If You Don’t Do the Right List Homework, You’ll Fail at Direct Mail

For profitable direct mail, you need to identify winning mailing lists — and avoid those that may not work.

But where do you find quality lists? Here’s a clue about where not to look: If your lists are purchased online, they have been mailed thousands of times. When lists are overexposed, they are much less responsive.

In contrast, AccuList USA® promotes “brokered lists” sourced from “pre-screened” third parties who make their transactional response lists available for rental or exchange, or, in the case of compiled lists, a one-time mailing or outright purchase. Transactional lists require a sample piece and mail date for clearance. These lists are rented much less frequently, which may account for why they tend to generate much more revenue and superior response rates. And since, as a broker, we don’t own these lists, our independent list recommendations are completely unbiased.

But how do you shop the wide universe of brokered lists for those with the best chance for success? Here’s what AccuList USA does:

As new lists come on the market, our primary concern is how they were sourced. In other words, where did they come from? To be specific, if direct mail is your preferred marketing channel for acquisition, lists that are gleaned from non-direct-mail sources may not work as well. This is particularly true of compiled names, which today may include public records, directory compilations, web queries, and hybrid sourcing.

Once it is apparent how a new list was generated, we can vette the data by asking for a sample mailing piece to judge appropriateness of offer and targeting for a particular mailing. And we can seek to determine when names were generated to further aid responsiveness; for example, if you can select from a 30-day hotline, those names may be stronger performers, depending upon your offer.

While sourcing is important, it is generally recognized that “name-brand” lists will outperform both compiled and response-list counterparts. Branded lists come from a familiar company or nonprofit organization. Beware of “exclusive” but unbranded lists whose names and descriptions are “too good to be true.” It’s not uncommon for some list owners and managers to exaggerate the importance of their “exclusive” lists. Frankly, most lists with common names come from a handful of compilers who encourage others to “white label” or “private label” their generic compilations.

Does the cost per name matter?

Again, beware. Economy can cost you more in the long run. If you base your list selections on the cost per name without regard to how the names were sourced, you stand a much greater likelihood of losing money on your mailings. Compiled lists cost less but typically produce the lowest results for most offers or appeals.

Size matters, too, particularly when you repeat mail! If you are mailing to tiny lists, once you have tested them, there’s nothing more to mail.

Smart list selection also should be based on your own past performance. If you are dealing with an experienced list professional or “data innovator,” as the Direct Marketing Association refers to a handful of savvy list brokers, they can help you identify lists which emulate your top performing names. To make that determination, they must first take notice of the key attributes ascribed to your most valuable customers or donors, along with your core offer and long-term objectives.

A good list broker has to be a good list detective. Anyone can subscribe to SRDS or Nextmark. As an apprentice list shopper, it may take literally years to effectively separate the “wheat from the chaff” on these list search engines, because they are laden with redundant data-card listings and lists that are obsolete or poorly sourced. Top list professionals, like AccuList USA, use a variety of public and proprietary resources to identify suitable lists.

If your list brokers are just order takers and don’t have the passion or experience to be a list Sherlock Holmes, your direct marketing program will suffer. If your list brokers rely on “off the shelf” lists or the so-called “list bible,” you don’t need them. The lists which are “off the radar” tend to be the nuggets because they are not mailed as frequently, particularly if those lists boast favorable usage histories by your leading competitors.

So, AccuList USA identifies the best lists for its clients via a private “multi-sourced” list-usage library. That proprietary list-usage library has over a decade of information on literally thousands of branded and unbranded lists, including those endemic and non-endemic mailers who have tested or re-mailed various lists for a specific offer or appeal within a historic period. We take notice of active mailers in a particular market segment. We have the capacity to track which lists and offers are most frequently mailed by your specific competitors. We can even tell you which lists recently performed best for specific offers, along with category- or channel-specific information.

List research can make or break a direct marketing campaign, and you can face some daunting homework before renting or purchasing direct mail lists if you want to ace a direct marketing test! That’s why experienced mailers “outsource” their list needs to a trusted and independent list professional, ideally one who specializes in their market, or has a proven capacity as a quick study. With a seasoned “list detective” on your side, you can nab the most effective lists and avoid costly blunders!