Direct marketers have never had it so good. There has never been such an abundance of customer data available to help them plan their campaigns. Not only are there more lists than ever before, but there is also a wealth of information about the names on those lists that enables direct marketers to target their prospects with increasing, if not unerring, accuracy.
But can too much choice be a bad thing? In the days when the number of decent lists barely reached double figures, it was relatively easy to find the one that was right for you. Today, with literally thousands to choose from, DM practitioners face an uphill struggle to keep on top of the list market. "I sympathise with direct marketers, because there are probably 2,500 B2B lists and 2,000 B2C, yet probably only 500 B2C lists are used regularly, which shows just how much rubbish there is out there," says Mike Gray, managing director of Conduit.
Marketers, of course, are not alone in their quest to find the best-quality lists. It's in the interests of list owners and managers to have a thorough understanding of their lists in order to sell them most effectively, while on the other side of the fence, list brokers try to keep abreast of the list market in its entirety, in order to offer their clients best advice and retain their business.
Martina Nertney, senior list broker at Occam, defines the role of each: "List managers are specialists. They will know their lists inside out and this is particularly useful if complex, multi selections are available. Conversely, list brokers have a more general view of all lists and market sectors. In essence, the key to a broker's success is that they invariably get to see campaign results across their clients. This means they are able to learn what works for who and when. The list manager rarely gets to see results."
It's this breadth of knowledge that gives a good broker his or her edge, says Hayley Tooke, business development director of Wyvern Direct Response. "The list broker has an important role, due to its client relations and the enormity of its buying power," she says. "The broker understands which lists are worth testing and which are not."
If the broker really does have such an important role, clearly the choice of broker is an important decision. A good broker, says Tim Green, head of data strategy at Ogilvy One Jigsaw, will not only know what lists are available, but will also be able to offer a degree of interpretation on any list you might be considering.
"A good broker should do more than simply interpret your needs in the most literal way possible and come back with a set of potentially suitable lists," says Green. "He should be really trying to get under the skin of your business in order to come up with a proper proposal."
Prospective clients, says Green, should check the broker's credentials, looking for DMA membership and relevant experience. "If you're a big brand, you need to know that the broker has experience working with other big brands and fulfilling big, complex list orders" he says. "By the same token, if you're a smaller player, you need to feel confident that the broker will take your business seriously."
More lists, more brokers
Along with the explosion in the number of lists, there has been a similar explosion in the number of list brokers dealing in them. This, argues Sue Dyer, a director of Caspian List and Data Management, is not necessarily a good thing. "There are an increasing number of list managers and list brokers emerging in our industry, but clients looking to buy into these services have to first and foremost look for experience and knowledge," she says. "This is irreplaceable and I'd question the ability of some of the newer players to deliver results."
List brokers are setting up in business because they think there is easy money to be made, says Dyer, when in fact, this is not the case. "List broking is not a high margin business," she says. "It's a complex business, and to do it well, brokers need a breadth and depth of experience that can't be gained overnight."
Ultimately, of course, whether you deal direct with list owners and managers, or use a broker, all you want is a good quality list or lists on which to base your DM activity. And whatever insights the list manager or broker can offer in this respect, there's a lot you can do yourself simply by asking the right questions.
You should ask how the names and any attributes on the list have been obtained, says Lynn Stevens, managing director of Lloyd James Group. "Have they been directly researched from people on the list, have they been compiled from other data sources, or have they been modelled from a sample of real questionnaire returns? This is important as some lists 'fill the gaps' with modelled attributes."
Peter Thompson, sales director at Experian Marketing Services, adds: "If you can't get clear answers on the data source, be wary of using it."
You should also ask how frequently the list is updated. Around one third of a typical list will decay over a 12-month period, so if the list manager can't show evidence of the list being updated at least annually, be prepared for a lot of unmailable names.
Similarly, you should ask which suppression files the list has been cleaned against, and how frequently the cleaning takes place. Are there any restrictions on use? If a list looks too good to be true, it may be because it's owned by one of your competitors who, not surprisingly, may not be prepared to rent it to a competing brand.
It's also important to check how many names you will have to pay for. If you are using multiple list sources, can you get a net names deal which ensures that you only pay for each name on each list once, rather than paying for the same name several times, because it appears on multiple lists. De-duping the lists will remove the duplicate names, but you still don't want to have to pay for the duplicates if you can help it.
Another question is how responsive is the list? Can the manager or broker supply any statistics that will show evidence of high response rates in previous campaigns? Also, how selectable is it? Increasingly in DM, it's quality not quantity that counts. The more you can profile the list and home in on those consumers or businesses who most closely match the profile of your target customer, the more responsive your campaigns will be.
Finally, for business lists, you should look for membership of the DMA's Business List Audit scheme, which provides independent endorsement of the quality of the list.
Of course, even if you get satisfactory answers to all these questions, the only way to really put the list to the test is to, well, put the list to the test. You should test a number of lists in order to establish which one(s) will work best for you. Take a random selection of names from the list and conduct a test campaign to see how it performs. The results should tell you which lists to invest in, and which to avoid.
"We encourage clients to test our data," says Leanne Douglas, group product manager at EuroDirect.
"We help them to select the data that is most appropriate to them, profile and analyse their data and pick out the attributes that best match their current customers. Not testing is the biggest mistake you can make."
