The process of renting or buying a flat can be an eye-opening experience, especially in a big city such as London. It makes you realise just how much mail ends up being delivered to people long after they change addresses, and also how hard it must be to keep mailing databases up to date. It’s a trend that brands using direct mail must watch closely, as it threatens its reliability as a marketing channel.
According to data from the English Housing Survey 2011-12, the number of rented households in England has now risen to 7.7 million. The majority (61 per cent) of owner-occupiers have been in their properties for at least 10 years, but two-thirds of private renters have been in theirs for less than three. They move much more often, and that means marketers must work harder to keep their mailing data current.
As I can attest from personal experience of renting a flat within a multi-flat house, recently corroborated by a friend who has just bought one, databases on these kinds of properties seem to be particularly difficult to keep accurate. According to the Land Registry, this friend’s address is 32C, but the local council insists it’s 32A. He currently has both addresses on his front door and gets mail for both from various sources.
In my own case, it took several weeks of perfectly polite but thoroughly confusing conversations with Thames Water before the company could update their records to show there were four flats in my building, not two, even though that change had been made over two years previously. All the while, debt collection agencies – not to mention TV licensing authorities – were continually sending warning notices to an address that didn’t exist.
Are these isolated experiences? It seems unlikely: since the lack of new home building is creating a housing shortage, increasing numbers of properties are presumably going to be subdivided, as described above, in the future. Those subdivisions within addresses will probably change at a faster rate too.
Any direct marketers worth their salt will obviously be trying their best to suppress out-of-date address records. But judging by the amount of wrongly addressed mail that’s come through my door in the past three years, some organisations are doing a lot worse than others. Impending EU regulations could also make it harder to update address details unless consumers explicitly opt in. All of which means marketers should probably start thinking more about when mail is the right medium, and whether it should be reserved for high-value, targeted communications with loyal customers, who will be better at proactively updating their data.
There’s a new generation of potentially lifelong renters coming through who, ominously, have also grown up with less of a connection to print on paper than any before them. Direct mail needs to adapt to this demographic shift, and quickly.