Mailing lists:  How to find the right mailing lists

Mailing lists are critical.  Everyone knows that.  We hear it all the time from people who are planning their first direct mail campaign.  “If we can get a good list …”   It seems like an innocent phrase, but that’s a pretty big IF.

Some lists are simple and obvious, but others are very hard to define and even harder to find.

For these more complex list searches, it’s important to follow a process for researching, acquiring and testing your lists.

In these cases, lists can only be evaluated on a relative scale – that is to say, a mailing list isn’t good or bad; it’s just better or worse than other lists.

The first step:  Establish a customer profile

Before you start looking for mailing lists, it’s important to know who or what you’re looking for.  This is too often overlooked by marketers who get impatient and just want to go out and find some lists.

You start by creating a customer profile.   A customer profile is a description of your best customer.  This cannot be some vague idea floating around in your head.  A customer profile needs to be written down on paper.

Beyond a general description of your customer, try to narrow your description with demographic and behavioral characteristics.

  • Demographic characteristics
    For business profiles, look at industry types (SIC codes), company size (employee size or sales volume), job title and geographic location.
    For consumer profiles, look at age, gender, income, household value, family size, pet ownership, automobile ownership, profession and geographic location.
  • Behavior characteristics
    For business profiles, look at products purchased, buying authority, trade journal subscriptions and trade organization memberships.
    For consumer profiles, look at products purchased, hobbies, magazine subscriptions, personal interests, political affiliations and charities supported.

When you have a customer profile – written down and specified by demographics and behavior – you are more likely to find the mailing lists you want.

Types of mailing lists

There are three basic types of mailing lists:

  • Compiled lists
    Compiled lists are primarily demographic lists – most often “compiled” from published directories and other sources.  Many (but not all) compiled lists start with the telephone directories – the white pages for residential/consumer lists and the yellow pages for business lists.  From there, list compilers will overlay other publicly available sources to build a more complete picture of the individual records on the list.  One of the largest compilers is infoUSA.
  • Response lists
    Response lists are primarily behavior-based lists – these lists are made up of people who actually “responded” to something.  This would include anyone who purchases from a catalog,  subscribes to a magazine, joins an organization, attends a conference or donates to a charity.   Many publishing companies will combine multiple response lists to create more comprehensive and more sellable managed lists.
  • Web-developed (crowd-sourcing) lists
    A new addition to the list business, web-developed or crowd-sourcing lists are business-to-business (b2b) lists that actually created by the public through an exchange.  Customers are offered credits when they provide their own contact names.  This idea started off small, but today, these databases are enormous and can be a good source for mailing lists.  Jigsaw, Zoom Info and Netprospex are three of these web-based list companies.

Of course, any discussion of mailing lists should also include The House List – which is your own internal list of customers and/or prospects.  Your House List will be your most productive list because it is  typically built with people who have responded to previous mailings.

How to research lists

Assuming you have your Customer Profile written down, you can start researching lists.

If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you can go to the library and start looking through volumes of Standard Rate and Data Service (SRDS) which is a list of available mailing lists.  The Mailing List Directory is another resource.

But a better approach is to contact a list broker.

  • Contact a list broker
    List brokers know a lot about mailing lists and they have the tools to do the research for you quickly.  Best of all, most list brokers will work for free.  They make their money on commissions – paid to them by the list owner.  Most list brokers are generalists meaning they can find you any type of list.  Some are specialists in certain industries or markets.
  • Data cards
    When you find a list that interests you, a list owner (or your broker) will send you a data card for that list.  A data card is a summary of the list including the audience description, the available segmentations (called “selects”), the source of the list, the price, minimum quantities and conditions for rental.
  • List quantities
    Most list data cards will give you list totals for entire list or some major list groupings.  But you may want to refine your list further through further segmentation by choosing some of the “selects” that offered.  To get a quantity for these “selects”, you may need to ask the list owner (or broker) to “run some counts” for you.  This is not an unusual request.

How to evaluate mailing lists

Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing in advance which mailing lists are going to be successful for you.  This can only be determined by actually using the list in a mailing.

  • List testing
    List testing involves renting a small quantity of a list and using it in a mailing.  It is always best to test several lists (or list segments) at the same time so that you can evaluate them on a comparative basis.  You may find that no list produces the response you wanted or expected, but that some lists are better than others – and these lists should be your source for future mailings.
  • Quantities tested
    We are often asked how many pieces  you have to mail to conduct a reliable test.  The complex answer would require an understanding of statistic analysis.  The simple answer is whatever quantity it takes to produce 100 responses.  If your mailing generates a 2% response rate, that would be 5,000 pieces – which, not so coincidentally, is the minimum test quantity for many mailing lists.  Many catalog companies will test in quantities of 10,000 or more because their customer acquisition mailing response rates are often less 1%.Can you mail smaller quantities?  Yes, of course you can – and those results will give you some helpful information.  It may not be as reliable as a larger quantity, but it will give you something to go on.
  • Avoid hot line names
    List companies want to see you succeed in your test mailings because if they work, you will come back and buy again.  To improve your chances of getting a good response, they may offer you their “hotline” names.  These are their most recent buyers or subscribers who presumably are more likely to respond to new offers.  While these may give you some good results, they may not be representative of the rest of the list.  So when you back and rent more names from that same list, you may be disappointed.
  • Look for rollout quantities
    When you find mailing list quantities that are much higher than you need or can afford, don’t try to winnow down that list to the quantity you want.  Instead, rent a test-size cross-section of that list and see how it does.  If it works, the good news is you have plenty more names to mail again and again.  This is called the rollout quantity.
  • Look beyond the response rate
    We all get excited by high response rates, but remember the response rate is usually just the first part of the equation.  You also want to determine how many of those responses actually convert into customers.  So when comparing the results of different lists, don’t just look at the response rate.  If possible, compare lists by the order rate – or if that’s not possible, by the qualified lead rate.

The data processing of mailing lists

It is possible to simply get a list and mail to it – to stick labels on a mailer, add postage stamps and drop the mailing in your local mail box.  There is no problem with that.  But most direct mail goes through a mail house (also called a letter shop) where lists are delivered electronically and mail is processed by machine.  Here mailing lists often go through some level of data processing:

  • NCOA
    The National Change of Address (NCOA) service is regularly used by mail houses prior to a mailing to update a list with changes in address.  Because so many people and businesses move every month, it is a simple and inexpensive way to improve the deliverability of your mail.
  • Merge purge
    Very often, a mailing campaign will involve more than one mailing list.  When two or more lists are used in a campaign, they are often brought together in a merge-purge process that combines the lists and removes the duplicates.
  • Suppression
    If you are mailing to a list of prospects that may include some of your existing customers, you may want to remove your customers prior to the mailing.  You would then provide the mail house with your customer list and ask for a suppression of your customer file.   Be aware, this is not a perfect process.  Some customer names may slip through.
  • Lead tracking
    As part of the data processing work, you may want to add codes to each address to help you track your results.   Assuming your mailing has several test components, these codes may help you track which list or which offer or which creative approach the address comes from.   If you are not testing or if you are simply testing different formats, you can often track response by simply looking at the reply device.
  • PURLs
    In recent years, we have seen a very exciting development in response tracking.  Landing pages have provided marketers with an effective response channel through the web.  Now, they have taken landing pages to a new level with PURLs (personalized URLs).  PURLs are personalized landing pages where a landing page is pre-populated with the prospect’s contact information.  When  you arrive at your personal page, you will be welcomed by name and the form will already have your name, address and other information.  This will require extensive data processing prior to the mailing.

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