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August 3, 2016

Automating Your Direct Mail Program? Know These 8 Technical Concepts

For non-technical professionals, the process of automating your direct mail program can feel like you’re diving into a can of worms. If you’re in the process of researching your strategy, planning your strategy, and selecting vendors, you’re likely coming across terms like API, programmatic, integrations—the list goes on. What do these terms mean from a strategic perspective, and how can they improve your operations?

To simplify your research, we’ve put together this 5-minute, super-simple read to define common terms that you’re likely to come across—no googling required. And if you still have questions after skimming through this blog post, reach out to the Lob team.

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API

API is an acronym for application programming interface and is one of the most foundational concepts in computer programming. Long story short, APIs include rules, instructions, and protocols to explain how different software applications should communicate and share data with one another.

Often, companies create and publicly release APIs to make it easier for programs to interact. In a direct mail context, for instance, you would use an API to set up your content, create guidelines to help you design your piece, and keep addresses up to date. You can even connect your different databases so that they are automatically sharing information. As a result, you would be able to eliminate spreadsheets and manual modifications from your workflows.

Organizations use APIs to improve information accuracy, eliminate human error, expedite processes, reduce administrative overhead, and save time. APIs are unobtrusive to user experiences because they operate in the background and remain managed by technical teams.

Programmatic

This concept describes the practice of replacing manual operations with APIs. The term became popular in the early days of online advertising, when companies began automating their marketing and traffic acquisition campaigns.

In the context of direct mail, programmatic means that you can use an API to schedule and optimize your outreach. For instance, one startup that helps people buy and sell used furniture, automated its direct mail program for sending checks to sellers in the mail. Previously, the company was using a bank’s online bill pay functionality to pay their sellers. This process involved significant manual effort, including chasing down payees for administrative information.

Rather than dealing with endless data entry, the company decided to streamline their operations through programmatic mailings. Using an API, the company can now send checks with much less friction or effort.

Triggers

This term refers to a set of events that inspires an action. In the case of the company featured in the example above--known from this point forward as X, for instance, the trigger event would be the moment that a payee requests a check. In the case of a healthcare provider, a trigger could be the date of a past-due payment or an upcoming hospital visit.

The idea is that you can use an API to trigger your mailing. The key is to define these events for your business upfront and then use code to create workflows that can help you execute. By programming your triggers instead of tracking them manually, you’ll save time across your organization and reduce risks that come with human error.

Automation

This term describes the end result from the concepts outlined above. What it means is that you’ve reached a state where you’ve eliminated manual operations and grunt work from your work flows. Take X (again) as an example. For this company, automation means not needing a human being to process payments manually—and not depending on messy spreadsheets to share information between systems. Other ideas for direct mail automation include:

  • Systematizing area mail to optimize your postage rates
    Sending address verification postcards based on customer triggers
  • Mailing HIPAA compliant custom invoices without needing to process anything manually
    Sending paper-based verifications to members of a new website
  • Creating marketing campaigns that integrate with your customer relationship management tool
    Managing invoices

The goal of automating your direct mail program is to save time and money. Not to mention, you’ll have a comprehensive, electronic record that can help you manage performance and make improvements to your outreach over time. Automation brings the convenience of email to the world of paper-based communications.

Integrations

Now comes the fun part. Using APIs, triggers, and automation frameworks, you can start connecting otherwise disparate systems together. For instance, you could synchronize your marketing database with your invoicing software—or if you’re part of a healthcare company, you could integrate appointment reminders with your billing system.

The beauty of an integration is that you can literally build anything. Instead of using spreadsheets or paper-based processes that can fall through the cracks, you’ll enable systems to communicate directly with no friction and no risk of information falling through the cracks.

Template

This term refers to preformatted or prewritten content that you can fill in or replace with your own content. For example, if you are sending an address verification postcard, you may have a set template that you use for sending mail like the below image.

But you’ll notice in this template that there is a first name and custom verification code being inserted. The idea here is that this template can be reused and personalized for any customer. Rather than starting from scratch each time, you can create a direct mail template and simply load in your data.

Merge Field

This term refers to a field you can put into a template to load data. For example, you can place a merge field in the a direct mail template so that the mail piece includes the recipient’s name rather than an impersonal “hey”.

You could merge in data that represents a first name, a verification code, or even a background image. You could use merge tags to make content more dynamic and personal.

Cron Job

This term refers to workflow that executes at a specific time. For instance, if you wanted to promote a 4th of July sale, you’d want to schedule a cron job. You could set the cron job to send the postcards to a segment of customers with information about the sale prior to the event. The goal of a cron job when using a platform like Lob is to schedule direct mail to go out at a certain time.

The Bottom Line

Now that you’re familiar with these concepts, the next step is to apply them to your company’s exact situation. You’ll need a creative, specialized technologist to help. Make sure that you choose a partner who can help you customize your system from start to finish.

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