Buying Lists What Every Direct Marketer Needs to Know
By Ilene Schwartz
Most articles I've read about the intricacies of buying lists begin with the same seemingly simple advice—find a good list broker. First off, finding a good list broker is not always such a simple task. And second, while you may work with some of the best list brokers in the country, the decision of what lists to mail is ultimately yours to make.
Since list brokers often have particular areas of expertise (insurance, opportunity seekers, circulation, fund raising, etc.) they specialize in working with mailers within that area. If you are a large direct marketer whose business fits into one of these traditional categories, you are likely to have an easier time of finding a broker to assist you. If your company is smaller, or if you are a direct marketing agency, with a variety of clients both large and small, it is particularly important to be able to tackle some of the list research independently if necessary, since you may not find one broker who can fulfill all of your requirements. You must develop the knowledge and expertise necessary to research, analyze and prioritize the best lists to market your products or services.
So, when buying lists, what do you need to know? Just about everything. Here are some strategies for researching lists, buying lists and how to work effectively with brokers.
Have Direct Access to List Information
Subscribe to direct marketing trade publications and online newsletters. These industry publications regularly feature list information and often provide updates on new lists, new selections and list management changes. Also consider subscribing to the SRDS Direct Marketing List Source. This book describes just about every list on the market and can be extremely helpful in doing your own preliminary list research. Basic information featured can help you communicate more effectively with your broker and give them direction. You can also identify lists of interest and sources and go directly to the list manager/owner's Web site if you need immediate information.
How to Really Read Data Cards
As you request and review data cards, make certain you understand all the information featured. Ask questions until you get the necessary answers.
What to look for:
• Usage, in other words, which other mailers have mailed the file. If no usage or only limited usage information is featured on the card, call and request it.
• Along with usage and general descriptions, of particular importance is the source of the list, which is frequently described as direct mail. This description is meaningless unless you are familiar with the mail piece, methods or actual approach used to generate the list. Request a copy of the mailing piece, catalog, publication, warranty card, etc., that was used to generate names. If the list was generated from responders to a direct response TV commercial, ask for a videotape of the advertisement and the inbound telemarketing script. Reviewing specifically how questions were asked will give you insight into the quality and value of a list for your particular offer.
• Description, also called Audience Profile or Buyer Profile, is the area of the data card that allows the list owner/manager much flexibility. Be cautious of phrases like "affluent, well educated." Although perhaps based on good marketing insight, unless actual income and education overlays have been appended to the file or this information is selectable, chances are this description is subjective. Business lists that tout their audience as high level purchasing or sales and marketing executives, but have no job title or function selects require more information.
• Hotline dates may tell you when these names became available for rental. But how long did it actually take to get those names to market? A September hotline may actually be comprised of June buyers or subscribers, and it took the list owner three months to process these names. A three-month buyer may have bought six months ago. If that is the case, a hotline select may not be necessary, since it's not that "hot" anyway.
• Updates. Some data cards show actual dates of last and next update, so if you are about to order close to the time of the next update and you can wait, do it. But if the data card says "updated quarterly," find out exactly when the updates take place. If updates are daily, it usually means that updates and fulfillment are being handled directly by the list owner. Daily updates are terrific. But if you are renting an active buyers file, counts can fluctuate, so call for the most current numbers.
• Turnaround Time. Most list owners and managers can rush through orders in less time than they say they can, but it's important to confirm turnaround time. Sometimes you have to take your second best list choice simply because a particular list owner or manager has faster turnaround time.
Work the E-Mail Lists
When assessing e-mail lists, it is important to understand how so-called opt-in or permission-based lists have been generated. Go to the specific Web sites and review the online forms (or offline forms) used to gather the e-mail addresses to determine specifically how, or if, permission was obtained.
Should you abandon all lists that are not true opt-in? No. Permission-based lists can be effective if used responsibly for the right offer at the right time.
Also be aware that large quantities of e-mail addresses marketed in broad categories such as entertainment, travel and leisure, financial services, etc., are often made up of names from a variety of smaller sites and sources. Sometimes more targeted breakdowns are available. Ask to see the various sources/sites that have been included in a particular category. Those in the entertainment category may include everyone from Shakespeare to Shrek enthusiasts, but if you inquire further, you may be able to select the names that best match your demographics.
Common Sense Research
Most brokers have access to electronic list search systems and can do a quick search based on key phrases. Before you ask your broker to search out lists and print numerous data cards, use some common sense. If you only need 25,000 names of engineers, you probably don't need to review the 50 or 60 data cards an electronic search is likely to turn up. However, if you need 200,000 names of engineers nationwide, be prepared to look over those 50 or 60 data cards. Work with your broker to prioritize lists based on how closely they match up with the audience you need to reach, and the selections and quantities available.
Be Aware of Relationships
Sometimes brokers are resellers or wholesalers of lists, particularly compiled files. These arrangements are not always obvious, but can work to your advantage. Your broker may be able to offer you a better price on these lists and quicker counts and turnaround. However, if your broker is always pushing compiled lists, and never recommends any other types of lists, it may be necessary to research other options on your own or work with more than one broker to get in depth recommendations and additional expertise.
Marketing to Members
Associations, newsletter publishers, and other trade or charitable organizations may not openly market their files. However, you can sometimes contact organizations directly and arrange for list rental. Typically list owners who do not actively promote their lists do not offer broker commissions. If you ask your broker or agency for extensive research to track down these files, be prepared to pay for the research and service time involved.
Sometimes a particular list compiler will not or cannot reveal the source of a compiled file. This does not necessarily mean you should not rent the list. Oftentimes, if you have done your market research you can make an educated guess as to where these names came from. And even if you can't, don't abandon the list just because you don't know the original source of the names. Sometimes this compiled file may be the only list available for a particular mailing and offers a great opportunity for a test.
If No List Is Available...
This dilemma exists at times, particularly with new product launches. If there is no list available to target a particular audience, while you may want to rethink your new product launch strategy, also consider compiling your own prospect file. Select a list with phone numbers that targets your prospect audience as closely as possible. Hire a reputable telemarketing firm, create the appropriate script that will enable you to qualify these prospects for your particular product or service, and compile your own list. Of course you must first figure out the necessary return on your investment, but for high-ticket products or services, particularly in the business-to-business environment, this strategy can pay off.
Use Brokers Whenever you Can
Brokers have access to in-depth usage information sometimes not available to the end user. Experienced brokers know which properties perform well over time for what types of offers. Also, brokers can sometimes negotiate better rates for you.
Even if you do all of your own list research, placing orders through brokers can still save you time and money. They can quickly get your order pre-cleared if it is potentially competitive, make certain you have all the necessary paperwork to speed up processing and track shipping and delivery. So use brokers when you can, but have realistic expectations. Order lists directly when you need to. In the meantime, ask many questions and learn everything about lists that you can.
Ilene Schwartz is vice president, account supervisor, Liggett-Stashower Direct, a direct marketing agency and division of Liggett-Stashower Inc., Cleveland. Formerly list director at Penton Media, Schwartz has been in the industry for over 20 years. Reach her at (216) 373-8214 or email@example.com.