If we start the story backwards, the problem with databases depends upon the desired output: usually it’s labels. Now, if making labels for postal pieces in an age of email were not enough to put you over the edge, consider the pain and suffering most non-database users go through when they try to do a mail merge between a spreadsheet and their word processor. First, there’s the typing of addresses into spreadsheet columns. Aside from the sheer tedium of this activity, most users fail to plan how they might want to sort the data later, either alphabetically or by street address. They forget to separate first from last name, and street number from street name, such that Excel has no way to sort other than first name or street number when it comes to merge time. Then there’s the incessant confusion around creating a label template in Microsoft Word, an activity even the uber-geeks of Seattle dread ever having invented. If setting the margins and fonts weren’t trouble enough, consider the chaos created by having to deal with "merge fields" that should correspond to the spreadsheet but only if you created field headers in the first place. Confused yet? Well, it’s not over, because if you do happen to get the right merge fields into the right margin settings, the success of your mail merge comes down to figuring out no less than 5 options buttons in the so-called "easy" merge wizard: Do you know the difference between a source file and a destination file? Do you even care?
It’s no surprise that the average mail merge attempt ends in failure, and those that do succeed take no less than three hours for the everyday user. At a productivity cost of $100 per hour in potential sales, not including supplies and stamps, it’s certainly enough to make salespeople go postal over mailings. Why, then, do we continue to torture ourselves over this thing called mail merge?
The problem lies in choosing the right tool for the right job. Gardeners use a trowel, not a backhoe. Dentists use a pick, not a chisel. Salespeople need to learn to use databases, not word processors and spreadsheets, to simplify and streamline their direct mailing techniques. And the right database can make all the difference when it comes to direct marketing.
The absolute cheapest way to simplify your mail merges is to purchase a wimpy but effective dedicated label-making program. A tour down the aisles of any office supply store will reveal a few sub-$30 labels-only programs that enable you to create a simple database – with appropriately separated and indexed fields. They can even import data from existing spreadsheets. Inexpensive programs like Personal Mailing List from RKS Software put database creation and full-functional filtering at your fingertips without programming skills or multi-program coordination. Such programs include libraries of common label templates, such as Avery Labels’ free DesignPro software or a label template editor, enabling you to set parameters to create almost any label format you desire. The key, of course, is not the output – not the label – but the input. Building a better database makes printing labels a breeze; usually less than a minute from filter to print.
Now, if the key to better labels is a better database, then the best database programs should clearly yield the best marketing results. It’s no wonder, then, that users of sophisticated database programs rarely encounter labels headaches. There are three databases that stand out for real estate direct mailing management: ACT, Outlook and Top Producer, in successive order of expense. ACT for Windows, has been the staple database organizer and multi-format output program for millions of salespeople across every industry for more than a decade. With customizable input screens, ACT makes it easy to gather and organize contact lists by almost any criteria: street, city, state, custom farm fields and personalized groups. With slick add-ins like Sonoma Enterprises ACTive Agent, managing multiple marketing channels is enhanced by the addition of real estate specific filtering fields. Using standard "lookups", the labels process is not even a merge but a plain print function. A few clicks – File, Print, Labels – and whatever group of contacts is on screen is suddenly on labels of almost any design.
The mass-mailing database used by masses is, of course, Microsoft’s Outlook software. Creating and managing databases – or contacts folders as Outlook calls them – is just as easy as ACT. Finding and sorting lists is simple, too. Admittedly, making labels still involves a merge but thanks to Outlook’s latest Wizard functions, the process is mostly guided by clicking “next, next, next” along the way. Once again, the output is simplified by using a more powerful input tool: the database does the driving and the tools are built in. With Outlook, creating labels, formletters and even mass emailings is as easy as answering the animated paperclip’s step-by-step questions.
The granddaddy of direct mailings, at least in the real estate industry, is undoubtedly Top Producer. The most expensive of the group, Top Producer is also the most real estate savvy database that transforms mass mailings into targeted marketing no matter what the output – labels, letters, postcards or email. The potential lies in Top Producer’s powerful database tools: contact data can go far beyond basic address information, into data mining areas such as property price ranges, home features, and school areas. Every piece of customer data can be mixed and matched before creating mailings. The result is frequently better targeted - and lower volume – marketing campaigns that send the right message to the right groups based upon advanced data mining tools. In fact, it’s even possible to create a mass mailing based upon a single word found in the notes section of a contact record: looking up "gazebo" could find the three buyers for whom you wrote notes months ago, eliminating the need to send out 500 labels when you really only need to contact three.
Forgetting the fact that making labels is itself anachronistic considering today’s electronic marketing tools, the bottom line is this: a better database makes for better mailings. Fighting with spreadsheets, columns, tables and templates is like using a laptop to figure out the tip in a restaurant. If you’re going to waste the time and money on paper and postage mailings, then, please, at least do it with a database.
This article was authored by Matthew Ferrara of Matthew Ferrara Seminars Inc.
Reprinted with permission of Matthew Ferrara Seminars Inc.