No matter what type of direct mail pieces you'd like to send out, you'll need a mailing list of people to send them to. The basic way to build a mailing list is by capturing name and address information for everyone who buys or shows interest in your product. If you sell by mail, you'll already have this information. If not, you can get it off customers' checks. Or you can hold a drawing and ask customers to fill out an entry card or drop their business cards in a bowl. Or simply put a mailing list book next to your cash registers where customers can sign up to receive mailers and advance notices of sales. You can also gather names by placing a classified or display ad in print, then compiling the names of people who respond to your ad. Online, you can ask people to subscribe to your monthly e-newsletter or to supply contact information before they download your free e-book. However you choose to do it, it's not hard to compile a list of people interested in your products or services.
The list you develop using your own customers' names is called your "house list." It's important to keep an ongoing list of your current and past customers. But when you're starting out and your house list is skimpy or if you're trying to expand your business, you may want to consider renting a mailing list, either by approaching the company you want to rent from directly or using a list broker.
Any company that mails merchandise or information to its customers--catalog companies, magazine publishers, manufacturers, etc.--usually has a list manager who handles inquiries and orders for the mailing list. If, for example, you know that subscribers to Modern Photography magazine are likely to be good prospects for your product, then you can rent the subscriber list directly. Another good source is local newsletters or group membership lists. Many organizations will let you use their member lists; these can be very cost-effective.
If you're not sure whose list you want, call a mailing list broker. List brokers know all the lists available and can advise you on what type of list would work best for your business. Many can also custom-create lists based on your requirements. You can find brokers in the Yellow Pages under "Mailing Lists" and "Mailing Services," and in the classified sections of mail order trade magazines. Another source is the bimonthly directory Standard Rate and Data Service Direct Marketing List Source, available in most libraries.
Some list companies let you sample a list before making a purchase. Rental costs typically range from $50 to $80 per thousand names. This is for a one-time use only. (List owners typically "seed" their lists with their own names and addresses so they can tell if you use the list more than once.) Lists will typically be shipped on CDs so you can easily use them with your computer; others send pre-printed names on mailing labels.
Most experts agree that renting fewer than 5,000 names isn't worthwhile, primarily because a large mailing doesn't cost much more per piece than a small mailing, and the returns are higher. So start with about 5,000 names for your first mailing, and consider it a test.
If your response is less than 1 or 2 percent, something's wrong. Either the market isn't right for your product, your mailer isn't attention-grabbing enough, or your prices are too high. If you get a response of 2 percent or higher, you're on the right track.
Once you develop a complete mailer, continue to test your enclosures by adding or eliminating one important element at a time and keeping track of any upward or downward changes in response.