Creatives obsess about fonts and graphics in marketing material, and lawyers fret about legal compliance in marketing and advertising campaigns—and all that is important—but the core driver of campaign success is deeper down... in the customer data that fuels it.

Because data's harder to get a grip on than logos, it can be tough to "shape" your database in a way that gets your message in front of the people it's most suited to. So here's a 12-item checklist of questions to ask yourself based on Marketscan's latest report on campaign data, from which most of the figures cited below are drawn.

With luck, answering these questions will save you time, effort, and money when planning your next campaign. Here we go...

1. Am I starting with the data instead of the audience?

This is one big question any data consultancy asks. Oddly, it's not even about databases! Rather, it's about finding what the data should look like.

Starting simple: if your campaign's prospecting for fresh leads, you need one type of data—companies you haven't approached recently—whereas if you're selling upgrades, only your existing customers need apply.

Twice as many campaigns are for lead gen as customer retention (84% vs. 43%), so make sure you start with the audience, on every campaign. Approaching longtime friends as if you're perfect strangers can actually turn customers off.

2. Am I using the same-old, same-old metric every time?

It's startling how many companies approach prospects just because they're in the same town. Some businesses are local-only, like restaurants and plumbers—but many aren't.

Don't confuse how close you can make a customer feel with how close they are geographically.

Only 1.27% of marketers actively seek advice on lists. Yet a data consultancy can often find thousands of companies that make perfect prospects, just a few miles beyond your usual sales territory. So if you feel you've mailed the same criteria too many times, try a new one.

As well as location, try complementary SIC codes, similar turnovers, or employee numbers. (Companies of 250 employees are often about to hit big-company growth upswings.)

3. Am I judging it by size, instead of what I can do with it?

Your brief may specify you need to reach 100,000 people. If it does, stop. What matters is audience engagement, not audience size. Even though size is a lot easier to measure.

Some 47% of marketers found measuring success the hardest campaign challenge... with one-third only attempting it once the campaign fully finishes.

What's more useful: a mailing to 100,000 at a 0.01% response rate (not even bad for email campaigns, but budget-bustingly poor for offline), or a mailing to 100 that engages over half of them?

For an engagement uplift, your competitors' customers are a great hunting ground (you may even be able to buy their list)—as are lapsed buyers of your own services. You'll find there's a sizable group of people out there needing just a nudge to make contact with you again.

4. Is the pain I'm solving the pain they're suffering?

Databases can't tell you the biggest thing on your prospects' minds. Or can they?
If you've got your personas sorted out (profiles of your ideal customers), you're most of the way there. If you haven't, look at your top customer for each product or service.... your biggest buyers represent your top personas.

Nearly three-quarters of companies (73%) believe they've identified customer profiles.

So make sure the message you're putting across in your campaign matches the problems your customers actually have. Your new outlet or C-suite hire is a selling point only if you define the benefit to the customer. Always write for a specific customer profile, not a mass audience. Because when they read it, they're alone.

5. Does the medium match the message?

Almost everyone (93%) campaigns by email these days. But direct mail and telemarketing from lists are far from being a sideshow, with 69% and 64% marketers, respectively, using those channels. If you automatically use email newsletters because they're cheap, think again.

Two-thirds of marketers still get great results from the envelope and the phone. If you're not, you may be missing a trick.

They work because, to your prospect, it's a given that you've put in more effort. (A printed sales pack costs you more to put together; a telephone call takes 100% of one person's attention for its duration.) That extra effort is what gives traditional media its added oomph—typically 10-100 times that of a plain-vanilla email campaign.

6. Am I putting all my eggs in one basket?

One thing online does do well is frequency. A few short mailings may keep you top-of-mind more effectively than one big quarterly one. So why not use it?

Customers have a lot on their minds; if your campaign can force one—just one!—extra thought into their memory this month, you're winning. So look at varying campaign formats. Would a postcard work better than a long-format letter? A brown box better than an email? Even an attractive stamp makes a difference. Again, think of your personas and what they'd enjoy most.

7. Have I remembered A/B splits are as easy as A-B-C?

The A/B split is the oldest trick in marketing. Simply test one headline, or one offer, or even one time of day for every other recipient; and test the second headline, or offer, or time of day for the remaining 50% of recipients.

Don't change more than one thing! The point of the split is to isolate which variant works better.

Data consultancies make it easy. They can break down your lists into as many equivalent segments as you need: every first-third-fifth name gets one message, every second-fourth-sixth gets the other.

(Splitting like this makes the test more valid than sending one mailing to everyone surnamed A-M and another to surnames beginning N-Z; it avoids skew problems with common surnames or family businesses.)

Splitting gives you knowledge. And knowledge is power.

8. Is my customer likely to think 'Who's this'?

Messages that are too few and far between mean your customers will forget you.

Nearly one-third (33%) of marketers say they spend over a month, and frequently up to three months, just planning their campaigns. In those three months, how many other messages could you have tested?

If you're stuck for things to say, here's an idea: You should be mailing all customers, hot and cold, at least once a year to ask them to update their details and job moves. Don't treat it as a chore; it's a marketing opportunity all by itself.

Many data consultancies have an option to have your "white mail" returned to them. They update such details quickly; their business depends on it. Why not use them for the hard work of managing your list?

9. Am I looking ahead without one eye on the road?

Ideally, you want to daisy-chain your campaigns so that each new campaign takes advantage of learning from the last one. That's hard to do if you've planned your whole year's messaging in advance.

Only 12% of campaigns run for less than a week. That allows plenty of time for on-the-go learning to emerge. Letting learning from the previous mailing to inform the next one turns a series of messages into a managed conversation over time.

And an engaging conversation's a lot more fun than being at the business end of a bullhorn.

10. Is my house list jammed with dead souls?

It doesn't matter how great your creative is. If you're not cleaning house regularly, the dead names on your list will be pulling down your response rate.

Over half of marketers check customer data is accurate sometimes or never.

And business data decays a lot faster than consumer data: 30% a quarter in some sectors. That means your entire list dies every year.

11. Am I making it easy for the customer to respond?

Plenty of campaigns expect the customer to do too much work. Make it exceptionally easy for them to respond; if possible, let their responses update the database itself.

Can you integrate media to increase response? Channels such as SMS short codes, autoresponder emails, and forms data can give your customers more choice... and allow you to collect more contact data.

Small inaccuracies in job title and department (not to mention surname!) are behind a huge percentage of communications written off as junk. When all you had to do was allow them to update a word...

12. Does single-source data provide a single benefit?

According to our survey, over 85% of marketers use both new and in-house lists. That suggests most people have the right idea about data: combining trusted in-house sources with fresh outside lists. But are they coming together in the right way?

Fewer than one in seven companies say their data matches their best customer profiles.

A good data consultancy will be very interested in your customer personas. So share them.

The better picture you can give of the customers you want, the harder the consultancy will try to provide you with the hottest prospects and cleanest data.

After all, it's their business.

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12 Tips to Help You Conquer Your Direct Marketing Campaign Challenges

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image of Julie Knight

Julie Knight is one of the founder directors of Marketscan, a provider of business data and marketing database optimization.

LinkedIn: Julie Knight