From the October 2000 issue of Startups

Question: I finally have a great idea! However, it involves marketing to every door possible to get started. I tried that, but I was stopped for not having a solicitors' license for each city I was in-very expensive and after a waiting period of four-to-six weeks, you only get 30 days on each license. How do I obtain a mailing list by ZIP Code? I thought of advertising in local newspapers, but until I actually get the idea off the ground, I'm afraid someone with a chunk of money could come along and steal it. Can you help?

Beverly
Via e-mail

Answer: Direct mail marketing is the workhorse of business owners nationwide. By 2003, the Direct Marketing Association predicts U.S. advertisers will spend nearly $53 billion on direct mail in the United States alone. You can easily rent lists of households by ZIP Code. But before you do, consider the variety of lists available and whether these other lists offer better ways of reaching your prospects.

There are at least four types of lists:

1. Subscriber lists. Thousands of consumer and special interest publications rent their subscriber lists, often broken down by region or state.

2. Association and group lists. These are excellent resources if you want to reach a group of people with common interests, such as parents of school-age children.

3. Previous purchasers. People who have inquired about or purchased a product similar to yours by mail have an expressed interest in what you have to sell and have demonstrated a willingness to buy via direct mail.

4. Compiled lists. To reach individuals by ZIP Code, lists compiled from directories may be your most affordable option. However, they're often the least reliable, as the information may not have been verified. So look for list vendors that guarantee the accuracy of their lists.

Most list vendors require a minimum purchase of 5,000 names or a base fee, and your list cost goes up when you add special qualifying criteria, known as "selections," such as the names of homeowners who have been in residence for 10 years or more. The best way to locate the right lists for your business is to visit the reference department of a major public library, where you'll find a Standard Rate and Data Service directory called the Direct Marketing List Source. This invaluable directory includes most of the lists available in the United States divided by category. All you need to do is review the listings and contact the list vendors whose descriptions most closely match your requirements.