Marketing Lists and Databases

April's Marketing Blog

I was talking to an old colleague who is now a small business consultant today about marketing lists.  She is working with a client who is thinking about bringing a tool to market that helps update and append lists to  But lists are something we grapple with on a regular basis and I thought I would share some thoughts with you about lists.  This is a pretty basic commentary, so if you are an expert, and want to share your thoughts, reply to the blog.

There are a couple of principles to think about: 

  1. Quality
  2. Quantity
  3. Hygiene
  4. Maintenance
  5. Compliance

I am sure there are many more than the above, but these are the things we think about pretty regularly.  When you begin a marketing campaign, one has to consider the target audience and the messages presented to that audience.  The first thing to consider when you are thinking about your corporate database is do you have the right names?  If you don't, where do you get the names?  If you do, do you have the most up to date contact information?  If you have to purchase names, or even if you are up to date, do you have enough names in your list to provide you with the conversion for the campaign that you are doing?

Buying Lists

There are many sources for lists.  There are list brokers, who represent those selling lists; there are aggregators, those who buy lists, mash them together and re-sell; and then there are direct sources of lists.  Beyond that there are associations who sell lists; your partners are sources of lists as are you competitors.  Then there is the distinction between buying and renting lists.  Many lists are rented - meaning that you do not have direct access to the list.  A third party is engaged to mail or email your materials to the list - whatever responses you receive from your mailing are names you may keep, but the rest you don't ever see.  Many lists are purchased.  Some lists may be purchased for a one time use; others can be purchased for an annual use or indefinitely.  Make sure you buy/rent the type of list you need for your mailings and make sure you understand the rules.

Just because you purchase a list doesn't mean that it is a better source of names than the names you currently have in your database.  Lists age quickly.  You may need to validate the list by mailing to it, or calling it to ensure the list is viable.  Another tip, some lists only have postal addresses, and not phone or email addresses.  So if you need phone numbers and or email addresses, make sure you ask for them, and make sure you can use them.

How Many Names Do You Need?

Well that depends.  It depends on what you want to accomplish.  If you are only looking for 10 leads for your salespeople, then maybe a list of 1000 or fewer will work.  A good rule of thumb is 1% response rate.  If you think that you will only get a 1% response rate from your mailing, then you would gross up the number of names on your list to ensure you are getting the amount of leads you want.  Average response rates for direct marketing activities are between 1 - 3%.  Certainly many campaigns do better, and many do worse.


This is not about washing your hands, but about cleaning your lists.  The question is, how often should you do it and what are the methods for cleaning.  There are several schools of thought about data hygiene.  One is, constantly clean your list - kind of like painting the Golden Gate Bridge.  Once you get to the other side, turn around and paint it again.  You can make a business decision to clean half your list one year, and the next half another year.  You can clean the entire list once every two years or longer.  Some part of the answer is, how often are you using your list, and do you have mechanisms built in that help you clean. 

Examples of tools that help you clean -- mailing to the list and removing the returns, updating addresses, etc. as soon as they come back to you.  Send a postcard to your list asking people to update their contact information.  Use your website to offer a whitepaper, a t-shirt or some other premium for entering their contact information.

Once the information comes in, the work begins.  You need to check for duplicates.  You need to create some rules about what a duplicate is - duplicates are harder than they seem.  Then you need to append the data records.  Perhaps you had someone's name and address, but now you get their email - you need to add that information.  Then of course, you need to add the new names.

Deleting names can be a difficult process.  You need to delete or suppress names of people who have asked you take them off your list.  You want to delete or suppress duplicates so you are not mailing to names twice.  You may want to suppress names that have been on your list for more than two years until you have the time to validate them.


Maintenance and hygiene are related, but also a little different.  Part of maintenance is knowing how big you want your list to be.  If you have spent time de-duplicating and deleting 'do not mails,' you may have reduced your list significantly.  Now you have to undergo the process of finding names, and entering them into your database.  See above, getting names, and how many you need.  A defined maintenance interval and a definition of what your list should be and needs to be will help with maintenance.


As marketers we know there are rules and laws that we have to comply with regarding direct marketing, but sometimes we forget.  We absolutely will remove someone's name if they ask us to remove them, but there is more to this than simply removing or suppressing someone's name.  Things to think about - if someone asks you to not call them, do you remove them from your mail database?  If someone asks you not to mail to them do you remove them from your email list?  The rules are not entirely clear, and it requires you to make a judgment call based on your business and your customers.  If you don't know the rules, check out the Direct Marketing Association's website, they can help.

The End Game

Databases are strategic competitive advantages of your company.  They often don't get the TLC they require.  If you treat your database as a strategic asset you might get a huge return on your investment.  Be prepared, it's expensive, it's tedious and very time consuming - but in the end, it will be worth the effort.


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