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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 mailer without knowing who you're mailing to. And if you send your mailers to the wrong audience, you risk alienating prospects and wasting valuable time and money.

Determine Your Target Audience

The first step of any direct mail campaign is to understand 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. ProPrint's mailing experts can assist you by providing sophisticated customer modeling to help you better understand your needs.

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.

Determine Your Target Audience

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 StrategyGeographic (Location-Spacific)Demographic (People Stats)Firmographic (Business Stats)Psychographic (Hobbies & Traits)Sales Stage (Customer Status)
Saturation Mailing
Targeted Mailing


To qualify for the lowest postage rates on a saturation mailing, stick to the 90/75 rule. This stipulates that you must mail to 90% of all residential addresses or 75% of all business and residential addresses combined within each carrier route. If you don't meet the 90/75 rule, you'll no longer qualify for the lowest saturation postage rates.



Low cost
Reach a neighborhood
Remove certain address types



Doesn't offer extensive
No personalization

Great For

Great For:

businesses like restaurants,
grocery stores, car washes,
etc. and large retailers

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.

Targeted Mailing

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.



Ability to target an audience that may be more receptive to your offer
Ability to personalize your direct mail



More expensive than saturation mailing,
Over-personalization can come across as creepy

Great For

Great 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.


To add more information to your house file, try mailing or emailing surveys to your customers to collect more data. You can also ask questions when they call or visit your store to learn more about them and figure out what they have in common. This knowledge can help you craft more effective offers because you'll understand what your target audience wants

Use Your In-House List

Your in-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 in-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.

Rent a Mailing List

If you don't have a house list or need a specialized list for prospecting, you'll need to rent one. List Brokers and Compilers maintain and update their lists regularly. And, 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.


ProPrint is a list broker. We include mailing lists in our saturation and targeted direct mail services. This means we can provide standalone mailing lists for you to purchase.

Where to Acquire 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 Codes
  • Number of Addresses: 10,000
  • Cost per Address: $0.012
  • Total List Cost: $120

Targeted Example

  • Criteria: Your ZIP Codes, Women, Ages 25-30, Home Value 100 - 350K, Children Present in Home
  • Number of Addresses: 2500
  • Cost per Address: $0.09
  • Total List Cost: $225

Questions to Ask List Providers

Asking 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:

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.

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.


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 spending. To learn more about how to set up testing, check out our guide on how to analyze and test direct mail campaigns.