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Checking Your List, Twice

It’s that time of year again when the shopping carts are filled with joy, Amazon’s servers are spinning widely, and direct mail year-end appeals are in full force. Marketers are making their best effort to compete for their share of holiday spending and charitable giving. The children are anxiously making their wish lists and Santa’s elves are busy fulfilling last-minute requests. And when Santa checks his list for who gets the X-box on Mallory Lane, you can bet he’ll run the list against CASS and NCOA databases to confirm accurate delivery addresses and recipient names…twice.

There are three factors that make a direct mail piece effective with one aspect being more important than the others. Some may think that a bold or interesting design is most important, and although it is one of the three, it is actually the least important. A full-color image or professional impactful graphic will tend to be more effective in grabbing a reader’s attention than a simple text-only design. A picture of a happy diverse male doing a handstand atop a shiny new lawn mower on a beautiful green lawn will be much more effective than a simple postcard that reads “new lawn mowers are now available at your local store.” The second factor is the message; if the message is not relevant or an offer is not meaningful to the reader then it will not move them to take action. If a 20-year-old female receives information about hearing aids it is unlikely she will be interested, or, if that same recipient receives an offer to save $5 when switching her cell phone service to a different carrier with a 5-year contract this is also an unlikely conversion. But, the number one factor in the success of a direct mail piece is the data; it is irrelevant how good the design is or how great the offer is if it doesn’t get into the right person’s hands. The example above with a 20-year-old receiving marketing about hearing aides is really a data issue. That recipient should’ve never been on the list to begin with unless there’s some indication that she would be an influencer for an elder or some other qualifier. There are several ways in which the quality of your data can be compromised and ultimately yield your marketing efforts ineffective. Here are a few of the most common:

Unregulated data entry

If you have people in your organization entering data into a database that you use for marketing it is vitally important that you have training and data entry restrictions in place to help control what is being entered. Whether it is being entered as a part of a sales transaction or being managed and qualified by a sales support team, the same oversight is necessary to maintain quality data. Do not assume everyone knows what a proper street address consists of or has proper grammar. I’ve seen such records on a mailing list that read “John (deceased) Smith,” “201 main street, sweet 100, behind Costco” or, my favorite “Jane (rude on the phone) Johnson.” If you want to ensure that you never deal with Jane again, send that one out–although, you may hear from her at least one more time. These types of entries making it onto a mail piece are a nightmare from a marketing and sales perspective. There are a few things that mail processing software will catch, fix or weed out on an address, but it usually does not have the capability to flag any oddities in a name or business field. It is critical that employees performing the task of data entry know the proper ways to enter names, businesses, and addresses. It is important that all employees know that the customer could see what they enter in the database. Implementing automated controls in the data entry interface such as required fields in addresses and names, or regular expressions like forcing phone numbers to contain ten digits with dashes, will help maintain proper and consistent entries. New entries must also be reviewed regularly. Not reviewing data regularly can make the task more tedious as the database becomes larger; catching typos and oddities on a list of 2,000 is much easier than on 20,000.

Lack of qualification

There are a number of qualifiers to consider when purchasing a list, probably more than you ever thought were available. List providers have a huge array of qualifiers and demographics you can use to filter your results by such as age, income, net worth, home value, home age, number of people or children in home, race, gender, credit score, marital status, etc. And there are several ways to filter locations including postal routes, neighborhoods, cities, counties, zip codes, radial distance, and drive time. Performing an analysis of your existing customers can help determine the most relevant qualifiers for a purchased list. Thinking outside the box of how to target a potential customer can be challenging. There are sometimes qualifiers that seem irrelevant or unrelated that can actually lead to a valid prospect for your product or service. For instance, a female that recently had a last name change may have recently gotten married. Newly married females often have children within two years. Females planning on getting pregnant may be in the market for supplemental health insurance products. So you could build a marketing campaign for health insurance based on targeting females with new last names. Of course, she could have also recently gotten divorced, in which case could still be in the market for new insurance.

In the example of marketing hearing aides to a 20-year-old, this could have been avoided by simply qualifying the list by age. Applying basic qualifications to filter who you are marketing to can make a huge difference in the response rate. It can also help save money on postage by not mailing to recipients with little likelihood of responding.

Lack of processing or maintenance

When you send your mailing list to a mail service provider they will likely run it through CASS, NCOA, and deduplication processes to make sure the data is properly formatted and up-to-date with current postal records. CASS (Coding Accuracy Support System) is a database managed by the U.S. Postal Service of valid delivery addresses. The CASS database is updated monthly for most mailers. A mailing list is compared to this database and each address is corrected and/or validated as a deliverable address according to USPS records. NCOA (National Change of Address) is a database managed by USPS of new moves as submitted by residents. It is up to a resident to submit a change of address to the post office to be in this database. The NCOA database is updated weekly. Mailing list records including first and last names are compared to this database for matches after CASS validation. If a match is found the old address is replaced with the new address. If CASS or NCOA processing is not performed there is an increased chance of UAA (Undeliverable As Addressed) mail making it into the mail stream and/or mail pieces addressed to the wrong recipient. A mail service provider will sometimes provide you with the results of CASS and NCOA processing. These results will contain records that could not be validated through CASS and new addresses returned through NCOA. It is recommended that you update your database with the new information to help prevent these records from continuing to drop out on future mailings.

Maintaining a clean, consistent, and valid database requires some ongoing attention. The more automated functions you can implement in your database management system the less effort it will take to maintain and the less likelihood there will be an unfortunate addressing incident.