A Direct Mail Copywriter’s Insights Into Mailing Lists

I still recall my first direct mail letter. I rewrote it countless times until each word was just right. Every word was just as I wanted it to be. I clearly defined the benefits to the reader, the offer was powerful and the call to action straightforward.

But once the letter mailed, all I could do was wait. And I kept waiting. But nothing happened. We didn’t get one response. We didn’t even get a single complaint from the letter…and if no one complains, you know you’re in trouble.

Finally, after waiting a few more days, I went to see the agency’s owner and revealed my catastrophe. I told him what we were trying to achieve with the letter, how the campaign evolved, our offer–even how I had double-checked every word but still failed to get a single response.
The boss had only one response, “Check the mailing lists.”

I had anticipated this and had already put together a report on the mailing lists we were testing. But as I began to go through the long list, he said, “That’s now what I mean. Check to see what we actually mailed.”

It only took a brief meeting with the IT and production groups to discover that the wrong lists were mailed. The fact is, we couldn’t have mailed names more inappropriate for this appeal if we had tried.

From this, I learned two things.

First, just because you give the proper instructions doesn’t mean that things will turn out the way you intended. Mistakes happen.

Second, it made me realize that all those marketers who argue whether or not the mailing list is twice as important, or 300% more important, or even 600% more important than the offer, copy or format are just wasting good air.

In real life, the mailing list isn’t two times, three times or six times more important than the mailing’s other components–it’s infinitely more important.

Without good list selection, even the world’s all-time greatest mailing package isn’t going to work. You’re not going to sell lawnmowers to apartment dwellers regardless of how good the mailing might be.

Good list selection–and understanding the reasoning behind the lists’ selection–is integral to the success of a direct mail copywriter.

And we can either allow the list broker do their thing and hope for the best, or we can become familiar with the lists being selected and develop an understanding of why they were selected.

Successful copywriters take time to understand which mailing lists work and which don’t. They study the available demographic and behavioral data, ask to be added to the broker’s new list announcements, and they read the trade magazines to learn about new lists and segmentation techniques.

The copywriter doesn’t need to be a list expert but he or she does need to have an understanding of the list selection process.

Yet when we work as freelance copywriters, we are seldom encouraged to become involved with the list selection process. Clients often want us to write copy and nothing else.

However, we can ask questions and use the responses to gain a better understanding of the audience we’re writing. For example, here are a few of the questions I ask:

What can you tell me about your typical buyer? What information do you have on their income, age and sex? What do you know about their interests and behavior?
What are your top five mailing lists?
In the past, which list segments have performed poorly?
Have the people we’re mailing received your offer before? If so, when did you last mail to them?
What market data do you have on file–past purchases/contributions, items purchased, dates of the transactions, income, sex, age?

I’ll also request samples of the three most recent acquisition controls-and the packages they tested against-to see how past appeals talked to their readers and how the message evolved over the progression of packages.

Then, once I’ve identified common traits of winning-and losing-packages, I can combine the findings with what I know about the people that will be receiving the mailing. This allows me to do a much better job of persuading the recipients to take action.

A lot has changed since I wrote my first direct mail package yet one thing remains the same. Of all the things a copywriter needs to succeed, nothing is more important than good list selection and knowledge of the people to whom you’re writing.

Strategies to Increase Direct Mail Results With Mailing Lists

Direct marketing with mailing lists is a great way to advertise your business and boost sales. It gives you the option to be as targeted as needed to focus your message to consumers or businesses that have in interest in your product. When focused correctly, this form of advertising can bring instant results. These marketing lists are also available with phone numbers, which can increase your response by telemarketing follow up calls. The following information will provide some key valuable tips when choosing a mailing list to aid in marketing your new or existing business.

First, when you make the decision to incorporate direct mail, you should have a basic idea of your target market. With this in mind, you can then create a customized targeted list. A qualified list broker will be able to assist in customizing a list based on your specific industry. You want a database that is compiled of potential consumers of your product or services. Analysis on your current customer database may aid in building a new prospecting list. An experienced direct marketing professional will also be able to give you great options based on your specific industry. It is always good practice to make sure the file is up to date and includes all the required postal paperwork. It is also a good practice to eliminate any duplicate names on the file. You should never send the same letter to the same person more than once. A reputable list provider will have the ability to remove your current customers from your new prospect mailing list.

