When Data Goes Wrong

It was the gasp heard round the marketing world.

Due to a database error, Office Max recently sent a direct mail piece that included "Daughter killed in car crash" in the address area. Another calamity followed when Bank of America addressed a recipient as "slut" in a letter.

These are dramatic (and hopefully rare) examples of data gone terribly wrong. In the case of Office Max, two databases had merged creating the erroneous fields. Bank of America had purchased a list containing the insult.

Whatever the case, these situations spotlight the importance of data integrity at every level. The fact is, much less egregious errors sour customers and constituents—even if they don't make headlines.

Here are some tips we offer clients as they decide what to include (or not include) in their appeals:

1. Less is more—If you're unsure of the donor giving history, don't take chances. Yes—including "supporter since 19XX" can be a powerful statement, but if you're wrong, it's offensive. You're better to be general and accurate than specific and alienating.

2. Gender is important—Be sure your staff isn't guessing when it comes to names. Names like Francis, Pat, Terry and many others are a wildcard. Talk about policies for data entry and confirmation and remain consistent.

3. Think of the total relationship—We write a lot of re-activation packages for nonprofits. We recommend against writing too much guilt into the package ... "I wonder why I haven't heard from you." The reason is, it's quite possible the constituent is interacting with your organization in others ways, volunteering for example. Or perhaps they've given at an event or told a friend or loved one about your work.

4. Check the data (or at least spot check)—Oftentimes, the list goes straight to the mailhouse without another set of eyes. Take a look at the file. Get a few samples of the actual lasering before it hits the post office.

In the end, it's not rocket science. The same tenets that apply in personal relationships hold true here. Acknowledge and be respectful of your relationships in every arena.