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It’s On the House: Developing a House Mail List

Direct mail is a valuable tool for businesses and organizations to keep in touch with active customers or members, re-establish a relationship with inactive customers or lapsed members, and introduce the business or organization to prospects. Direct mail can be combined with social media outreach for greater effectiveness together than either used alone.

A direct mail campaign requires a mail piece (attractively-designed content) and a mail list. If asked which of these three things – the design of the mail piece, its content or who it is sent to – is the most important in generating response, what would you say? You may be surprised to learn that who it is sent to (the mailing list) is three times as important as either design or content in generating response.

Types of mail lists There are two broad categories of mail lists: house and rental. A house list is the one you develop yourself from your customer and prospect contact information. A rental list is one obtained through a third party that essentially licenses its use for one or multiple mailings. (Note that even though it is common to refer to “purchasing a list”, this is not accurate. Use of a list is granted for one or multiple mailings, with penalties imposed for using the list more times than agreed upon. An exception is made for responses received to a mailing. Those names can be integrated into a house list without penalty.)

Rental lists are compiled using various sources for the information. The cost of renting the list (usually stated as a cost-per-thousand-names) depends on the data source, how many times it will be used (one-time or multiple times) and sometimes how much additional information besides name and address is included (called selects).

The least expensive rental list is compiled from secondary public information sources such as professional licensing databases, real estate transactions or census data. These are further subdivided into residential or consumer lists and business lists. A residential list may include names (called a named list) or may contain a generic descriptor such as resident or occupant in place of the name.

A response list is compiled from people who have made purchases or responded to offers, such as a magazine subscription list or survey respondents. A specialty list contains names and addresses of a specific nature, such as people who purchased service contracts for a particular vehicle make and model. Most specialty lists are privately owned and require the list renter to meet criteria for list use (such as approving the mail piece) before agreeing to rent the list.

Developing a house list For most businesses or organizations, a house list is a valuable business asset that can easily be developed. When correctly structured, aggressively maintained, and frequently used, it can be the foundation of an outbound marketing effort that builds customer loyalty and provides strong sales leads.

A house list is a collection of individuals or businesses that have at least one characteristic in common that is relevant to the product or service offered by a business. For individuals, the characteristic might be demographic – age, gender, household income or geographic proximity. For businesses, the characteristic might be industry (represented by SEC or NAICS code), sales volume, location or years in business.

When a mailing list is enhanced with behavioral information (date of last purchase, total purchases over a given time period, types of products or services purchased) it becomes a database that can be analyzed to predict buying patterns. This in turn can be used to tailor the sales message so it has direct and relevant appeal to each individual or business on the list.

Mail list accuracy A house list is most effective when it is accurate. Accuracy is related to the structure of the list, data entry standards, and how often the addresses are updated. An accurate house list contains names that are spelled correctly; addresses that are up-to-date, complete and conform to United States Postal Service (USPS) standards for abbreviation and punctuation; and has no duplicates.

Mail list structure The structure of the mail list is the foundation for accuracy. Each element – components of the name and address plus any additional information – needs its own separate field sized appropriately for the information it will hold. For the greatest accuracy, include a field for all possible situations, even if they occur rarely.

The basic structure for a house list is first name, last name, street address, city, state and ZIP code. But before determining the structure, think about how the list might be used.

  • Will you ever send invitations to events that require a social form of address (Mr. and Mrs. Brian Taylor; The Honorable Patricia Nelson, Mayor; Pastor Jimmy Stewart)? If so, you’ll need a field for title.

  • Will you ever want to use an inside address with the first name of an individual and the spouse (Dear Brian and Leticia, Dear Patsy, Dear Jimmy)? You’ll need additional data fields for alternate first name and spouse name.

  • Will your list contain a mix of individuals and businesses? Then you’ll need a company field to enter the names of businesses.

  • Will you need to mail to Canada, Mexico or another foreign country? You’ll need a country field and may have to include additional fields to accommodate foreign address formats.

For accuracy, a field should contain only one type of information. That means a company name needs to be in its own field, not entered as a first or last name. For foreign addresses, it is extremely important to have a separate country field.

Data entry standards After establishing the structure, develop written data entry conventions so everyone who updates the mailing list is doing the same thing. Of critical importance is adopting the USPS address abbreviations for street type (St., Ave., Blvd., etc.) and secondary address elements (Ste., #, Sp., etc.). These can be found in USPS Publication 28 Postal Addressing Standards available online ( or as a PDF ( Using USPS standards significantly increases the ability to deliver the mail piece to the intended person at the correct address.

Written conventions are also needed for mail list elements unique to your house list. Decide how to handle titles so they are consistent. Will you use CEO or Chief Executive Officer? VP of Sales or Vice President of Sales? Spell the word and or use an ampersand (&)? Decide how to handle data elements that are longer than the allowable field length – create an abbreviation, or let the element be truncated during addressing (that is, be cut off when the space runs out).

Move update We are a very mobile population. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that on average, about 1 in 6 Americans move every year. However, some demographic segments move more often -- about one-third of renters move each year, compared to about 10% of homeowners, and about one-third of adults in their early 20s.

For this reason, and because the USPS requires it as a condition of allowing mail to be sent at a reduced postage rate, the addresses in a house list need to be kept current. One way to do this is to mail at least every 60 days and use an ancillary service endorsement (ASE) on the outside of the mail piece. The ASE tells the USPS what to do with the mail piece if the individual or business is no longer at the address you have.

Another way is to compare your mail list to the database maintained by the USPS of individuals and businesses who have turned in change of address notices. We provide this service, called move update verification, to our customers.

Above all, you must modify your house list with the updated address information. It does no good to receive the information if it doesn’t make it into your house list.

We’re direct mail experts Call on us to help you keep your house list current. We provide direct mail services to our customers and we are good at what we do. For more information or to set an appointment, call one of our sales representatives today at 781-337-0002.


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