Intelligent Mail Barcodes (IMb) – What Are They and Why Are They Important?

What are Intelligent Mail Barcodes (IMb)? Why should Marketers care about them? How will they continue to impact direct mail in the future? Let's find out.

Intelligent Mail Barcodes? What the hell are you talking about?

Intelligent Mail Barcodes are a wonderful thing. Seriously. For real.

In an age of ever-increasing demand for data & insight, no other aspect of direct mail has done as much to advance the level of detail each mail piece contains as the USPS Intelligent Mail Barcode. This system holds data points on the millions of mail pieces sorted, routed & delivered per day throughout the United States. We’ll be deep diving into the IMb, some technical aspects of it, and why it’s critical for direct mail marketers.

Barcodes have been around forever.

The barcode has indeed been around forever, well at least since the 1950s. It’s not a new technology by modern standards. Barcodes were adopted for commercial use in 1974, with a pack of Wrigley’s bubblegum being the first product to contain a UPC (Universal Product Code) on its packaging. We’re not going to dive into all the wonders in the history of barcodes, but TrackAbout has a great write-up for all you barcode nerds. In 2006 USPS began rolling out IMb usage under its “Confirm service efforts” to merge the existing POSTNET & PLANET barcodes into one single, large capacity barcode. Full implementation of the IMb came in 2013.

The IMb Anatomy

The IMb is called a 4-state symbology because it uses four distinct symbols to represent the data. The barcode is comprised from a combination of 65 vertical bars, made with four separate symbols:

  • Tracker (T)- Every bar has this element
  • Ascender(A)- Adds an additional bar above
  • Descender (D)- Adds a bar above
  • Full Bar (F)- A combination of all three bars


IMb Digit Breakdown

If IMb uses four symbols to store information, what bits of information are inside them? Intelligent Mail Barcodes store bits of data into two main sections- the tracking and routing sections.

The tracking section contains:

  • Barcode ID- Contains presort identification as well as USPS future use (maybe for these enhancements)
  • Service Type- This indicates any combination of services requested for the mailpiece, such as basic service, full service with tracking, etc. Here’s the current list.
  • Mailer ID- This is assigned by USPS and can be a six or nine-digit number. It uniquely identifies a business or customer and the volume of mail they send out.
  • Serial Number- Sometimes referred to as the sequence number, it’s a unique identifier based on the entire mailing or unique to the individual mailpiece.
The routing section contains:
  • Routing Code- This will store the destination zip code and any available carrier route & delivery information for the mailer. Occasionally, if the destination has an apartment or suite number, two extra digits will be added based on that information.


What does it all mean Bazzel?

Thanks for sticking around while we swam through all the technical bits. Now we come to the “what’s in it for me?” section of why the IMb is so awesome for us marketers. Here are a few goodies IMb brings:

  1. Trackability

    Yes, in the past, you’ve been able to trace your mail (Using POSTNET & USPS Confirm Service), but it was costly and not very efficient. IMb tracking provides more details, such as the date, time, and location of the most recent scan events, with estimated delivery dates on each mailpiece. Now with “Informed Delivery” you can receive all this information in real-time, including the exact mail location in the delivery stream.

  2. Lower Cost

    The IMb system was adopted as a way for USPS to reduce delivery times by cutting down on sorting & routing steps. These savings are passed down to the direct mail marketer in presort or other postal discounts. Full-service mailers also benefit from permit application fee savings when using IMb to streamline their mail campaigns.

  3. Data Insights for Omnichannel Campaigns

    Most marketers run their campaigns in multiple channels that have several touch points. IMb provides insight into individual mailpieces so you can synchronize or create conditional marketing triggers based on the signals received. This is a benefit offline marketing channels generally don't have available.

What’s down the road?

Intelligent Mail Barcodes are a crucial system in the direct mail marketing channel. While USPS continues to grow in offering additional data & insight into the mail stream, there are a few areas of emerging technology that the postal service has expressed a desire to innovate in. We would like to highlight them below:

  1. Informed Delivery Enhancements

    Informed Delivery, a free feature that allows customers to digitally preview their letter mail and package delivery through an online dashboard, has been available since 2017. We see no reason USPS will not continue to add features that marketers would find valuable, such as ride-along image enhancements, campaign ID linking within the platform & integration with social media. A RISC report was released last year that contained possible directions for these enhancements.

  2. Mail Tracking & Reporting Enhancements

    Informed Visibility Mail Tracking & Reporting (IV-MTR) provides detailed insight by combining actual scans with assumed and logical handling events on letters and flats, as well as their handling units and containers. As USPS continues to look at ways to optimize “the last mile” delivery of its mail pieces, marketers could find enhanced tracking analytics through RFID labels, GPS-based tracking units in USPS trucks, containers, or routing equipment soon. More on their 10-Year Plan here.

Closing It Out

So what’s the takeaway here? Well, if you’re a marketer, it’s important to remember that Intelligent Mail Barcodes are a critical part of the direct mail campaign. And although it seems like a small, boring thing, it’s how any tracking data gets created for your direct mailers. If you have any questions that weren’t answered here, feel free to contact us. Once again, thanks for sticking around.

PS! In the near future, will be offering a platform to manage your direct mailing campaigns as well integrate into your CRM or 3rd party system for additional engagement. For more information on that, check out: