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Choosing Your Mailing List

In the direct mail game, you're only as good as your list. Direct marketing is expensive. It costs a lot less to reach 10,000 people through the newspaper than through the mail. Sending out a direct mailing is a little like planning a fancy ball—your chances of success depend on inviting the right sort of people.

More than any other form of advertising, direct mail rewards smart marketing. Buying television time or newspaper ads is largely a question of mass: they get your message in front of a lot of eyeballs. Direct mail is about paying more to choose your eyeballs.

Mailing lists are a valuable byproduct of most business ventures. It's likely that you already have a mailing list of your own—the "house list" of your own customers. Every major business keeps such a list, and some of the biggest and smartest, like the Readers' Digest Company, have built up enough information about their customers over the years to rival the FBI.

Lists fall into four key categories:

  • Consumer lists (who has bought what from whom)
  • Compiled lists (lists built out of public records such as driver's licenses or vehicle registrations)
  • Business lists (like consumer lists but for businesses)
  • House lists (your own customers).
  • All the lists can be useful. When choosing between consumer lists and compiled lists, however, keep in mind that the most likely prospects (besides the customers on your house list) are people who've responded to direct mail. Bernard Ryan's book Advertising for a Small Business gives a nice breakdown of some especially useful variables: a consumer list tends to have a higher response rate than a compiled list, and multiple purchasers or recent respondents to other offers are best of all.

    Mailing list brokers can break up lists by zip code, but you can get even more specific information by using census tracts-areas of a few blocks or a few acres with about 4,000 or so people. Census tract information includes hundreds of demographic variables about each census tract. That lets a mailer pinpoint some very specific kinds of neighborhoods (like areas with median house prices of over $400,000 and an average age of 35.2).

    How many times should I slice the pie?
    Major list vendors keep lists cross-referenced by dozens of criteria that can range from age and sex to mail-order habits and hunting licenses. Usually, the more tightly targeted your mailing, the more you will have to pay for your list. The expense of adding a few extra levels of selectivity is usually worth it. If you've decided to go the direct mail route, you're already paying a significant premium over media advertising to reach each customer. The additional premium for a very selective list will usually be relatively small.

    Read other articles in this issue:

    Choosing Your Mailing List
    The Secrets of Effective Direct Mail


    Newsletter Overview



    November 19, 2019

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