Priority Mail: A Quick Guide to Mail Lists

One of the best ways for your customers to communicate with their customers and prospects is to send them something – a 4x6" postcard with a QR code that leads to a website, a larger postcard that provides information and perhaps includes a coupon or offer, a newsletter of educational value, or an announcement of an upcoming event. And with less traditional direct mail being sent, the mail piece won’t have as much competition as before for the recipient’s attention.

Help your customers use traditional direct mail by helping them understand about mail lists – what they are, how to use them, and how to maintain them.


Mail List Basic Categories

Mail lists can be generally divided into two basic types: a compiled list and a response list.

• A compiled list is one that has been assembled from different sources, standardized, and (usually) spot-verified. Typical sources of information include government records such as state licensing agencies or registries, public directories such as membership lists or event registrants, and publications such as newspapers or trade journals.

• A response list, in contrast, consists only of those who have responded to a direct mail offer such as magazine subscribers, someone who has requested literature or a sample, or someone who has made a purchase via mail order.

Generally speaking, compiled lists are lower cost and, therefore, are popular for direct mail marketing that is aimed at broad market (all homeowners living within a five-mile radius of a pizza restaurant, for instance).

A compiled list can be made more specific by filters such as household income, age of the head of household, ethnicity, gender, education level, and other factors that are known as selects. However, since the information is not gathered directly from the individual or business on the list, the selects are imputed and so may not be totally accurate. Use of selects usually adds to the base price of a compiled list.

Response lists cost considerably more than compiled lists, and may come with use restrictions such as submitting the mail piece for approval prior to release of the list.

The higher price reflects the higher value of the mail list – not only does the list contain contact information, it also inherently includes information on the buyer’s interest and buying habits.

Whether compiled or response, mail lists are not sold. They are rented by the list broker (compiled list) or list owner (response list) for a one-time use or for multiple use within a specific time period (usually one year).

To check on whether the use restrictions are being followed, mail lists are seeded. Seeding consists of adding names to the list of individuals known to the list owner. These individuals notify the list owner if they receive mail pieces beyond what is allowed by the use agreement.


House List

A house list is a type of compiled list that is owned by a specific business or organization. It is compiled from internal sources such as the list of customers, members, or donors, then augmented to include prospects whose characteristics match those of existing customers.

A house list is one of the most valuable assets a business or organization has, since it facilitates the ability to communicate directly with customers and prospects.

In its simplest form, a house list consists of just the information required to address a mailpiece. But since a house list is under direct control of the business or organization, it can be augmented with other information the business or organization has access to. This might include additional contact information (telephone number, email address) and buying habits (when the last purchase was made, last donation received, or when a membership expires).

A house list has many benefits over a rented list. It can be updated immediately as the billing department or donor relations department becomes aware of a new address or contact name. Outside salespeople or development staff can provide additional contacts so that the list is dynamic and constantly growing.

Most importantly, the business or organization has an established relationship with the names on the mail list. For these reasons, a house list always performs better than a rented list, as measured by response rate to a mailing.


Establishing Standards for a House List

A house list that will be used for a single purpose (sending a monthly newsletter, for example) needs a simple structure – first name, last name, street address, city, state, and ZIP code.

But if the list could be used for other purposes, additional fields will be required. Here are some examples:

• If the list will be used to mail invitations to an event that requires a social form of address (Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Damon; President and Mrs. Barack Obama; The Honorable John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) then the list will need an additional field for title.

• If the list will be used for a mail merge application requiring the first name of the individual and spouse in a salutation line (Dear Matt and Luciana, Dear Barack and Michelle, Dear John and Jane), the list will need additional data fields for alternate first name and spouse name.

• If the customers and prospects are a mix of businesses, organizations, and individuals, an additional data field is needed for company name.

• If the list contains foreign addresses it will need a country field, and may need additional fields to accommodate foreign address formats.

The main benefit of having a separate field for each data element is the ability to sort on it. While at first it may seem unnecessary to separate a name into first and last fields, having just a single name field means that a sort on the name field will alphabetize by the first character encountered – in this case, the first character of the first name. This is a much less useful sort than being able to alphabetize by last name – which requires a last name field.

By design, a field should contain only one type of information, and one type is strictly defined to mean one thing only. First name means the first name of an individual; last name means the last name of an individual. A separate field, company name, is required to hold the names of businesses and organizations.


Maintain a House List with Database Management Software

Since a mail list is a type of database, the best software to use is a relational database. A relational database uses a table of rows and columns to store information.

The rows are called records; the columns are called fields. In a mail list, the fields contain information such as first name, last name, street address, city, state, ZIP code. Taken together, the fields make up a single record, and all the records, taken together, make up the database or file.

A mail list in a relational database format has several benefits: sorts can be made on any field, information is easy to access, reports can be generated using a subset of fields from each record, and information can be reorganized by creating new tables using data from other tables.

A relational database manager can perform a quick search and sort using either a filter or a query. Both these functions apply selection criteria to determine what records meet the criteria, then create a new table of records that meet the criteria.

A filter is a temporary tool that is used one time in the context of a particular table and disappears when the table is closed. In contrast, a query can be stored for reuse.

A popular relational database management program is Access. Perhaps because it is harder to learn than Access, many customers like to use Excel for a mail list.

Despite the fact that Excel displays information in rows and columns (making it appear to be a table), the information is actually one long data file. This limits the ability to find data because the file must be searched sequentially.

In addition, Excel allows the user to change the sort order of a single column (rather than the entire record), which can lead to a mismatch of the data elements in the rows.


Help Customers Understand House Lists

Use your expertise to help customers understand the benefits of establishing a house list and maintaining it correctly. It will pay dividends to you when they provide it for a mailing job.



Nancy DeDiemar is the president of Printing Resources of Southern California, a quick print shop in Upland, CA, offering printing, copying, electronic prepress, and mailing services. Nancy is the co-publisher of Printips (, a newsletter subscription service for printers. Contact her at