Show Me The Data: Put A Freshness Date On Your File

Data never dies; customer records and angry blogs alike will exist on some medium somewhere for a long time. But customer data does age beyond usefulness very quickly. I was involved in an attempt to recover a form of intellectual property recently, a defunct business’s customer file.

We are conditioned to tolerate frequently upgrading or replacing our computer hardware and software. I relived the recent past in searching for drivers to let an older operating system talk to a current one and swapping SCSI and network cards in and out of an old CPU chassis. The technology had certainly changed since the company had peaked with millions of customers. I approached the whole affair eagerly, confidant that those millions of records had a value that had outlived the system that held them.

But the durability of household names and addresses led me astray. The address format has to stay the same so that we can update the records for moves with National Change of Address and for deliverability with DSF. The statistics on actual moves appear reassuring: less than 15% of the US population moves in a year with most of the moving households staying in the same county. Consequently, most of an older customer file can be brought back to good mailability with the USPS’s 48-month NCOA file.

What is not durable about a customer file is the recency of the activity it records. After breaking through the barriers of non-communicative operating systems and finicky hardware, the unbreakable barrier I faced was the staleness of the data. The sales history on those millions of customers was too old. The stewards of the file had not quickly brought the records to market so that a similar business could use them. When I got to them there was a lapse of several years since the last activity. No direct mailer would risk prospecting to customers whose tastes might have changed and whose needs and lifestyles might have shifted enough to make once relevant offers unattractive.

I took two lessons away from the attempt to recover those once valuable data. First, don’t throw away old cables and outboard drives too quickly. The customer records were durable and readable once the right old cable connected the old CPU to a new one. The second lesson was that any money spent to bring these names up to date would be wasted. A smart list manager assured me that the pull date on those customer addresses and the associated sales histories was at most a year after the last activity date. The households profiled in those records were likely to have sought out other vendors to provide similar items and services by that time.

What is the last activity date on your older records? If you want to market to your older segments or put them on the rental market, consider a reactivation effort to reset the pull date. Your customer files could last for years in your system, but you have to keep in mind that their freshness will fade long before they do.

Bill Singleton, president of Algonquin, IL-based consultancy Singleton Marketing, and pens “Show Me the Data” for the Lists & Data Strategies e-newsletter.