List and Data Strategies: Spring-Clean Those House Files!

Catalogers could never afford to waste paper and postage mailing to old or incorrect addresses; with the new postal changes, keeping your list as clean as possible is more important than ever. And once the Postal Service’s stricter address standardization rules go into effect in August, unkempt lists will be even more costly.

Though list hygiene is often preached at conferences and in meetings between merchants and their list managers, it isn’t always practiced. Case in point: Jim Calhoun, cofounder of Chicago-based consultancy Daystar Wheaton Group, recently uncovered 50,000-60,000 records in a client’s database that had invalid data in the name or address field.

“We’re talking to our clients about keeping their addresses clean. It’s as simple as cleaning up your files to using advanced hygiene on your lists,” Calhoun says. And not only is it getting easier, faster, and cheaper to clean your file, he adds, but “now with the cost of mail going up, there’s a better chance at a return on investment for mailers.”

To help you clean your file, experts offer some best practices:

Delve into DPV tools

On Aug. 1 the U.S. Postal Service will mandate the use of Delivery Point Validation (DPV) tools by all mailers that want to qualify for any presort discount. DPV tools cross-check a mailer’s data against the USPS’s database to verify that the addresses on the house file actually exist and that suite or apartment numbers aren’t missing.

Using a DPV tool can save you money in addition to the presort discounts. Water-sports merchant Overton’s says it saw an almost immediate 29% decrease in delivery surcharges after implementing QAS’s QuickAddress Pro, which it uses to validate delivery points during address entry into the company’s database.

Data entry is the optimal time to use DPV tools, says Arnie Cohen, senior manager of product logistics for mailing services provider Modern Postcard. You can use either a Web-based program or software purchased from a vendor and uploaded to your system. Products used successfully by catalogers include Scrubbing and DPV by QualifiedAddress and Address Verifier by Anchor Computer.

Using a DPV tool doesn’t mean you can skip other hygiene tools, however. Jack Sturn, vice president of client services for East Greenbush, NY-based data processing firm I-Centrix, notes that while DPV ensures that an address is correct, it doesn’t ensure that the addressee — or any addressee, for that matter — lives there. Even vacant lots, he points out, have a postal address.

Cohen suggests also running your house file against the USPS’s Locatable Address Conversion System (LACS). Available through most service bureaus, LACS converts old-style rural addresses to the updated street addresses. (The change in address form from rural routes and highways was required for compliancy with the 911 emergency phone system.)

Do a zip+4 code overhaul

Beginning Aug. 1, records that fall within valid street ranges but are not Delivery Point Validated will no longer be zip+4 coded. Postage for mail sent to addresses without a zip+4 will be higher, and because the records are less likely to be accurate or valid, response will be lower.

For a flats mailer, adding zip+4 to a record will save about $0.12 in postage. What’s more, adding zip+4 codes will improve delivery and response on these records by 30%-50%.

With that in mind, you should add zip+4 codes to as many records as possible using zip+4/standardization software engines such as Mailers+4 from MelissaData or MailTracker from Idatsoft.

Flag and drop dormant households

Not every household that moves fills out a change-of-address form with the USPS; those that don’t are not included in the Postal Service’s National Change of Address file, NCOALink. As a result, even if you regularly run your file against NCOALink, you are probably mailing to the former addresses of some of your customers, says Jim Coogan, president of Santa Fe, NM-based consultancy Catalog Marketing Economics.

While a broad-based apparel and home goods catalog may generate a response no matter who is living in a particular house, a niche catalog will have little hope of a profitable response if a buyer has moved away and the current resident receives the specialty catalog.

Coogan advises using cooperative databases to flag the households on your file that have had zero purchasing activity across all co-op members in the past six months, nine months, or 12 months. Suppressing these records is one way to cut waste out of your house file.

