Improving Direct Mail

photo by Nick Bradsworth

OK, the secret is out: the most important factor in getting better direct mail results is improving the quality of your mailing list.

This may not seem that surprising. If you’re using really good criteria to select your mailing list, certainly you would expect improved results.

usps standardized addresses

But a quality mailing list is more than the criteria you use to create it. It is quality content in terms of accurate names and deliverable addresses.

At magnetbyMail, we see hundreds of mailing lists each year — most of them are created by our customers who send them to us. They are usually lists of alumnus, subscribers, members, prospects or clients.

And many of these lists are full of errors that would cause the Post Office all sorts of delivery problems.

Now, the good news is that we’ll do our best to make the addresses deliverable. We’ll try to normalize and validate each address provided, so that it meets US Postal standards and matches an address that really exists.

But (although we try) we can’t do miracles. If you manage a mailing list of any size, you should understand some things about Normalizing and Validating an address, to ensure that your list is in tip-top shape:

Normalizing an Address

The Post Office wants to see addresses in a certain, normalized way. They expect an address with at least three lines of information: 1) Recipient Line, 2) Delivery Line address and 3) Last Line. For example:

1500 E MAIN AVE STE 201
SPRINGFIELD VA  22162-1010

The second thing you need to know is that addressing cannot be endless, there are data capacity limits for each address.

At magnetbyMail, we’ll encode a barcode based on the address you provide; and our inkjet printer allows 45 characters per line and 7 lines per address. (Be aware that, without a barcode, the USPS automated OCR reader does not process more than 40 characters per line or 5 lines per address.)

Here’s an example of a normalized, 7-line address, that we could use to encode a barcode:

1500 E MAIN AVE STE 201

In the above example, we’ve added an Attention Line (‘Bob Smith’), a Title (‘Vice President Finance’), a Department Name (‘Finance Division’) and an Additional Delivery Line (‘Mail Stop 123’).

Note that the Additional Delivery Line appears above the (main) Delivery Line — this is because the post office processes addresses from bottom to top, lines with more ‘important’ address info need to be below less important data.

The other thing worth noting is that each line is a distinct part of the address — it is not a continuation of the previous line. Instead of splitting long names onto multiple lines, accepted abbreviations are used to help fit information onto one line.

You may provide your data as upper and lower case letters, if you prefer; we’ll output the address in upper case when we inkjet the info on our postcard magnet mailers.

Normalizing: Step by Step

There are dozens of steps that are needed to ensure an address is normalized. Here are the major ideas you should be aware of before sending us your mailing list:

Attention Names

You have plenty of flexibility with the names on your list, as long as they don’t exceed 45 characters per line. Names can be full names, or fields with parts of names (First, Middle, Last). If the name uses a suffix (ex. ‘Jr.,’ or ‘Ph.D.’) or an alumni class year (ex. ” ‘1933″) please provide this data as a separate suffix field; you can combine these if you’d like (ex. “Jr., Ph.D. ’33”).

If providing a Full Name field, you create combinations of two names (ex. “Mary and Bob Smith” or “Mary Smith and Bob Jones”). If you have enough address lines to spare, you can even have a line for one full name, and an Additional Contact line for another full name. If we’re running your list through the NCOA process (more on this, later), then at least one of the names you provide needs to be associated with the provided address, according to a USPS database.

Abbreviate if Necessary

As a general rule, the Post Office prefers to have Attention Name, Organization Name and the Address Line fully spelled out. It’s better to use “Highway 64” rather than “Hwy 64” if you have the space.

But if space is an issue (and you would exceed 45 characters per line), you should use an accepted abbreviation. If you need to shorten the name of a business, you should use the USPS’s accepted business word abbreviations.

Remove Punctuation

The USPS prefers data without the punctuation (except for the occasional decimal point, hyphen or slash in a street number).

One Address Please

If you have two addresses for your contact, please provide one. If you provide a street address and a PO Box, we will use the PO Box address and ignore the other. If the address is “RR 3 Box 18 Bryan Dairy Rd”, then simply the box portion is best: “RR 2 Box 18”.

