As product manager for a firm whose offerings include Internet-based list-cleaning services, I am frequently asked to participate in industry conference panels concerning direct mail. Since my company's services are primarily "postal" in nature, it's the postal issues that inevitably become my topic for discussion. Direct mail covers a lot of territory and my fellow panelists always seem to have much more glamorous topics such as data mining or demographics. After all, how much more can be said about a practice as straightforward as putting a stamp on an envelope?


The Value of Updating

You'd be surprised. It's clearly evident at conferences, trade shows and customer consultations that direct mailers are seeking more value in their campaigns. They are seeking better list sources, more targeted audiences to mail to and more manageable tools for back-end analysis. All of these are important elements of any marketing campaign. All too often, however, the basic requirements for timely mail delivery are neglected. Having accurate, updated addresses on the mailpieces should never be taken for granted. Neither should the consideration of unrealized revenue potential if the piece fails to be delivered to the intended recipient. Combine that with the cost of returned mail, updating databases after the fact and missing out on automation discounts for First Class mail. Now suddenly, it's very much about the postage!


The educational process that began with the July 1997 move-update requirement for First Class mail appears to be hitting home. Updating files prior to mailing through one of the postal processes produces solid results, to the tune of over six billion addresses corrected through National Change of Address (NCOA) in 2000. For the same time period, the delivery cost savings derived from using FASTforward exceeded $56 million dollars. Whether driven by automation cost savings for First Class mail or enhanced deliverability across all classes of mail, mailers who effectively update their database prior to mailing almost always see an immediate benefit.


Factors in Undeliverables

The post office delivers approximately 700 million pieces of mail per day or 2101/2 billion pieces in 1999. Recent studies show that almost 3% of this mail is undeliverable as addressed. That's a staggering six million plus pieces of mail to be either forwarded, returned or treated as waste. What is contributing to all of this undeliverable mail? There are several factors:


1. The addressee has moved.

2. The address is incomplete, illegible or incorrect.

3. The addressee is unknown or deceased.

4. The addressee refuses or fails to claim the mail.

5. The postage has not been paid.


Assuming that most mail has the appropriate amount of postage and in most cases the addressee agrees to accept their mail, items four and five are actually problems the mailer can take steps to avoid. Forty-three million people in the United States move every year. By now, most mid-to-high volume mailers are familiar with at least the concept · of National Change of Address (NCOA) and FASTforward. NCOA is a 36-month address correction database; FASTforward covers eight months. Each of these services is derived from Change of Address Orders filed by relocating customers and is offered by the United States Postal Service through non-exclusive licensees to be used in the preparation of mailing. Each is updated on a weekly basis.


NCOA not only provides updated addresses when records are matched, it also provides NIXIE Codes that alert the mailer a match is close but not good enough to meet the criteria for a returned updated address. The codes indicate why the match was not made, and a savvy mailer can take further steps to examine their information. FASTforward, by comparison, returns updated addresses only when an absolute match is made. NIXIE Codes are not included with FASTforward. Each of these services meets the move update requirement for First Class automation.


Not only are people moving but they are also living in rural areas where addresses are changing due to 911 emergency address conversions. The Locateable Address Conversion System (LACS) provides mailers with a method of updating addresses where these conversions are taking place. Although the majority of addresses in the LACS database are 911 related, the database also includes instances of renaming or renumbering of other existing addresses. The LACS database is also offered through licensed providers of the USPS.


Delivery Sequence File

The discussion on postal specific services would not be complete without mentioning the Delivery Sequence File or DSF. Popular with professional mailers for returning walk-sequenced addresses, the DSF file includes every deliverable address serviced by the USPS (with the exception of general delivery). DSF indicates residential and business addresses, provides seasonal information and detects addresses that are potentially undeliverable. For mailers concerned with pending Commercial Mail Receiver (CRM) restrictions, DSF offers identification of these locations.


Finally, although the deceased screening service is not provided by the post office, it is worth mentioning in an article focused on avoiding delivery problems. Available through many database service providers, deceased screening matches records in a customer's file to flag for deceased individuals. Matches are typically based on a combination of the submitted record's street address and last name.


Even Basic Standardization Helps

The good news is that there are postal databases and services available to assist even the most novice mailer. Almost anyone can take advantage of benefits resulting from the use of services such as Coding Accuracy Support System (CASS), NCOA and FASTforward. Even the most basic standardization process enhances deliverability and contributes to cost savings. CASS standardization not only assigns ZIP+4 but also provides all of the other elements needed to create a delivery point barcode. It is important to note that both NCOA and FASTforward require a signed Processing Acknowledgment Form, valid for one year, with the mailer agreeing to the appropriate use of the data that is provided.


Every direct mail campaign is important. For each direct marketing piece going out your door, you deserve the highest return possible. Hit your intended target on the first attempt. Update your database before you mail and watch your ROI begin with the savings you'll realize from using accurate, updated and deliverable addresses.


Judy Kalus is the product manager for, a service offered by Mailnet Services, Inc. For more information, please visit the Web site at or contact her at 800-346-0073.


Note: First Class mail, FASTforward, ZIP+4 and the United States Postal Service are registered services/trademarks of the United States Postal Service. NCOA and FASTforward are services performed by nonexclusive licensees of the U.S. Postal Service to be used in the preparation of mailing.