Deceased suppression should be putting an end to unwanted mailshots. But the reality is not quite that simple, since even after life, the dead can still be donors. David Reed looks at the after-life of data.
Death and taxes may be unavoidable in life. In death, taxes may even continue for a while. But there is something else that can also carry on - direct mail. Last December alone, 5.2 million pieces of mail were sent to the deceased, according to an estimate by Millennium.
Bad timing will always play a part in this unfortunate fact - between preparing a mailing file and the arrival of those items, it is possible somebody on that list will have died. There are 1,600 deaths every day after all (source: ONS). Lag between data preparation and distribution is unavoidable.
Even so, there is evidence that suppression of deceased files is not being universally practiced. As many as four out of every ten campaigns may not be removing known deceased targets, let alone goneaways, The REaD Group has found in the past.
A source of frustration to companies who are pursuing best practice as much as to vendors of suppression data, this continued gap also puts the whole direct marketing industry at risk. Bereaved families take such mailings hard and are very likely to complain, perhaps to their MP. From there, it is a relatively short step to even greater regulation.
“If we carry on mailing people who are on suppression files or are goneaways, we could be in trouble,” says Mike Lordan, chief of operations at The Direct Marketing Association (UK). He emphasises the rising level of compliance in the DM industry, with notable successes around Telephone Preference Service screening to reduce unwanted cold calls and high levels of Mailing Preference Service suppression. Achieving similar success with dead and moved data has to be pursued next.
Sensitivity to the issue is highest where the subject of a mailing has a close link to the potential offence it may cause. Cancer Research UK has an extensive database of donors and supporters, as might be expected for a disease that will affect one in three of the population and kill one in four who contract it. At the same time, the charity is reliant on direct fundraising to help generate its £500 million annual income.
“Given the nature of our cause, mailing somebody who has died is a terrible thing to do,” acknowledges Andrew Lynn, data governance manager at CRUK. “We have a social contract with our supporters and we want to make sure we are not causing unnecessary stress or mailing people we should know are dead.”
Policy is important - practice can be harder. Lynn maps out the potential scale of the problem: assuming the charity had 1 per cent of the UK population on its database, that would include 180 supporters who had moved house each day and 16 who died. That means screening for 5,000 deceaseds every year, even on a modest assumption about the size of the data set.
“It’s in our interests to know who is moving or dying, either to keep in contact with our supporters or to stop mailing them when they have moved and we don’t know they have moved, or to act appropriately on a sensitive subject that is, sadly, close to our cause, and also to protect our brand,” he says.
Cancer Research has sophisticated programmes in place to try to achieve this goal, with a quarterly cleansing routine for its largest data set and industry-specific systems that aim to track these shifts in data. Identifying deceaseds is not just a governance issue - it also has a clear commercial benefit. Legacy giving is a high-value source of income for the cause, generating one third of its revenues. So identifying when somebody has died and left money in their will triggers a raft of actions.
What this shows is that screening for deceaseds is not simply about stripping those records out of a database. “For us, it is useful insight to know which supporters have died so we can understand the difference between people who did and did not provide a legacy for us,” says Lynn.
Few supporters of the charity would resent this use of the data, however hard it may be to think about your own death or that of someone close. The reason why anybody supports the charity is to help it beat cancer - databases are just one of the weapons in that fight. Accepting that fact in the face of a letter bearing the name of a recently-lost relative is much harder.
Equally, it is not always the first thing on a family’s mind following a death to tell every organisation the deceased was involved with. Given the estimate by Mydex that there could be 200 of these, this is hardly surprising. It is also why commercial deceased data files are built using registration cards handed out at key points, such as when notifying a death or arranging a funeral.
The case for deceased suppression may be unarguable, but the case for goneaways is more nuanced. “I think there are some reasons for not using suppressions - not deceased, but goneaways,” says Rob Frost, marketing database manager at Oxfam.
The first argument in favour of leaving goneaways on file is that the address might be responsive - for example, if the new occupier opens the mailing and is interested, or if it is a postcard mailer where the message is clearly visible. Another is where there are doubts about a match, either due to poor customer data quality or questions about the validity of the goneaway.
“You may have partial name data on your database, so are you over-suppressing. Some transparency from the goneaway houses is not there - how often do they update their data and do they remove records? Royal Mail seem at times to be a bit ‘sticker happy’ and I also think people are writing ‘not known at this address’ to stop junk mail - so not a true goneaway,” says Frost.
A balance of risk has to be assumed, between losing contact with a supporter and wasting marketing effort. Steeper downsides are damage to reputation and even a visit from the Information Commissioner’s Office (although this is unlikely).
In the current economic climate, Frost notes that data quality, including suppression, has to be treated with great care. “With intense competition and people looking for excuses not to support an organisation, any form of data error - a suppression not applied, mis-spelling a name, wrong address , sending two mailings - can all be a reason for that supporter to leave,” he says.
At Oxfam, the decision is kept away from marketing teams by holding the suppression budget in the central marketing database function. That ensure best practice and standardised procedures are applied. Monthly reports are generated to show whether volumes are rising or falling and the extent to which suppression is playing a role in this. But as Frost points out, “opting out is far more of a problem.”
Well-established brands with mature data functions will have good procedures in place to try and maintain their data to the appropriate standard. Debating whether a record flagged for suppression is a true goneaway is in some ways proof of intention to comply with the demands of the Data Protection Act.
It is in smaller organisations or less ethical brands that failure to suppress might be more likely. Scale of marketing activity also plays a part - Royal Mail now offers discounts as part of its “sustainable mail” product that requires suppression to be applied. But you need to be meeting certain volume thresholds to take this into account.
At an industry level, however, there is a constant struggle to enforce the concept that suppression is essential, not optional. “It is a battle,” says the DMA’s Lordan. He notes that the industry will shortly be agreeing a new waste strategy with DEFRA. “Part of the platform for DM is suppression. We are talking about how to measure how many names are suppressed and are therefore not generating items that might end up in landfill,” he says.
Taking suppression into account would be an interesting step, because for the first time it would make data visible as part of the DM process, rather than focusing solely on the manufacturing steps. It is also true that fresh DEFRA targets will be much harder to meet if they are based solely on physical output waste reduction, rather than including input reduction.
So direct mail lives on, both as a potential feature of the deceased person’s after-life and also in the form of waste to be recycled. Reducing both is a desirable goal, but also one that does not involved a simple full stop.