How to Get a Direct Mail Mailing List

The mailing list is the single most important part of any direct mail campaign. You can’t create an appealing offer or design a beautiful piece without knowing who you’re mailing to. And if you send your pieces to the wrong audience, you risk alienating prospects and wasting valuable time and money.

If you’re new to direct mail or want to know how to improve your list selection for future campaigns, you’ve come to the right place. Follow the steps below to learn how to determine your audience, select a mailing strategy, and obtain the perfect list. We’ll also provide a handful of questions that can help you choose the right list provider. Let’s dive in.

Determine Your Target Audience

The first step of any direct mail campaign is to determine your target audience. You have to know who you’re mailing to before you can choose a mailing strategy or obtain a direct mail list. In fact, determining your audience is arguably the most important aspect of direct mail and influences almost every decision you make about your campaign.

Once you know who you want to reach, you can segment or filter your mailing list based on a variety of selects. Selects are specific criteria that help you narrow your list down into more refined groups. There are five main ways to segment your mailing list.

infograph: five ways to segment your mailing list
  • Geographic Segmentation (Location-Specific) – Used when you’re trying to reach people in a specific area.
  • Demographic Segmentation (People Stats) – Used when you’re trying to target people using specific demographic data, like age, gender, and income.
  • Firmographic Segmentation (Business Stats) – Used in business-to-business marketing. Criteria can include employee count, revenue, industry, and number of locations.
  • Psychographic Segmentation (Hobbies & Traits) – Used when you pair audience demographics with data on personal values, hobbies, and personality traits.
  • Sales Stage Segmentation (Customer Status) – Used when your customers fall into a particular stage of the buying cycle – prospects, one-time customers, frequent customers, past customers, etc.

In some cases, you might need to use multiple segmentation methods at the same time. For example, you may want to mail to all people within a 5-mile radius of your business who are between the ages of 35 and 50. In this case, you’d be combining geographic and demographic segmentation.

Choose Your Mailing Strategy

The second step in getting your list is selecting a mailing strategy. The goals of your campaign and the complexity of the segmentation method(s) you choose will determine how you mail.

This table shows the relationships between the five segmentation types and the two main mailing strategies. We’ll get into the specifics of each mailing strategy below.

Mailing Strategy Geographic (Location-Specific) Demographic (People Stats) Firmographic (Business Stats) Psychographic (Hobbies & Traits) Sales Stage (Customer Status)
Saturation Mailing × × ×
Targeted Mailing

Saturation Mailing

If your business offers a product or service almost anyone can use, a saturation mailing is probably your best bet. Consumer-facing businesses like restaurants, grocery stores, and automotive shops can benefit from a saturation mailing strategy.

If you choose saturation, your pieces will be sent to every household along a particular carrier route (the actual route the mail carrier walks or drives). Saturation mailings also allow you to do some targeting. For example, you can remove business addresses, PO boxes, and some residential addresses (like drop addresses, seasonal addresses, and apartments). You can also use the median demographics (like age, income, and number of children) for each carrier route to do some further targeting.

Keep in mind that the demographic data provided for carrier routes is expressed in medians, which are the figure(s) in the middle of a data set. If you only want to target people who are exactly 50 years old or households with exactly 2 children, then you’ll need to go with a targeted mailing.

In some cases, saturation can actually offer better returns than targeted mailings. Because you can view median demographics for carrier routes, you can reach a similar audience with a saturation mailing as you would with a targeted one. Your targeting might not be as refined, but you’ll save money because you won’t need to pay for a more expensive targeted list. Plus, you’ll qualify for lower saturation postage rates.

Saturation Mailing Summary:

  • Pros: Low cost, reach everyone in a neighborhood, remove certain address types
  • Cons: Doesn’t offer extensive targeting, no personalization
  • Works well for: Consumer-facing businesses like restaurants, grocery stores, car washes, etc. and large retailers

Targeted Mailing

Unlike saturation mailings, a targeted strategy allows you to segment your list based on a variety of selects. One of the most common uses of a targeted strategy is mailing to your current customers or loyalty rewards members. If you want to be more specific with your targeting, you can combine different audience segmentation methods to reach a more qualified audience. For example, you might combine demographic and psychographic data by mailing to men between ages 25 and 40 who like golf.

Depending on how much you’ve segmented your list, you might end up mailing to only a handful of people who fit the very specific criteria you’ve selected. Targeting allows you to extensively filter lists based on specific personal details, but don’t abuse that power. Your audience takes their privacy seriously, and they probably won’t respond to an offer that feels too invasive.

While targeted mailings are more expensive than saturation ones, they’re usually well worth the investment. You can create a more relevant offer by tailoring your message to meet the needs of your ideal customer. And higher relevance often leads to greater engagement with your piece and improved response rates.

Targeted Mailing Summary

  • Pros: Ability to target an audience that may be more receptive to your offer, ability to personalize your direct mail
  • Cons: More expensive than saturation mailing, over-personalization can come across as creepy
  • Works well for: Businesses offering a niche product or service or companies mailing to an existing customer list

Ways to Obtain a Mailing List

Once you’ve decided on your audience and mailing strategy, it’s time to actually acquire your list. There are two main ways to go about this: use your own house list or pay to rent or buy one.

Use Your House List

Your house list is a great place to start if you don’t know how to get addresses for direct mail. This list contains the names of people you already have a relationship with. These individuals can be current customers, past customers, or people who’ve inquired about your product or service. They’re part of your target audience, and they’ll probably be responsive to your offer. Best of all, you don’t have to rent or buy a mailing list when you use in-house files, which saves you money.

If you use your house list, remember that you need to keep it clean and up to date. You can either hire an external company to do this or have one of your current employees handle it. The process of keeping your lists free of incorrect information, duplicate names, and other inaccuracies is called data hygiene.