Second, when using direct mail to promote your product or service, it is always more effective to mail the information to a specific person, and not simply to a general title. You should always receive exact first and last names and the titles of the people on your mailing list. This creates a more personalized message and will increase the results of your mailing. It also helps to tailor your mail piece to the audience you have selected for your offer. If you are mailing an insurance offer to people turning 65, it would not make sense to have a picture of a young couple at the beach. It would be best to have a picture of people in their age bracket. This way your postcard and message relate to the potential customer.

Third, it is important to code your mail piece with demographic codes that will give the ability to track the characteristics of the people responding. For example, if you are marketing to people with an age of 30-60, a mailing list provider will include special codes on your file that you can hide on your mail piece. In doing so, you may find that individuals with an age between 50 and 60 are not responding. In this case, on your next mailing it would be wise to mail to households with ages between 30 and 49. By tracking these demographic codes, you will be able to continuously make improvements on future mailings. In doing this additional work, each mailing should have an increased response rate.

Lastly, when mailing to promote a product or service, be sure to never use abbreviations. Many address lists are sold with abbreviations like “Co.” for “Company”. There are several other abbreviations which are often included in marketing lists. Prior to printing any mailing list database, it is always best to take a visual scan over your list. This will prevent wasting valuable marketing dollars on wasted postage and printing.

With any form of marketing, it is important to properly plan your strategy and budget. By creating targeted accurate lists and researching your market audience, the results of your efforts will be well rewarded. An effective campaign comes with a well thought out plan, appropriate timing, and an important message. Research, dedication and creative thinking will produce a success marketing campaign.

Why Mailing Lists Are Important for Your Business

A mailing list is one of the most efficient forms of cost effective advertising strategies that business owners can use. There is no better way for an advertiser to skip the costs of sending ads randomly to people than by directly contacting a specific group. In order to build a successful list, you first need to define your market and audience — this is one of the determining factors for successful lists and should not be taken lightly. It’s also important to customize the messages to your subscriber base. Keep in mind that a successful mailing campaign means more profit for your business.

What are Mailing Lists?

Mailing lists are collections of data like names and addresses used by an organization or an individual to send messages to a number of recipients. They are typically of two kinds: announcement lists (used for things like newsletters and promotions) and discussion lists (used for exchanging ideas about a certain topic or product). In the past, mailing lists were managed strictly through the postal system; however, with the widespread growth of the Internet and the email, electronic email lists are now far more popular. Legitimate, or non-spam, electronic email lists allow users to subscribe and unsubscribe at any time they desire.

How Can I Build a List?

Contrary to what you might think, building a mailing list is quite simple — for the sake of this example, we will focus on how to build an online email list for free. Keep in mind, however, that while building a mailing list is simple to do, marketing it successfully is a whole other story. Many online marketers find this to be one of the most difficult things in running an email list. As many of them point out, finding the best way to market your list can be done through trial and error. Additionally, it’s very important to strive to catch your reader’s attention and keep your website up to date.


1.Find a good third party mailing service such as Constant Contact (free) and open a new account.

2.Add contacts to your account by pasting them in, by typing them, from a file or spreadsheet, from your Gmail account or from Outlook or other CRM application. If you have trouble doing this, Constant Contact offers a number of free tutorials that will help you get on your way in no time.

3.Start marketing your website by exchanging links with other similar websites in your niche or by including your URL in the signature line on message boards. Additionally, be sure to add your URL to the bottom of your emails as well. The secret to a successful marketing campaign is to repeat these steps until you start making a comfortable income.

4.Whenever new subscribers join your E-mail list, be sure to email them a welcome letter.

5.Keep your newsletter and/or E-mail list updated regularly – daily or weekly – to maintain your reader’s attention.

6.Don’t forget to be respectful and remove emails if asked. Also, don’t annoy your subscribers by sending out dozens of letters per day!

How Can I Make a the List Work for My Business?

In marketing as well as in any other type of business, it is crucial that you learn how to identify who is more likely to purchase your service or product. Building an effective mailing list can be a very effective strategy in this case. How do you make a mailing list work for your business? Firstly, you need to start with privacy and relationship in mind. A good strategy to use regarding privacy is to include a disclaimer that the receiver’s communications and contact information will not be sold or leased. It also helps to use the services of a professional and responsible mailing list provider.

