Debating `list fatigue’

This month, we launch a List Watch Q&A feature, in which we ask list pros to give us their `take’ on a hot list issue.

The most recent Catalog Age Benchmark Report on Marketing (see article on page 44) shows that participants’ mean response rates to outside lists have dropped to their lowest level (1.2%) since 1995, when we first asked this survey question.

Does this confirm the existence of list fatigue – declining response rates from outside lists because of overmailing? Catalog Age put the question to a group of list professionals, and found surprising accord. But while none of the participants deny that lists can suffer from fatigue, each has a different theory about its origin.

Mary Ann Kleinfelter is vice president of sales and marketing of Delta Education, a Nashua, NH, catalog of home-schooling materials.

Response has declined in the past few years, but it’s not universal, and I’m not sure it’s all due to list fatigue.

For one, today’s customers have more choices than ever, especially with the Internet, and that plays into declining response rates. Second, mailers are just not cleaning their mailing lists the way they used to. If you don’t clean your house file regularly, as time goes on you will experience declining response rates. You may think you’re reaching a bigger audience, but you’re not reaching the buyers.

Third, customers are becoming immune to promotional offers, such as discounts and free product offers. A possible contributor to list fatigue is our tendency to harp on discounting. I’m not sure we should be in the business of selling at 50% off. We should be selling service, convenience, and most important, innovative products that you can’t find elsewhere.

Allison Cornia is vice president, analytical services of Locus Direct Marketing Group, a database consultancy in Austin, TX.

List fatigue does exist, but it’s often because the people in the analytical area haven’t done their jobs. If you’re not refreshing your analytics or the selection criteria (for instance, demographic or transactional data), or if you’re not tracking the exposure rate (the number of times the audience has seen offers), you are vulnerable to list fatigue.

When I see an underperforming list, I take samples of the files and look at the data source to ensure that the correct logic was used to pull the names. Then I look at how many times we’ve mailed these people over a certain time – are we suddenly inundating them, or has it been a steady mail stream? You have to be proactive. If you aren’t refreshing the file, you’re going to see declining response over time.

People are too quick to blame list fatigue on the data. You have to look at other components, too. I’ve had clients call me after a drop to say the phones aren’t ringing, and I’ve said, “Did you check the phone system?” In one recent case, that was it – the phones weren’t working.

Elaine Wright is circulation manager of Graphik Dimensions, a cataloger of framing supplies based in High Point, NC.

I’ve been in the industry since 1983, as a list manager, a broker, and a mailer, and list fatigue does exist. But it’s not simply because the names are being used over and over again, although this is definitely part of the cause, especially in a niche market in which the buyer universe is totally covered each time. Customer profiles tend to change over time, so the same names will not work in the same way forever. Sometimes you need different selects within lists to keep up with trends.

List performance can also be affected by the economy, seasonality, or other environmental factors. If a list that’s worked has a sudden drop-off, you need to investigate whether the list owner changed marketing efforts, product selections, or editorial focus. Also, if you mail frequently to the same audience without changing layout, product availability, or information, you may be contributing to list fatigue.

Brad Alexander is managing director of list firm List Locators & Managers, based in Overland Park, KS.

Brokers and mailers tend to flock to a relatively finite group of lists – some of which have small universes – when testing, especially with first-time offers. As more mailers saturate these lists with offers, prospecting response rates will decline, thus validating the list fatigue theory.

Co-op databases may also be contributing to list fatigue. During the past year, several brokers called us to complain about falling response rates from a list we manage. The only big change this list owner made in the past year was to contribute his house file data to a co-op and select prospecting names from it. Mailers that use names from co-op database participants may indirectly see the adverse affect of sophisticated targeting capabilities.

Catalogers should also key and analyze by list and by list segment. Mailers often talk of list fatigue when in fact they are seeing a difference in response from mailing a 12-month buyer compared to a three-month buyer, or using a monetary select vs. no select.

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