A Review of B2B (Business to Business) Data from InfoUSA
I almost always tell attendees of my Chamber of Commerce talks (or via direct mail consulting) that “the best data you can buy is data you can’t buy”. However, there isn’t usually time during a chamber of commerce event to delve into why purchased B2B data has its limitations. Below is the essential what-you-need-to-know about purchasing B2B data, especially from InfoUSA.com, compared to developing your own business-to-business (b2b) list for one-time or multiple use direct mailings.
Where Most People Buy Business-to-Business Data
When Cornerstone Services’ Project Management desk receives client purchased data for advertising mailing (as in the case yesterday, from a NYS client to sell a medical practice), it’s very clear to us that most people go online and buy b2b data from InfoUSA.com or SalesGenie.com. The truth is that SalesGenie is managed by InfoUSA, so you’re essentially buying data from the same place. Occasionally we see people send us data sourced from Experian or even from Dun & Bradstreet for higher-end mailings. If you use Hoover’s for business leads, you’ll know by now that Hoover’s is a wholly owned D&B product line via its 2003 acquisition and full re-brand as of 2017.
What does all this mean? It means that your b2b direct mail data is largely all coming from the same places. Is this bad? No, but before you pull the trigger on buying an InfoUSA.com or SalesGenie.com B2B list, please consider our experience and observations prior to use.
Our Seven (7) Most Important Questions in Assessing B2B List Quality
1. Is this the right list for my purposes?
Should you even be mailing at all?
Are you clear on the result you have in mind from the mailing?
And, if so, how certain are you that this list is going to achieve the result?
You don’t necessarily need to have complete answers, but if/when asked, we suggest to people to ask these questions first… is this mailing a promotional Hail Mary, or, are you clear on your outcome? David Grossman, a Chicago-based business consultant, has a helpful, genuine blog here worthy of your quick review: “Define the ‘Outcome’ as 1st Step to Effective Communication”.
2. How do I know my purchased B2B list is any good?
The good news here is that we, Cornerstone Services, have actually done list research on purchased lists and have had some unexpected findings, mostly from InfoUSA.com lists.
We’ll use a recent example, last year in 2017, for a regional not-for-profit client, we sourced all of the available businesses in Columbia County NY and we purchased almost 2,300 business names. Nearly every record was reviewed via internal web research, by us — one by one — for verification of phone numbers (purchased) and retrieval of additional (not purchased) contact information where possible such as website address, emails, alternative addresses, etc. Our findings were that approximately 30% of the businesses were not actually in operation anymore or dormant, at best. If they had phones, the phones were not working or, more often, simply were people’s home phone numbers; they were, in fact, potentially registered with New York State, but not technically operating in any conventional sense of the word.
In short, they were not useful, and were typically “spare bedroom” businesses. To be sure, we did multiple cross-checks on business names to see if their activity extended beyond a simple Google search (i.e. we checked Manta.com, Facebook.com, Yelp.com, the Columbia County New York Chamber of Commerce as well as and the New York Department of State Division of Corporations, State Records and UCC.
This left us with approximately 70% inferred active businesses. As a percentage of the overall purchase, approximately 20% of the businesses (aside from the 30%) had incorrect contact owner names, had moved out-of-state or simply hadn’t updated their records with New York State (or anyone else for that matter). How did we know? Well, we called almost 50 businesses a day for weeks and were able to piece together a moving average of data quality. In doing the math, this left us with about 50% of the businesses which we felt were actually operating in a substantive way, even if they were nothing more than home-based consultancies or sole proprietors.
Is 50% an acceptable figure for a purchased list? Well, it could be, but you should at least know that it’s not 100%, or at least not 100% from InfoUSA.
3. How many businesses are missing that could be part of this list?
So, how do I know who I’m missing? Of all the questions, this is the most difficult to answer. Using the above Columbia County NY data list, we found that indeed there were at least 10 – 15% additional businesses operating in Columbia County that not recognized by InfoUSA. Many of these were of significant size, but our research showed that they were technically not based in Columbia County itself (our own Cornerstone Services, Inc. is a great example of this, and we’re technically the largest mailer in the county).
