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Mailing Lists: 12 Places to Buy a Great Mailing List


There are two types of lists, determined by their origin: compiled lists and response lists.

Compiled lists are a common source of names and records that have been gathered, collected, and entered into a database. The names may have been acquired through public records such as vehicle owner registrations or high school teachers. Directories, such as a directory of plant maintenance engineers, are usually compiled lists. Many lists are compiled from categories in phone books across the U.S. Examples would be all the photography shops or all the luggage dealers in the United States. Or all the plumbing supply dealers.

Keep in mind that compiled information – like fish – gets old rather quickly and doesn’t age particularly well.

Response lists are data from people who have responded to an ad or who have purchased from a catalog, direct mail package, TV ad,or other offer.

With any mailing you are considering, first ask precisely what groups or what characteristics make up the perfect audience. Then try to find a list that matches these definable characteristics closely.

Questions to ask the list vendor
If you are buying a response list, make sure you know if the list includes actual purchasers or merely inquirers (who are of less value). Also ask how old the names on the list are. How often is it updated? How often – and how recently – has it been cleaned, i.e., had the old, outdated nondeliverables removed. If a list is clean, you won’t get a lot of your mail pieces back. Ask a broker or list manager for a data card that shows list specifications and usage. Believe one-third of what you read on the data card.

When purchasing names of prospective buyers from a response list, ask how recently the people on the list have made a purchase. Recency is a key factor in the success of mailing lists, and most lists have “Hot Name” selects – buyers who have purchased within the past month or two or three. Ask if you can get a select of names by frequency of purchase. Frequency of purchase is a key factor in evaluating mailing lists, along with the amount of money that has been spent on each purchase. The formula recency, frequency, monetary, often designated as “RFM,” is the standard for measuring the quality of most mail order response lists.

Ask how many other mailers have tested the list. Tests in direct mail are usually 5,000 names. Ask how many people “continued,” meaning their test mailing drew a good enough response for them to mail to more names on that list. Ask how many ordered names for another continuation, meaning they absolutely did make money and it was worth the effort. Then ask how many people had great success and rolled out – mailed to the rest of the entire list.

I always ask for an initial order of 2,000 names for any of my small business clients have limited budgets and are running a initial tests. Unfortunately most major mailers test in quantities of 5,000 names, and many list owners will rent you fewer records. This doesn’t mean you have to mail to all 5,000 names, but you may have to purchase them.

For smaller mailers the first time out, I recommend mailing to only 1,000 names of an untested list; 2,000 at most. My own personal feeling: 1,000 is usually enough for my clients to get some indication if the list will work. I also always ask the list owner for 2,000 names for FREE to test — and sometimes I get it. List owners know that if they have a great list and if it works well for us, we’ll be back with larger orders. Then I test 1,000, cheap sombitch that I am. Smaller clients can test 500.

Don’t forget that you can specify an overlay for almost any list. For example, in compiled lists, you can restrict your mailing by placing a geographic overlay: you may mail to flower shops located only in a few selected states. You can also ask for a business-specific overlay such as small-animal-only veterinarians. You can also specify a business overlay of income, or plant size, or number of employees to name but a few.

In a response list, you can restrict your mailing to people who have spent over a certain amount or, one of my favorites, to multibuyers: people who have bought from several catalogs.

Lists are generally sold for a single use (unless you pay a premium for multiple use) and typically cost between $65 and $85 per thousand records. They’re available on disk, tape, and printed out on paper or pressure-sensitive labels. Phone numbers may be added on at a surcharge. Niche market lists can sell for upwards of $150/M.

Residential lists are unique: they are low in cost ($20 per thousand) and may or may not come with a name in the name field. If there is no name, I always have the computer house imprint “To our Friends at” or “To our Neighbors at” on the top line.

As good as any list is, you’re going to get some of your mailing packages back. Even though a few of the list rental firms reimburse you for postage on your returns, that won’t be of much help when you are staring at a couple of mail sacks full of crushed and mutilated returned mail. Some compiled lists are excellent, but some are horrible – compiled lists are usually my least favorite way to purchase records, but sometimes a necessary evil.

Guaranteed delivery of 93% may sound good up front, but it is actually pretty mediocre. In reality, a minimum of 10% of your mail will go awry – more likely, 20%. Then another 10% will go to the wrong person but will never be never returned. Guaranteed deliverability of 95% is still just fair. 98% is good, 99% better. These lists are out there.

Good delivery percentages can usually be found in lists of magazine subscribers. These lists are usually very good because most publishers are extremely prompt with their name and address corrections – when a subscriber moves and the publisher gets the magazine back, it costs the publisher money. Call a magazine publisher and ask if their subscriber list is for sale, then ask for the name of their list broker.

