Buying Direct Mail Lists – a basic primer

February 26th, 2021 by


There are many strategies to buying direct mail lists.

Of course, the most important one is knowing how to target your best prospects. A quality direct mail list offers hundreds, if not thousands, of selection options. How does a business owner know which is their best opportunity?

I speak with many business owners. The first question I ask is – who is your customer? When they respond with “everybody”, I know we have a lot of work to do. If everybody was their prospective customer, then they wouldn’t be doing selective direct mail. After all, quality direct mail is not inexpensive and mailing to everybody would be a bit pricey!

The first thing a business owner needs to do is identify the actual demographics of their customers. There are great resources in the marketplace for generating a quick report that provides age, income and geographic information. If you work with a list broker, you will find that they can provide this service for you at no charge. But – (yes, the big but) – you would need to provide a clean, up-to-date list of your customers. For many small business owners, that is easier said than done.

Let’s pretend you have a current list of your customers. You have 2,500 customers who have bought from you in the past 12 months. Technology can not only give you a picture of your customers’ age and income, but often you can get a snapshot of their interests. Often these interests, which are called psychographics, can be more important than age or income. These often determine the Need to Buy and the Want to Buy.


When you are buying direct mail lists, you also want to make sure you have a clear picture of where your customers come from. Options include selecting by zip-code, a radius around your location. The radius might be by mileage or by drive time. There are larger geographic options as well, including county and state.

Let’s go back to the demographics. There are literally hundreds of options. Some of the basic ones include age, income, gender, home ownership, ethnicity, and presence of children.  Depending on your business, there are lots of other overlays.

If you are in the Home Industry, you might want to include the home value or age of home. A church might be interested in religious selection options. Or, if you have a children’s shoe store, you will want a list of families with children, selecting the children by their age.

Then, there are other ways to approach buying direct mail lists.

Hotline lists

These are lists that updated on either a weekly or monthly basis. This offers marketers a fresh new, non-duplicating audience with each update. It allows a business to reach a very qualified buyer. It also allows them to spread their marketing expenses. Think new homeowners, new movers, and parents of new babies.

Birthday lists

A great example is Turning 65. Insurance agents love the Turning 65 list. These are the top prospects for Medicare supplement policies. Why market to “everyone”, when you can just mail to the 200 perfect prospects in your market each month who actually need your product.  If you are a financial planner, you may want a list of individuals turning 70. These are great prospects for RMD programs. You can get very creative with this, simply by thinking about your product and who really needs it.

Lifestyle Lists

Pet owners, ailment sufferers, magazine subscribers and donors fall in this category. Once again, as a business owner, you need to take a hard look at the product / services you provide. Think about your best customers. Those are the ones you want to clone when you’re buying direct mail lists. Look for common traits you can hone in on.

Can they afford it?

You’re spending your hard earned dollars to market, presumably to people who need or really want what you offer. Now, you want to make sure they can afford it. This is much more granular than the basic income select. Modeled credit score, disposable dollars, net worth, income producing assets, and home value are all elements to consider for your list criteria.

Work with an expert

There are lots of online count & order systems (we have a great one, BTW). But, if you’re not 100% sure of what you’re doing, do not try to order your list on-line. You will probably not get exactly what you want. Every list company has people who are willing to work with you and help you buy you direct mail list. Just make sure you are working with a quality shop that has experienced staff.

While buying direct mail lists may feel complicated, a good list will produce results. Always remember you need to test whatever you do and see if it works. Often a simple tweak will impact your results and turn a good result into a great one!