Will There Be a ‘Snowden Effect’ on Marketing Data?

I didn’t even want to write this headline or blog post, given the fault-filled linkages some people make between marketing and something completely different from marketing. But it never seems to fail: Whenever some big news event captures the media’s attention, politicians’ attention surely follows. And when it has to do with consumer privacy, the results for the private sector—and use of marketing information in particular—are rarely favorable

I didn’t even want to write this headline or blog post, given the fault-filled linkages some people make between marketing and something completely different from marketing.

But it never seems to fail: Whenever some big news event captures the media’s attention, politicians’ attention surely follows. And when it has to do with consumer privacy, the results for the private sector—and use of marketing information in particular—are rarely favorable. This is true even when the responsible use of marketing data has NOTHING to do with the scenarios presented in the news.

U.S. legislative history is strewn with such evidence, linking (erroneously) marketing with some sensational occurrence other than marketing. Here are just three of them:

  • An actress is murdered in Los Angeles (1989). It turns out the murderer hired a private investigator to get her address from the state motor vehicle department, and then stalked and killed her. A bevy of state and federal anti-stalking laws are passed—but Congress passes an additional one, the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (1994). Would you believe, state motor vehicle registration and license data is curtailed for marketing purposes (data that had been worth millions to the states, never mind losing the beneficial impact to automotive and insurance marketers and consumers), even though such data had nothing to do with the crime?
  • A child is kidnapped and killed, again in California (1993). A grieving father goes on a publicity rampage against presence of children in marketing databases—even though the horrible crime had nothing to with marketing, and even with state law enforcement officials testifying in public hearings following the crime that perpetrators of crimes against children most often stalk their victims physically (from an era prior to social media). Nonetheless, California and national media go after compilers of marketing data related to children. The stage is set later that decade for new privacy restrictions for children’s marketing data online.
  • Judge Robert Bork is nominated by President Reagan for the U.S. Supreme Court (1987). An enterprising reporter manages to publish a list of video titles rented by the nominee (all of them benign, by the way). A concerned Congress—no doubt thinking of its members’ own video rental history—passes the Video Privacy Protection Act (1988), shutting down marketing access to video titles from customer rentals/purchases.

And this summer, we have the National Security Administration revelations from Edward Snowden regarding public surveillance of U.S. citizens in the name of anti-terrorism. Now, we can only guess on what potential debilitating effects may be ahead for marketers, but you can bet some politicians or regulators are drumming beats for a response.

Privacy law in America should be about protecting individual liberty from abuse of information by the public sector—and leave the private sector alone, except in cases where there are demonstrable or probable harms from data misuse or errors. Such is the case with personal financial, credit and health data, for example, where the U.S. government wisely has taken a sector, pragmatic approach.

But Snowden’s government surveillance revelations could very well have a “chilling” effect on more broad marketing data collection and use, too. Politicians, in the name of protecting consumer privacy, may very well rush to curb data-driven marketing activity, rather than tackling the much-harder and real culprit, that is, spying on innocent Americans (and government acquiescence of such activity).

Concurrent to the NSA revelations, the Federal Trade Commission increasingly is vocal on “data brokers” and marketing activity—and trying to link data collection for marketing purposes to non-marketing purposes. Yet, it is dishonest, disingenuous and spurious to do so—and doing so fans fear and hypotheticals, instead of rational thought. There is no relationship between responsible data collection for marketing purposes—which only delivers benefits to the economy, and tax revenue, too—and data used for insurance and premiums, hiring purposes, and certainly the federal government’s activities to monitor internet and telecommunications in order to profile or detect would-be terrorists.

Marketers—for 40 years—have operated under a successful self-regulation code of notice, consumer choice, security and enforcement—and central to this is the use of marketing data for marketing purposes only. That’s as true online as offline. Where would we be without consumer trust in this process?

It may be very appropriate here to legislate what government may access—and how they may access—when it comes to personally identifiable information for surveillance or anti-terrorist purposes. But don’t even utter the word “marketing” in the same sentence. Let marketers continue with self-regulation: We offer consumers notice and opt-out, we focus strictly on marketing purposes only—and everyone benefits in the process.

