The Pain and Pleasure of Merge/Purge

Consider this scenario: Company A sells hair and skin care products online. It wants to launch an email campaign to tout its line of hair care products to people who have signed up for additional information but have not yet made a purchase. The company also wants to expand its universe of potential customers by renting several lists that target individuals who have made online purchases of hair and skin care products in the last year.

Realizing — intelligently — that the chances for duplicates among the lists are very high, the company asks the various list owners for permission to merge the lists and purge those duplicates to avoid angering recipients. Some recipients have just purchased products and may be angered by missing the chance to take advantage of the discount included in the email offer; other people may appear on two or more of the lists and would therefore receive the offer multiple times.

Company A also would like to identify those individuals who appear on multiple lists so it can do a special separating mailing targeting them as highly motivated buyers.

The response from the list rental companies to this seemingly logical request: a resounding no. (A response that’s truly illogical, if you ask me.)

You see, in the eyes of the list owners, granting such a request is tantamount to giving away their revenue source, because they’d have to give up control of their lists. The practice also raises concerns over violating the very privacy policies the individuals on those lists understood to be in place at the time they opted in (assuming that the lists in question are opt-in lists).

Yet, Company A wants to avoid the dreaded “spam” label — which would undoubtedly be the result of sending duplicate messages to those individuals who appear on multiple lists (not to mention the alienation of what could be very, very motivated buyers based on past purchasing patterns). The company wants to maximize the results of its email campaign by targeting messages based on purchasing behaviors and save some money (though admittedly not a lot) by not emailing to current customers and duplicate addresses.

By the way, this kind of merge/purge process has been standard operating procedure in the postal world virtually since its inception. Talk about being caught in a difficult situation!

So, what’s the solution? How can we, as an industry, overcome the conflicts of interest that stand in the way of maximizing the effectiveness of email as a marketing tool? Can we also help make email list rental a profitable business? After all, when it comes right down to it, aren’t we all on the same team, just playing different positions?

A couple of solutions are floating around out there, and they are growing in popularity and acceptance (albeit slowly).

One technique, although not very popular with list owners, is for marketing companies to negotiate with different list owners to create a proprietary database consisting of the combined lists. The database is deduped and the email campaign is distributed to the cleaner combined list. There is precedent for this concept, in the form of the Abacus database of cooperative buyer information. And although it may work in the postal world, I’m not positive it will work in this one.

Another, more effective approach utilizes special software that assigns unique identifiers to list records, which can then be submitted for merging and purging without giving up the actual email addresses. The client can then merge the various lists; perform whatever sorting, deduplicating, or purging is necessary; and return the processed lists back to the list owners, who then match up the identifiers to the actual email addresses and send out the email campaign.

It’s more popular because the list owner maintains control and the list renter gets unduplicated mailings. Plus, if someone has a database of undeliverable email addresses, this can be added to the mix. (By the way, in the postal world, a bonded list manager would simply provide this rudimentary service as a matter of course.)

Regardless of the approach taken, the important thing to understand is that by finding solutions to the merge/purge dilemma, we create one of those infamous “win-win” situations that we hear about so often yet rarely ever see.

For marketers the benefits, which come from the cleaner lists, include:

  • Reduced marketing costs associated with cleaner lists
  • Brand preservation
  • Enhanced customer retention
  • Increased customer acquisition

For list owners, the benefits include:

  • Reduced opt-out rates
  • Fewer customer complaints
  • Increased rentals and/or sales
  • Higher satisfaction rates

In short, it’s time to grow up and learn to play nicely with each other. If we pull together as an industry and pay attention to the needs of both list owners and list renters, we can find creative solutions to keep everyone’s potential customers and prospects happy. I have a major idea to help list owners and advertisers, which I will advance in my next issue. Keep reading.

E-Mail Newsletter Publishing Fundamentals: A ClickZ Guide to E-Mail Marketing— an in-depth walk-through on how to start your own email newsletter for profit

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Author and e-business expert Alexis Gutzman undertook the complex process of starting and publishing an email newsletter and details her experience in this briefing. “Publishing Your Own Newsletter” originated as a multipart series on This briefing is a compilation of Gutzman’s essential writings about the email newsletter publishing process. Along with tips, tricks, and advice on what works best and what pitfalls to watch for, this ClickZ Guide includes product evaluations, code for capturing user information, and sound advice on user privacy concerns before implementing some of the tools discussed.

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