Jan. 29 2007 12:07 PM

More than once I've been asked whether I thought Internet postage was going to render postage meters obsolete in the future or which form was "better." As Aristotle said, "The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal." While there's no question Internet postage is rising in popularity and becoming more user-friendly, the mail stream needs met by online postage versus meters are often very different.


Today, many different forms of postage are moving through the mailstream, including meter indicia, presort imprints, Internet-generated mailing labels and customized images on stamps. Postage is available through more channels than ever before, such as the Internet, kiosks and meter systems of all sizes. With so many choices, it's important to assess your specific needs when deciding which postage delivery system works best for you.


How big is your business? What are the functions you need performed and what kind of volume are you processing? If you are handling high volumes of mailpieces, a meter system might be your best bet. This is especially true when sending a large quantity of envelopes that vary in weight and size. Where disparate pieces of mail once called for manual processing, meter technology is now available that incorporates built-in weighing capabilities that can automatically compute different postage requirements for each piece as it is fed through the meter.


The image you want to project is another factor you should consider when deciding between Internet postage versus metered mail. Many mail recipients perceive metered mail to represent large, professional businesses.


One of the greatest benefits to employing a meter system is the ability to create an integrated mailstream solution Rather than approaching a mailing as a manual process, where you are simply applying postage to a hand-prepared mailpiece, it's more efficient and cost-effective to take a broad view of your mailstream practices from mail creation to distribution.


Incorporating a meter along with other related mailstream equipment can dramatically increase your productivity. For instance, if your business generates and posts large quantities of mail, then you probably also have significant mail creation needs. By adding a meter and mailing machine interface, a postage meter can be fed directly from a folder and inserter, delivering a significant boost in productivity via automation. Replacing manual folding and inserting with an automated process is another area where businesses can realize significant productivity gains and cost savings. Tabletop folders and inserters can be up to 20 times faster than manual processing.


Addressing is another process that can be integrated seamlessly with other mailstream equipment. For example, the contents and envelope for a mailpiece can be

personalized with available software and then correctly addressed, presorted and barcoded at a very high speed. Linking addressing software to your envelope printer and meter can save your business a significant amount of money by reducing waste and postage costs. In addition, the barcoding and sorting functions can help qualify your mailings for presort discounts.


Because the bottom line is always at the top of the list of concerns, integrated accounting software is a good add-on for tracking your postage usage through your meters. For high-volume mailers especially, this is a critical component of your mailstream solution. Technology is now available that can track the activities and costs of one meter or 200

networked machines, allowing you to measure efficiency and analyze the productivity of your mail processing and

shipping operations.


While there are many advantages to meter usage, there are many different needs that Internet postage can meet as well. In general terms, we surmise that PC postage business customers tend to be small enterprises, usually with fewer than 10 employees, that typically use the USPS for package services. Outside of the small business user, the explosive growth of online auction sites, like eBay, has driven an exponential rise in online postage usage.


For example, eBay has significantly impacted online postage in the US by enabling consumers and small businesses to print postage and shipping labels directly from their PCs. Even if you're not an eBay user, Internet postage might be the ideal postage application. For instance, if you mainly process packages through the USPS, you may find it cost-effective to download postage directly from your PC onto labels or envelopes.


The rules and regulations governing Internet postage change constantly. Only one year ago, on May 17, 2005,

customized stamps hit the marketplace as part of a USPS-approved test. Since then, the new stamps have inspired an overwhelmingly positive response from consumers. Industry insiders believed the advent of customized stamps made mail more valuable and more meaningful to people. Customized stamps, available through services such as Zazzle.com, can be a great way to add a personal touch to your mailpiece. More important, customization can significantly impact direct mail response rates.


This option is ideal for the entrepreneur or small business that's looking to break through the clutter. As I mentioned earlier, the rules governing what can and can't be put on a customized stamp are changing, and the ability to use commercial images and names might soon be possible, which will open up new opportunities for mailers of all sizes.


Assessing your overall mailstream requirements is necessary to determine which is best for you: meter, online postage or both. Both offer sophisticated technology, flexibility and the promise of more efficient spending. Just remember, the final decision is not as simple as meter indicia versus a PC-printed indicia. You need to take into account every mailstream need along the way from document creation to distribution, and then you can make an informed decision.


Mike Monahan is President of Pitney Bowes Global Mailing Solutions and Services. For additional information, visit www.pb.com.