Electoral Roll Issues Shake the UK's DM Industry

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The United Kingdom's direct marketing industry is in a state of flux. The flow of consumer data from the Electoral Roll -- the country's largest source of consumer data comprising 45 million adults -- is threatened. The government has turned down the taps and, from October, the pool of information will begin to dry up.


The Electoral Roll is the country's only complete file of every UK household. Compiled annually, it compels all householders to complete it. In the mid-1980s, Margaret Thatcher's government thought it was a good idea to let marketers access the roll to allow better targeting of direct mail campaigns. Though it has never been fully selectable -- the only variables are gender and location -- the roll is the bedrock of many vital DM activities such as address verification, list cleaning and suppression.


For nearly 20 years, everything in the DM garden was rosy until a thorn came in the form of Brian Robertson, a retired accountant who challenged the practice with his right to privacy under the 1998 Human Rights Act. On Nov. 16, 2001, the high court found in his favor. Overnight, the DM industry was thrown into confusion. Despite counter-challenges by the industry's Electoral Roll Working Party, the information commissioner has ruled, from October this year, consumers may opt out of sharing their personal information with the commercial world.


Many marketers are upset by the potential loss of data from tens of millions of consumers. But more than a few DM experts think this is the wake-up call needed for an industry that too long has worked on the mud theory: Throw enough and some will stick.


Supporters of the opt-out legislation tell you that the Electoral Roll is notoriously inaccurate and at least 14 months out of date (the time it takes from when people respond to when their details arrive in the public domain). They think that by taking it away the industry will be forced to compile smaller, targeted lists, thus reducing unscrupulous targeting and good old-fashioned junk mail, both of which give the industry a bad name.


The Electoral Roll provides the perfect opportunity to less-discerning members of the industry who persist in "one size fits all" mass mailing. Stopping them and encouraging more targeted, considered campaigns can only be good for the industry and the consumers they aim to convince.


To critics of opting out, the Electoral Roll is a valuable list against which companies can check the cleanliness of their customer records. Remove this housekeeping opportunity and the data dust will start to collect, leading to further mistargeting and junk mailing -- countering much of the argument in favor of this move.


They accept that the roll is not a great mailing list as it includes names and addresses but little other worthwhile demographics. However, it is valuable used along with more sophisticated segmentation techniques and is the vital raw ingredient in many of the industry's most-sought-after targeting databases.


Before you scratch your head in disbelief at the folly (or not) of the UK legislation, consider a case that came to light at the beginning of August in Columbia, SC. Residents are voting on a law to stop the wholesale purchase of public records for mailing lists. Republican state Sen. John Hawkins created the act. If he and those sharing his view have their way, other states will join this cause. This issue's potential to gather speed stateside is clear.


Back in Britain, the status is that, from December, two versions of the electoral register will exist. As we speak, the 2002 voting forms are being dispatched with a leaflet (produced by the government) stating that by not ticking the opt-out box, "your details can be bought by anyone and used for any purpose." Consumers also can opt out by calling a Freephone number.


The full version will be reserved for government use and the emergency services. Even credit reference agencies risk losing the Electoral Roll after a recent call from Robertson for a judicial review of the government's previous decision in July. However, what's sure is that DM will have to make do with the edited version.


Where all this will lead is unclear. The Electoral Roll Working Party hasn't conceded defeat, so more rumblings can be expected. Meanwhile, DM executives are running quickly -- some, perhaps, in ever-decreasing circles -- to find a viable data alternative. This makes for an interesting picture, given that three times more items are received weekly by UK consumers than 10 years ago (Consumer Trends Survey 2002).


We now must wait until December for the new register to be published. Only then will we know how much consumer data has been cut off at source and how much must be done to redress the balance.


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