It’s important to keep organized records of everyone who comes into your business or contacts you for information. If you have a large house file and want to narrow it down, try applying some of the segmentation methods mentioned above to make it easier to navigate.

Buy or Rent a List

icon - list with magnifying glassIf you don’t have a house list or need a specialized list for prospecting, you’ll need to rent or buy one. In most cases, renting a mailing list is the way to go. One reason for this is because renting a list is less expensive than buying one. It’s also less of a commitment because you don’t have to maintain the list. While you won’t own the names on rented mailing lists, you will own the names of anyone who responds to your campaign.

There are two main types of rented direct mail address lists:

  • Response Lists – Made up of individuals who have replied, inquired, or purchased in the past due to an offer they received from a company with products and services similar to yours. These lists are often more expensive than compiled ones because the people on them are proven responders.
  • Compiled Lists – Usually comprised of individuals with similar interests, like real estate agents or dog breeders. These lists are compiled using a variety of sources, including government databases, magazine subscriptions, vehicle registrations, credit card lists, and phone records. They often generate lower returns than response lists and are less expensive.

Names on compiled lists come from a variety of sources, including:

  • Associations – professional/trade organizations, membership organizations, trade shows/events, etc.
  • Subscribers – magazine or newsletter subscribers, subscriptions for recurring services/deliveries, etc.
  • Buyers – proven buyers of products and services similar to yours
  • Other data sources – directories, public records, warranties, product registrations, surveys, etc.

Where to Get a Mailing List

If you decide to rent or buy a mailing list, you need to know where to get it. If you use a full-service direct mail company, they should obtain a list for you. But if you’re responsible for finding your own and don’t know how to get mailing list addresses, there are several resources you can use for mailing list rental.

  • List Brokers – Perform extensive research to provide you with recommendations based on the goals of your campaign. Direct mail list brokers have the experience and knowledge to find the right list for you and will advocate on your behalf.
  • List Compilers – Manage the lists they’ve compiled and market them to potential clients.
  • List Managers – Oversee the rental of specific lists they manage themselves. They advertise their lists to convince clients to rent them.
  • List Managers/Brokers – Manage and broker lists at the same time. Since they might be promoting their list over others you’re considering, take what they say with a grain of salt. Make sure they’re working for you, and not just themselves.
  • List Owners – Sell lists that have performed well to non-competitive companies.

How Much Do Mailing Lists Cost?

List prices can range from a penny to well over a dollar per name depending on the type of list you choose and how it’s segmented. For example, lists for targeted mailings will cost you more than lists for saturation mailings. And lists that are segmented using psychographic data or sales stage information will probably be more expensive than lists segmented demographically or geographically.

Depending on where you get your list, you may have to purchase a minimum amount of names. And if you want to test a small portion of names ahead of time, you’ll probably have to pay extra up front.

To make sure you don’t overspend on your list, gather a few estimates from different companies before purchasing. You should never buy a list based on cost alone. Otherwise, you could end up with a low-quality list that doesn’t perform just because you wanted to save a buck.

Saturation Example

  • Criteria: Your ZIP Code
  • Number of Addresses: 5,000
  • Cost per Address: $0.04
  • Total List Cost: $200

Targeted Example

  • Criteria: Your ZIP Code, Women, Ages 25-30, Cat Enthusiasts, Photography Enthusiasts
  • Number of Addresses: 50
  • Cost per Address: $2.50
  • Total List Cost: $125

Questions to Ask List Providers

questions illustrationAsking providers the right questions is the final step in getting the best list for your campaign. The questions below will help you get a high-quality list that can deliver a solid rate of return. Here are a few of the most important things to ask your list provider before renting or purchasing:

  • Which sources do you use to compile names? Names can come from government records, telephone directories, tax records, event attendee lists, warranty cards, buyer lists, corporate reports, mortgage databases, business records, credit bureaus, email subscriber lists, and more.
  • When was the mailing list last updated? A good list is updated at least once a month. If the one you’re interested in hasn’t been updated recently, don’t rent it.
  • Which other mailers have used the list recently? This question helps you determine whether your competitors have used the list. If they have used it, you may want to target a different group of people. But if you think you can beat them, you could try using the same list.
  • How many times has the list been rented within the last six months? If it’s been used too many times within the last six months, it may have lost its potential to continue delivering results.
  • Is there a discount for multiple uses? Some list providers offer a discount to mailers who use the list more than once.
  • How often are your lists run through the Coding Accuracy Support System (CASS) and the National Change of Address Database (NCOA)? CASS certification allows direct mailers to improve the accuracy of the addresses on their list. NCOA is a database maintained by the USPS that contains the names of individuals and companies that have changed addresses within the last four years.
  • What are your list hygiene practices? In addition to CASS and NCOA, list hygiene includes things like removing duplicate and near-duplicate names, identifying undeliverable addresses, and fixing incomplete or incorrect addresses. Proper list hygiene helps ensure your mail gets to the right people and that it’s eligible for USPS postage discounts.
  • Do you offer net name arrangements? A net name arrangement is where the list owner agrees to a lower price based on the amount of names you actually use. This is a great way to save money on your campaigns.


Reaching the right people is crucial to the success of your direct mail campaign. But that’s easier said than done. We hope this guide helped break down what can be a complicated process into some easy, actionable steps.

If you ever find yourself stressing over your list, just remember the three simple steps outlined above. Decide who you’re trying to target. Choose a mailing strategy that complements your target audience. And obtain your list by using your own house data or renting from a provider.

As you become more comfortable with list selection, you may want to begin testing different mailing lists against each other. This will help you evaluate your list performance and optimize your direct mail spend. To learn more about how to set up testing, check out our guide on how to analyze and test direct mail campaigns.