Mailing List – Research and Planning

Finding the right mailing list is essential to a successful direct mail campaign.  But this is not an easy process.  Mailing list research takes time to do right. 

All experts agree the mailing list is the single most important part of any direct mail marketing program. Afterall, if you’re not reaching the right people, nothing else matters.

But finding those people – identifying your target audience and reaching them – can be a real challenge.

Sometimes there are no good choices and other times there are too many good choices.  Both create a problem for mailing list research.

In our mailing list research, we help you define your audience and then we go out and find mailing lists that match that profile.

In the end, we often provide recommendations for several lists or list segments that chould be tested over time.

Your House List vs. Outside Lists

Many people fail to understand the distinction between your House List and any outside list you might rent, buy or steal from the Internet.

But the distinction is important – and it needs to be understood to properly evaluate your direct marketing efforts.

So here goes …

Your House List is your internal list of customers and prospects – people who already have some type of relationship with you.  They may have joined your mailing list, or requested a white paper, or given you their business card, or attended your seminar, or visited your trade show booth.

The point is that these people already know you, maybe even like you and trust you.  And because of this, they are more likely to respond to your direct mail campaign.

Outside lists, on the other hand, are very different. These are prospect lists. The people on these lists won’t know you at all – until, that is, you send them your first direct mail campaign. And if they respond, they will become part of your House List.

Catalog companies, mail-order firms and charitable organizations have known for years that profit is made when you mail to your House List.

But your House List needs to be replenish with new names on a regular basis. And that happens when you use outside lists.

The Research Process – step by step

Step 1 – creative a customer profile

Step 2 – start a list of possible lists

Step 3 – check public resources

Step 4 – contact list brokers

Step 5 – request data cards for individual lists

Step 6 – ask about previous list renters (repeat business only)

Step 7 – look for the closest matches to your profile

Step 8 – get counts based on your specific profile requests

Step 9 – take note of total universe size

Step 10 – order minimum test quantities

Step 11 – test lists against other lists

Step 12 – take winning lists and roll out to larger quantities

Creating a customer profile

Before you start looking for mailing lists, it’s important to know who or what you’re looking for. You may already have an idea of who your customer is, but you are going to need to communicate that profile to a list company or list broker.

So it needs to be more than a vague idea.

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.

These are just examples of demographic characteristics.  You may only need one or two of this to reach your best prospects.

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 will have better control over your list selection process and you are more likely to find the mailing lists you want.

Types of mailing lists

There are three basic types of mailing lists (aside from the House List):

  • 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 are 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.


Need help with your list research?

Let’s talk about who you want to reach.  Call Bob McCarthy at 508-473-8643 or send him an email at

If you’re not ready yet, let’s stay in touch.  Please join our mailing list and get all of our updates and articles.

Of course, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call.

If you’d like to discuss an upcoming campaign – or if you’re looking for ways to improve an existing mailing program – call us and let’s schedule an introductory call.