Mailing Lists & Marketing: Top Tips & How To Guides

How to buy a mailing list for direct mail, telemarketing & email campaigns

With around 200 companies offering mailing lists in the UK, choosing what's best for your campaign can seem daunting. This guide aims to help you through the maze, explaining terms used and offering advice to ensure that you don't get ripped off by one of the industry's infamous cowboys.

Firstly, are you targeting businesses (people at work) or consumers (people in their homes)? The mailing list market splits between these two sectors as there are different laws for each type of list. Usually only list brokers will offer both types of mailing list.

This guide focuses on business mailing lists and b2b marketing ie marketing campaigns to businesses.

Focus on who you'd like to target

Most list suppliers offer 'selections', which means ways you can break down vast databases into small useable chunks that fit your business. Selections are usually geographical (postcode, county or town), job title (eg managing director, marketing manager, IT manager), company size (by annual sales or by number of employees) or by industry sector (eg food & drink, retailing, business services, insurance).

When to select mailing lists by geography

Obviously use this selection if your clients have to be local to you or if you are planning to invite people to an event (no use inviting finance directors in Edinburgh to a breakfast seminar in Manchester).

If you have a vast target market eg stationery or printing, then break down your target market geographically. Start with companies local to you and work your way outwards. If you sell something that requires a presentation during the purchasing process, buy a mailing list of companies based in the same area or along the same motorway eg companies along the Thames Valley corridor, so that you don't waste time zig-zagging around the country. 

See Electric Marketing's map of UK postcodes

When to select mailing lists by industry

Use this option to tailor your marketing messages to specific sectors. Writing to financial services companies? Mention issues particular to them. Show your prospects that you understand their sector by referring to the specific problems they face (which you can help them solve) in your letter.

Some mailing list companies use SIC (standard industry classification) codes. This is a system of numbers categorising industry sectors and is run by the Office for National Statistics. Electric Marketing made an early decision on the basis of clarity to describe industry sectors in words rather than numbers:
See the business sectors covered by our lists

When to select mailing lists by job title

In our opinion this is a key selection and one that is often overlooked by the inexperienced direct marketer. A common mistake is to write to the managing director and assume that he will pass your information down to the relevant person in the company. While this is a reasonable view when targeting companies of say, under 40 people, for larger firms (and it is larger firms who have the largest budgets) you need a more sophisticated approach. You need to think about which department in a company will buy your service and write directly to them. If you are not sure who buys in your product, look at the job titles of your current clients. And if your typical buyers span two departments you may need to send two mailshots eg accounting software can be bought by the finance director or the IT director, so mail both of them.

The most senior decision maker for a function does not always have a 'director' job title. For example, many firms don't have an IT professional sitting on the board; they have an IT manager who reports in to the finance director. You can ask a mailing list company to select IT directors and where there is no IT director, then an IT manager contact.

A word of warning on job titles; some mailing list providers offer 'the name of the person responsible for' marketing or whatever function. This is not always a manager with a budget and in a small company might be the director's PA or an office manager. If you want a list of marketing managers, be sure to check that their job titles are just that.

On the other hand many companies do not have the job title you are looking for. Fleet managers, travel managers, diversity managers, sustainability managers, IT security - these are all functions that may have a dedicated person or may fall into someone else's remit. Again, ask the mailing list provider to select, say diversity managers and where there are none, select HR director.

When to select mailing lists by company size

Company size can mean by annual sales (turnover) or by number of employees. Choose one, whichever is more relevant to your product. Selling anything that impacts on employees, eg HR, training or health & safety services, use the size by employees numbers. For marketing or financial services, annual sales figures are more relevant.

Sometimes this selection is overused to guard against targeting microbusinesses (companies with fewer than 10 employees or under £1.5m turnover - Electric Marketing does not supply data on these companies). If you have used the job title selection to choose say HR managers, you can be pretty sure that an HR manager won't be employed in a company with under 20 employees, the work will be covered by line managers or a general administrator (often the MD's PA). But if you are targeting managing directors, then use by by company size. Every company has an MD, but there aren't too many campaigns that can justify targeting all of them.

Some companies do not publish their UK annual sales figures, they bundle them into a Europe-wide or worldwide figure. So by selecting by annual turnover, you might miss out on some worldwide brands, because if an accurate UK figure is not available, our database will show the turnover as 0.

Also if you are looking to target companies by employee size and industry sector remember that the companies employing thousands of staff are in retailing, catering, financial services and other service sectors. Manufacturers have outsourced to the Far East and have kept just the head office staff in the UK. If you need organisations with a lot of people, try the public sector. It is an oft quoted fact that the NHS is Europe's biggest employer; government departments and local councils employ thousands of staff too.

Some key facts to remember when buying a mailing list

Two-thirds of UK companies are based in London and the South East.

The public sector is the UK's largest employer; government departments, local councils, police forces, colleges and of course the NHS.

There are 5.2 million companies in the UK and 75% of them have zero employees. A small business is defined as having up to 49 employees, a medium business 50-249 employees. In 2013, it was calculated that there are just 7,000 large UK companies ie companies employing more than 250 people in the UK.

Worldwide companies may have a huge brand presence in the UK, but if their European head office is in Paris (Apple), Brussels (VF - Lee & Wrangler jeans) or Dublin (Dell, Ryanair), they may have only a small sales and marketing team in the UK. Decisions on HR, legal, IT and finance services are taken overseas. All marketers should understand why British governments spend huge amounts attracting companies to base their European head offices in UK.

What we are trying to get across with these facts is that your dream list may not exist. We were once asked to supply a list of 1,000 marketing directors in Weybridge. There are only a handful of companies based in Weybridge large enough to employ a marketing director and our client went away disappointed. If you ask a mailing list company for something unattainable, some of them will be tempted to sell you data that doesn't suit your needs but sort of fits what you asked for.

