Dying to Get Your Offer (aka: dead men still get mail)

Despite the economy, I still get a lot of mail these days.*  And so does my father.  The problem is, my father passed away six months ago.  His mail now comes to my house, where he gets many great special offers, and a ton of fundraising mailers.

A few months ago, he even got a fundraising offer from the hospital where he passed. That’s the definition of irony, right? And while I miss my Dad terribly, as an accountant he was a frugal, count-your-pennies kind of person who would approved of this article.

Another kind of “do not mail” database:

Don’t mailers know they’re wasting money? Direct mail costs enough these days. So much so that it doesn’t make sense to mail someone who can be easily suppressed from a mailing list.

Introducing the Deceased Suppression File :
Are you aware that there’s something called a deceased file to suppress against? Most mailing houses and service bureaus can easily run your mailing list up against this file before you mail.

I was curious about how many direct and multichannel marketers actually add this to their merge/purge processes before mailings, so I asked Gary Sierzchulski, senior account executive at the service bureau Donnelley Marketing for his take:

Our deceased file is compiled through information received from the Social Security Administration and is updated monthly. We see virtually all our clients use it on their housefiles once a year; some more often depending on their customers’ demographics. About half our clients use it within the merge itself against rental records.

“Because the deceased suppression is done at an individual level, we see that about a third of our clients still mail to households flagged as deceased, because other members of the household still purchase or the household is still active.

When I asked Gary about the accuracy of the file, he stated that it’s about 90 percent accurate and added the following: “Every once in the while we get a call from someone who says they’re not dead. It’s due to the misinformation sent to us from the S.S. Administration. That’s why we now use another independent source to verify or provide us with additional names.”

Donnelley Marketing also uses a proprietary source for additional hits or verification of the data, and we’ve noticed incremental gains in counts.

What struck me here is that only half of Donnelley’s clients use it within the merge/purge process. Of course this depends on mailing frequency, but if you’re doing merges more than a month apart (depending on updating schedule), the additional cost of adding this suppression to the merge will be outweighed by the savings in printing and postage spent on people who have passed on. Make sense?

* The reason I added the asterisk above is simple: Now is a great time to mail. There’s less clutter in the mailbox, and less clutter means less competition for your offer. Over the next few weeks, I’ll delve into the economy and how it relates to some self-fulfilling prophecies surrounding the direct mail business.

Please note: your comments, criticisms, kudo’s always appreciated.  And if you disagree, please call me out, start a duel if you want.  Go ahead.  Comment away…

8 thoughts on “Dying to Get Your Offer (aka: dead men still get mail)

  1. Larry Karkos says:

    I have tried similar lists over the years and in fact sold a similar list over twenty years ago. The problem is that what makes intuitive sense is not always what actually happens. I have tested this service several times over the years and re-tested this twice in the last two years and have not continued with the product using a competing version of Donnelley’s service.

    Obviously, results will vary with the product or service you are selling and the market in which you operate, but there are several reasons that this is not a foregone conclusion to always use the file for suppression.

    If a single person living alone dies, then it kind of makes sense that response would suffer if a cataloger continued to mail that name. However, part of the reason zip selects and geo-clustering models work is that demographics play a part in the buying decision. You might be dead, but the person who moves into your apartment a few months later might be interested in my offer. And we all know that new movers have a lot of reasons to buy. If the new resident has similar priorities, they might take the catalog meant for you and make a purchase. As a marketer, I might actually get to you quicker this way, than using a new mover list.

    Similarly, if the deceased person lived with a spouse, that survivor frequently has newfound financial freedom due to insurance payouts. They also have the freedom to buy those things of which their spouse might have disapproved.

    Possibly because women tend to make the buying decisions in their households, I have found that household catalog spending is much more deeply effected and for a longer period of time when the female dies than the male. Similarly, many married women continue to place orders as Mrs. John Smith rather than using their own first names. Using a deceased suppression file in this case might possibly knock one of your good customers off your house list unnecessarily.

    In the case of the hospital requesting a donation from a deceased patient, it is actually not that counterintuitive to expect a care-giving institution might have provided good care and comfort despite the outcome and that you might want to use part of your father’s estate to provide a memorial of sorts from your father’s estate. I happened to donate money to the overnight visitation area of the hospital after my father died because I used those amenities quite heavily during my father’s final days. I appreciated the availability of those quarters and wanted to make sure others could benefit in their time of need as well. I never would have thought to donate to the hospital were it not for a (tastefule) solicitation that arrived shortly afterward.

