Mailing Mistakes to Avoid

About 30% of the printing companies responding to our Quarterly Market Survey offer mailing services. Many of those companies are relatively new to mailing and prone to miss opportunities for or lose postal discounts due to mistakes in mail preparation or design. To help, we’ve put together a list of 10 fundamental mailing mistakes. Member companies can also watch the related webinar.

When a printer/mailer screws up a mailing, it may require paying extra postage and/or delay the mailing. If your barcodes are unreadable or incorrect on a 50,000-piece mailing, you might end up paying $4,000 extra in postage because you no longer qualify for the automation rate. That could erode all of the expected profit. Printers and their customers shouldn’t be flying by the seat of their pants, as there’s way too much likelihood of making a mistake with the data, mail design, and mail preparation.

It can be a confusing wilderness for the novice mailer—different classes and subclasses have different pricing and preparation requirements. There’s mail piece design, address quality, presorting, packing and delivering the mail properly to the post office—all of which is on top of printing, addressing, tabbing, and inserting. Finally, the USPS is a huge organization which is searching for ways to cut costs, increasingly asking mailers to take on more responsibility to enter mail that can run as efficiently as possible on USPS equipment. Each new requirement adds another way that uninformed mailers can lose postal discounts.

Mistake #1
Mailing a job as a flat when it could have mailed it as a letter

The Postal Service separates mail into four shape categories: cards, letter, flats, and parcels. There are different rates and preparation standards depending on the shape. Letters are the least expensive for the postal service to handle, and are the least expensive to mail (excluding first-class postcards). USPS defines a letter as a minimum of 3½×5-in. (height × width) to a maximum of 6⅛×11½-in. If your mail piece exceeds these dimensions, it is classified as a flat and you pay about 50% more than a letter for first-class postage and a greater increase for Standard Mail. Thus, it pays to see if a piece larger than 6⅛×11½-in. can be folded or reformatted into the dimensions of a letter. 

Mistake #2
Designing an unusually shaped mail piece without understanding the postage ramifications

Postal equipment is designed to handle rectangular pieces at high speeds, not square or unusually-shaped pieces. Pieces that are squarer than rectangular can’t be mailed at automation rates—they’re considered non-machinable. This means that you’ll pay much MORE. The key is checking to make sure the aspect ratio (length divided by height) is between 1.3 and 2.5. The length of a letter is always determined to be parallel to the address, thus inadvertently addressing a piece parallel to the shorter side could violate the aspect ratio requirement.  If a customer’s mailing falls outside that range, the customer needs to be alerted to the postage implications. Of course, customers might choose to mail unusually shaped pieces anyhow, banking that the piece will generate a higher response rate.

Mistake #3
Failing to check weight

Weights of 1.0 oz. in First-Class Mail and 3.3 in Standard Mail are critical weights. Exceeding them can cost you thousands of dollars! Make a mock-up early in the process to verify the weight of a mail piece. If a piece weighs slightly more than those weight thresholds, you can council your customer on how to lighten the piece. For example, changing to a lower-basis weight paper may save a significant amount of money.

Mistake #4
Poor data quality

Bad addresses are hard to detect. To identify and isolate bad addresses from good deliverable addresses, you need the proper software tools or a data service provider that has the tools. Some of the addressing tools help standardize addresses to addressing guidelines, other tools help validate whether the address is actually a good deliverable address, and other tools help you keep your customer’s address updated to their current address. Think of the 3 C’s—addresses should be Complete, Correct, and Current.

Some indicators of poor data quality are:

  • Not using standard USPS abbreviations
  • Using punctuation (except the hyphen in ZIP+4)
  • No secondary addresses
  • No pre- or post-street directionals (N, S, etc.)
  • Not using a CASS-certified software to prepare mail
  • Not de-duping the list

As for the address, it should be left-justified and preferably all in uppercase letters. The primary delivery address should always come directly above the line containing the city, state and ZIP Code. USPS equipment reads from the bottom up. If there is a secondary address—suite number, for example—it should either be placed at the end of the delivery address, or if the line length becomes too long, on the line immediately above.

