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Lists and Prospecting:  List Fulfillment Comes of Age

By Paul Miller, Senior News Editor, “Catalog Age”

This article contains material from Jim Wheaton, a Principal at Wheaton Group.  This material has been underlined for quick reference.

Reprinted with permission from the November 1, 2002 issue of Catalog Age,  http://catalogagemag.com/ar/marketing_list_fulfillment_comes/index.htm.

Last January, Plano, TX-based service bureau Electronic Data Systems (EDS) informed its clients that it would no longer support or distribute rental lists on round-reel tapes.  The standard for many years, round-reel tapes have more than their share of problems, says EDS director of list services Frank Tonge.  Getting parts to repair the machines that write the tapes, for instance, is difficult, as they're not made anymore, he says.

Now EDS works primarily with file transfer protocol (FTP), which enables clients to log onto a list provider's Website using a secure password to receive or send files; Tonge says that 85% of the catalog lists the firm outputs go via FTP or e-mail.

EDS isn't the only company to shuck old technology.  Whereas round-reel and mag tapes were the rule just a few years ago, today they are the exception.  And many mailers, list firms, and service bureaus say the benefits such advancements bring to the table – primarily speedier delivery – help them get names processed more efficiently.

Len Schenker, CEO of Farmingdale, NY-based data processing provider Anchor Computer, estimates that five years ago his company received no more than 5% of the lists it processed via e-mail or FTP.  Today more than 50% of the lists are transmitted by those methods.  “We probably doubled the amount within the past year,” he says.

Likewise, Los Angeles-based cataloger Viking Office Products receives about half of its rented lists via FTP, says Amit Mitra, vice president, U.S. and Asia Pacific.

“Most of our lists are an internal transfer from our merge/purge house, Acxiom, from one or more of its databases,” Mitra says.  “But the key contributing factor is that a lot more brokers now understand the issues with fields, formats, bits, bytes, etc., and hence have helped their clients along.  And there are a lot more co-op databases that require lists to get to a certain place at a certain time – or else. All of that has forced list owners to play [digital] ball.”

Stepping Up List Delivery
Indeed, the need for speed no doubt hastened the acceptance of FTP and e-mail as a means of moving lists.  Catalogers have long moaned that by the time they received the lists they'd rented – typically at least two weeks after they'd placed the order – the hotline names were no longer hot.

That's no longer a complaint among those using FTP and e-mail to send and receive lists.  “Delivery time has improved significantly to the point that I have placed an order and had it delivered the next day,” says Shardul Pandya, catalog director of Colonial Heights, VA-based gadgets marketer TechnoBrands.  The publisher of the TechnoScout catalog receives most of its lists via e-mail.

“A few years ago, that was out of the question,” Pandya says.  “There have been cases where a hotline was made available on the day of my merge/purge cutoff – the last possible day that a file could be delivered to the service bureau and still make it into my merge – and e-mailed out to my merge/purge house that day so that I was able to put it in the merge.”

In addition, Pandya says he's able to look at the latest sales results of lists he's testing and “go to my list broker and say ‘I would like to mail deeper into this list because it is performing well – can you get me the names today by 2:00 p.m.?’”  Techno Brands' list broker has been able to pull the list together and e-mail it to its service bureau within a few hours.

Chapel Hill, NC-based cataloger Performance Bicycle “used to allow a couple of weeks from the time we placed the order to the time we received the tape,” says vice president of database marketing John Worsley.  “Now we can get it in three to five days easily.  Usually what takes the most time is getting in touch with the list owner to approve the order.  But even that process has been sped up because you have e-mails going back and forth rather than faxes – and they're more trackable.”

Another benefit, Worsley says, is that Performance Bicycle is “no longer dependent on brokers to get files.  Our people can get them directly from the service bureaus.”

Most of the list owners that Jim Hall, vice president of brokerage with list firm Chilcutt Direct, deals with are comfortable e-mailing lists on the day they're needed.  Oklahoma City, OK-based Chilcutt handles 50%-60% of its list orders via e-mail now, he says.  So whereas in the past it could take up to two weeks for renters with established accounts to receive lists, now Hall says they get them instantly.

That's still not the case for mailers renting lists from list owners for the first time, Hall adds – though it's not because of any technological shortcomings.  Rather, the new renters still need to be approved and to prepay, a process that Hall says can take a week to 10 days.  “But once the process is complete, the list can still be e-mailed instantly.”

Clinging to the Old Methods
Of course, some list owners still don't feel comfortable e-mailing lists.  “I think it's just personal fears among some list owners,” Hall says, “but they're becoming more rare.”

What's more, although larger lists can be zipped or condensed to fit on e-mails, some really big lists might not be e-mailable.

Indeed, nondigital technology isn't dead yet.  “There are still a significant number of list rentals I fulfill that are round-reel tapes and totally obsolete,” says Jim Wheaton, a Chapel Hill, NC-based database marketing consultant.  “Some list management companies still insist on using them, even some list managers who request names shipped on round-reels.”  Smaller list owners and managers tend to be less up to speed on list fulfillment technology, Wheaton says.

Moreover, new technology tends to bring its own particular kinks.  By relying primarily on FTP to receive its new lists, Performance Bicycle sometimes retrieves incorrect files.  “We can be given a file name and access to a file,” Worsley says “but still grab the wrong file or a mislabled file.”

But several list professionals believe that the increased use of FTP and e-mail for list fulfillment will end up reducing errors.  Back when round-reel tapes were the standard, many marketers did a bad job labeling them, Wheaton recalls.  “I remember going into the tape rooms at service bureaus, and there would be hundreds of tapes, and nobody could figure out what to do with them because they were so poorly marked.”

Now, Wheaton says, “if an issue arises in which you have difficulty reading something, you can respond right away via e-mail.”

Jim Wheaton is a Principal at Wheaton Group, and can be reached at 919-969-8859 or jim.wheaton@wheatongroup.com.   The firm specializes in direct marketing consulting and data mining, data quality assessment and assurance, and the delivery of cost-effective data warehouses and marts.   Jim is also a Co-Founder of Data University www.datauniversity.org.

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