In terms of building a healthy relationship with your subscribers, it’s important to treat all of them equally. This means that you should also initiate and maintain relationship with those subscribers who didn’t purchase your service or product. Studies show that people “scan” content on the Internet, meaning that they scroll through it very fast. This doesn’t give you a lot of time to make an impact on their decision. This is why it’s crucial to design your mailshots with this fact in mind – make it stand out from the rest by using the right keywords and design.

For example, you can write “Save 50% on Our Service until January 3rd!” in the title to grab their attention. Additionally, be sure to include the following info in your mailshots: your website address, how they can subscribe and unsubscribe, your contact details, copyright information, a link to the service or product mentioned and a privacy policy. Don’t forget that these rules apply whether you use mail or email.

What is Listwashing?

Listwashing is a process in which some of the information in a mailing list is removed. Listwashing is frequently used when a mailing list contains phone numbers or email addresses of individuals that did not subscribe voluntarily. Typically, this process is carried out when a complaint is received and only removes complainers. A widely believed supposition is that only a very small part of those inconvenienced with unwanted email send proper complaints. Since most of the people that did not voluntarily subscribe to an email list remain on the list, many spammers are easily able to maintain “complaint-free” mailing lists.

More General Info

It’s not uncommon for mailing lists to be sold or rented. There are even agents known as mailing list brokers who exist solely to help individuals and organizations rent their mailing lists. For organizations like charitable groups or specialized niche publications, having one or multiple mailing lists can be a very valuable asset – the value of these lists can also be maximized by the mailing list brokers. When a mailing list is rented, the renter is required to agree that the list will only be used at certain times. One method to verify that this rule is respected is by “salting” the list with several fake addresses and also creating new ones every time the list is rented.

Mailing Lists – 9 More Places to Buy a Direct Mail List

1. Trade Associations Mailing Lists

Trade Associations are unusually excellent sources of mailing lists. Better associations always include the industry’s top major players. Local associations like the local Chamber of Commerce in your area are usually good for a mailing list of local business names. You can select your direct mail list criteria by business size, number of employees, SIC code (the government’s industry classification of each business), or any of a multitude of other selection parameters.

Two great sources for finding associations are reference books from ColumbiaHouse Books, Inc., publishers of the State and Regional Associations Directory and The National Trade and Professional Associations of the United States. Mailing lists of the associations are available on labels or download.

Association mailing lists and data are also available in the giant reference Encyclopedia of Associations by The Gale Group on disk, CD, and on-line through Lexis-Nexis. This hard bound, three-volume set is the mother load of associations – showing detailed information on more than 23,000 local, state, national, and international associations. If you need a direct mail list from an association, if you can’t find the association name, address and phone in here, you can’t find it.

2. Mailing List Resources: List Reference Tools

Two excellent resources for investigating lists at the library are the SRDS Direct Marketing List Source(TM) and the Oxbridge Communications National Directory of Mailing Lists. We use both of these huge directories of lists in our own office – they’re thorough and easy to use. These reference tools are each about the size of the Manhattan phone book and contain nothing but mailing list data: who owns what mail list, number of records in each, source of names and direct mail list pricing. Both tools are available in major libraries.

3. Mailing List Brokers

Mailing list brokers are found in phone books in every major city. They can be heaven, supplying incredible information, or hell, looking for that fast buck. Make sure you ask tons of questions before handing over any money (Please see the article “12 questions to ask a mailing list vendor,” at ezinearticles.com and at Dobkin.com. While you pay for the list, the broker actually works independently for the list owner – so take that into consideration when you ask questions and negotiate price. The broker makes a commission on each list sale, and generally sells a variety of lists for multiple companies. A list agent works exclusively for the firm that sells the list.

A plethora of list managers and direct mail lists owners can be found in the direct mail trade magazines such as Multichannel Merchant Magazine: Target Marketing, and DM News.

4. Catalogs of Mailing Lists

Some list brokers are huge and have their own catalog of mailing lists. Some of these direct mail list catalogs are over 100 pages long! Some direct mail list catalogs are handy reference tools that will give you an idea of just what’s out there – what kind of lists are available and counts of how many records exist in the thousands of different mailing list categories. Please see the full article on mailing lists titled, “Free Catalogs of Mailing Lists,” at DanielleAdams.com.

