Keepin’ it clean: how to stop your data from going off

The idea of all the juicy data you’ve collected on your customers actually ‘going off’ is an odd concept. But unlike real life, no one’s going to shuffle sideways along the park bench or swiftly change seats on the bus to give you a hint that your database, that most precious of business assets, is starting to whiff. 

You’ll perhaps only notice the rot when sales start to weaken, response rates to those fabulous new e-marketing campaigns don’t fire up like they used to or undeliverable emails clutter up your system. These are the tell-tale signs your data hygiene isn’t quite keeping things fresh.

It’s a weird phrase, data hygiene, even for the jargon-cluttered digital world. Put simply, it means keeping your database relevant, up to date and only holding correct details. 

The problem with data is people. They’re creatures of change. They move house, switch jobs, get married, change names, their interests morph (golf one year, yoga the next) and, ultimately, they die. Very inconvenient. So keeping track of where your customers are at—physically as well as attitudinally—is hard graft. 

Data hygiene certainly isn’t the sexy end of e-marketing. Building up a database is far more interesting—the thrill of acquisition, the eureka moments of finding amazing insights from drilling into what you’ve gathered, the triumph of seeing all that put into action with a timely, relevant and clever sales campaign.

Yep, worrying about washing your data is right up there with cleaning out the back of the fridge. You know you ought to do it, and sure, there are some odd whiffs from time to time, but until the mould starts appearing (or worse), it’s easy to ignore.

Maintaining a database in good order is nine times more effort than building one in the first place. Smart companies know this stuff. It’s not uncommon for our clients to spend $100,000 p.a  just continually checking and re-checking to keep their data clean. If e-marketing is important to your business, then investment in your database is worth every penny.

Much of what makes up good data hygiene should be daily activity by whoever’s working your database. At Affinity, we weave best-practice data hygiene into everything we do—from traditional methods such as de-duping, address reformatting, investigative tracking of bounced emails through to the growing aspects of transactional overlays, model mapping, unstructured data overlay, interaction tracking (are these people email openers or website visitors) and, of course, utilising unstructured data assets (e.g. sentiment analysis).

The other fundamental change is in seeing data hygiene as a continuous process, somewhat like self-cleaning window glass. The old mindset of spring cleaning lists by running them against postal address records or indeed other reference sources has been replaced by continuous programmes of data capture and data enhancement, which are often secondary benefits of planned communication programmes. The easiest example is management of bounced email addresses, which may then prompt a customer contact to update their email address via a website notification or indeed text alert.  

Frequently, by comparing disparate data sources, we’ll find the same customer captured several times, often with different addresses on each record. So which one is right? You’ll need time-saving processes to efficiently chase down those elusive folk who can’t seem to stay in one place for long. 

As more and more data streams become available to business, their promise of better customer information and more insights into how customers behave, buy and interact with brands won’t be delivered unless the data is rigorously cleaned and kept relevant. 

Like all communication, even the most impressive ‘Big Data’ mountain comes down to a single, timely, relevant and carefully thought through message. We’d argue that businesses should worry less about ‘Big Data’ and all it might entail, and focus more on ‘Bad Data’, because the stench of deteriorating data will ultimately be smelt all the way to the chief executive’s office.

  • Dave Mansfield is general manager of Affinity ID [email protected] 
  • This article originally appeared in the July/August edition of NZ Marketing

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