Do you dread the point in your direct mail appeal production process where it comes time to review your variable proofs?  Would you rather call in sick than go through the maddening back and forth with your lettershop supplier as you work through all of the output oddities you find in those proofs?  Odds are this is not because you chose the wrong lettershop supplier.  It is likely the result of your messy database.

The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” traces its origins back to the earliest days of computer science. And it’s just as valid today as it was then.  If you’re overwhelmed at the thought of trying to tame your unruly data beast, here are 5 helpful strategies to help bring your data monster to heel:

1) Plan Ahead

You are probably not the only person who is inputting data into your database.  Whether it is the registrars for your events or the folks processing your gifts and any number of people in between, there can be many touches to the data that ends up in your database.  Clearly defining how you want everyone to enter data will go a long way to making sure it gets into your database in an orderly manner.  Draft a company-wide data standards document that spells out what you expect to see in the fields of your database.  Make sure everyone that could potentially enter or edit data in that database has a copy of that document.

2) Make Your House a Happy Home

One of the biggest direct mail headaches is how you will handle members of the same household.  If you are going to consolidate separate donor records into a single mailing package, plan for that ahead of time.  This too will require some discipline at the data entry points.  You will probably want to include a field as a consolidation key, but you will also need to plan how you will know whether multiple donors should be consolidated.  This might involve asking donors if any members of their household also donate, and if they would like to receive one mailing.

3) Clean Up After the Party

Set aside time after an acquisition event or appeal to compare your newly acquired donor records to your existing data.  Are some of those new donors actually existing donors?  Have some of those new donors been a little less than honest with their contact information?  Learn to spot a fake address and postal code. You can also use Canada Post’s address look-up tools to verify suspect addresses and postal codes before entering them into the database.

4) Use Your Mailings to Help Clean Up

Have your lettershop supplier perform address accuracy and correction processing with each mailing to tidy up your addresses.  Use NCOA, (National Change of Address), to change addresses for your donors that have moved or notify you if they have passed on.  There is a cost for NCOA, so you may want to talk to your lettershop provider about the most cost-effective NCOA processing strategy.  NCOA processing can be performed on your database independent of a mailing. So, if you do not mail to your complete database at once each year, you may want to NCOA process your database every 6 months to keep it up to date.  Apply the updates from the address accuracy and correction and NCOA processing to your database.

If you do mail to your wider database at once in a year, consider mailing with Return Postage Guaranteed, (RPG).  This ensures all undeliverable or returned mail comes back to you.  Act upon that return mail to further clean up your database.

5) Be Consistent in Your Coding

A robust direct mail program will incorporate testing and segmentation.  Proper interpretation and application of those tests depends on the clear and accurate coding of the results.  Clearly define the coding rules for the testing and segmentation and make sure that the coding logic is clearly communicated to your lettershop supplier and your gift processing folks.  Ensure that the coding logic is captured in your campaign documentation. This will help you relate the codes in your data to the actual test or segment output 2 years from now when you look back and wonder what you did to get it so right with this appeal!

Get in the habit of applying these best practices on a day-to-day basis. You’ll find that your database is a much friendlier, cleaner and orderly home for your donor data.  By keeping it tidy on a daily basis you will find you don’t have to worry about taming an out of control data disaster.  You will probably find that the variable proof review process becomes less stressful and maybe, just maybe, you will find that your lettershop supplier isn’t a sadistic tormentor intent on increasing the amount of your grey hair.