It’s All About The Lists – Or Is It?

Remember this: It’s all about the lists.

At least that’s what I was told (in my former life) as a direct mail marketer. Sure, my mentors would say, the offer is important… the creative is critical. But the success of a campaign truly boils down to the lists.

That may or may not be true in the offline world, but it certainly ain’t true in the world of email. If it were, we’d all be in a heap o’ trouble.

Most acquisition email lists currently on the market do not have the fine-tuned targeting ability, let alone the customer “buy in” of conventional mailing lists. Yet.

That’s not to say they don’t work. We all know they DO (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this column right now). The statistics ring out loud and clear: Marketers are achieving 5 to 15 percent response rates with email.

In my humble opinion, however, the majority of today’s outside email lists are best for essentially one thing (and they can be very, VERY good at this) – to develop a house file for continuous internal marketing efforts.

Why? Because members of these lists are not necessarily hard-core buyers or paid subscribers, the likes of which you’d find on traditional direct mail lists. They are people with an interest in one or several categories that have checked off “Yes, I’d like to receive promotions and announcements on…”

They’ve bought into the idea of receiving email advertisements; they have NOT bought into the idea of actually making purchases from them. There’s a difference.

In the offline world, a marketer of a cooking magazine, for example, can send subscription offers to the mailing list of a competing magazine. That list is made up of people who have more than just a fleeting interest – after all, they’ve already paid up once. Chances are good that a profitable percentage of them will do it again.

Not so with promotional email lists. My advice: Use them first and foremost to generate leads to convert to future customers. But choose them wisely. If you’re not quite sure HOW, here’s another suggestion: Use a broker.

If you are, like me, a child of direct mail, you probably already have one or more list brokers that you deal with. They can be wonderful resources – knowledgeable… always on the lookout for the best, most qualified lists for your offer. Your offline broker is, most likely, delving into email. If he’s worth his salt, he’s already a pro.

The most valuable brokers WILL help you find the best opportunities… those potential jewels in hiding. For instance, you may not have heard of but a good broker may have. Catalog-Mart members have opted-in to receive catalogs – and promotions – within selected areas of interest. For B2B or B2C offers, the 500+ lists that Catalog-Mart offers run the gamut from “dental sales” to “drycleaning supplies” to “custom wrought iron furniture.”

The problem with lists such as these is the size: 500+ lists across 200,000 names doesn’t yield many email addresses per category. It’s times like this that a broker can help you develop tests or category combinations to come up with a statistically significant quantity for you to broadcast.

Let’s look at a (very hypothetical) scenario. Say you’ve got an Irish-oriented site and catalog. You may want to test a list such as Catalog-Mart’s “Irish Gifts and Crafts,” but find there’s not enough email addresses to pull in a readable response. Your broker may suggest combining this list with “Irish Fisherman Sweaters” and “Waterford and Irish Crystal.” He may also suggest taking a recency “hotline,” meaning that subscribers have just signed on in the last month… three months… etc. Hotline names tend to be stronger responders if the offer is relevant.

Barring all of that, of course, you can always go directly to the list managers themselves. If you don’t want to do much homework, go for the biggies first. Netcreations (a.k.a. Postmaster Direct) is the granddaddy of opt-in email list providers whose members have expressed interest in categories ranging from “music lovers” to “gardening” to “office supplies.” YesMail is another of the big players with several million on its file across a wide range of various categories. ConsumerNet (now 24/7 Mail) can offer additional enhancements to its lists including age, estimated household income and education.

There’s also incentive-based email list sources such as MyPoints. Subscriber members sign up by sharing a slew of demographic and psychographic information across a variety of selects. They then receive offers based on that information and earn credits in exchange for receiving, reading and responding. Does that make them better customers? The jury’s still out on that one; nonetheless, keep in mind that your goal is not necessarily to sell via email but to build your own house list.

Bottom line: Test, test, test. Test offers and creative – yes. (Heck, test a PAID offer if you must.) But don’t forget those lists. You may just find a hidden gem somewhere.

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