How to Build Your Ultimate Contact List
Note: A few times a month we revisit some of our reader’s favorite posts from throughout the history of FreelanceSwitch. This article by Martha was first published April 12th, 2009, yet is just as relevant and full of useful information today.
A few years ago, articles of this sort were all about building one’s mailing list.
And we in the design field knew the drill quite well. We’d create a list of likely prospects, design something cool to send out, and then wait for the phone to ring. Sometimes it rang, sometimes it didn’t.
A-a-a-ah, the olden days.
Back then, those spinning business card files bearing the Rolodex brand were like gold. If you are of a certain age, you may remember that strict “Don’t Take the Rolodex with You” policy if you decided to leave Company X.
While you were at Company X, the cards in your Rolodex spent a great deal of time on your desk, waiting for you to give them a spin. Occasionally, they had to be spun into a mailing list, and you may be curious as to how that would happen.
Well, children, gather ‘round and I will tell you about the legions of talent, hard-working, and under-appreciated women who kept the corporate world going. They were called secretaries, and, among their myriad responsibilities, they transferred the information from Rolodexes onto mailing labels.
And they used typewriters to accomplish this task. Ever used a typewriter? There’s no Control-Z function on those things. Make a ba-a-a-ad mistake and you have to retype the whole page.
Along came computers. They turned a lot of “secretarial help needed” tasks (like list-keeping) into do-it-yourself affairs. Companies responded by cutting their clerical staffs. Nowadays, only the most senior people have them.
And thus ends Martha’s look back at the olden days.
Now, let’s talk about what you’re going to use to create and maintain your list, then we’ll consider who should be on it.
In the contact management software field, you have a lot of choices. You can use a software program — such as ACT!, Goldmine, or Outlook — that runs on your computer or handheld. These programs can alert you when it’s 10 o’clock and time to call that prospect. They can also serve as your day planner. They do have a bit of a learning curve, but once you get past it, you’ll be a contact management samurai.
If you’re a travelin’ man (or woman), you may prefer to store your contacts on the Internet. One of my business mentors swears by Salesforce.com, and with good reason. He’s been using it since he was a teenaged entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.
As for me, I like to keep things simple. I’ll pass on the electronic day planners and phone call reminders, thank you very much. Capstralia’s Contact Expert is my weapon of choice, and I use it as an electronic card file for everyone who is someone in my life.
My favorite feature is Categories, which allows me to sort my contacts into one or more lists. Take the president of my neighborhood association, for example. I have her on my Neighborhood Issues and Newsletter lists. (“Newsletter” is what I use for generating the recipients list for my studio’s monthly e-mailing.)
I view my contact manager as a one-stop shopping source for the information I need. If it’s a prospect’s phone number, there it is, right below his name. Or, if I need to send a friend an e-mail about that lunch we’re planning, there’s a clickable link that fires up Mozilla Thunderbird, and off the message goes.
Now, I’ve been dancing around an important issue for the last few paragraphs, and here it is: Your list isn’t going to levitate into your contact manager. Sorry, but the secretarial pool has departed from the corporate world, and besides, you’re a freelancer now. It’s time for you to do some data entry.
Yuck. Data entry.
And I’m going to compound your agony by saying that it will take a while. When I first created my list in Contact Expert, it took a month to get all the names entered – and there were more than 300 of them.
Tip: If you’re too busy to create and maintain your own list, but can’t justify the expense of hiring an employee, use a Virtual Assistant (VA). You can contract with a VA on an ongoing basis, or hire by the project. You can search for VAs via the International Virtual Assistants Association website .
Which brings me to my next point: Who should be on your list? I think this question is best answered with another: “Who do you know?”
When I first started building my studio list, I started with my Rolodex. It yielded a treasure trove of names. (In case you’re wondering, I still have that Rolodex. It’s hiding behind my computer monitor.) Then there were those helpful family members and friends who suggested names. Thumbing through the directories of organizations I belonged to was also useful.
Before I put any name on my list, I ask myself if this person would be interested in hearing from me on an ongoing basis. If I think so, that individual goes on the list. If I don’t think someone will want to hear from me regularly, I keep her off the list.