Want to know how many dentists there are? It’s a piece of cake: 190,168 are members of the ADA. Want to know if there is a mailing list of picky ale drinkers? Find the mailing list of “Ale in the Mail-Continuity Members:” 70,973 of them. Selling an accounting product? Try the mailing list from the Accounting Institute Seminar Attendees – all 78,634 of them. Looking for college professors? Did you want the 43,347 who teach English, or the 18,184 who teach history, or the 8,477 in marketing, or the 9,194 philosophy teachers, or the…

If you need additional information – like how many doctors who specialize in allergies and are the head of their practice with four or more employees can be found in Pennsylvania – call any of these catalog houses and ask them to run a mailing list count with those parameters. You’ll be able to get that information in about ten minutes. Hugo Dunhill, American Business Lists, and Edith Roman to name just a few. Phone numbers for mailing list brokers can be found in the books Uncommon Marketing Techniques and How To Market A Product For Under $500!

5. Lists on CD

Several companies now offer lists of every business or every person in the U.S. on CD-ROM. These products allow you to create your own list criteria and generate your own precisely targeted direct mail lists. Some of the better programs make it easy and fast to use their CD-ROM products.

6. Internet

One of the best resources for lists is the Internet. There’s no getting around it now, the Internet is here to stay — you might as well get used to it. It’s a great – probably the best – research tool available for almost anything, if you can filter out the crap from the good stuff. But… isn’t that the way with all research tools: you gotta figure out which is the good stuff that you can use, and which is the bad stuff that you’ve just spent the last two hours looking over and have now figured out is pretty worthless. Yea, the Internet is like that – in spades.

7. Trade Shows Mailing Lists

Trade shows are great marketing events, and trade show lists are also great marketing tools. You can usually buy mailing lists of both attendees and of exhibitors. Check out two great websites: one is TSNN.com and the other tradeshowweek.com for trade show information. The Tradeshow Week Data Book is a great tool published by the editors of Tradeshow Week Magazine.

8. The Enemy

You’d be surprised how many of your competitors will sell your their customers’ names to mail to. If not competitors, how about asking other businesses who serve your market if you can purchase their mailing lists. Warranty lists and data, registrations, some firms just seem to warehouse data that would make a great direct mail list to someone.

9. House List

Of course, the best list of all – bar none – is your own direct marketing list of current and past customers. These are the folks that know you and trust you; they’ve experienced that great customer service you offer and are now willing to buy something else from you if you would only let them know it’s available. Spend some extra time in this most important area – of list research: tighten your list criteria, do your homework, spend time in research, and find the best mail lists you can possibly find. Then test several.

Selecting a direct mail list isn’t as rewarding as generating the creative for a new glitzy 4-color brochure, or an exciting mailing package. But it shows up where it counts the most – in your bottom line. The better your direct mail list, the better your response. Guaranteed.

It’s worth the extra time and money to target your audience with precision and increase the chance you’ll come up a winner at the post office. There is no single more important factor in creating a greater response to a mailing than mailing to the best possible list. Whatever you do, don’t settle for a mediocre list unless you want mediocre results. The better the list, the greater the response.

The Basics of Direct Mail Lists

Direct mail lists provide opportunities for businesses to acquire, retain and create loyal customers. Yet which lists are typically the best performing lists? How do you go about finding mailing lists? And once you’ve found a list, how do you know if your investment paid off?

Direct Mail List Basics

Direct mail lists generally fall into three categories:

Company owned lists: These are direct mail (or email) lists that you’ve created on your own. Many online business include an opt-in box on their website so that customers and visitors can choose to provide their email address in exchange for information, news, white papers and other gifts. Companies can also create their own “house lists” as such lists are called by using records of previous purchases and leads to create a basic mailing list. For direct mail, you can use physical addresses without tacit permission. For email marketing, always use an opt-in method and only conduct permission-based marketing to avoid getting branded as a spammer.

