Embracing the challenges of going global
by Antony Begley
14 Aug 2012: The attraction of leveraging the power of the internet to target overseas markets has spawned a surge in international activity from the UK’s many address management providers, but the challenges of going global can be very significant indeed, as Antony Begley finds out.
Without wishing to appear boastful in any way, there’s little doubt that when it comes to address management, UK companies have long led the way. Indeed, despite the recent booms in the Indian and chinese economies, many countries still lag way behind the UK in terms of addressing sophistication and granularity.
Before UK addressing firms get carried away with their prowess, however, we should bear in mind that this has only been made possible by the deceptively simple concept: the UK postcode.
A stroke of minor genius, the UK postcoding system is comfortably the most efficient in the developed world. It wasn’t developed with marketers in mind, of course – rather, it came to life as a way of making postmen and women’s lives easier when delivering the mail six days a week, twice a day.
But marketers being marketers, they soon worked out that the postcode was also a great way of streamlining their own activity, and not just for delivering mail pieces.
Looking further afield
Having honed their skills on home shores over many a long year, and with competition intensifying every year, many of the more sophisticated addressing services providers naturally turned their gaze to overseas markets to seek further growth.
The ubiquity and power of the internet made this doubly attractive as UK-based marketers realised that with a decent website, some good addressing software and a reliable logistics partner, they could conquer the world – almost literally. But alas, it’s not quite that simple. It never is.
“It’s really easy to see why so many UK based address management companies are interested in turning their attentions to international ááá
ááá markets, but there are a couple of very significant problems that they encounter on day one,” explains Hopewiser National Account Manager Mat Tharme. “The first problem is a technical one and the second problem is a cultural one.”
And Tharme knows what he’s talking about as Hopewiser has been blazing a trail in international markets since it first opened an Australian office in Melbourne in 1999 before a Syndney office followed in 2002.
“The technical challenges are significant but not insurmountable,” says Tharme. “It’s only when you go beyond the Middle east that you really run into problems with different character sets that can be difficult to work worth. That’s why most address management outfits target those with Anglicised data sets.”
Hopewiser itself uses native format which ports well across borders. If that’s not an option, then the only real way forward is to find a reliable partner – which brings us neatly onto the other key challenge in targeting foreign markets: the cultural challenge.
“Arguably, it’s the cultural issue that can be most difficult to overcome, especially the further you get from home,” says Tharme. “It’s not uncommon for UK businesses to forget to ask themselves even the most basic questions when looking overseas. Questions like, does that particular country want what you’re offering, do they need it?”
Another complicating factor here is that many of the overseas companies being targeted by UK based addressing suppliers will then use the product to target separate countries entirely. adding another layer of complexity and another place for things to go wrong. So you’ll find US companies buying software created in the UK to be used in contact centres in India where the work actually gets done. The scope for disconnects here is clearly immense.
“When you’re trying to break into big markets like Australia or the US, it’s utterly critical to get under the skin of the IT guys and find out exactly what they’re going to use the product for, and how they’ll interact with it day to day”, says Tharme.
In reality, the list of countries that are, in a practical sense, worth targeting for marketers and address management companies alike is actually fairly small: Australia, the US, Holland, Germany and the like.
International address management consultant Graham Rhind agrees: “When it comes to addresses, national is no longer good enough. Few organisations of a certain size can permit themselves to have only customers within the domestic market. Globalisation, the Internet, trading blocks and currency unions all dictate the need to look at international markets. But whilst the trading globe gets smaller, addressing isn’t getting more standardised.”
Rhind echoes Tharme in highlighting the fact that in a world with around 250 countries and territories, some 6,000 plus languages are spoken and written in tens of different scripts, addresses may be written in one of over 130 different formats, containing a mixture of some 140 different components. Clearly, postal code formats vary widely, and around 50 countries and territories still do not use one.
As postal volumes fall and direct marketing becomes a smaller part of a wider range of marketing avenues, is the address dead?
“With such complexity, many organisations find it easier to live in ignorance than to apply the same stringent quality expectations to international address data as they do to national addresses,” says Rhind.
Highlighting the most frequent problem areas, Rhind points out that “web forms are placed online for an international audience with unsuitable fields, layouts and field lengths, and data collected is often poor and largely unusable”. But he also highlights that it doesn’t have to be that way.
He says: “A whole range of tools now exist from a number of suppliers to improve the quality of data collection for almost all countries many fold. Perhaps surprisingly for a nation with a reputation for insularity, British companies are well represented amongst these suppliers. Though there are still far too many companies which do not validate incoming data in the UK, growth in the domestic market for address validation software is no longer sufficient.”
From an address viewpoint, he argues, it is no surprise that British companies have produced successful solutions for foreign addresses. He says: “British addresses can be very long, with many elements, varied formats and include descriptive elements. And British consumers have never been good at using the same standardised address form in all cases. When faced with one of the world’s most complex address structures, British companies have found innovative and creative ways of identifying, parsing and validating addresses; and once you can do that for a British address, those of most of the rest of the world are a cinch!”
Addressing remains core
Tharme rightly points out that, whether targeting international markets or domestic ones, the simple address remains at the very heart of the majority of what all marketers do.
“With 29 million validated addresses in the UK, the biggest of any country in the world – including much bigger countries – we lead the way and this is a mssively powerful tool for marketers.
“But we can never forget that it’s the humble address that underpins all of this and lets us all go about our business every day.”
Rhind agrees: “Whilst organisations require richer data above and beyond names, addresses and demographics, such as latitude and longitude, electronic contact data and social media activities, the address remains the basis of the information pile. It is one of the more stable pieces of information you acquire about the customer, it shows their location (an increasingly important piece of information of most marketing and sales activities) and it continues to be needed for most database processes – identification, linking, merging and de-duplication, to name but a few. And naturally, once you’ve made the sale, you need to deliver the goods.”
Whichever way you look it, the address will remain an essential component of any customer data profile for many years to come, and it remains important to validate that data at source to the highest possible degree, national or international.
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