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Eight Questions to Ask When Buying a Marketing List

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Targeting the right audience is the key to success for any marketing campaign. Up-to-date contact information, valid email addresses, and the tools to segment a list accurately are must-haves for any marketer, yet they are by no means assured in the lists purchased from business-contact vendors.

And as every marketer knows, limited list filtering and segmentation options, as well as inaccurate data, all negatively impact a campaign's response rates.

Putting together a list of viable prospects, and ensuring that information about them is accurate and relevant, can be a daunting task. There are a myriad of list and contact vendors in the marketplace today, each with its own set of data.

But buying a marketing list that you have confidence in does not have to be a stressful process if you ask the right questions before you make a decision. Here are eight questions to ask vendors before buying a list.:

1. What makes your data unique?

There are many data providers out there, and many pull from common sources, such as Dun & Bradstreet/Hoovers, Jigsaw, or Infogroup. It is important to ask what makes the data in the list you are considering unique, and then determine whether it will complement your current database and serve the campaign you are considering.

If the provider partners with leading data companies, find out whether they also pull from smaller publications and data companies that might help to "fill in the blanks" on their business contact records.

2. How often do you refresh your data?

It's important to know how often your data provider adds names to its database, but it is perhaps even more important to know how often names are removed from the database and what steps are taken to prevent "dead" names from being added back in.

Don't be impressed by claims of "tens of millions" of contacts unless you can verify that the list vendor is actually removing out-of-date information from its system in a timely manner. You shouldn't care about millions if your target audience is just a few thousand people.

In a best-case scenario, the provider runs quarterly checks of its contacts in the database, both to verify the validity of each business contact and to give these contacts the opportunity to opt out of inclusion in the database.

3. How is your data priced? Is there a minimum purchase?

Prices for business-contact records vary widely. If you are required to spend at least $5,000, it might not be such a good deal. The dirty little secret of many data providers is the minimum purchase size.

After you run the parameters for your list, you will likely find that your actual list size falls beneath the requirements for minimum purchase, which could lead to a "back-fill" of contacts that you may not have wanted (or needed). Your response rates will drop because you are campaigning to prospects simply because you paid for their information, not because you selected them. And your reputation may suffer as well if you are marketing to people who are not in your sweet spot.  In addition to inquiring about minimum purchase requirements or what the price breaks might be for larger purchases, ask about the vendor's filtering system to ensure you will not wind up purchasing irrelevant contacts:

  • Does it dig into departmental specialties?
  • Can you review the titles before you buy to remove irrelevant contacts?
  • How specific are the filters regarding company size, number of employees, or industry?

4. How do you handle inaccurate data?

No matter where you get your data, some churn is inevitable, even in the most accurate and highly marketed lists, especially in a down economy. A key factor in handling inaccuracies is to work with your provider to establish some sort of "return policy" in advance of the purchase, if there is not one currently in place.

If you are purchasing an email list, for example, the "hard bounces" after a mailing can be a terrific basis for establishing your list of inaccurate contacts. If you send an email and it is not delivered, the recipient's system typically sends back some sort of notification as to why. A "hard" bounce is when you receive a notification that the nondelivery is due to a permanent condition, such as the intended recipient is no longer at the company. A "soft" bounce is when the notification indicates the nondelivery was due to a temporary condition, such as a full mailbox or an "out of office" situation.

Ideally, the vendor you use for your email campaigns will be able to differentiate between "hard" and "soft" bounces, and the proof of a "hard bounce" is a great basis for handling returns of inaccurate data. Vendors will usually offer a full credit for all business contact data proven to be incorrect, as it helps them maintain database accuracy.

5. Do you remove or credit duplicates for contacts I already own?

A common frustration when purchasing lists is acquiring contacts you already have in your database. Make sure your data provider has some sort of system in place to remove or to credit back contacts you already own, and, if you are a repeat customer, remove contacts you may have already purchased from the provider previously.

Contact providers often track your purchase history so that you will never buy the same contact more than once. In addition, some provider systems can integrate with CRM software to automate the de-duplication process—saving marketers valuable time and money.

6. How are your lists targeted? Do I need to pay for any filters to refine my list?

Some data providers charge you to run filters against their database that help you to target your list to your specific needs. For example, if you were looking for a list of marketing contacts at software companies, you might be charged $300 to remove all nonsoftware companies and another $300 to target the marketers.

