Does your data stink? Are you sure? If you haven’t cleaned up your lists lately, they’re starting to reek of data gone bad.

It’s a funny concept, but it’s really no joke. Poor list hygiene is a huge waste of time and money. Bad addresses, wrong names, bouncebacks, and embarrassing data faux pas can dilute the power of otherwise terrific marketing campaigns.

Research shows that bad data costs companies 12% or more in total revenue loss due to cascading effects of poor data hygiene: reduced productivity, misspent dollars, opportunities missed, and improper strategic decisions based on faulty information.

Plus, there’s all the lost credibility that comes with using bad lists. Old data makes companies look out of date and out of touch.

Here’s the good news: List hygiene isn’t difficult, when done right. Good data starts with good habits. Let’s look at some best practices for keeping data fresh and clean.

 Make it Part of the Routine

A timely, organized approach should be the #1 data priority. When data hygiene isn’t part of the routine, it gets buried under other tasks. Set a regular schedule for flushing out old data and replacing it with fresh uploads.

Many businesses find that the end of the first week of each month is the perfect time for a routine data cleansing. You’ve just wrapped up a month of billing, and it’s a bit easier to see which data is starting to go bad.

But don’t rely on a monthly merge-purge alone. Sandy Hubbard, a growth strategist and print company advisor for more than 25 years, recommends that her clients clean lists before each use. If you’re getting ready to do a mailing, don’t unleash it until the list is updated.

Trash the Excuses

There are plenty of rationalizations for not updating lists: It’s too expensive, we don’t have time, somebody’s on vacation, it seems like we just did it recently, and on and on. These excuses are a major hazard to data health.

For example, let’s take the common excuse “We just did it recently.” Maybe the last list update was merely 2 weeks ago. Seems okay, right?

Wrong. What if there was a big tradeshow a few days ago and sales reps gathered lots of new leads? It would be a major flub to miss adding all those names to the database before the next mailing. Those hot leads hold potential for real revenue in the coming months.

That’s why there should be no excuse for failing to update lists before every new mailing. Accept no excuses from your company or clients – it’s that important.

Show Skeptics the Unpleasant Truth

Maybe there’s one very stubborn person at the company who’s holding back the hygiene process. This is very common: All it takes is one holdout IT manager or CFO, and the list quickly goes stale.

For these skeptics, some persuasive facts may help:

  • About 1% to 2% of the U.S. population has a contact data change each month, meaning more than 6 million people should be contacted differently right now than last month.
  • USPS street addresses go bad at a rate of 3% to 10% per month.
  • The USPS estimates that at least 18% of home addresses change annually and 40% of those people don’t file a change of address form.
  • If an email list is guaranteed to be updated every six months, that means it’s somewhere between 15% and 20% outdated from the day it’s generated.
  • 1 bad email address no longer equals 1 failed delivery, because providers like Comcast and Gmail track failed deliveries and penalize everything from those senders. If more than 10% of your emails are bad, it can result in a 44% delivery failure.
  • Overall, databases decay at a rate of 2.1% per month, or 5% per year.
  • B2B databases decay faster due to job turnover, at an average rate of 30% per year and up to 70% for high-turnover industries like the tech sector.

Next-Level Data Authenticity

You’re probably aware of the basics in terms of what should be updated during routine data cleansing:

  • Contact info – names, addresses, email addresses, phone numbers
  • Do not call/email – removing people who have opted out or joined do not contact lists
  • Hard/soft bounces – undeliverables, according to your protocol

However there are also some more detailed issues in data hygiene you should keep in mind. There could be vast swaths of addresses you specifically do or don’t want to include in your mailings. Check out the list below for just a few examples:

  • Children under age 18
  • People under age 21
  • Deployed military
  • Expatriates and overseas workers
  • People with bankruptcies and other credit issues
  • Deceased people
  • Prison population and convicted felons

A Note About Names

Practicing good data hygiene is also about connecting with people in a trustworthy, authentic way. Sure, envelopes should be addresses to the right person. But “the right person” can take many forms:

  • Nicknames
  • Professional names and pseudonyms
  • Newly-married, hyphenated, and divorced last names
  • Changing gender pronouns

Bad data leads to uncomfortable situations that reflect negatively on the company. Ever received a phone call at work for someone who left years ago? The caller says, “May I speak to Linda?” and you instantly know they haven’t updated their list since 2011, when Linda retired and moved to Barbados.

In fact, modern list hygiene takes name familiarity even further, tracking additional details to ensure smooth interactions. If someone’s given name is “Herbert Andrew” but everyone knows him as Andy, he instantly bristles when someone calls asking for “Herbert.”

Marketing consultant Rob “Spider” Graham knows this feeling all too well. His friends call him Spider, or at the very least Rob. The only people who use Robert, he says, are non-friends like the IRS and the DMV. When he receives things with the name Robert, it’s an instant giveaway that he’s never had any kind of personal relationship with them.

There’s also the emerging issue of gender identity. Titles like Mr./Mrs./Ms. are becoming tricky territory. Some people prefer the use of a non-gendered pronoun like “they” instead of he or she.

The New York Times did a study of gender categories and found all of the following pronouns in use on college campuses and at other organizations across the U.S.: he she, s/he, they, ze, e, ey, hir, xe, hen, thon, and mx.

Databases should be built to handle alternate greetings and individual preferences. Take care to update data to match what people prefer, and then always honor those preferences without defaulting back.

Hygienic and Human

Here’s the bottom line for data hygiene: We must treat data with the respect it deserves.

When someone asks to be removed, respect their wishes and do it immediately – not within 10 days just because the CAN-SPAM act allows it. When someone barks at you that your data is out of date, apologize and humbly request an update. Kindness goes a long way.

As you manage lists, don’t let your eyes glaze over. Don’t forget that these are more than data points. They’re individual human beings. You’re asking for their attention, and in our busy world, that’s a lot to ask.







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