    Similarly and in a broader fashion, by not using the “deceased” file as a filter during the merge, a marketer can hide behind the dodge of not knowing. A generic approach can be seen as less intrusive.

    As I said, twenty years ago I used to sell a similar list. One of my clients was a life insurance company. They would take our weekly listings and mail to the nearest six addresses on both sides of the street. Obviously, they could have personalized the offer as the addressee being “chosen” for the offer because a neighbor died and that now is a good time to think of your personal demise. That was not productive. But most folks are aware of a neighbor’s death even if they are not friends. By sending a generic mailer at the right time, the recipients made their own connections and the insurance company didn’t have to deal with any intrusion sensitivities.

    From my experience, a fifty percent continuation rate on using a deceased suppression file would seem a bit high. But your mileage may vary.

  2. Ernie Schell says:

    I tend to agree with your point, Jim. From my (professional) experience, the family of the deceased can get very upset if they continue to receive promotional mail in that person’s name. Yet Larry has some good arguments, as well. It may depend on what you are marketing, although making up generic rules on those grounds could backfire, too. I guess anything having to do with death doesn’t yield easy answers….

    • Jim Gilbert says:

      … which is why testing should be done to see if it makes sense for a particular offer/company. Thanks Ernie. Nice to see one of the guru’s of direct marketing commenting here.


  3. Mike Faris says:

    A few years ago in the UK a TV program spent several weeks speaking to people around the country to find out what in their daily lives made them more frustrated than anything else.

    ‘Junk’ mail came top of the list. Our beloved Direct Marketing industry beat late / dirty public transport, extortionate bank charges and lazy estate agents to this prestigious title.

    It’s no secret that people find poorly targeted DM pieces with wrong or misspelt personal information irritating. But what truly elevates this mild irritation to the level of ‘boiling rage’ is persistently mailing a recently deceased loved one. It gives the impression that the company in question is too stupid, too ignorant or too arrogant to care about those left behind at a difficult time and reduces the deceased to little more than a number. A name on a database and nothing more.

    We know as DM professionals that this situation is almost always born of ignorance but whether it is fair or reasonable for the customer to feel this way toward the brand in question is irrelevant. This is the way the customer feels and (say it with me) “the customer is always right”. That person will almost certainly tell their friends or family about the charity that wastes donor’s hard earned money mailing dead people or the evil / moronic corporation that keeps on sending their loved one post.

    Either way the ‘ripple effect’ perpetuates the immeasurable damage done to the precious brand.

    I’m pleased to see that all of Donnelley Marketing’s clients use their deceased screening service but once a year is not enough. Donnelley’s file is updated once a month because people die every day! It should be run against any proposed mailing file before use or at least on a 3 month cycle.

    I do fully accept the logic that if one person within the household is interested in a product or service then their widow(er) may be like minded but I don’t believe this is a good reason to disregard deceased suppressions and continue mailing as normal.

    Perhaps some creative thinking is required.

    Perhaps one could run their mailing file against deceased suppressions, flag those that are passed away and simply mail the household addressing ‘The Occupier’ or ‘The ‘Smith’ Family’ rather than the name of the individual. Alternatively match the file of identified deceased individuals at household level to a larger national / lifestyle database and rent specific names of other individuals at that address to see if interest can be reignited.

    This is surely a more sensitive and personal approach than simply mailing a dead person in the hope his wife wants to buy something to make herself feel better!!!

    Using deceased suppressions is the most basic level of best practice in Direct Marketing and there is simply no argument against the waste, risk and distress associated with overlooking it.

    I’ll leave you with a pertinent example from my own experience. An online gambling client consistently overlooked the deceased file before mailing until one day they received an extremely angry call from a distraught family member of one of their customers who had committed suicide because of the gambling debts they had accrued.

    Needless to say that other members of the household weren’t so keen to sign up.

    • Susan Fantle says:

      So sorry you recently lost your father Jim. It is upsetting to get mail addressed to him. But I have even greater support for your point. I still get mail for my father and he died in 1986. Most of the mailers are non-profits.

      The only other thing that makes me as angry as marketers not taking the time to clean and update their mailing list is companies sending me new customer solicitations when I already do business with them. Netflix is one of the worst.

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