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Can We Be Direct?

If you think your direct-marketing IQ is a bit below the national average, you're probably not alone.

On Target

Three questions should be in the forefront of your mind when you're creating a direct- mail piece:

1. Who are my customers? When you're working with a mailing list, you're one step ahead of many entrepreneurs because you actually know where your customers live. You can also have a reputable company "geocode" your mailing list. Geocoding adds geographic codes to each list and allows you to add other demographic, income or lifestyle data so you can better understand your customers. If you're really ambitious, you can do this yourself with geocoding software, like CACI Marketing System's coder software (http://www.caci.com), which starts at around $2,500 (street).

2. Why do they buy from me? Geocoding helps you answer the question of "why" by first revealing what and how customers buy. With specialized CACI software, you can determine such things as whether your customers read The Wall Street Journal, watch soap operas or listen to talk radio. For example, you might find a majority of your customers are classified as IB, which stands for "Wealthy Seaboard Suburbs"--consumers known to travel extensively. If the majority of the customers are 3B, "Enterprising Young Singles," you know they dine out frequently and like to spend money on furniture. Of course, it's up to you to determine whether diners or travelers are better suited for your products or services.

3. How do I find more customers like them? Where do you find new customers without overprinting and wasting a lot of postage? This is a burning, direct-mail question, but one that's easy enough to find an answer to if you geocode lifestyle data to target similar lifestyles across the country. If you know that certain segments--like diners or travelers--constitute the majority of your current customer base, be sure to append lifestyle codes to your next mailing list selection. Similarly, demographic data allows you to exclude men over age 65 on fixed incomes if you really just want to target females between ages 25 and 35 with incomes exceeding $35,000.

Julia Miller is a Los Angeles business writer specializing in sales and marketing.

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