Reducing UAA Must Focus on New Movers

In a recent post, I addressed the issue of undeliverable as addressed (UAA) mail, and how brands, businesses and other mailers lose more than $1 billion a year by not getting their mail addressed properly. It’s a solvable problem. Both the USPS and the DMA have made public commitments to reduce UAA as an industry goal, both of which would help marketers and their bottom lines. Progress toward UAA reduction, however, has not been uniform.

In a recent post, I addressed the issue of undeliverable as addressed (UAA) mail, and how brands, businesses and other mailers lose more than $1 billion a year by not getting their mail addressed properly. It’s a solvable problem.

Both the USPS and the DMA have made public commitments to reduce UAA as an industry goal, both of which would help marketers and their bottom lines. Progress toward UAA reduction, however, has not been uniform.

Recently, Charley Howard, who is the vice president of postal affairs at Harte-Hanks (disclosure: Harte-Hanks is a client), discussed this concern in a monthly e-newsletter he writes for the company called Postology. Charley wrote about UAA, and explained why UAA reduction goals have been slow to materialize. One of the key reasons has nothing to do with mailers, and everything to do with mail recipients: Too few Americans are filling out National Change of Address (NCOA) forms as they had previously. In fact, less than 50 percent are now doing so, and its ramifications on UAA volume are profound.

Frankly, mailers must supplement their use of NCOA with proprietary change-of-address/new move data from commercially available sources in the private sector. There’s just no way around this. However, by taking advantage of such services (as all direct mailers should), there is a risk that the USPS, ironically, will penalize the mailer. Charley explains the paradox here, used with permission:

USPS New Moves Source Is not Enough
“In addition to … postal-approved methods for Move Updates being applied to mailing files, there are those in the industry that additionally supplement postal moves with a Proprietary Change of Address (PCOA) service offering (for example, Harte-Hanks offers such a service). The sources of this move data tend to come from utility, telecommunication and publishing companies. In recent years, PCOA has developed into a near necessity because of the diminishing numbers of people who fill out the USPS Change of Address form.

When NCOALINK started in late 1986, more than 90 percent of all moves were captured. Today the use of COA cards has fallen to less than 50percent of moves. How can the USPS ever hope to reach its goal of cutting UAA mail by 50percent if its own source for Move Update data has fallen below half of all moves? Forcing mailers to go outside the Postal Service to attempt to obtain the balance of the moves contains some postage risk, however.

During Mail Acceptance, mail samplings are run through the MERLIN detection machine. The scanned records are passed by the USPS’s COA data to test for Move Update compliance of 90%. There is a chance of failure through the use of proprietary sourced moves. Here is an example. Say a grown child leaves home to go to college or to get a job and an apartment. The child files the COA with the USPS. Assume 9 months later the child returns home for whatever reason and no COA is filed. The USPS COA has the first move but not the second. The mail owner, using a PCOA, has obtained the second move back to the original address and is using it in the current mailing. MERLIN would show this as a failure because the move the USPS has on record is not reflected in the mailing. The service provider would have to fight this ruling to prove that it has the more current data.

The real problem here is that the USPS’s own COA data is inadequate to achieve the desired results. It is inadequate to even validate the thoroughness of Move Update compliance. The USPS needs to recognize that along with less use of the mail by younger generations, comes little to no use of COA as a stand-alone product. Therefore the USPS needs to supplement its own data with outside sourced data to become the sole repository of moves, once again. The USPS needs to invest in better data to save more in the end – and only then can UAA be reduced in line with Postal Service management goals.”

This opinion in its entirety reflects Charley’s view—and not necessarily my own or that of Harte-Hanks. But, I do believe that using PCOA should be recognized in some fashion by USPS, so mailers can be rewarded for keeping their mail off the UAA track and in the recipients’ hands. Putting the onus on the mailer to explain how its list is more up to date than the USPS’s on change-of-address concerns seems to be a burden that does not reflect today’s list hygiene realities. Either USPS should incorporate PCOA sources in MERLIN, or it should provide some sort of seal of approval on what private sector sources are already doing to help mail reach the intended recipient. Let me know your points of view in your comments here.

Helpful Links:

Direct Marketing Association on UAA Reduction

USPS Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan, FY 2011 (see page 65)

Harte-Hanks Postology (June 2012) on UAA and Move Updates (live link as of June 14, 2012)

Nextmark’s List Search Platform (search using “New Movers” or “Change of Address”)

An example of a recently released “New Move” file (disclosure: Alliant is a client)