Direct Marketing Basics 3

The best mailings are those that use your own customers and prospects. Repeat business is the easiest and best kind of sale, so work hard at maintaining contacts with your existing customers.

The best way to gather information about customers and prospects is to ask them. A questionnaire is a useful vehicle to obtain the relevant information. Take advantage of the response section of your mailing (as well as coupons, order forms, applications) to ask a few pertinent questions. Or include a longer survey form to collect more in-depth information.

You can also create your own mailing list within your own web site. If your website audience is very small, you may invite your visitors to subscribe to your own mailing list. You could then manage this using a small database sending multiple emails from your own email software.

As you add information to the database, it can provide you with a detailed portrait of everyone who enquires about or does business with your company. The more information you can gather about your prospects, the more you can tailor your marketing in the future – including any direct mail you choose to do.

Why a database?

Why do you need your own database? Because it gives you numerous options for your marketing campaigns. If you gather your own data you can …

  • Design and mail your own surveys. This can be used for market research, to enhance the profile information you’re keeping in the database, and even to promote specific products.

  • Run a loyalty programme. Your database is the key to establishing a customer reward or sales incentive programme; as any airline, hotel chain or supermarket can tell you now, reward programmes definitely build brand loyalty. Maintaining customer loyalty and realising repeat sales is critical to long term success, particularly if your business is in a very competitive situation. Use your database to communicate to your customers, making sure everyone on the database understands just how special your organisation is. This may not be as relevant for retail dealers, but B2B dealers with high spend repeat customers could introduce a loyalty scheme to good effect.
  • Improve the personalisation of your promotions. The more you can personalise your marketing communication and customise your offers, the better the response. Your database should let you address your customers by name, but it should also enable you to produce special offers on especially relevant products. You can use your database to establish ‘private’ sales.
  • Match products and services to needs or wants. Without too much effort your database should be able to give you a picture of your customers’ interests, habits and buying patterns. You can then customise the offers in your promotions (including direct mail campaigns) to maximise the opportunity for sales. For instance, customers who purchase gardening books in December are probably buying Christmas presents; offer them other coffee-table lifestyle books. People who buy gardening books in January are probably gardeners; you could offer a discount to get them into the store, where they are likely to spend much more on other categories. Or maybe you don’t offer them a discount at the start of the year – but you do the bargain offer in September to smooth out the purchasing peaks.
  • Use the profile of existing customers to define new customers. If you can identify exactly what kind of people are buying from you, you can tailor your promotional efforts to attract more of that kind of person – when renting mailing lists, for instance. Or you might feel that you need to broaden your customer base, in which case you could aim for a completely different profile.
  • Develop an ongoing relationship with your marketing audience. You can keep in touch with your customers and prospects, either with special offers or simply to maintain brand awareness. You can demonstrate that you regard your customers as valuable assets.
  • Analyse your schedule for promotions. Use your database to track response to your promotions and look for patterns – in their timing, frequency, content, etc. Use the information to refine your marketing planning.
  • Response to opportunities. A good database lets you think and move quickly. Your main competitor is doing a special offer? Respond with a postcard campaign promoting a counter-offer. The government has announced a sales tax increase on your products? Cushion the blow with a buy-now-at-the-old-price mailout.
  • Analyse response. The biggest single plus for direct marketing is the fact that it is measurable – you know whether or not the campaign is working because you can count the responses. But the more information you can accumulate, the better your analysis will be: why exactly did the campaign succeed? If it wasn’t so great, go back and distinguish what worked from what went wrong. Sometimes a less-than-successful mailing can generate important knowledge for the future.

Creating your Database

If you’re convinced by the value of maintaining your own list – and you should be – you have several options.

  • You may decide to purchase specific mailing list software to manage your mailing list subscriptions
  • You can subscribe to an online mailing list service that will store the database for you and manage your list
  • You can do it yourself. For the Mac or a PC there are many easy-to-use database programs available, with these the principle options:

FileMaker is both powerful and easy to use, and comes with an excellent sample database template. It links well with Microsoft Office so you can use Word for mail-merges.
Microsoft Access is not quite as intuitive but has bags of capability. It too has a good sample contacts database.

Microsoft Excel is a spreadsheet program but can work as a simple database system – treat each row as a separate record and each column as a field within records.
Microsoft Outlook lets you can define separate address lists, customise the records’ fields and layout, and sort and select in many clever ways.

Business Contact Manager,­ a superb add-on for Outlook 2003, is a professional customer management tool – manage your business contacts to check the status of a specific account, filter or sort information, and personalize communications with each contact. You can also track sales opportunities, including stage reached, revenue potential, and the probability of closing; and run a variety of reports about contacts and opportunities. Sounds impressive, and for some applications it will be overkill; for others, it could provide just the rigour and control they need. And it’s free with Outlook 2003.

Who Owns the Names?

You won’t be able to expand your own inhouse database of names simply by adding rented lists to it. You probably won’t be allowed to see the rented names, for a start, because this is precisely the kind of thing the list owner wants to prevent. But anyone who responds to your mailing is fair game: the name becomes ‘yours’ and be can be added to your own list.

Fields and records –
what the words mean:

  • Database: there’s probably a more specific technologically perfect definition, but in practical terms a database is a collection of information organised in such a way that a computer program can rearrange it quickly and select specific items of information from it. You can think of a database as an electronic filing cabinet.
  • The term ‘file’ is used loosely to mean the same thing, though in theory (and in the filing cabinet) you can have several files in one database.
  • Record: databases contain records. A record is one complete set of information within the file – information about a single prospect or customer, for instance.
  • Field: a field is one item of information with a record, or more accurately a space allocated for a particular item of information in the record. All records in the file will be made up of the same fields, though they may be blank. For example, a contact database might contain records for individual entries that have fields for first name, surname, address, phone number, email address, and more.

Fields are particularly important in using databases. Most consumer databases will be organised by the name field, but you could use a different field to reorganise the whole file – you could sort it by the postcode field, for instance, or the ‘total amount spent’ field. A business contacts database is more likely to be sorted initially by company name.

Fields are also used to select parts of the database. You can tell the database that you want only those people living in a particular area, so you would select on the basis of what’s in the post town or postcode fields (maybe both).


  • Once you have set up a database it is vital that contacts are maintained accurately. Ensure that when you capture data you always take note of the contact’s title, first and last names plus their job title. This guarantees that when you complete a mail merge and you use a greeting style of “Dear Mr Smith” you do not get some letters with missing names that read “Dear Mr” or “Dear Smith”. This immediately makes your organisation look unprofessional and most likely will be filed in the bin!
  • If you use a database which records each customer interaction, set it up so that you can immediately see which employee made the note and on which date. This will give you a comprehensive record of your trading relationship as well as providing other employees with a full picture of the customer if they happen to be on a first call with them.
  • Keep a record of which offers you send different groups of people. This may sound simple, but if you use a dynamic database and you do not save a static record of your customer base at the time you may find it hard to measure who responds to which mailing. It may help you to use job files on your PC where you keep a copy of the letter along with a spreadsheet of the people you sent it to. That way you can easily measure customer base growth between different campaigns.
  • If you want to add a professional touch to a professionally printed direct mailer, consider using the ever-increasing functionality of digital print. Many printers will allow you to personalise these with data fields as you would in a mail merge, even using different images on each mailer. For example, you could create a personalised mailer for all your customers due for upgrade, inserting an image of a handset they could get free depending on their monthly spend.
    For email marketing tools.
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