Mistake #5
Personalization that Runs Afoul of USPS Regulations

The growth of variable-data printing has forced USPS to create allowances for personalization in Standard Mail, but it has drawn some fine distinctions. Personal information has to solely related to advertising a product or service or soliciting a donation.

That may sound clear, however, your clients can easily get into trouble with some innocuous text that implies there’s another use for the personalized information. One example is a fundraising piece that is personalized with previous donation amounts, contains a request for a new donation, and then mentions that the information can also be useful for tax purposes. Just your luck, USPS personnel at the business mail entry unit would open a piece, read it, and because of the tax remark interpret the personalized information as having a having a dual purpose. You would end up having to explain to your customer why they had to pay more expensive First-Class postage. Remarkably, the simple act of personally signing 200-plus letters can cause USPS to deny Standard Mail rates.

Mistake #6
Not checking the final folded thickness of the piece

For letters, the maximum thickness is ¼-in.; for flats, it is ¾-in. Regardless of whether a piece meets the height and width dimensions for a letter, for example, if it exceeds ¼-in. you pay the postage rate of a flat. As a result, you should check the thickness early in the process.

Mistake #7
Wrong permit number or language on indicia

Permit imprint (aka “indicia”) is the most popular and convenient way to pay for postage, especially for high volume mailings. Instead of using precanceled stamps or a postage meter, the mailer prints postage information in the upper right corner of the mail piece. An indicia must show the proper class of mail (“First-Class Mail,” “presorted standard,” or “nonprofit org”); "U.S. Postage Paid"; city and state; and permit number. Instead of printing the city and state of mailing in the indicia, you may also print "Mailed From ZIP Code" followed by the 5-digit ZIP Code of the mailing office.

The two most common mistakes are: 1) accidentally using the wrong permit number, and 2) using the wrong permit location—a mistake more likely if your customer mails from different locations.

Mistake #8
Wrong service endorsement on piece

Optional service endorsements—such as Return Service Requested, Address Service Requested, and Change Service Requested—allow mailers to obtain the addressee’s new address if the addressee filed a change-of-address order with the Postal Service or the reason for non-delivery. These endorsements also provide USPS with instructions on how to handle undeliverable-as-addressed mail.

All but Forwarding Service Requested can also be used to meet the Move Update requirement. Although the meaning of different ancillary service endorsements is the same regardless of mail class, there are very different fees that apply depending on the mail class. Standard Mail mailers must be extremely careful when using ancillary service endorsements as their method of Move Update compliance; since there can be substantial fees that result if the mailing list has many outdated records. The best advice for less sophisticated mailers is to avoid using a service endorsement.

Mistake #9
Failure to comply with Move Update requirements

By periodically matching a mailer's address records with change-of-address orders received and maintained by the Postal Service, less mail must be forwarded and returned, thus resulting in lower costs to the Postal Service. Mailers who claim any presort or automation price for First-Class Mail or Standard Mail must prove that they have updated their mailing list within 95 days before the mailing date. There are six ways mailers can meet the Move Update standard, the most common approaches being NCOAlink processing, ancillary service endorsements, and address change service (ACS). Printer mailers can help customers meet Move Update requirements and charge for the service. Learn more about Move Update at http://ribbs.usps.gov/move_update/documents/tech_guides/GuidetoMoveUpdate.pdf.

Mistake #10
Issues with the layout of the address block

There are specific requirements for where the address, barcode, and return address must go on letters and flats. On letters, for example, the barcode must be above or below the address—at least ½ in. from the right and left edge, and within ⅝ and 4 in. from the bottom. Alternately, the barcode can be placed in the bottom right (⅝-in. from bottom, up to 4¾-in. from the right). Advertising copy and graphic elements must be kept away from address block from the address block or the address may not pass the Postal Service’s print reflectance and contrast tests. In addition, it’s wise to avoid aqueous or varnish coating in address block area to avoid smudging addresses and barcodes (which could result in loss of discounts). Mail pieces in window envelopes trigger the “tap” test by USPS staff in which a sample letter is tapped on each side. In order to retain the automation discount the address must stay ⅛-in. away from the left/right edge of envelope window and 1/25 in. away from the top and bottom.

Published on Thursday, April 21, 2011 (updated 05/30/2014)