There are over 10,000 magazines published so you can probably get a magazine subscription list that goes straight to your perfectly targeted buyers. If you’re not sure what magazines would be best, there are some easy-to-use periodical directories found in most reference libraries. The best directories of magazines are Burrelle’s Directory of Magazines (800-USMEDIA), Bacons (800-621-0561), SRDS (800-851-SRDS), and Oxbridge Communications Standard Periodical Directory (800-955-0231). If you can’t find the exact targeted magazine filled with the eager-to-buy-your-product subscribers you are looking for in any of these directories, the publication doesn’t exist. You can find any industry – and all the magazines that are sent to that industry – in under 10 minutes in these useful directories.

Catalog houses earn a good portion of their revenue from the sale of their lists. Call the catalog and ask for their business office, then ask who handles their list sales. Almost all catalog houses sell their lists.

Associations are an unusually excellent source of mailing lists. Better trade associations always list the industry’s major players. Local associations like the Chamber of Commerce in your area are usually good for local business names. You can select by business size, number of employees, SIC code (the government’s industry classification of each business), or any of a multitude of other selection parameters.

The 828-page National Trade and Professional Associations of the United States ($99) reference tool lists 7,600 associations, and is published annually by Columbia Books, Inc. (; 888-265-0600, fax 410-810-0911) along with its companion, the State and Regional Associations of the U.S. directory ($79).
Association lists and data are also available in the Encyclopedia of Associations by The Gale Group (800-877-GALE) on disk, CD, and on-line through Lexis-Nexis. This hardbound, three-volume set ($505) is the motherload of associations – showing detailed information on more than 23,000 local, state, national, and international associations.

Trade show lists are also a good marketing tool – lists of both attendees and of exhibitors. Check out two great websites: and for trade show information.

Two excellent resources for investigating lists at the library are the SRDS Direct Marketing List Source™ (800-851-SRDS) and the Oxbridge Communications National Directory of Mailing Lists (800-955-0231). We use both in our own office – they’re thorough and exceptionally easy to use. These reference tools are each about the size of the Manhattan phone book and contain nothing but list data: who owns what list, number of records in each, source of names and, list pricing. Both tools are available in major libraries.

List brokers are found in the phone book in every major city. They can be heaven, supplying incredible information, or hell, looking for that fast buck. Make sure you ask tons of questions before handing over any money. While you pay the broker, he actually works for the list owner – so take that into consideration when you ask questions and negotiate price.

A plethora of list managers of mailing lists can be found in the direct mail trade magazines such as Catalog Age & Direct Magazines: 203/358-9900, Target Marketing: 215/238-5300, Direct Marketing: 516/746-6700, and DM News: 212/741-2095.

Some list brokers sell through their own catalog of mailing lists. These handy reference tools will give you an idea of just what’s out there – what kind of lists are available and counts of how many records exist in the thousands of different list categories. Want to know how many dentists there are? It’s a piece of cake: 190,168 are members of the ADA. Want to know if there is a list of picky ale drinkers? Find the list of “Ale in the Mail-Continuity Members:” 70,973 of them. Selling an accounting product? Try the list of Accounting Institute Seminar Attendees – all 78,634 of them. Looking for college professors? Did you want the 43,347 who teach English, or the 18,184 who teach history, or the 8,477 in marketing, or the 9,194 philosophy teachers, or the…

If you need additional information – like how many doctors who specialize in allergies and are the head of their practice with four or more employees can be found in Pennsylvania – call any of these catalog houses and ask them to run a count. You’ll be able to get that information in about ten minutes. Hugo Dunhill: 800/223-6454, American Business Lists: 800/555-5335, Best Mailing Lists: 800/692-2378, CompilersPlus: 800/431-2914, and Edith Roman: 800/223-2194 to name just a few. More phone numbers can be found in my books Uncommon Marketing Techniques and How To Market A Product For Under $500!

Several companies now offer lists of every business or every person in the U.S. on CD-ROM. These products allow you to create your own list criteria and generate your own precisely targeted mailing lists. Some of the better programs make it easy and fast to use their CD-ROM products. Mailing list CDs are available from InfoUSA: 800/321-0869, and Global Business International: 407/568-5037 to name but two.

One of the best resources for lists is the Internet. There’s no getting around it now, the Internet is here to stay — you might as well get on and get used to it. It’s a great – probably the best – research tool available for almost anything, if you can filter out the crap from the good stuff. But… isn’t that the way with all research tools: you gotta figure out which is the good stuff that you can use, and which is the bad stuff that you’ve just spent the last two hours looking over and have now figured out is pretty worthless.

You’d be surprised how many of your competitors will sell your their customers’ names. If not competitors, how about asking other businesses who serve your market if you can purchase their mailing lists.

Of course, the best list of all – bar none – is your own house list of current and past customers. These are the folks that know you and trust you; they’ve experienced that great customer service you offer and are now willing to buy something else from you if you would only let them know it’s available.

Spend some extra time in this most important area – list research: tighten your list criteria, do your homework, spend time in research, and find the best lists you can possibly find. Then test several. It’s worth the extra time and money to target your audience with precision and increase the chance you’ll come up a winner at the post office. There is no single more important factor in creating a greater response to a mailing than mailing to the best possible list. Whatever you do, don’t settle for a mediocre list unless you want mediocre results.

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