An advanced filtering system will allow marketers to zero in on contacts based on geography, industry, industry specialty, seniority (level of contact), department, functional role, and more. The top-tier providers will individually "score" each contact in the database against your specific needs so you can build highly targeted lists.

Data companies charge for filtering to discourage any activity that may reduce the size of the list they are trying to sell. Be aware of both the costs associated with building a more targeted list and the hidden costs to your reputation and response rates if you don't filter your lists and market to contacts who are not in your "sweet spot."

7. Do we own the data, or are we renting the list?

Data providers often rent out their subscriber lists for "one-time" mailings. You send them creative, and they run the email campaign for you and report back on opens and click-through rates. However, the real measure of success is conversions—how many people filled out the form on the Web page that was included in the body of the email. A conversion is the only way to capture the contact information of anyone in the list that you rented.

With a list rental, the cost per lead is much lower than it is for an outright purchase, but you do not own the information and cannot market to contacts again without renting the list again. Make sure to clarify whether the cost per lead is for a rental or for a list purchase.

8. Can I send email to the contacts I purchase from you? Are they "opt-in"?

Email marketing is a tricky business. Many marketers have received spam complaints from paying customers that they have spoken to on the phone, and also have closed business based on unsolicited (but legally CAN-SPAM-compliant) emails.

If you are buying a list from a vendor that is marketed as "opt in," be very careful; and keep in mind that the people on the list have not opted in to receiving emails specifically from your company. Opt-in is the gold standard in email marketing, without a doubt, but CAN-SPAM is the law and it does not cite "opt-in" as a requirement. Agree on a policy internally that will not only preserve your reputation but also allow growth of your brand and sales pipeline through the use of email.

Be aware of the email campaign requirements from your vendors, as some may require you to be able to prove "opt-in" on every email you send, while others simply require you to comply with the law. Also consider paying extra for a dedicated IP address to handle your mailings, because if you are sharing email servers with other companies that do not observe the law as closely as your company, deliverability numbers might suffer as a result of their bad practices.

List vendors using best-practices ensure that their contacts have agreements in place allowing for the distribution of their contact information. In addition, the provider should run regular email campaigns to all contacts in the database inviting them to opt out of being included in their list database.

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Chris Golec is the founder and CEO of Demandbase (, a technology company that enables B2B companies to turn Web traffic into sales. Reach Demandbase via and 415-683-2660.

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  • by karin Tue Aug 24, 2010 via web

    Chris, very good article. We have a long list of checks and balances for list rentals, newsletter sponsorships, etc., to make sure that we are reaching our target audience and spending our marketing dollars wisely, but other than a few tried and true sources, we still have trouble finding good quality lists. It used to be much easier, back in the day before everybody and their brother jumped onto this bandwagon. I'm wondering if there is a good source that you can recommend.

  • by Bill Kaplan Tue Aug 24, 2010 via web

    Nice overview, Chris, provided one is looking to buy a direct mail list.

    If you're looking to do your prospecting by email, however, it's a completely different game. The first question to ask in this situation is whether the vendor is willing to sell you email addresses. If they are, stop there and move on.

    No legitimate data providers will sell these opt-in email addresses as it runs afoul of industry best practices and is in violation of their data license agreements. Experienced marketers know that if an email list can be bought, it was either not legally collected in the first place (e.g. scraped from the Internet in violation of federal CAN-SPAM laws) or the file was built by sites that swap email addresses or download one's address book. In each of these cases, the files will contain so many problematic, bouncing, or spamtrap addresses that you will surely get blocked or blacklisted once you start messaging these results.

    If you're looking to prospect by email, there are many companies that will perform an email list rental for you. Be certain to vet these companies very carefully and understand that email list rental is not for the faint of heart. Most companies' opt-in databases are mediocre at best and generating a positive ROI on email list rentals is still a rarity.

  • by Karin Wed Aug 25, 2010 via web

    Bill, this is what I have found. I thought there might be a quality list rental company that I'm not aware of, though I think I have worked with or vetted most of them! Those that I've found to be the most accurate and effective are subscription lists of organizations, web portals, newsletters, etc. that offer quality information to our target audience. Those subscription lists are typcially opt-in for the list owner, and we are permitted to market only to those contacts that have agreed to receive information related to their interest. But they can be expensive.

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