There's an oft-quoted maxim in the direct marketing business that says lists account for 40 percent of a mailing's success, followed by 40 percent for the offer, and 20 percent for everything else. Whether or not the ratio is accurate is hard to say—but the necessity of working with good lists is indisputable. Ordinarily, a house list—names of previous customers or prospects—is much more valuable than so-called compiled or cold lists bought from outside sources. The cost of an outside list varies depending on the criteria for choosing prospects, such as their income, age, household size, or geographic region. We asked some experts to give us their best techniques for the care and feeding of marketing lists.
Do: Set the proper expectations
Most of the people who come to your website are first-timers, and many will probably never come back—otherwise your site would have a high number of repeat visitors—so it is essential to capture visitors' names in an easy, friendly way. For example, a pop-up box prominently displayed that asks for their email address in exchange for giving them some kind of relevant information or future news.
Don't: "Not everybody starts on your homepage or ends up on your homepage. So if the only thing you're doing is putting your sign-up form on your homepage, you're missing out on some potential subscribers," says Justin Premick, director of educational products at AWeber Communications, a Pennsylvania-based developer of web tools for email marketing.
While many businesses offer discounts or other kinds of money-saving coupons as an incentive for prospects to give up their name, Premick says that providing solutions or more straight informational features on your website will also motivate them to comply.
"At the same time, people want to be entertained. If your company has a funny, quirky personality, then you should be highlighting that when you give people a chance to sign up because they want to have fun. They're not online to be bored," Premick says.
Dropping a business card in a fishbowl at a trade show, live event, or even local retailer is a perennial way to collect names, but Premick prefers a more selective approach: telling prospects in advance what they will get when they hand over their card, so that the business sets the proper expectations.
Do: Regardless of how or why prospects give their contact information, prompt follow-up is critical. "You don't want to go a week or two before emailing people after they have put their business card in the fishbowl," Premick says. "The same principal applies anytime someone joins your list. No one will ever be more interested in your company than the minute they give you their email address."
Getting permission from people to add their name to your list is a crucial but sometimes overlooked step in getting the relationship started on the right foot.
Don't: "One of the biggest mistakes I see is adding people to your list who have not been asked to be added to your list," says Karyn Greenstreet, president of Passion for Business, a coaching and consulting service for small businesses. "When you have their card, you should contact them in a private email and ask if they would like to be on your mailing list"—widely considered to be a prudent practice for permission marketing.
Do: Check out the requirements of the CAN-SPAM Act, which governs commercial email transactions, to ensure that your efforts comply and the potential for heavy fines and penalties is minimized.
"You have to be careful when buying—or, more accurately, renting—mailing lists from any vendor," Greenstreet says. "There's no guarantee that all the email addresses you get will be up-to-date."
Do: As a precaution, Greenstreet recommends asking the list vendor questions such as: How fresh is your list? What percent of your list is guaranteed accurate? Have people opted in to be on this vendor's list and receive information from the people who rent the list?
Do: A proven way to attract names for your own house list is with relevant information. For example, Greenstreet will write a long article with rich, deep content on a topic that she specializes in, with a free offer for more information at the bottom of the article. When prospects search that topic on Google, her article appears at the top of the search results. "I can get 200 to 300 people a month on my mailing list from just one article, without doing any other work," Greenstreet says.
Greenstreet will also conduct unique research occasionally in the form of a survey and package those survey results for her target audience, along with additional free offers. While this strategy also results in an unusually large cache of new names, the work involved is time-consuming.
Building your email list is just the beginning. "Learning how to nurture your list is the most important thing," Greenstreet says. "You need to think about how to continue providing excellent content without giving away all your trade secrets."
Businesses that want help in building their lists can turn to software specifically designed for lead generation and maintenance. Case in point: Act-On Software, an Oregon-based company that provides marketing automation for small and mid-sized businesses.
For example, their software can provide analytics that identify visitors coming to a website, capture contact information, and even help get the names of people in a particular job function in a company. "It's not as good a list as the one where people fill out a form and express interest in your company, but it's a good approximation," says Atri Chatterjee, chief marketing officer for Act-On. More granular demographic information about visitors to your website, which gives a richer profile, can also be collected and used for more targeted lead generation.
Rates for the software vary, but Act-On has plans that begin around $500 a month and don't require a long-term contract. "Five years ago, you had no such solution like this software. The entry point was a lot higher and involved IT people," Chatterjee says. "Now, marketing automation is expanding much faster in the small and mid-sized business market than in the enterprise space. It gives them a more level playing field than they had before."