NCOALink includes address changes going back four years. You don’t have to run your house file against the entire NCOA database every time you use NCOALink, however. I-Centrix recommended in a recent white paper that mailers run an initial house file build through the NCOALink 0-48 month process, and from then on annually; with each merge/purge, however, mailers can limited themselves to the NCOALink 0-18 month process. This hybrid processing strategy keeps change-of-address processing charges to a minimum while maximizing address hygiene quality.

Bring out your dead

Dead men tell no tales — and they don’t buy from catalogs either. To avoid mailing to deceased individuals, run your file against a suppression file, such as Daystar’s Deathmaster list, Deceased Suppression from Melissa Data, and Deceased Suppression System from Anchor Computer.

That’s not to say that all catalogers should stop mailing to households of a dead person, Coogan says. For example, if you sell vitamins, and you know the buyer’s widow still lives at the address, you can mail your catalog there — maybe the widow or another family member will make a purchase.

Profit from panders

Running your house file against the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) pander file should be a part of every merge/purge. The pander file is made up of people who wrote the DMA to say that they do not want to receive catalogs from companies they don’t do business with. So of course you don’t want to mail to prospects who are on this file.

But if you have customers on the pander file, you should mail to them more frequently, says Coogan. By indicating that they do not want to receive outside offers, they are in effect showing loyalty to your firm. What’s more, they are likely to receive fewer competing offers than other customers and prospects.

“Break them out as a separate segment of your house file, and you’ll see that you typically get a great response from these names,” Coogan says. He also suggests giving these customers a separate source code to see if you get complaints from them about receiving your catalogs. “Normally you won’t get complaints, but if you do, respond to them immediately and add these buyers to your own do-not-mail lists.”

Do away with dupes

Duplicate records in a database not only dilute a mailing but they discourage response as well. Though deduping a file is a simple process, Jerry Eiler, postal specialist for Ripon, WI-based Ripon Printers, says catalogers often overlook it. But it’s an important way to keep from annoying customers by mailing what some would perceive as wasteful mailings. Software such as HelpIt Systems’ FindIt searches phonetically for misspellings of names and addresses that could lead to duplicate mailings, while WinPure’s Clean & Match software allows you to specify the columns to be deduped.

For more on the topic, listen to our free on-demand Webinar, “How Cleaning Up Your Circ Files Can Cut Your Postal Rates.” For details, go to

What’s in a name on a b-to-b file?

Business-to-consumer lists are all about customer names. But how important is an individual’s name when it comes to your business-to-business lists? Not as important as everyone makes them out to be, especially when it comes to cleaning your house files, says consultant Terry Jukes.

“There are many ways to skin a cat with list hygiene,” says Jukes, founder/CEO of Fort Lauderdale, FL-based B2B Direct Marketing Intelligence. “Most people have their nose so close to grindstone that they’re thinking of tactics like merge/purge and National Change of Address.”

Often the names of the individuals within a business who appear on your house file are people who were assigned the task of ordering the product from your company. But they are not necessarily the true customer, says Jukes. If you don’t have the name of the decision-maker, you should at least be mailing to that person’s job title.

“People seemed to be so focused on the names and losing focus that the [business] site delivers the revenue,” Jukes says. “The truth is anyone within a company could be doing the ordering. It could be the receptionist, or it could be an intern who was given ordering assignments one day.” He notes that many b-to-b merchants go crazy trying to find the decision maker within a site, and would rather eliminate the address than reactivate.

You should obviously capture a name during the order-taking process, but also try to get a back-up contact, who will often be the decision-maker. Jukes suggests having your order takers ask the orderer the name or job title of the person who will be using the products being purchased.

“Ideally the name of the person placing the order is the name you want to be mailing, as opposed to addressing the receptionist,” Jukes says.

And if all else fails, try to make the mailroom laugh with an inventive title. Instead of mailing to a functional title, such as “human resource manager,” you might consider using a fictitious title such as “HR Manager Who Walks on Water.”

“When that hits the mailroom or the receptionist’s desk, they laugh, they circle it with a red pen, and then they point it out when they deliver it to the appropriate person,” Jukes says. “We’ve done this many times, and every time it seems to work for the client.” — TP