B-to-b profiling: Taking the guesswork out of prospecting

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You want your list to describe your target market, not somebody else's, and it will when it is properly profiled. Profiling is the practice of studying your customers, then seeking prospects with the same characteristics. But it is one of the least understood marketing functions.

Many mailers say, “Give me someone who looks like my customers,” based on regular data-card selects. But that doesn't work in business-to-business marketing. Some of the companies you want to sell into have five employees, others have 5,000. The president of a large company is not going to order office products, but the head of a smaller outfit will.

How do you determine these? With firmographic data such as Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes, employee size and individual data, each of which can tell you a great deal when overlaid onto your file.

How to build a profile
So, how do you develop an effective profile? Let's take it step by step.

Hold a fact-finding discussion with your vendor about your customers, and align your budget with your goals. Then, give the vendor all your customers for the most recent period—typically 24 months—providing as much data as you can, including text title and phone numbers. This will provide a more accurate footprint of your customer base.

Your vendor will take that file, run it against a comprehensive b-to-b database and examine the records that match. The match rate should hit from 30% to 50% for companies by site. The match rate for individuals can be anywhere from 10% to 20%. You need at least a few thousand matches to generate a footprint. Of course, the more you have, the more accurate the model is going to be.

Now it's time to overlay key data points onto your file. Here are the critical variables:

  • Multibuyers. Who would you rather mail to, the person who has opened and bought from one direct mail envelope or the person who has opened and bought three times? You also can see what medium the multibuyer likes communicating through.
  • SIC code. The SIC tells you why a person is your customer and identifies individual sites. Are you trying to reach people who buy for an entire company? That's more prevalent in specific SICs. Are your best customers in sites with 20 people or less? The SIC will help you locate them.
  • Number of employees. It sounds like a no-brainer, but you can miss your target if you lack this simple but pertinent piece of information. Why accept a near miss when you can get a direct hit?
  • Text title. This may be the most important element; it defines the individual. It's what he has written on the order form, and it's who he thinks he is. If that person is no longer employed there, your mail piece often will be forwarded to his replacement—if it has the text title on it.
  • Postal and e-mail address. Both are important. You need to be able to reach your target audience by direct mail and e-mail (or phone). Studies show that response rates increase significantly when you market to the same individual through multiple channels.

The final step in this process is performing the profile in the same database that you are prospecting from. If you utilize a database for profiling separate from the database for prospecting, the coding between sources will be different. Ideally, use a vendor that has a profiling and prospecting tool in one multipurpose database.

Watch out for pitfalls

Here are some of the worst mistakes I've seen in the process:

  • Lack of planning. Some marketers want to get to the finish line without any preparation. You need a clear vision and goals here.
  • Undermailing. Don't be afraid to hit customers and prospects multiple times, and in different channels. Once isn't enough.
  • Mailing unproductive names. If a site's not buying, it's time to suppress that site. Omitting is just as important as selecting, but most mailers lack site-suppression processes, even for postal addresses. Keep a file of black-hole sites.
  • Neglecting direct marketing basics. You need the right offer and the right hook, and it has to be delivered to the right person. And don't forget to test different offers against each other. You have a short window to work in, and your communication has to be as compelling as possible.

Take these simple profiling steps, and avoid the pitfalls, and you will know who your customers are. That's as close to a sure thing as you can get.

Greg Grdodian is exec-VP of the list management-data solutions group at Edith Roman Associates ( and ePostDirect ( He can be reached at

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