Hit List

We answer your questions regarding no-fail direct mail
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the November 1999 issue of . Subscribe »

Direct marketing is the workhorse of small businesses everywhere. So chances are, your own marketing plan will include sending some form of direct mail to prospects. But how much do you really know about the technical side of buying direct-mail lists? A well-qualified list is critical to the success of your campaign and can contribute several percentage points toward a positive response.

To make sure your next direct-marketing effort gets maximum results, here are answers to four of the questions most frequently asked about lists.

1. What kinds of lists are available?

  • Many publications rent out their lists. Publications with paid subscriber lists generally offer only names and addresses, while lists provided by controlled-circulation sources (typically nonpaid subscriber bases) put their readers through an extensive qualifying process and may give you more options to choose from.
  • Compiled lists are constructed from directories, such as telephone books. These are the least preferred because they may have a large number of inaccuracies, resulting in undeliverable pieces.
  • Associations and other membership groups often rent their lists, which offers an easy way to reach people with common interests.

2. Where can I find the right lists?
The best place to start is in the reference department at a major public library, with a Standard Rate and Data Service (SRDS) directory called The Direct Marketing List Source. This hefty tool includes most lists in the United States by category, and is available by subscription ($499 per year) online at

You can also use, a free online resource with a mailing-list directory organized by subject.

If this sounds like a lot of legwork, you can hire a list broker to do the research and negotiation for you. List brokers are paid commissions by the list vendors, though they may also charge you a minimal fee. You can find the names of major list brokers in the SRDS directory.

3. How do I evaluate list costs?
There's a base cost for list rental, which is expressed in cost per thousands (CPM). That's the cost to rent 1,000 names, though you'll generally have to purchase at least 5,000 names or pay a minimum fee. To test a list, 5,000 names is considered the minimum. But if the list you want to rent totals only 1,500 names, you may be able to arrange to use it multiple times in order to satisfy the minimum.

Above and beyond the base cost for list rental, add in charges for any special qualifying criteria you require, called "selections." Typical selections for business-to-business lists include geography, industry and a company's size or sales. For consumer lists, additional selections like household income and the number of children in the household will add incrementally to the cost of using the list.

Your price will include a set of labels. If your plans include using more than one list to reach the same target audience, you should request the lists in an electronic format. Then you can have your mailing vendor perform a merge/purge to eliminate duplicate mailings, which not only annoy recipients, but also waste money.

4. How are lists sold?
Any list you buy will be accompanied by an agreement that may include the list owner's right to OK your creative material and send the list directly to a bonded mailing house instead of to you. (This prevents unauthorized copying.) Sometimes you must agree to use the list within a particular time frame, so the list owner can maintain control over how often people on the list are solicited.

When making your purchase, find out how often the list is cleaned and updated. This will help ensure the highest number of deliverables and the least amount of waste.

Once you've made your purchase agreement, lists are normally delivered within 10 business days. And here's a tip: If you plan to mail again to the same list within three months, buy a duplicate set of labels. It's less expensive than making two individual purchases.

For more information on direct marketing, visit the Direct Marketing Association.

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