would supply coded address records regardless of consumer opt-in selections.

Marketing Agencies Seek Guidance

It was surprising to hear representatives from marketing agencies asking for guidance from printers and mailing experts. Digital natives who have little experience with direct mail and aren’t aware of what document industry professionals can do with printed, personalized communications dominate some of these marketing organizations. Marketers haven’t kept up with technological advances in software, hardware, and systems that make some of the newer benefits of mailed communications possible. They’ve been busy with social media, online search, mobile, and other fast-moving technologies.

Print and mail service providers may find reaching out to internal and external marketing organizations to help them find ways to make print work better for them is a winning strategy. Mail is definitely changing. Data is driving the shifts in mailing practices, and the trend isn’t likely to slow soon. In fact, applications using artificial intelligence (AI) will call for even more complex data manipulation and deployment. The sooner printing and mailing service providers get comfortable in a role where they help their customers use data to their advantage, the better prepared they will be for future growth.

If printing companies and mail service providers were to focus on only one thing to improve their businesses over the next 12 to 24 months, I’d recommend they look for ways they can put data to work for themselves and their clients. That seems to be a safe bet.

Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants helps his clients meet the challenges they encounter in document operations. Follow @PMCmike on Twitter, send a connection request on LinkedIn, or contact Mike directly.

This article originally appeared in the July/August, 2019 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.