Response lists: Response lists are rented by companies that specialize in mailing lists, called list brokers. Such a list is based on past purchasing or response behavior and may include catalog mailing lists, direct mail or direct television buyers, or magazine subscribers. Many companies make money by renting their list out to other companies. The idea behind using such a list is that past purchasing behavior is the best indicator of future purchasing behavior. In other words, if someone responded to a direct TV ad for jewelry, chances are better that they’ll respond to another offer for jewelry. List brokers often add additional selections for an extra fee, such as 3 month buyers. This allows you to target people who have recently bought such an item. Again, based on years of data from many industries, these are people most likely to respond again to similar offers, which is why direct marketers seek out such lists.

Compiled lists: Compiled lists are created or compiled from public records. Such lists used to be based on DMV records but now are mainly typed into computers directly from telephone books. Sometimes public data such as census data is appended to the list, providing some ability to sort by income and other factors from census data. Compiled lists are the least expensive but also the least likely to respond to specific offers. Going back to the jewelry example, you may rent a compiled list of people living in a high income zip code, thinking that they are likely to buy jewelry from a direct mail order catalog. But you have no way of knowing from the compiled list if such people are comfortable shopping online, by phone or from a catalog. A response list indicates that in the past, such consumers have done so – and are more likely to do so again.

There are general list brokers who offer a wide range of mailing lists and specialist such as Market Data Retrieval that focus solely on industry, such as education in the MDR example. Ask colleagues for the best list brokers in your industry.

Renting Mailing Lists

Once you’ve found a company offering lists, search their catalog or talk to a list broker on the phone. Share your ideal client profile; who are you targeting? The list brokers will suggest several lists and email or fax you data cards. Such cards provide the facts about the list: who is renting it, whether it is compiled or response, and data selects available. Data selects are optional methods to use a computer to narrow down the most likely prospects to respond to your offer. Select may include age, gender, products purchased, or recent shopping behavior.

Lists have a base cost per thousand. Typically list companies will not rent fewer than 10,000 records, so take the cost per thousand records, multiple that by 10, and that gives you the minimum amount of money you will have to spend on a list. There may be additional charges added on for various selections or to actually generate the list from the computer.

Make sure that the list has been updated recently. Good list companies run their lists through several databases obtained from the Direct Marketing Association and the US Post Office. These include removing the names of deceased persons, updating lists with the new addresses of people who have moved, and suppressing (removing) people who have requested to be on the “Do Not Mail” list or preference list from the Direct Marketing Association. All of this may add costs at the beginning of a list rental process, but think about the money wasted mailing pieces to people who cannot respond. If they’ve moved, died, or hate junk mail, why mail to them in the first place? You’re spending money on the creative design, the printing, the mailing house costs and postage, so save the money and don’t mail to those people.

Testing and Use of Direct Mail Lists

Although the minimum amount of names on n a typical direct mail list rental is around 5,000 to 10,000 names, many companies will allow you to rent a smaller segment for testing. Be sure to code your direct mail pieces with a unique phone number, source code or another method to track responses so you can see which list performed the best.

Mailing lists are rented for one time use or multiple, unlimited uses. You’ll be asked up front to specify which use you intend and most companies ask for a sample mail piece. One of the most frequently asked questions people new to direct mail ask me is, “Why can’t I just pay for one time use and then reuse the list, since most lists are provided electronically nowadays?” The answer is simple: you will be caught! Mailing list companies include addresses called “seeds” on their list which look to you and me like just any other name on the list, but actually go back to the company or to someone employed by the company to monitor the list. If you’re caught using a mailing list more times than you paid for it, you are subject to legal prosecution, fines or both. It’s not pretty. Don’t do it.

Direct Mail in Today’s Market

Direct mail has been around since the late 1800’s when catalogs opened a world of new goods to rural Americans. Although a large number of consumers have moved their shopping online, many still prefer to look at an old-fashioned catalog before buying. Direct mail can entice and invite consumers to visit a website to order. A good mix of old-fashioned direct mail marketing, postcard marketing, and a robust website with search engine optimization techniques in mind is a winning combination to acquire, retain and create loyal customers – and make money in the process.

Get Marketing Help – Fast

Jeanne Grunert is the president of Seven Oaks Consulting, a marketing and writing firm that helps businesses focus and clarify their marketing messages and strategies to attract new business. Her expert insights, motivational seminars, and inspiring writing have helped many small business owners achieve their goals.