The Best Defense Is 'Best Practices'

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An old axiom recognizes that oftentimes a nominal paycheck is the only distinction between depression and recession. It is common practice in economic tough times, like now, to reduce overhead and slash expenses. So, why do direct marketers continue practices that abuse the bottom lines of company and client alike?


This is the time to employ "best practices" procedures in all matters relating to direct mail, the medium that is the focus of our professional lives. Like always, this begins with initial capture of information, continues with rigorous use of database cleansing and updating services and completes the cycle with rigid mail preparation procedures. Careful examination of best practices in each area uncovers savings potential to be realized.


Customer information capture. A survey conducted last year reveals that 33 percent of name and address information is data entered incorrectly. Considering how often best practice procedures are violated, (i.e., low pay, high productivity demand, poor verification techniques) you could wonder that the error factor is not even higher. Ever wonder what the accuracy rate is in a really stressful environment, for instance, an emergency center? It is hard to understand why this level of inaccuracy (and inefficiency) is tolerated when software exists that prevents incorrect addresses from being entered.


The obvious benefit is cost avoidance of reprocessing. The not-so-obvious benefit is the cost avoidance associated with mailing an undeliverable address (postage, material and return postage). Of course the most significant benefit to accurate data entry is the revenue gain yielded through effective use of an influential communication link with valued customers.


Database cleansing and updating services. Unless your database contains 100 percent ZIP+4 coded records, accept that there are address inaccuracies in your file. And before those of you who have exceptionally well-maintained addresses (with ZIP+4 codes) become too smug, even some of those records may not contain valid delivery locations.


Our direct mail partners (yes, partners) in the U.S. Postal Service have excellent address hygiene tools designed to get your mail delivered and save money in the process. Recognizing invalid addresses and eliminating them before mailing saves time, energy and expense. Your local USPS account manager will gladly describe the value its pre-mail cleansing services provide. For example, even a seemingly insignificant 1 percent correction to a million-record database often yields a 200 percent or better return on investment.


The USPS has stated, in various ways, that we are a dynamic society. About 18 percent of us move annually. If our moves were equally distributed across all 12 months, that would suggest an error potential of 1.5 percent to our address base every month unless updating measures are taken. The most efficient ways of capturing change information is regular use of pre-mail services. In many cases the rate of record improvement is increased by 50 percent or more with combined use of postal and proprietary change of address services.


Mail preparation procedures. All too often the final phase of mail programs is taken for granted. That is, files are standardized, run through merge/purge and presort programs, and launched. A thorough best practice process offers the opportunity to improve mail delivery and, thereby, improve overall response.


For example, best practices procedures should include use of the right software, business merge/purge for business files and consumer merge/purge for consumer files. However, the obvious is not always employed. If the mail file consists of a combination of businesses and consumers, what matching parameters are being used? Does the mail house even know that both types of targets are contained in the files?


In a similar vein, what does the conscientious database manager do with scruffy addresses (those that fail to get a ZIP+4 code)? Are they processed through proprietary systems that correct and append the complete ZIP code? Are they dropped or are they simply ignored and mailed? One proprietary system this author is familiar with usually improves one-third of problematic addresses. Incorporating a procedure of this nature not only improves chances of delivery but also improves response rates.


Marketers, financial mavens and database managers have the wherewithal at their fingertips to eliminate waste and inefficiency in the use of the direct mail medium. The action is a simple telephone call to bring in the industry and postal experts whose responsibility and desire is to help mailers employ best practices.


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