List Watch: Getting What You Paid For

Children’s Wear Digest had been renting a particular list regularly for several years. But then over the course of a year, results from the list went from effective to dismal.

The Richmond, VA-based children’s apparel mailer had ordered the names of parents who had bought children’s clothes within the past six months. “But we found out that some of the three-month buyers selected were parents who had placed orders for children’s clothes years earlier,” says Tracy Dodson, marketing associate for Children’s Wear Digest.

It’s an unfortunate fact of the business that sometimes list renters and exchangers do not receive the exact selects they had requested. “I detected errors in lists I rented on several occasions when I was a mailer,” says Geoff Batrouney, now executive vice president for New Rochelle, NY-based list firm Estee Marketing Group.

While with the now-defunct Coca Cola catalog, Batrouney says, some lists he rented would perform only half as well during the level-two continuation than during the initial mailing. He eventually found out that some list owners would fulfill a test order with buyers, then include the names of nonbuyers for subsequent orders of that list.

Unfortunately, “you really have no way of knowing if you actually got what you asked for ahead of time,” says Joy Contreras, vice president of consumer for Pearl River, NY-based list firm Edith Roman & Associates. “You have to be able to trust the list manager you’re using.”

And before you can trust a list firm or owner, you have to do your research. In Children’s Wear Digest’s case, Dodson performed due diligence too late. After the unsuccessful mailing, “I heard that other mailers had issues with this list owner as well,” she says. “After a little digging, I found out that this company had changed its merge/purge service providers three times within the previous four or five months — and none of them were providers my list manager had even heard of.”

Beyond researching the manager and owner, ask about the list itself. “As a mailer, I would always ask my broker to document if the files being ordered were self-maintained or updated by the list owner on a regular basis,” Batrouney says. “And I would let it be known that we scrutinize the tapes closely to see how the names are pulled, and that we really pay attention to the issue.”

Keep an eye on merge/purge results from continuations as well. If a list that you reorder regularly suddenly has many more or fewer duplicate names than in the past, it could suggest that you’re not getting your usual order.

That said, don’t jump to conclusions whenever a list performs poorly. “There are a myriad of reasons a list may not work,” notes Shardul Pandya, catalog director for high-tech gadgets marketer TechnoBrands. “The in-home date could coincide with the World Series, for example. But if a list tanks for more than one or two mailings in a row, I would suspect that [the owners, broker, or service bureau] did something wrong.”

Taking action

Once you conclude that you did not receive the names you’d ordered, you must decide what recourse to take. At this point, you will have absorbed the costs of not only the names themselves but also of the wasted mailings sent to the wrong names.

“You can sue for damages,” Batrouney says. “I don’t think there’s any question that if a list is not what the manager says it it is, then somebody was being paid” for services not rendered.

One mailer requesting anonymity recalls a list whose response suddenly took a nosedive after several test mailings. “Our list manager checked with the list owner, and it turned out they were running a select of 12-month buyers instead of the three-month buyers we had requested.”

Enraged, the cataloger threatened to sue the list owner, the source says. “But the manager got involved and worked out a deal in which we could rent the list three times in succession at no charge, which we felt compensated us appropriately for the failed mailing.”

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