For many companies, an email address is now considered as valuable as a postal address, and over the past few years, a great deal of time and effort has gone into creating lists of opted-in email addresses. Karen Crimmins, sales director at IPT Direct, which compiles lists of opted-in email addresses for prospecting campaigns, says there are similar questions which clients should ask of email list providers.
"You need to know when the data was collected and how it was collected," she says. "Does it comply with the opt-in requirement of the Privacy in Electronic Communications Directive? Also, how often and how recently has it been used? If the list has not been used for a few months, you will get a high hard bounce rate (when the email is undeliverable)."
Above all, says Crimmins, clients should look for a supplier who is prepared to negotiate. "Our starting point is to understand what the client's cost per registration is, then we can work back from that to create a realistic package, rather than simply quoting a price that makes the whole thing not viable" she says.
Whether you're dealing with email or postal addresses, getting the right addresses for your campaign has never been more important. There's certainly no shortage of supply. The challenge for everyone in the list industry is to ensure that DM data becomes synonymous with quality as much as quantity.
OLLY JANUS, PLANNING DIRECTOR, EHS BRANN DISCOVERY
The idea that the role of the broker is over is nonsensical - brokers play an essential role and have such a wealth of knowledge that their experience is hard to replicate. There's no way I could fulfil data planning as well as keeping abreast of every B2B and consumer list.
STUART HOPWOOD, MANAGING PARTNER, DATALYTICS
List owners, managers and brokers all need to ensure that the quality of data is as accurate as possible. We have bought in lists from lifestyle companies and other data owners on behalf of clients, and then spent additional time cleaning them.
LINDSAY JOHNSON, MANAGING DIRECTOR, AVONGATE
Use a list manager or broker who has expertise in multi-channel marketing and who can provide mail, email and SMS lists. It might not always be a postal list that is correct for the campaign. They can advise on the best media route to take.
JEREMY SAUL, LIST AND SALES MANAGER, HOLISTIC LIST MANAGEMENT
List managers and brokers need to be proactive in providing bespoke strategic insight and intelligence on data and lists to prospective buyers, and tailoring the data to the requirements of the buyer.
1. Use a broker - their raison d'etre is to make sense of the list market and it costs no more to buy through a broker than it does to go direct to the list owner. When choosing a broker, ask about their client list and whether they have experience of working with companies of a similar size, or requirements, to your own.
2. Always ask about the source of a list. This will give you a greater understanding of how responsive they are likely to be to your campaign. Have the names been directly researched, compiled from other data sources or modelled form a sample of real questionnaire returns?
3. If you're using multiple list sources, negotiate a net names deal so you only pay for the names you are left with after de-duping, even if the same name appears on multiple lists. Even better, talk to you broker about negotiating over-supply or volume discount which can be much less cumbersome.
4. Find out how old the list is and whether it works for your sector. Brokers and managers should be transparent about this, although don't expect them to quote response rates achieved by other clients - that remains confidential between broker and client.
5. Test. It's madness to embark on a full-blown DM campaign with a new list. Test a random selection of lists to see how they perform in the real world.
6. Check which suppression files the list has been cleaned against, how often it is cleaned and updated and how recently this has been done. Be wary of any list that has not been updated in the last 12 months.
7. If you are buying email data, make sure it is opted in. Ask to see a hard copy of the questionnaire, if one exists, or a screen-grab of the online data capture form.
8. Ask email list owners for advice on how to test the list by varying the day or time of day the email is sent, the subject line, the offer, or the creative treatment.
9. Look for selectability on a list to enable you to target prospective customers more accurately.
10. Check whether there are any conditions and restrictions on use, such as only non-competitive products with those of the list owner.
Source: Lynn Stevens, managing director, Lloyd James Group
CASE STUDY: SUPERBRANDS GROUP
You can't call yourself a 'superbrand' unless you've been voted so by the Superbrands Group. Superbrands is the London-based organisation (complete with a top secret judging panel) that recognises the world's biggest brands and produces an annual book and conference circuit around it. Lucky organisations include Rolls Royce, Yellow Pages, Sellotape, BT, Virgin and Eurostar.
But while receiving 'superbrand' status is a sought-after accolade for any self respecting company, every six months its army of organisers still need to identify the all-important brand managers in 600 consumer-facing and 600 B2B brands to mail and persuade them to enter their company into that year's judging process.
And with the personnel in these target companies sometimes changing every few months, reaching the right individuals or groups in each of these organisations means sourcing the very best and most up-to-date lists around.
Superbrands' partner for this work is business lists and business data specialist Corpdata, which builds a brand new database each time. It is given the names of companies Superbrands wants to target and is tasked with sourcing the lists that provide them with the most recent contacts for it.
Its base-list is Blue Sheep's Business Tracker File. Names that aren't on that or can't be cross-referenced are then searched for on other niche business lists, and then if none of these complete the picture, Corpdata's own in-house call centre finishes the list building exercise by telephoning the company direct and finding out who the decision makers are and what addresses they are at.
"Simple mistakes cost," says Stephen Cheliotis, brand liaison officer at Superbrands. "No matter how good the proposal is, if we have the wrong job title, wrong site address or have sent the same person two copies of the same invite, all our good work will be undone."
The result of such diligence is phenomenal open and response rates, says Corpdata's communications manager Ben Thompson: "Big brands are notoriously difficult to get the correctly named contacts," he says. "But when they receive their Superbrands pack, they love it and respond to it in droves."