My current list has just over 325 names. They fall into one of these three categories:
1. People I’ve Done Business With – also known as The Clientele. I also include former clients in this category. Why? Because you never know when they might decide to come back. (And I do stay in touch with them. You should too.)
2. People I’d Like to Do Business With – let’s use marketing-speak and call them The Prospects. My prospects are people in my pipeline of business contacts. Our initial contact happens through my making cold and warm calls, participating in online discussion groups, attending community events, giving speeches, and via referrals. By putting them on my mailing list and keeping in touch, I hope someday to move them up into Group 1, The Clientele.
3. Friends of the Studio. Many of these are folks with whom I’ll never do any business. But they may well send some business my way. Who are they? Here goes:
- College classmates
- Competitors (the friendly ones, of course!)
- Family members
- Former bosses
- Former co-workers
- News media
- Vendors and suppliers
Using the “Who Do I Know?” system is a good way to build a no-cost list, if those people fit your Ideal Client Profile. If they don’t, you’ll need to look elsewhere. You can find leads via:
1. Industry Directories. Every industry under the sun has a directory. For example, if you were seeking clients in the bicycle industry, you’d want to get a copy of the Interbike Directory. Going after radio stations and record companies? Head for the Radio and Records Directory, which insiders call “R & R.”
2. Trade Associations. Are you targeting certain types of businesses like, say, home builders? Or are you seeking businesses in a specific locale? Organizations sometimes offer member directories to those who belong, and to those who are thinking of joining.
But read the fine print before you build a list from a trade association directory. Some associations specifically forbid using their directory as a mailing list. They may even seed it with some fake names so misuse can be detected and proven. However, their list may be available for single use rental – if you are a member.
3. Trade Shows. Your show entry fee should include a directory of exhibitors and where they are in the hall. If you want to do business with trade show exhibitors, don’t go from booth to booth pitching your wares. The exhibitors have spent a lot of time and money on their show space, and they’re there to sell. Your sales pitch probably won’t be welcome.
Case in point: I once exhibited at an event that was prospected by a trade show display salesman. The guy exhibiting next to me spotted him and yelled, “Hey! He doesn’t have a booth here, does he?” That salesman left in a hurry.
Instead, get a copy of the directory, identify the exhibitors you’d like to follow up with, go around the hall gathering business cards, then use those cards to build your list. Go ahead and contact them after the show.
4. Mailing List Brokers. Have you created your Ideal Client Profile yet? Take it with you when you meet with your list broker. That ICP will help them find you a list that’s custom-tailored to your needs.
5. News Release Services. Since I do business with several universities, I make sure that I’m on their news release distribution lists.
6. News Aggregators. I’m a big fan of the search filters at Google News.
7. Libraries. They’re a great resource for any business, large or small. Your library should have two of the best guides to mailing lists:
- Standard Rate and Data Service Direct Marketing List Source
- Oxbridge Communications National Directory of Mailing Lists
While you’re at the library, make friends with the reference librarian. Tell your librarian about your list project, and show him the above list of resources. It will help you get the help you need – quickly and efficiently.
Libraries also have directories of manufacturers, distributors, and other business sources. These usually list the pertinent personnel at each business too.
8. Online List Brokers. Here are five to get you started:
Having identified all of these lead sources, permit me to add a caution: Don’t get wrapped up in finding lists, then embarking on a lengthy contact manager data entry session. The goal is to talk to your leads as quickly as possible. Leads lists will not hatch if you sit on them!
Case in point: I’m in the midst of prospecting nearly two dozen departments in a large university. Instead of playing the Data Entry Procrastination Game, I’m finding faculty lists on the university’s website, and then I’m making the calls and sending e-mails. The people who express interest in my services are the ones who get entered into my contact manager. Makes for a lot less data entry.
As for your own in-house list, it’s a living, ever-changing thing that you need to work with. Constantly.
So, start making those calls, sending those e-mails, text messages, and tweets, setting up in-person visits, and, oh yes, sending them things in the postal mail. Do what you have to do to reach out to your list and stay in touch. Don’t wait for them to get in touch with you. That probably won’t happen. The future belongs to those who take the initiative.