In September 2006, the Postal Service ushered in the era of Intelligent Mail when it began accepting mail with a new barcode the Intelligent Mail Barcode. For nearly 20 years, postal barcodes have moved the mail, and more recently, other barcodes have tracked the mail. Now, the Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMB) can both track and route every piece of mail with a single barcode. More importantly, this new technology provides the mailing industry with a new range of capabilities in all mailing activities and not only while the mail is in the mailstream. This truly is the beginning of a new era in mailing.


A World of Changing Expectations

The importance of new tracking technologies can be more clearly viewed in businesses outside of the Postal Service. UPS and FedEx have embraced tracking as a core competency of their businesses and have thrived as a result. The days of "allow 6-8 weeks for shipping and handling" are long behind us. Consumers ordering goods from the Internet want it now, and savvy merchants working with the shipping companies can meet that expectation. At the same time, they can let the consumer know exactly when they will receive the shipment. This information is no longer considered a luxury it's just how business is done. UPS and FedEx have taken a dominant position in the shipping market based largely on their ability to track.


The Intelligent Mail Barcode allows a comparable level of control to individual pieces of mail at a nominal cost. The expectation among consumers and sophisticated mailers will be the ability to maintain a high level of control of every piece of mail they send. This will become essential to maintaining the viability of mail against competing media in the future.


A License Plate for Every Piece of Mail

The IMB has enough digits that every piece of mail can have its own unique identification its own license plate as the Postal Service calls it. Having a license plate on each mailpiece has some obvious benefits:


You can uniquely track every piece of mail as it travels through the Postal Service and know what happened to it did it get delivered? When? Was it forwarded? Was it returned? All of this information can be available when every piece is identified.

You can get information on the address or the recipient if they've moved. Address corrections can be sent automatically to the mailer with the flip of a few bars in the code. With constantly increasing production and postage costs, it becomes more important than ever to maintain accurate addresses. The Postal Service makes this information affordable, generally charging nothing for address corrections for First-Class mail and next to nothing for other classes.


Of course, there are some potential downsides to having a license plate on your mail you might get a ticket. The Postal Service is considering using the unique numbering of mailpieces to find those that are missorted or misaddressed and charge the offending mailers additional postage. It's a controversial idea with many mailers known as "Seamless Acceptance." Controversial or not, expect to see this kind of enforcement in a couple of years.


Uses Before and Beyond the Mail

Identifying individual pieces of mail has applications well beyond travel through the post office. As mailers grow accustomed to this new paradigm of identified mail, each piece of mail begins to take on a new identity based on relationships to its sender and recipient. Intelligent mail starts to behave a lot differently than, well, dumb mail.


Managing Customer Relationships

The IMB will allow organizations to assign a permanent number to each customer and use that number to identify and track all of their sales and marketing efforts to that person. In contact management software, they will be able to keep a record of what a customer was mailed, when they received it, if it got delivered and so on. Customer service staff will be able to better assist customers knowing the status and location of outbound and inbound mail, whether invoices, loan documents, checks or other material. They may even be able to track mail that hasn't entered the mail stream yet. Companies can set up their own internal tracking systems and tell customers exactly where their mail may be in the queue. Large mailers are already setting up cameras on their equipment to read the IMB and provide internal tracking capabilities. For these advanced mailers, the mail can move seamlessly from their plants into the mail stream. This kind of process control gives leading companies greatly enhanced control of the mailing process and the customer


The unique number can also be used to control internal processes in mailing plants driving intelligent inserting equipment, match systems and 100% mailing assurance systems. A single barcode can now be used for tracking, matching and assembling mail within the plant.


Even beyond marketing efforts to a customer, using the unique number allows all kinds of businesses to continue to control their customer relationships through point-of-sale tracking, tracking of the invoices, as well as the return of a payment through the mail. The same tracking numbers can be adapted to other payment channels as well, particularly online payments. Ultimately, whether one is dealing with mail in the mail stream, a customer at a store or a payment made online becomes irrelevant. It is this ability to monitor the progress of the transaction to better maintain the customer relationship that is key.


