Will the Real List Owner Please Stand Up?

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If you saw the movie "Catch Me If You Can," you may recall the scene where three men claim to be the main character, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, on the television show "To Tell the Truth." The premise was simple. Through a series of questions and answers, panelists had to ask enough good questions to identify correctly which of the three men claiming to be Frank Abagnale Jr. was the real Frank Abagnale Jr.


I think those panelists would be comfortable operating in today's list world, most notably having to deal with compiled list files and the various survey lists on the market.


Case in point: A longtime business friend said he saw that I ordered a specific select for one of my clients. I was puzzled until I learned that this individual, representing a compiled list source, actually had three list managers representing his file. In effect, the file had been private-labeled to multiple list managers, each offering essentially the same list but marketed under different names and each competing with each other.


Fortunately, in this case, all orders filtered through one central source, and any duplication problems could be eliminated. But what if this hadn't been the case and my client had ordered the same segment from two managers?


Given that there are three large business compilers, you can imagine the duplication that has to exist within this market and how astute one has to be to ensure that you are not ordering the same list that is being private-labeled through multiple list managers. In many cases, the list managers, when prompted to reveal the source behind the names, will say only "compiled from directories and public records." Not all will be forthcoming and tell you which files their lists are being derived from.


I did work for a large health organization where diabetes was the overriding selection factor. A new list came across my desk from a list manager offering a "diabetes" select and indicating that the source of the names was "survey" respondents. Naturally, I followed up with the manager, who told me that he could not reveal the source of the names.


Feeling like Woodward and Bernstein, I posed a "negative option" question and asked the list manager to tell me if it was not one of the four survey files on the market at the time - which I named. I didn't have to know the name of the list's source, but I did want to ensure it was not one of the files my client was using. The list manager failed the quiz, and it was clear the list source was one of those files my client was using, and I did not recommend the list.


Our company was in a situation recently where a mailer unwittingly ordered the same list through two brokers. We brokered a continuation order on one of the major survey files for a consumer magazine recently. The list owner called us and said he had gotten an order for the same file through another broker. We called the client to clarify the situation, and learned that the other broker had recommended and then ordered the same file through a compiler who was reselling it and marketing it under a generic-sounding name.


Again, the file going through a central source saved everyone the embarrassment and expense of finding out the hard way that the two files were the same. We don't know whether the second broker asked the right questions when researching the file prior to recommending it or whether the compiler might have been trying to conceal the source of the names. Either way, it illustrates the danger of having lists in the marketplace being resold under another name.


Though I seem to be making light of the problem, for direct marketers and the list brokers they rely on for guidance, it's a real issue. Testing is the lifeblood of our business, and when mailers invest in excess of $350/M to get their message out, it becomes critical to understand where these lists are coming from. As a list broker and mailer, what are the options to guard against this problem?


Beware the wolf in sheep's clothing. Both mailers and brokers have to increase their due diligence. As a mailer, it is critical to work closely with your broker or brokers and ask questions. You know your market. For example, if you are mailing into a vertical interest area, you probably know the size of that market. Any "new" list in that area has to be scrutinized and questions have to be constantly asked about list sourcing.


The broker has the greater responsibility and can't just accept what is on the data card. As a broker, if you feel uncomfortable with the source of the list, I think it's better to pass and let the list manager know why you are not recommending the file.


Merge/purge vigilance. The merge/purge report is more than just a billing document. Too often, brokers receive the merge/purge summary without seeing the detail. Mailers have to make complete reports available to list brokers. Mailers and brokers can't accept a high merge/purge loss without seeing the detail between all lists in the merge/purge.


The third piece to the puzzle is the list manager, who is responsible for being forthcoming in describing the list sources a bit more openly. I realize that contract issues are involved in the area of private labeling and that revealing the source of the names often may not be permitted.


It's hard to argue with any list owner who wants to maximize revenue under difficult economic circumstances. I also understand that having a file private-labeled with different list managers lets the list owner take advantage of each manager's strength and potentially expand the market for a file.


Truth in advertising, though, too often seems to be taking a back seat in the pursuit of every last rental dollar. For list brokers, it's critical that we continue to fulfill the role of providing our clients with our best intelligence and marketing input, and I'm not sure adding the job title "data detective" really accomplishes this.


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