Is now the time to bring back prospect data pools?

Dean_standingRewind to the mid-Noughties and while most of us were obsessing over flip phones and reality TV, anyone who was anyone in direct marketing was talking about prospect pools. Progressive, analytical, sophisticated, complex, they were the visionary marketer’s dream.

But underneath that alluring façade, their purpose was simple: to improve the performance of direct marketing. And, with hindsight, it’s very difficult to argue how they didn’t.

Yes, prospect pools enabled brands to drive down the price of the data because it almost always required a sizable commitment, but it was the rich array of intelligence they provided marketers that pushed performance to a new level.

Prospect pools contained almost every adult in the UK and could be augmented with a plethora of intuitive variables, including lifestyle, demographic, transactional and even the weather, meaning analysts had access to a much broader and richer array of data to apply to their models. As a result, selections were optimised to the max.

Having everything in a centralised and consistent pool enabled marketers to see everything, with detailed reporting at their fingertips, from post-campaign analysis to comms history and contact frequency, which was practically impossible via the traditional ‘campaign by campaign’ list buying.

From what data you brought to how you used it, everything was optimised. Operationally and commercially, they were super-efficient and incredibly powerful.

But where are they now? How is it that something so conceptually appealing, which also delivered against its core purpose, could quietly drift off into the abyss?

A change in circumstances
Obviously, a lot has happened since then and the world has moved on. The end of the Noughties saw the credit crunch where many financial institutions, especially credit card companies, which utilised prospect pools, were forced to rethink their lending criteria, which in turn meant pulling back on their large-scale recruitment activity.

Direct mail, which was always so heavily entwined with prospect pools, has declined as a channel. Seen as a dated method for engagement, by some, brands have moved towards what was perceived to be more cost-effective channels with more creative freedom, especially within the agency world.

Marketing agencies have always been the cool guys and by the very nature of what they do, must be seen to be on the cutting edge of marketing, tech, brands, consumers… basically everything. It’s not surprising they reach past the Brylcreem in favour of beard oil.

More recently, the impact of GDPR on the third-party data environment has been harsh, but in all reality needed. The demand for openness, honesty and transparency in the way data is collected, used and shared was long overdue and GDPR has helped rid the industry of some disreputable operators.

If you can’t demonstrate when, where and how the data you are selling was captured and under what circumstances it can be used, then quite rightly it should be deleted. As a result, the number of data providers, particularly those that can provide the scale and depth of data needed to support a prospect pool, significantly decreased.

However, we don’t see prospect pools as exclusively a single channel engagement tool, or a Trojan Horse for direct mail, but as an approach to efficient and optimised customer recruitment, regardless of channel.

The importance of customer engagement
Customer engagement, both its concept and execution, has been a hot topic of late. From a technology perspective, the rise of customer data platforms (CDPs) and data management platforms (DMPs) has enabled brands to expand their single customer views to include digital activity.

Anonymous web traffic can be captured, recognised, and then engaged through an automated predefined customer journey. This collaboration of both on and offline data can produce a 360-degree view of the individual. In terms of driving highly personalised engagement across multichannel, it’s fantastic.

But taking a step back, it’s all predicated on the individual coming to you. It seems the focus for many brands is on content, exposure and attracting consumers. But where is the targeting? At what point in this fantastic engagement environment does it say, “This exact person is perfect for our products and services, and we’re going to do everything we can to demonstrate that to them.”? Especially when analysts, or should I say data scientists, are getting exceptionally good at identifying who that person should be with all the data at their disposal.

Looking forward, the digital landscape is about to see some huge changes with the removal of third-party cookies. The impact it will have on a brand’s ability to digitally recognise and engage an individual is yet to be seen.

We’ve already seen the impact of the Apple iOS changes to email marketing: not only does it not perform, but you also can’t measure your activity. Will the removal of third-party cookies force brands to explore other, possibly more traditional engagement methods, or even channels, that are easily measured?

Recognising that direct marketing is channel agnostic, still performs and for many is a key avenue for recruitment is both reassuring and exciting. But prospect pools are not about channel or tech tools, because today everything can be integrated or connected so the options are endless. Prospect pools are a mindset. A mindset to be confident and committed. Confident that the group of individuals you have identified are perfect for your brand and committed to go out and get their attention.

Are prospect pools a dying art or a forgotten treasure? I guess they are both and neither all at once – but perhaps now is the time to resurrect them.

Dean Standing is client services director at REaD Group

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