Poor list selection is the worst mistake you can make in direct mail. When you mail to the wrong list, you get experience — which is what you get when you don't make any money.
Where to start searching for the right list: Call the list management companies that run ads in direct marketing magazines and are found in the phone book in every major city and inquire.
Make sure you ask tons of questions before handing over any money. Just remember, even though you are the purchaser, the brokers work for the list owner. So make sure you get tough with them about answering your questions.
Questions to ask: How old are the names on the list? How often is it updated? How often — and how recently — has it been cleaned? Ask brokers for a data card, which shows list specifications. Believe only two-thirds of what the data card says.
Tests in direct mail are usually to 5,000 names, and only a few list owners will rent you fewer records. This doesn't mean you have to mail to all 5,000 names, but you may have to purchase them. I always ask for a 2M name test — it's usually enough for my clients to get a fair indication if the list will pull. I also always ask for a free 2,000 name test from the list owner, and sometimes I get it. List owners know that when their list works well I'll be back with larger orders.
Ask the origin of the list. Compilers may acquire their names through public records such as businesses within specific SIC codes, business gross revenue or number of employees. Many business lists are compiled from listings in all the phone books across the United States. Examples would be all the luggage dealers or all the plumbing/heating supply wholesalers.
Don't forget that you can specify an overlay for these lists, like a demographic overlay of manufacturers located in a few states, or a business-specific overlay such as businesses with more than 500 employees or with sales volumes less than 2 million.
Keep in mind that compiled information — like fish — gets old rather quickly and doesn't age well. Guaranteed delivery of 93 percent may sound good up front, but it is actually pretty mediocre. Ninety-eight percent is good, 99 percent better. These lists are out there.
An excellent source of business names is magazine publishers. These lists are usually very good — they can be very industry specific from trade magazines, and the file is usually very up to date. Call a magazine publisher and ask if their subscriber list is for sale. Most are.
Trade associations are also an excellent source of mailing lists. Better associations always contain the industry's major players. Local associations like the chambers of commerce are good for local business names. You can select by business size, number of employees, SIC code or any of a multitude of other selection parameters.
Some of the larger list brokers publish a free catalog showing the thousands of lists they have available — so give them a call: Hugo Dunhill: 800/729-2600, American Business Lists: 800/555-5335, Best Mailing Lists: 800/692-2378, CompilersPlus: 800/431-2914 to name just a few.
Two excellent resources for researching lists at the library are the SRDS Direct Marketing List Source and the Oxbridge Communications National Directory of Mailing Lists. We use both in our own office — they're thorough and exceptionally easy to use. Each book contains facts and figures like rental costs and number of records, source and the contact names and phone numbers of the list owner of more than 50,000 lists that are on the market.
Business lists usually cost between $65 and $85 per thousand records. They're available on disk, tape and printed out on paper or pressure-sensitive labels. When purchasing and testing several lists, don't forget to key code the response vehicle so you can accurately track response back to the source.
New for the '90s: several companies now offer lists of every business in the United States on CD-ROM. These products allow you to create your own list criteria and generate your own mailing lists on your computer. These can be great for testing different markets. Whatever you do, don't settle for a mediocre list unless you want mediocre — or worse — results. It's worth the extra time and money to target your audience with precision.
Jeffrey Dobkin is a direct marketing consultant and author of How To Market A Product For Under $500! and Uncommon Marketing Techniques as well the president of the Danielle Adams Publishing Company, Merion Station, PA.