The Art of Reading Data Cards

May 01, 2004 9:30 PM  By

Since the early days in the industry, data cards have helped catalogers and list brokers determine a list’s counts, demographics, and pricing. The information contained within a data card — not unlike a rate card in the magazine business — is often a guideline from which mailing decisions are based.

But what happens when the data card conceals information or stretches the truth to get the mailers’ attention? Several list professionals contacted admit that the information listed on a data card shouldn’t be taken as gospel.

For example, take the data card for the Coca-Cola gifts catalog. It cites nearly 31,000 12-month buyers. But the card doesn’t explain how so many consumers managed to buy from the catalog in the past year, given that it stopped mailing in 2000. (The file’s manager, Aggressive List Management, did not return repeated calls for this story.)

Many mailers are skeptical about the information on data cards. “I’m not ever really convinced that we’re getting the most accurate information we can, particularly about when the list was last updated,” says Jim Ray, president of Lynchburg, VA-based hardware cataloger McFeeley’s Square Drive Screws. “Sometimes when we rent a list of three-month buyers, they end up being six-month buyers because the list updates weren’t done.”

Warren Sukernek, president of Newton, MA-based furniture mailer Oriac Design, recalls a situation four years ago when his fledgling catalog business rented a compiled list of federal agencies. “It was clear that the file had not been updated, because the addresses were no longer valid,” Sukernek says. “Since then I’ve learned to take data cards at face value.”

In fact, many list professionals say that catalogers should use data cards merely as a guideline. “Most times a mailer or a list broker is going to have to call the list manager to get updated counts and selects anyway,” says Dennis Bissig, president of Hackensack, NJ-based list firm Mokrynski & Associates.

Mike Hayden, senior vice president of brokerage for Peterborough, NH-based list firm Millard Group, agrees. He notes that the demographic information listed on data cards is intentionally broad to appeal to more mailers who may want to rent the list — thus increasing the list rental income. “If we’re interested in pursuing that file from the data card, we would complete our due diligence and call the list manager” for details, Hayden says.

Or as Stan Madyda, vice president of list brokerage for Ridgefield, CT-based list firm D-J Associates, puts it: “That’s why mailers work with brokers: to do the digging.”

Red flags

Some warning signs are evident without much digging, though. For instance, the source of the names on a list is key, says Geoff Batrouney, executive vice president of New Rochelle, NY-based Estee Marketing Group. “If a mailer rents a list entitled ‘Asian Fruit Buyers’ but the source of the names are not known, be skeptical.”

Indeed, “if a company chooses to omit the source of a name on the data card, it would make that list suspect in my mind,” says Roy Schwedelson, CEO of Boca Raton, FL-based list firm Worldata.

Similarly, “if I see a data card come onto the market from a cataloger I’ve never heard of, I am immediately suspicious,” Madyda says. The bigger the list, the more suspicious you should be.

Some list managers have been known to augment the size of their catalog lists by adding the names of requesters in with the names of buyers. When verifying the number of names on the list, be sure to confirm how many, if any, are requesters.

When checking the timing and frequency of list updates, keep in mind that generally speaking, the larger the file, the more frequently it should be updated. For example, a list with 100,000 12-month buyers might be updated quarterly; a list with 2.5 million names might be updated monthly.

And it’s important to ask not just when the file was last updated but also the time frame of the data added at that update, says Gina Valentino, vice president/general manager of Shawnee Mission, KS-based catalog consultancy J. Schmid & Associates. Just because a list was updated in April doesn’t mean that the names added were from January through March; the list owner may have just been adding names from the fourth quarter of last year at that time.

But while due diligence is always advisable, most in the industry do not see the list business as a hotbed of intentionally misleading and erroneous information. Schwedelson, for one, believes that inconsistencies and errata are the work of a few “fringe firms” that have little respect for the industry.

And in time, these fringe companies will learn from the marketplace “because over time mailers will cease to rent the more-suspect lists,” Schwedelson says. “The more accurate the data card, the more money the list owner is going to make.”