Suppression data is not just best practice, it is one of the key ways in which direct marketing is able to meet its environmental targets. David Reed looks at new research into how screening files are being used and what it means for the whole data industry.
For the data industry, suppression is a badge of honour. It demonstrates that it is meeting appropriate legislation, in particular, the fourth principle of the Data Protection Act requiring that data shall be accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date. It also demonstrates that data controllers are respecting the wishes of consumers by screening them out when they have asked not to be contacted. Suppression also goes further by avoiding the potentially damaging emotional impact of contacting the deceased.
All of those dimensions have been well understood in data management and served to create the current multi-million pound demand for suppression data. A simple business case for suppression has always been present through eliminating waste - screening out deceaseds and goneaways cuts the cost of communications that will not provide a return on investment.
A new kick to the pressure to suppress is about to be delivered via the next set of environmental targets agreed between the DMA and DEFRA. As the DMA’s Mike Lordan points out overleaf, having made good progress on recycling, the next phase will focus on identifying how many potential items of direct mail have been eliminated from the production and distrubution chain.
That could lead to strongly positive headlines for the data industry as a whole, revealing a greener industry than most consumers (and regulators) tend to assume. Always assuming that the evidence collected shows data is being screened and cleaned in the right way. For that to happen, robust research is required to substantiate what data users are doing in order to comply with regulatory and voluntary benchmarks.
DQM Group has taken a lead with its DataIQ industry report - Data Quality Suppression Files, sponsored by the DMA, Royal Mail and The REaD Group. Since 2009, it has been collecting data on suppression processing work. For the latest survey, it has obtained data in confidence from the suppression data owners and licence holders, covering the number of jobs in which their files have been processed, match rates and delivery channels. As a result, it is able to provide the critical intelligence needed by data owners and service providers, industry bodies and regulators, as well as the whole data industry itself.
Lordan notes: “As an industry, we’ve talked a lot about how good we are at suppression and good data practice, but without any hard evidence to back up those claims. Now for the first time with this report on the usage of suppression files, we’ve a comprehensive analysis to see just how good – or bad – the industry really is.”
Whereas the data industry used to be relatively discreet and “back room”, it can no longer hide. “Some years ago it was reported that the average consumer would tell 13 others about a bad experience with a brand or product. But the potential negative impact today is far greater,” says Lordan. “Today’s consumer is far less forgiving of basic mistakes and they’re much more likely to complain. But instead of just telling others about it, they’ll broadcast it using social media to spread the word and could end up influencing thousands.”
So good news is worth having - and promoting - where it can be found in order to mitigate the potential for such consumer complaints. At its heart, the Suppression Marketing Performance report provides a good platform on which to make the case that the data industry is one of the good guys.
The topline finding of the research is strongly positive. Overall, there has been a steady increase in the number of jobs, matches and product types being used at all levels. A detailed breakdown is available to companies that purchase the report, including month-by-month tracking.
One notable dimension of this trend data is that there are significant fluctuations across the period and even between months. A lot of this is the consequence of calendar and financial years affecting when funds for suppression processing can be allocated. What matters most is that the long-term trend shows an upwards progression in use of these files.
Adrian Gregory, chairman of DQM Group, does point out one worrying aspect to the findings, however - an overall decrease in the use of Telephone Preference Service screening. He points out this could be due to movement away from tele-marketing or that many data users have direct licences for TPS, rather than using third party screening.
Nonetheless, he says: “It could also be due to widespread awareness that regulators are not robustly pursuing those who ignore the preferences of consumers.” If companies do not face a financial penalty for failing to screen against TPS, they make think it not worthwhile incurring the cost of processing.
The total period covered by the report - December 2009 to May 2011 - is one during which economic woes have impacted on both marketing budgets and consumer spending. Combined with the rush to digital channels, it might have been assumed that direct marketing activity would have declined, thereby weakening the demand for screening. Yet a rise in suppression argues that data users are looking to make their asset work harder, which means keeping it cleaner and more accurate. Good news when regulators take a close interest.
The structural make-up of the suppression market can be seen in Figure One, “% of Suppression Records Processed”. A majority of the records being used for data cleansing are from deceased files - the most sensitive data type and one where failure to eliminate a record can lead to significant brand damage and customer pushback.
Data users are clearly very alert to this risk and are ensuring that all possible sources of deceased data are put into their data hygiene routines. Bereavement files are also an example where third parties are better placed to achieve coverage of customers than companies themselves - in many relationships, families will not think to tell a business that somebody has died (outside of core activities such as banking and insurance).
Change of address data is directly affected by the level of activity in the housing market. Despite this slowing down, more CoA records are being processed, indicating a growing concern to identify when a customer has moved. This opens the door for tracking and appending a new address, thereby maintaining the relationship. Goneaways are a softer suppression option since they may be genuine (where somebody has moved by not used a postal forwarding service) or false (where the individual is using the mechanism to try to stop unwanted mail, rather than registering with the Mailing Preference Service).
Declining volumes of TPS processing have to be a concern, not least because this is the only statutory suppression file, although it may simply be that fewer outbound telemarketing calls or being made.
When it comes to the proportion of suppression records that are matched, the situation is almost entirely reversed (see Figure Two). Deceaseds represent just one in seven matches overall across this period. This is not too surprising, however, as most customer databases would not expect to contain a very high level of records on the dead. (The full report provides a detailed breakdown of the match rate for each type of suppression file, allowing users who purchase it to compare the level they experience against a reliable industry benchmark.)
Goneaways are the most likely type of record to be matched to, making up the majority of records identified as being on these screening files. It is worth considering that few commercial organisations capture their own returned mail and therefore do not take these into their internal data hygiene processes. Commercial suppression data owners make sure they capture as many goneaways as possible, by contrast. A high match level reflects these contrasting practices.
Change of address stands out as matching at a higher proportion than the volume of records applied in suppression. While most organisations have created relatively simple access routes for their customers through which they can update personal information, such as an address, there is always a lag between such changes of circumstance and an individual informing a business it has a relationship with. Data owners are plugged into multiple sources that increase their likelihood of getting these changes earlier.
The steady rise in the use of suppression data across the 18 month period covered by the report is good news for that data industry and especially for suppression data owners. But there is also a reason for optimism among database bureaux. DQM Group notes that the number of these from which it has derived data has declined over the period, probably due to consolidation in the marketplace.
But the core activities offered by these marketing services providers are still in demand, with nine out of ten suppression jobs being carried out offline. Internet access to screening and selection tools is mature, with the first services being provided online over ten years ago. Despite this, the level of take-up is still modest. It is also notable that offline suppression routines provided a higher match rate (buy the report for more detail), suggesting there is still no replacement for the human skills of a data quality manager.