Yes, this image is a real direct mail piece... mailed to a dog. I would have been really embarrassed if we sent mail to someone's pet, but since it wasn't one of our campaigns, my first reaction was a laugh-out-loud moment. The client was not amused. She asked, "How does something like this happen and what can we do to prevent it?"
First things first - whether it's a prospect file you acquired or your own internal customer list, data isn't perfect. From a deliverability standpoint, most data compilers will guarantee that 90% of their data is deliverable. That doesn't mean the other ten percent is bad... it just means there's a margin of error. So, how did a dog's name appear on a mailing list? I'm willing to bet the owner associated her dog's name with her address somewhere online or offline in a survey or on a registration card and it was eventually picked up by a data compiler. We call this source 'self-reported data' and it's happening everywhere these days.
In general, I think prospect files are clean and will have the correct name associated with the address. It's actually more common for this type of problem to occur with your customer file. This 'garbage in, garbage out' typically happens when information is keyed in the wrong field. As long as the address is deliverable, it will make it through your hygiene process, even if the first and last name is incorrect.
As an example, we were preparing a customer mailing for a small service-based business. After completing all of the data processing, we spot-checked the mail file and found that in some cases, the client was using the first name field for both first and last name, and they were using the last name field for comments. Here's how the customer's name would have appeared on the envelope:
Joe Smith Doesn't pay his bill
Poor customer data management doesn't just happen to small businesses. The "Prestige" letter pictured here was mailed to customers from a well-known brand with a national presence. This again is a case where personalization was being used on the mail piece and someone decided to use a name field for comments.
Here are a few things you can do to avoid the embarrassment of mailing a promotion to "Joe Smith Doesn't pay his bill".
1. Standardize your customer file. Decide what information you're going to collect and have a unique field for where that data is captured.
2. Never put comments in the first or last name field.
3. Develop a procedure for regular database hygiene. It's important to make sure your customer file is deliverable but you also need to know if your customer has moved. Check for deceased records too.
4. Never mail your customer list without performing data hygiene.
5. This final tip might seem a little obvious but I see this all the time. If you find undeliverable, deceased or move records during data processing, take the time to update your master file.
As for prospects, there is no such thing as a perfect list. There will be times when your target was a 65 year old man and you mailed to a millennial, and there could be records on the mail list where the name isn't 100% correct. If you don't believe me, use your dog's name the next time you complete a survey or fill out a form for an online contest. Then wait and see how long it takes Fluffy to receive a catalog or a discount on pizza.