NEW YORK — After 20 years in the business, Carolyn B. Williams still has faith in what she does.
Her family-run company sells church and clergy mailing, telephone and e-mail lists to firms and ministries worldwide. At last count, Williams Direct had lists of nearly 350,000 religious institutions nationwide, the largest such compiled response and mail buyers database in the market.
Not without reason do friends, customers, delegates to the 40th Annual DM Days New York Conference & Expo and even the president of the United States know Williams by another name: Church Lady.
Her trademark marketing postcard reinforces that nomenclature. On one side is a listing of the files, selects, prices and order details for Williams Direct lists. On the other is a photograph of a prim-and-proper freckled third-grader in cat's-eye glasses: Williams herself.
“Maybe … I was really destined to be the Church Lady,” says the headline on the card. Readers are invited to call or e-mail Williams for church or clergy mailing lists.
“All of the brokers and list managers in the U.S. get so much mail that we don't read it,” Williams said. “But we do like it when it's fun. And everyone likes the Church Lady's card. We've had more people stop [at our booth] and tell how much fun they are and how it brightens their day.”
Williams Direct is also interested in making their day. The Burlington, KS-based company counts as past and present clients Amy Grant, Faith Hill, the Rev. Billy Graham, Mel Gibson, Disney World, Hugo Dunhill, List Services Corp., AllMedia, MeritDirect and American List Counsel. Other customers include Hollywood, politicians and churches.
Marketers can buy Williams Direct lists by ministry, including children's, Christian education, Christian school, music, youth as well as seniors and singles groups. They also can opt for groups like Adventist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Catholic, evangelistic, fundamental, Jewish, Mormon, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Orthodox, Mennonite, Methodist or Pentecostal.
Buyers can choose from selects like total churches, total clergy, denomination, membership, geographic area, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, ethnicity, date founded and by expenditure.
The lists are online and updated daily. They are CASS certified, available in ZIP sequence or presorted and fully ZIP+4 coded.
As she tells the story, Williams fell into the business. She was a list specialist two decades ago. She remembers the day when her husband, Allan, was at the front door, trying to save the family car from being taken away by GMAC. At that moment, Williams was on the phone with someone from United Church Directories.
“We almost lost the car, the house, everything,” she said. “Then we got a big customer. I asked cash upfront. Got $10,000 overnighted. That was it. We were on our way.”
Williams and her family worked out of their home, keying 50,000 churches into the computer in three months. One customer led to another, and soon Williams Direct was building a reputation as the go-to place for religious lists.
Ten years ago, people working for Amy Grant called and offered buyer lists of the gospel singer's CDs. The next day, Williams Direct received boxes full of names of Christian consumers — 1.5 million written on folded pieces of paper. The lists came free.
“The biggest challenge was opening them all,” Williams said. “We hired every woman available in the town to key them in. We paid $50 a thousand to have them key it, and within 30 days we had them all done.”
Williams Direct is poised to open a branch office in Lawrence, KS. It is hiring interns to look for religious records online and in newspapers and church directories.
The family continues to help Williams. Of her three daughters, Stephanie is a sales rep, Kelly handles accounts and Diane is in research and IT. The three have helped mom since their preteen years.
“They're the fastest folders and stuffers in the world,” Williams said of her daughters.
Williams' husband of 30 years runs production and serves as company president. She is company chairman/CEO.
“That's how we stay married,” she said. “He does production and tax and attorneys, and I do sales and marketing. I talk.”
As a direct marketing veteran, Williams has seen trends come and grow in her niche. One trend shaping the nation's religious, political, economic and marketing landscape is the proliferation of mega churches.
The bedrock of new-style evangelism, these mega churches are unlike the traditional church-and-chapel operations associated with old-line Protestant or Catholic denominations. Instead, mega churches, like Texas' Joel Osteen Ministries, seat tens of thousands in a stadium-sized building, with support services like gyms, coffee shops, bowling alleys, shopping, children's clubs, daycare centers, aerobics and softball.
Also, the mega churches' pastors reach out to hundreds of thousands of Christians worldwide through best-selling books, television broadcasts and best-of-class Web sites.
So it is no surprise that marketers eagerly seek out lists of this new breed of churches and their congregants.
“Those are in demand because they're buying everything,” Williams said. “They're buying baseballs, they're buying towels for the gym. They're buying everything, not just religious products.”
Politicians are just as aware of the power of marketing to the God-fearing. Williams Direct regularly sells lists to both Republicans and Democrats. Orders differ, of course.
“The Republicans want everyone who believe in Christ,” Williams said. “They tend to stay away from the Jewish and Presbyterian Main Line churches. The Democrats — they haven't learned yet. The Rev. [Julius] Hope at the NAACP places an order every four years for the African-American churches.”
Presidential elections are nail-biting times for Williams Direct as much as for the candidates. In 2000, the Florida churches lists were in high demand until the last minute. Last year, the Williams family and company staffers were busy faxing and e-mailing lists of phone numbers for both Democrats and Republicans to rally the faithful to vote.
“This election, they all wanted Ohio,” Allan Williams said.