Related to this issue, avoid using corner addresses. That is, instead of an address like “5th and High”, the USPS needs a physical street address like “514 High St”.

The Secondary Designator

The most overlooked part of the address is the Secondary Designator. Whereas the Primary Designator is the main street number and street name (ex. ‘123 Main St’), the Secondary Designator is used to describe a subset of that address, like an apartment number.

The USPS prefers that you include the Secondary Designator at the end of the Delivery Line (ex. “123 Main St., Suite 101”). But if you don’t have room, you can put the Secondary Designator on the Additional Delivery Line.

The Secondary Designator should be set up as the designator followed by the number / code. So instead of “6th Floor” it should be “Floor 6”.

If you need to abbreviate the Secondary Designator, refer to the USPS’s list of accepted abbreviations. The abbreviation of “Floor” is “Fl”, so the above example would be “Fl 6”.

Also, if you use a word (or abbreviation) like “Suite” or “Apt”, then don’t use the “#” symbol. But if you use only a number, then do add a “#” symbol before it (and place a space between the “#” and the number). Got it?

ZIP Code

For US mail delivery, the 5-digit ZIP code is now pretty much an essential component for all addresses. Using the 5-digit ZIP you provide, we will use the USPS database to create a 9-digit ZIP plus additional delivery detail.

Mixing Fields

Take care to keep info in the appropriate fields. When the Post Office scanner is expecting to find a Delivery Address (like “123 Main St”) but finds a Name instead, then delivery could be compromised.

Here are several examples of bad information in the address fields:

  • “University of Miami” in one of the address lines (should be in Organization Name field)
  • “Psychiatric Dept” in one of the address lines (should be in Department Name field)
  • “Attn: Bob Smith” in one of the address lines (should be in Attention Name line)

Merge Purge

Having duplicate records in your address list is wasteful. Remove duplicates prior to your mailing. Better yet, let your software flag the duplicate as you enter data into your system.

Validating an Address

The other half to ensuring a deliverable address is to validate it. Validating an address means checking it against a database of actual, deliverable addresses. Software that provides this service will flag problem addresses (ex. “123 Main St — does not exist”).

Campus post office addressing standards can be tricky to validate. At UNH, “GSS, Box 777” results in a bad address; but “777 Granite Square Station” works fine. For Dartmouth College, “Hinman Box 3010” is a problem, but “3010 Hinman” is not.

Also, the validation process can burp if using a street address that is not standard for USPS. For example, the USPS might not recognize “789 Rt 12A” but does recognize “789 NH Rt 12A”. Unfortunately, these ‘standards’ can vary from community to community; there is no single standard for street addressing.

Many addresses fail simply because the Secondary Designator is missing. Be careful not to overlook this part of your Address Line.

A further offshoot of address validation is using the National Change of Address (NCOA) database, managed by USPS, to update addresses for people who have recently moved. If the software detects that “Robert Smith” at a particular address has moved, the software will modify the data to reflect the new address. The USPS reports that their database contains 160 million records of address changes for a 4 year period.

Fixing Your List

The best way to prevent bad addressing is to check your address info as soon as you receive it. There is software available that will normalize and validate addresses during the data entry process.

Alternatively, you can use CASS (TM) system software developed by the USPS, that will normalize and validate an entire list, and provide a certification upon completion.

The USPS recognizes dozens of licensed service providers who are capable of running address lists through CASS and/or NCOA systems. A few of these include: SmartSoft,  SmartyStreets  and CDYNE.

Why go through this effort?

There are at least three big reasons you should be keeping your mailing list healthy:

First, your list is usually one of your organization’s most valuable assets. Doesn’t it make sense to keep it accurate and up-to-date?

Second, it reflects on you. If an address is full of inaccuracies  the recipient will likely wonder about your organization’s service quality.

Third, list quality makes a huge impact on deliverability and cost. Bad or outdated addresses wastes your investment in postage and the cost of preparing your mailing piece. Moreover, there’s an opportunity cost for your organization from each piece that is not delivered.

If you have questions about getting your mailing list into better shape, please call us at magnetbyMail. We’re firm believers that an address is a terrible thing to waste.


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