Three Questions for Organizing Your Mailing List

Six months ago I began what I thought was a simple maturation of my business.  I wanted to improve the way I communicated with my prospects and clients in terms of my e-mail newsletters and my contact management methodology.  Little did I know of the jungle of jargon and technology into which I was about to dive.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

“You don’t know what you don’t know.” This is one my favorite phrases when I’m training people.  The point of the saying is that what you don’t know hinders your ability to ask the right questions to glean the understanding you need to proceed.  With training, the instructor’s value is that s/he guides you through the learning process, erasing what you don’t know quickly so you gain maximum value in the subject area you are studying – time management in my case.  It’s also a trap for the trainer because if you don’t remember what you didn’t know, you will often omit important pieces of information your students need to learn what you’re trying to teach them. 

This corollary – forgetting what you didn’t know – is particularly evident in most sales environments.  Sales people tend to gloss over the most fundamental principles underpinning their product or service in their haste to demonstrate its value to you in order to win the sale.  Learning the best practices of mailing list management and the available technologies to assist in this regard was no exception.  When I started investigating the numerous web-based CRM (Customer Relationship Management) platforms – Salesforce, Infusionsoft, Zoho CRMHighrise, and Batchbook to name a few – and the dozens of e-mail marketing services – iContact, MailChimp, Constant Contact, and Contactology to name a few of those – all I knew was that I wanted a more efficient and, hopefully, more effective way of managing and communicating with my prospects and clients. 

Lighting a Match on a Windy Day

After literally hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars invested, I believe I’m beginning to understand the basics of my quest.  Fear not, the remainder of this article will not describe my journey in morbid detail.  The point here is to deliver what I believe to be the most salient point I’ve learned, which is how to organize the information I currently have on my mailing list and how to gather it on the contacts I hope to gather in the future. 

Ironically, in all the hours spent studying web pages, watching tutorial videos, and talking with sales people, no one was able to give me a clear idea of how to organize my data and what data was, in fact, most important!  They either expected me to already know this or, when pressed, they deferred with statements like, “Well, that depends on the nature of your business.” Note, this latter comment was often made after I had explained my business to them and had expressed my expectations with respect to using their software!

They forgot what they didn’t know.

The Three Questions that Best Leverage Your Mailing List Data

Regardless of which CRM vendor and e-mail marketing company I was going to choose, I needed to do an import of all my existing contacts data and, hopefully, preserve a fair amount of that information.  Now, my list isn’t huge, but it does contain information on 3,900 people, so a mass import was the only reasonable way of getting them into the new platform(s).  Consequently, setting up the contact record in each of these platforms and preparing the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet for the import was a fairly daunting task. Since I wasn’t getting a ton of help from the various people I was talking to, I had to think really long and really hard about what information I currently had on each of my contacts and how I would be likely to use that information in the future. 

To skip quickly by the “easy” stuff, I knew I wanted everyone’s Name, Address, Phone Number, and E-mail Address.  But what about information like where I first got their name and what interactions I’d had with them in the past and would be likely to have with them in the future?  The quandary was that I had a lot of data but until it was well-organized, it wouldn’t be information.  To create information from data is the intermediate step for getting to knowledge, which, in this case, was how to generate more revenue for my business.  Focusing on that end game was how I came up with the following three questions for organizing my mailing list.

How did I Get this Contact Information?

In the parlance of the mailing list industry, this is known as the Lead Source.  What is the source of this lead?  How was this lead generated?  Simple enough, right?  Wrong.  The nuance, for me, was determining how detailed this information needed to be for it to be productive.  For example, should I use a simple, single-select drop down list for Lead Source, such as Speaking, Training, Coaching, etc. or should I create a detailed list of sources, such as ALA – Region 5 – 2010 Conference, CASBO – 2010 Symposium, etc?

Neither answer was wrong, so the solution was to consider which one was more correct.  In my case, I decided to split the information into separate parts.  The Lead Source would be a simple list from which only one item could be selected – Speaking, Training, Coaching, etc.  That choice focuses on the initial point of contact with the person.  There can be only one and, with a relatively small number of options, I can generate search results later based on my primary revenue generating activities. The more detailed information will be placed in the Notes field for each contact in case I wish to review it in the future.

What Communications will I be Sending to this Contact?

Since the primary purpose of this initiative was to find a way to streamline my outbound marketing efforts, the ability to slice and dice the list by what communications I intended on sending was glaringly important.  (Note, I say glaringly because it took my tiny little brain about three months to recognize this obvious fact!)  

List marketing parlance for this activity is called “segmenting.”  Unfortunately, it is used to describe different technical functionality.  However, for my purposes, I knew that there were, at this point, only three mailings I intended to use.  This knowledge came from seven years of working with my contacts and in my business, but if you’re just starting out with this type of service, know that there are ways to create new segments later and update you list to reflect those changes.

What is My Relationship with this Contact?

In any professional service business, there are multiple relationships with most of your contacts.  At first, everyone is a prospect – someone who might hire you.  However, as the relationship matures and you’ve engaged with a client more than once, these contacts become your friends, referrers of business, and even partners in new endeavors.  Moreover, as clients, they may have engaged you in more than one capacity – as a speaker, a coach, a trainer.  This is all very valuable information to track, so it needs to be categorized and captured during the setup process with both the e-mail marketing and CRM providers.

The Flickering Light at the End of the Tunnel

With these three questions answered, selecting among the various vendors was relatively straight forward.  I needed an e-mail marketing service that would allow me to create both custom fields in the contact record, as well as the ability to segment my list.  After an extensive review of the players, I chose iContact because I found their interface the most intuitive when applying the information I wanted to import.

On the CRM side, I can’t say things went as well.  I started with Infusionsoft early on in my efforts, but quickly realized I was out of my league in terms of expertise and technical ability.  Fortunately, their service is offered month-to-month, so that only cost me a few hundred dollars.

I switched over to Salesforce, the biggest and most recognizable player in the field.  After a number of conversations with their sales department, I signed a one-year contract with the upgrade for the Platinum Service with Administrative Support.  Big Mistake!  Never, ever sign a one-year contract for any of these services, especially if you expect them to actually provide you platinum service and/or administrative support!  This turned out to be very costly mistake both in terms of money spent and time lost.  I would recommend everyone in the SOHO arena to steer very clear of Salesforce.

After further investigations, armed with the slivers of knowledge I now had, I ultimately chose BatchBook over Zoho CRM and Highrise.  The primary reason was, again, the ability to customize the contact record to capture and utilize the information I wanted to manage with regard to my contacts.  Over all, I believe any of these three are worthy of consideration and each is either free or fairly inexpensive.  You can always upgrade to one of the “big boys” later if you find your needs have changed enough to merit the investment.

Lessons Learned

When looking to make better use of your mailing list via technology, there are three questions to ask of yourself and of the information you have:

  1. How did I get this contact information?
  2. What communications will I be sending to this contact?
  3. What is my relationship to this contact?

Once you have applied the answers to these questions to your list, you’ll be ready to start investigating which services are preferable to capture, track and leverage this highly valuable information you’ve spent a considerable amount of time gathering.

Happy prospecting!

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