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Keep your friends close, but keep USPS closer!

Why you should know USPS standards before starting your direct-mail production process

When it comes to creating and sending direct mail pieces, predominant partnerships are typically with the print shop and the list vendor. But let’s face it, how many times has your mail been returned as undeliverable, delivered mangled, or even worse—lost or stolen.

If your goal is to get your mail to people in one piece, it may be time to consider how important the United States Postal Service (USPS) is in your production process. Treating the USPS as an additional vendor and knowing regulations and standards before heading to the printer can save you time, money, and an embarrassing stack of nixies (undeliverables).

Address standardization and validation

According to print production expert Connie Ehindero, the first thing a person needs to recognize are inconsistencies between the addresses on your mailing list and the official addresses at the Post Office.

“This isn’t the old days when mail carriers knew every house on the block and had the same routes,” said Ehindero. “Address databases are ever-changing and machines now process the mail.”

To avoid returned or undelivered mail, standardizing and validating addresses should always be included when finalizing your mailing list. USPS defines a standardized address as “one that is fully spelled out or abbreviated using the Postal Service standard abbreviations, …or as shown in the current Postal Service ZIP+4 file.” After an address is properly standardized, it should be verified with the USPS database to assure that your mail will be delivered.

Creating a mail piece around USPS standards

If a Declaration of USPS existed, it would say, “All mail is processed equally.” When creating a mail piece, many agencies who don’t do much direct mail spend their efforts trying to produce something unique, but fail to take the time to see if their creative meets USPS regulations. “The post office prefers mail that meets the requirements of their machines,” says Ehindero. If mail is outside their requirements it may cost you more and increase delivery time.

According to Ehindero, mail is dumped into a funnel at the Post Office, and from there the machine orients the mail to find the longest edge where the address is located. If the machine can’t find the address based on the longest edge, it’s considered “nonautomated”, and therefore gets tossed into a bin to be sorted by hand—slowing down the delivery process.

Besides having an irregular shape, other factors that make your mail piece “nonautomated” include not having a 4-inch width around the address, mail that is polybagged, polywrapped, enclosed in any plastic material, or has an exterior surface made of a material that is not paper. Addressing in an “illegible” font (this includes italics!), and exceeding weight limitations can also cause extra cost and can slow down processing.

Ehindero also encourages people to keep in mind where the bar code might be placed so that it doesn’t cover up any teaser copy, or get crunched by the machines when being processed. If your piece is returned to you with a yellow sticker, take note of why your mail is considered undeliverable to avoid making the same mistakes again in the future.

Paying the price, literally

While you can pretty much send anything in the mail, if your agency’s creative department knows the rules, they will typically recommend breaking them only after doing a cost-benefit analysis to decide if it’s worth it.

Putting your budget into perspective before heading to the printer could save you a lot of money. A mail piece will cost more based on its size, weight, and destination. Using a USPS letter guide will help you to see if your mail piece fits through a standard mailbox, and steer you in the right direction for creating a design that you can afford.

Don’t let the Postal Service be your enemy

Although there’s a price to pay when you don’t follow mailing standards—the Post Office doesn’t have to be your foe. As an agency, Verdi will usually make a dummy of any proposed mailing piece and take it to the Post Office prior to finalizing the production specifications. Often the Post Office representative will have useful suggestions to make the mailing more efficient, while still accomplishing its creative goals. If you pay close attention to USPS standards from the very start of your production process, you can avoid many setbacks, increase delivery rates, and provide assurance that your mail is getting delivered when expected—all while saving you time and money.