Improved Addresses Automatically

The Postal Service is taking two actions that will require mailers to take their mailing lists more seriously they are expanding the move update requirements to more classes of mail, and they are dramatically raising postage rates. Just as a tax on gasoline ultimately forces drivers to select more fuel efficient cars when it's big enough to hurt the proposed postage increases will force mailers to be more efficient in their efforts. Intelligent Mail provides one easy tool to help. Well, really two.


First, by providing an easy means of assigning a unique number to each piece of mail, the Intelligent Mail program will allow mailers to know when a piece of mail has been redirected forwarded or returned. If a piece of mail is redirected or returned, the mailer can immediately know that there are possible issues with that address and take additional steps to refine their mailing lists, removing or correcting the offending address. Second, the IMB can be used to get a new address from the ACS system all automatically and electronically. The information will be real-time and have a confidence level not always associated with existing address updating methods. Once a mailer puts a system in place to import and update using the corrected data, it becomes automatic there as well. Expect software vendors to add these kinds of capabilities to a whole range of data management products. Intelligent Mail really will lead to more intelligent mailing.


Reasons Not to BeIntelligent Go Away

Many of the benefits of Intelligent Mail have been obtainable for years through a variety of products and techniques. ACS, Address Correction Service, is nothing new, but the old system required administration by the mail owner, involved printing ungainly codes on each mailpiece and was expensive and complex with unpredictable costs.


For the time being, you can track mail using PLANET codes, but uniquely identifying pieces, and getting redirected mail information is problematic at best. When the address changes, the identity of the piece generally gets lost. It also calls for printing a second barcode on tracked pieces, a real estate issue in many cases and a concern for marketers trying to keep a piece as personal-looking as possible. And, of course, the PLANET code is scheduled to be retired in 2009.


Intelligent Mail largely resolves these issues. A single barcode with enough digits to identify each piece of mail uniquely, the Intelligent Mail Barcode also allows mailers to request ACS information without any special key lines on the mailpiece. The cost of an address correction ranges from free for First-Class mail to 2. for Standard. The price of tracking becomes almost irrelevant as well. Large mailers can participate directly in the Confirm program using the Intelligent Mail Barcode and get unlimited volumes of mail scanned for less than $20,000 a year. Alternatively, resellers such as offer prices of generally a few tenths of a cent per piece for tracking. Viewed in the context of the total price of a piece of mail, the cost becomes irrelevant.

Beginning in 2009, all automated mail will carry the Intelligent Mail Barcode. The PLANET barcode and postnet barcode are being retired. The IMB can be used simply to route mail, as the postnet barcode does today, but mailers will be able to "turn on" its other capabilities at will and for a tiny cost. They simply need to choose to do so expect that they will. There's just no compelling reason not to.


A New Paradigm

In 1989, the Postal Service first introduced automation discounts, transforming an industry. Typical mailers in those days took a stack of Cheshire labels printed in ZIP Code order and affixed them to a mailpiece. "Mail Sorters" were people, not machines. Mail houses were littered with D, 3 and S stickers. In all but the largest mail houses, you were unlikely to find a computer, much less anyone using it for mail processing. Then the industry changed.


With the advent of automation and barcodes, mailers quickly began to computerize their operations. Computer service bureaus developed their own software to attach ZIP+4 and perform the increasingly complicated presort required. These service bureaus figured out ways to print barcodes on labels. Smarter mailers started integrating data processing into their mailing operations, and with computers on the shop floor, barcoding and inkjet addressing became mainstream technologies that even the smallest mailers could offer. Mailing software companies were born and became big businesses. Mailing had become an entirely data processing-driven industry. Mailing service providers who couldn't adapt to the new technology eventually faded away. A similar shift is under way today.

And, just like with the postnet barcode, mailers who embrace the abilities of this new technology stand to thrive in an evolving industry. Those who simply do the minimum to comply may fall by the wayside.


Dave Lewis is President and Co-founder of You can contact Dave at, 888-444-9972 ext. 1006 or