Use data while it is fresh

Only buy data that you can use within the next couple of weeks. Good data providers can supply a mailing list within hours by email so there is no need to buy in data weeks in advance. You can get the quotes in from suppliers, test a sample and select the mailing list, but don't buy mailing data until you are ready to use it. And be realistic about how much data you can use. If you buy a list of 3,000 marketing managers intending to telephone all of them, make sure you have the staff on hand to make the phonecalls.

Data Decay

Business data decays on average by 30% a year, which means that after six months, 15% of the records on your mailing list will be wrong, which might mean that 15% of your print and postage budget will be wasted on mailing people who have left the company and companies which have relocated. In tests, Electric Marketing data, with its focus on large, dynamic companies, was found to decay by 50% a year. See Electric Marketing's blog post on why our data goes out of date more quickly than the industry average

Buying a Mailing List

So now that you know what you want, who should you approach to buy the list? There are three types of companies selling business lists:

Mailing List owners - companies, like Electric Marketing, whose business is compiling mailing lists and selling the information. They employ research teams to telephone companies, conduct desk research and compile company information. These firms often specialise, for instance we focus on names of directors and senior managers in medium-to-large sized companies with a turnover of over £15m. If you deal direct with the list owner you can often get a better price than with a list broker.

Mailing List managers - these companies manage mailing lists on behalf of list owners. Their list owners are usually companies whose main business is something else, such as magazine publishing or mail order, and whose lists are a by-product of that main business. So a list manager can sell you the subscriber list of a trade magazine or a mailing list of people who have bought health and safety products by mail order or a list of visitors to a trade exhibition.

Mailing List brokers - these companies will search the list market on your behalf to find you the best list that suits your needs, potentially saving you time. The best among them will approach list owners and list managers, give them your brief, collect in the quotes for you and get you the best deal they can. They do not charge for this service, they negotiate discounts from the list owners (usually 20-30%) and charge you the full price. Occasionally they can be persuaded to share their discount with you.

Avoiding the Mailing List Cowboys

The mailing list business has a reputation akin to mini-cab firms, plumbers and builders. There are lots of firms in the marketplace but everyone knows someone who has had a bad experience.

To guard against being ripped off by a dodgy mailing list firm, ask key questions:

Ask to see a sample of the data

Electric Marketing will email or fax you a sample of 10-20 contacts from your selected list along with a price and an order form. If a list supplier gives you a verbal quote over the phone and asks you for your credit card, you must be firm and ask for the price, a sample of the data and the terms of the rental. You can then phone a few of the contacts on the sample and check the accuracy of the list.

Is the company a member of the DMA (Direct Marketing Association)?

DMA members comply with the law and sign up to a best practice agreement as a condition of their membership. If you are not happy with a DMA member, you can complain to the DMA.

Hidden Costs - get a total price before you order

The base cost might be 10p per name, but that might not include phone numbers, email addresses, selections and sometimes even named contacts are 'added extras'. If you want company data such as employee numbers, that could be extra too. Delivery, even by email and charged per file sent, can be another add on. For clarity Electric Marketing offers a price of 20p per contact for postal address with phone number, 25p for email address with phone number, 35p if you want both email and postal addresses. Free delivery, free quotes, free website addresses, free annual turnover and employee numbers (where available) and free selections.

Single Use or Multi-Use

This will affect the price. Buy single use and you won't be able to re-mail the mailing list or do telephone follow-ups. Pay extra for multi-use and there is usually a time limit of 6 months or one year. All Electric Marketing mailing lists are offered for multiple use for 12 months.

Guarantees on gone-aways

Gone-aways are the envelopes that are returned to you with those bright red Royal Mail stickers on saying 'undeliverable'. Most lists will have some gone-aways; the level depends on how frequently the list is updated. A figure often quoted as good deliverability is 95% - Electric Marketing aims for 99%. Make sure that a refund is offered on all legitimate gone-aways rather than more data. The mailing list owner might not have any more data relevant to your campaign and if the mailing list is really out-of-date you are likely to be throwing good money after bad by mailing more poor quality data. We don't know of any company that is offering quality guarantees on email addresses as deliverability relies so heavily on spam-filters, white listed servers and email content.

How often is the list updated?

This is a key question and one all list companies are ready for. Watch out for the weasel words 'every day'. This can mean that a couple of hundred changes are made to the mailing list database of two million contacts every day, which is not enough to maintain two million records. Or it can mean that the database is updated every day as part of an ongoing maintenance cycle. You need to dig a little deeper and ask how often the entire database is updated and what the method is. Some companies telephone the database every four months, six months, twelve months. Others write to every contact once year (usual for magazine subscriber lists) and others just use the returned gone-away envelopes, the Royal Mail's suppression file for companies that have moved offices (generally a few months out of date) and Companies House file of companies that have been disbanded.

The Myth of TPS/MPS/FPS

Some list companies will trumpet that their lists are cleaned against these three files. Let's be clear, Telephone Preference Service does not apply to business lists, unless you are targeting sole traders and partnerships. Mailing Preference Service does not apply to business lists. Fax Preference Service is only relevant if you are buying fax numbers and we think the fax-shot is something of a dying art.

CTPS - Corporate Telephone Preference Service

This is the only suppression file that business mailing lists are required to be cleaned against. And even then, if a company is registered with the CTPS, it means that you cannot telephone them with a sales proposition. You can mail them and email them. You can telephone them for research purposes only. If you are buying a mailing list for telemarketing, insist that you do not buy any numbers that are registered with the CTPS as you will not be able to use them.

Top ^