A Guide to Direct Mail

Return to Top

(1) Is DM for you?

(2) Choosing your list


(3) The Offer

(4) Call to Action

(5) The Package

(6) The Copy

(7) Testing

(8) Tracking

History of DM

What is a good list?
Building your own list
Swapping for a list
Renting a list

They say that the list is the most important part of the mailing. Usually, "they" are a bunch of idiots, but in this case, "They" have nailed it right on the head. Not only is it the most important part of the mailing, but it is the part people screw up the most. they spend all their time on the direct mail piece and very little on the list itself.

What is a good list?
The first step is to think through exactly what kind of people you want to mail to. There is only so far I can lead you in this through a web site, but the best mailers have a crystal clear purpose in mind. This leads back to the targeting I mentioned in the "Is Direct Mail Right for You?" secion. Perhaps it is September and you are in a college town and so you decide to mail to returnign college students to offer them discount furniture for their dorm room. See? The list is now easy - you need a list of college students. Other elements of the mailer, like the offer and the mail piece, start to take shape just from this little bit of information. So I would urge you to think through the purpose of your mailing and who you want to target. This should direct you to what the perfect mailing list would be.

Now, once you have an idea of the kind of person you want to target, there are basically 3 ways to get a mailing list with those people on it: You can build your own list, swap for a list, or rent a list.

Let's look at each one of these:

Building your own list
First building your own list. Almost every company today has a mailing list in some form. Perhaps as their customer list, or people have expressed an interest in their product in the past. You've probably heard it said the best list is your existing list that you have built. This is most often true. Since it is frequently easier to sell another product to an existing customer than anything else and generally speaking this is true therefore look first to your own "house file" for the source of your mailing these are people who've undoubtedly built up a certain amount of trust and report with your business and would be predisposed to further dealings with you.

Even if your mailing is to get new customers, still look around and see if you have a list you can already use. By the way, allow me to insert a mini-lecture here. You should be building a list of prospects. Every time your business has contact with someone, are they being added to your list? Again, it is hard for this article to provide specifics that cover every situation, but build your list.

Swapping for a list
The next way you can get a list is to swap for it. Most people are squeamish about letting other companies user mailing list. They want to protect their customers from getting "junk mail" so the list be not be "fatigued". While due caution must be exercised when thinking about letting others use your list, it is imporatn to understand that the people that are on your house file are also 100 other mailing list in addition to yours. They're getting mail from all kinds of places, so you doing a list swap is not necessarily going to annoy your customers.

I personally find list swaps to be the best lists to mail to. This is because you can carefully pick someone to swap with who is appealing to the same kind of people as you are. This is not as hard as it may sound. This doesn't mean mailing to a competitors mailing list, but instead mailing to the lists built by companies who are selling to the same peopl eas you arfe. For instance if you run a diaper service, swap with companies who are selling to the parents of young children such as a day care center.

Spend time brainstorming here. I cannot overestimate the "gems" you are likely to find. The nice thing about it is that if you think company X is a good fit for you, they are probably going to be excited to use your list, so it is often not hard to do a swap. One nice thing to keep in mind is to look for lists that have people who have purchased through direct mail.

Also, be creative when you think about where to find a list: They are all around you. For instance, think of these sources: Voter registrations, alumni lists, birth lists, assocaition memberships, labor organizations, religious organizations, school lists, and so on.

Generally, when you swap lists, it is for "one time use" of an approved piece. That means that each of you will mail to the others list only once and you will look at each others mailer before it is sent. This latter part is generally a mere formality - a courtesy - since it is unlikely that the diaper company is going to say anything objectional or controversial to parents in the day care. But it is customary.

The one-time use provision is done about 99% of the time. The way it is typically enforced is that you don't actually give your mailing list to another company, instead you deliver it to a "bonded mail house" in. In theory the company you are swapping with will never see your mailing list. I say "In theory" because their mail house works for them, not you. Still, it is very rare for abuses to occur, especially among small businesses. If you want to be really careful, you can insist that the mailing be done through your mail house, not theirs. Again, this might be overkill for you. Always "seed" your list, that is, put unique names on the list, one or two, of say your dog's name at your address, or a different middle initial of a person at your house. This will allow you to monitor the use of your list.

Renting a list
Next, you can rent a list. This is done through list brokers. List brokers handle lists that companies are willing to rent out. Not only can they rent you the lists they handle, but ones other people do as well. Its like you real estate agent - they can sell you any house in the world, but would prefer to sell you one of their own listings so they get paid twice. Nothing wrong with it, just know that's it works.

If you decide to rent a list, call up a list broker - you can find them in the yellow pages or over the Internet and tell them who you are trying to reach. They will fax or mail you some "data cards," which have the information on the lists they think might work for you. For instance, if you are selling a computer program, they might suggest Computer Magazine. They would send a card which tells you about Computer Magazine, the demogrpahic of the people who read it, how they got on the list, what the geographic dispersion is, and so on. You need to think carefully about whether this matches who you are targetign with your mail piece. Remember, all things depend on you getting this right. In spite of their good wishes, list brokers suggestions are sometimes not good fits for your buiness, simply beucase they do not know your business as well as you do and they represent so many lists, they are not authorities on them either.

Assuming you find a list your are interested in, many times you can purchase additional selects. A select is a "selection" or part of the list based on a certain criteria. For instance, you can get just men or college graguates or people who live withing 5 miles of you. Ask the list broker what selects are available.

Prices for lists are quoted "per thousand". It might be $100 per thousands, which means you pay $100 for 1000 names for one time use, or a dime each. Realize also that you pay for each select you want to do. Sayig you want only males with college degrees living in your area will raise the price of the list a chunky amount.

Lists vary considerably in price. Probably the cheapest you will rent a name for is a nickel and the most you would ever pay would be 50 cents. That is a huge gap, but the list is very imporatn.

Many list brokers have a minimum order of 5000 names. I encourage you to rent that many to test the list. I cover testing elsewhere on this web site. When you rent the names, be sure to tlel the broker it is a test and to "mark the list for continuation". This means that when you go back to rent the rest of the list, you won't re-rent the same 5000 names again - they will have kept track of which ones you already had. This is standard practice in the list world, but do remember the phrase "mark for continatuion". I save two or three of my original mailers and when I do the follow up mailing, have my mail house make sure the two or three are not included. In hundreds of mailings, I have never had this particular screw up, but I always check anyway.

So now let's assume you have your list. Hopefully, you have found a company selling to the same people you are and have worked out a list swap. They have a huge list, but you are going to play it safe and test some names first. Whats the next step as far sa the list is concerned.

Next topic: The Lettershop