What to Think About Before Buying a Direct Mail List


If you're thinking about buying a direct mail list there are a few things you need to know first.

The very first one, and indeed the most important, is you must consider is how you will get this list that best represents your target audience. While you'll likely struggle a lot with the right people to target piece, you may just buy the list from whatever website you know. You may also just buy whatever marketing materials the list company sells you.

At Scout, we have no axe to grind about consumer direct mail marketing lists, we don't sell them on their own. We just know them. I put together this post so you can benefit from our knowledge and cut through the marketing jargon to pick out the best stuff to buy and to understand what you're buying.

This post will focus on consumer/occupant lists only, we'll tackle business lists later.

No Direct Mail List is perfect

The single most important thing to know about buying a list is that not all addresses will be deliverable. Here are some basic facts about deliverability:

  1. Occupant Average Deliverability: 95-97%
  2. Consumer Average Deliverability: 94%

Both data sets are updated monthly and people move, addresses change, etc. Prepare to throw away 5% of all the cards you send. It's just the reality of direct mail. Just keep this in mind as you think about which data set to buy and when some postcards bounce back.

Types of Consumer Direct Mail Lists

Sendwithscout graphic of three types of direct mail lists.

There are three types of consumer direct mail lists. There are Occupant, Consumer, and Business Lists. In this post, we'll talk about just the first two types, Occupant and Consumer direct mail lists.

Generally there are three categories of addresses in the United States when it comes to direct mail list. First, there is the universe of all addresses in the United States. No one has 100% of these addresses. Wait, what? You mean, not even USPS? Yes, I mean not even USPS. Let's first look at how big USPS is by the numbers.

  • 154.2 billion —delivered mail yearly
  • 47% of the world’s mail is delivered by USPS
  • 500k+, 31k+, 214k+ — employees, retail locations, vehicles

But that's really not even the impressive part. They process 37 million address changes each year and have to manage 155 million delivery points. Dang. So, it's pretty understandable that they are always 3-5% off. Consider these dark red homes (1 below), off the grid.

Occupant Data Direct Mailing List

Aerial shot of San Fransisco

Let's start with occupant data, which is about 5% fewer than all addresses in the US. This data is all pulled from the USPS master list, so most places that you buy it you should expect to get relatively the same results. Data is offered in a per-carrier route basis.

Let's say I live in 91010. Well there are 13 different routes within that zip code that contain 400-700 people each. Occupant data is based on these routes and allows you to target people at the route level (read: averages, not lists specific people). On top of data at the route level, our friends at the Census have added in useful information for these chunks of 500ish people in each route: Summary Info for 91010-C012 (796 residential homes):

  1. Age Ranges (e.g. 44% of homes have people between age 19-54 in route C012)
  2. Income average (e.g. the 796 people in route C012 make on average $51.29k/year)
  3. Household average size (There are 2.48 people in each home in route C012)

That's about it. You don't get their names or phone numbers, you don't know if they have pets or like to travel, you just get a home and some general demographics. When to use occupant direct mailing lists:

  1. If your customers are primarily constrained by location, not by interest.
  2. When don't have any great data sources to show to each individual person.
  3. To save some money (although, make sure #1 is also true).

Consumer Data Direct Mailing List

Picture of a photographer taking a picture on the street in Manhatten.

Consumer lists are a lot more targeted, but you lose 25% of possible addresses in an area right off the bat. So that's 75% of all possible addresses in an area. The flip side is that you can do crazy targeting. This guy for example, I can find him by looking for:

  1. Men
  2. From 35-38?
  3. Interested in photography and travel
  4. Reside in Manhattan
  5. Live dangerously and stand in the middle of traffic taking photos

Ok #5 is tongue and cheek, but you get the idea. You can actually do all the other types of queries on data. The best way to run queries on consumer data. Excelsior vs. Acxiom for Consumer Direct Mail Lists: There are two different main providers of lists, Excelsior and Acxiom. While Axciom has the best data onaverage, here are some differences between them. Excelsior has better:

  1. Age data (based on 100% birth information)
  2. Income data (narrow ranges, up to $2M/year)
  3. Cleaned more frequently (means small bounce rate)

Acxiom has better:

  1. Data points (over 700 different targeting criteria like ethnicity, technology, credit, pet owners, etc)
  2. Look-Alike reports (want to find customers similar to the ones you already have, they can help!).
  3. Email address appends (sometimes they can do this)

When to use consumer direct mailing lists:

  1. Know the demographics of your target prospects.
  2. When the density of people in a geographic area isn't as important.
  3. You have great data to show to each person (e.g. adding in their first name, showing data about their house, etc).

How to choose

At Scout, we almost always go with consumer lists, because while consumers lists don't contain the whole pie, we are able to ensure that far fewer postcards are wasted on an unqualified customer. We consistently add customization into every card including someones, name, pictures of their home from space, calculated values, pins of neighbors nearby that use the service we're marketing, etc. We could do some of this with occupant data, but it still means that we wouldn't be sending postcards to fully qualified sales leads.

That's all for now, happy postcarding!

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