The various in-county chambers of commerce directories were eye-opening to this fact, and to be fair to InfoUSA, there’s no good way to query for reaching everyone in sourcing a business-to-business list. We also found that many sole proprietors (contractors, pet-sitters, concierge services, personal shoppers, home decorators, consultants, photographers, AirBnB’s, home cleaners, etc.) were operating briskly, but were doing so as D/B/A’s (Doing Business As) operations, and technically not as incorporated entities. InfoUSA is only picking up incorporated businesses, so you will invariably miss (as we did) many of these listings.
Finally, many businesses not on the purchased list were simply too new to have made it onto the purchased B2B list. In under 1 year of incorporation, I am mildly forgiving of InfoUSA.com; however, we did find inexplicably businesses operating over 2 years that were not on the list; for this, InfoUSA.com could provide no satisfactory answer.
In two other examples of our verifying SIC Code-based business list data – one list for HVAC plumbers and another for Automotive Repair Shops – we verified much smaller business pools, but came up with much worst results. For example, when we verified active HVAC plumbers in Dutchess County NY (in 2010), we felt as though InfoUSA missed approximately 65% to 75% of the plumbers we found on our own research. We called them on this, and their answer was (a) in a filtering, if the business has been in business for less than 5 years, it didn’t “meet our criteria” and (b) many of these businesses did not either have correct or primary SIC codes to help us ID them properly. We pointed to the (then current) City of Poughkeepsie’s Licensed Plumbers as evidence. Again, we got push-back that many of these plumbers were not even based in Dutchess County and technically didn’t qualify as a Dutchess County based business.
For automotive shops
Our findings were even worse. In 2015, we suspected that data from SalesGenie.com for automotive shops in seven Northeast states was woefully incomplete. Our own research showed that up to 80% of the automotive shops were missing in some cities. Although this wasn’t our sourced list, it still came from SalesGenie.com, so we called InfoUSA on behalf of the client to get a better explanation. The response was similar to the above. Here, the businesses were owned/operated in areas we expected, and there was state licensing involved for services such as safety inspection, so we were less enamored with the answer we received.
What does all this mean for you? Our sense is that you need to know that if you want ALL businesses, you will either need to do some of your own additional research, or, you could come to Cornerstone Services, Inc. (email@example.com) and we could do additional research for you. You just need to know that when you buy a list, you “pay for what you get”.
(One last point here, if you are trying to reach all businesses in a handful of very specific ZIP Codes, one inexpensive way of quickly hitting most businesses is to do PO Box saturation mailings. The postage is low and so many businesses have PO Boxes, esp. many informal businesses. We have seen it work, but of course, it depends upon the service and value proposition you are offering.)
4. Are these businesses still in business?
This is a big problem with less expensive lists, and we see less of this problem in sourcing data from Dun and Bradstreet, for example. We find that the only way to be 100% sure is to get (and make) a phone call. This is our litmus test – if a business has a phone number, it’s (potentially) a real business. It can be missing a website, or even a Facebook.com page, but if it doesn’t have a phone number, in our view, it isn’t operating in any substantive manner and shouldn’t be on a list. (Note: many businesses in our Columbia County example didn’t have phone numbers provided, but we accepted the data anyway. It should be of no surprise that so many of these no-phone records were ultimately not used for direct mail marketing purposes.)
We quizzed InfoUSA about the details of how does it determine that a business is still operating? For example, we said, no one in our office ever remembers getting a phone call from InfoUSA checking up on us. Their answer was “we might do a robo-call at night”, to check the line, so “you wouldn’t even know”. OK, could be. We asked the representative to review the posted Data Quality verification checklist as posted on their website (https://www.infousa.com/data-quality/) to get better intel.
Here’s their list with my observations in brackets following each:
- U.S. and Canadian Yellow Page directories
[We assume they mean the real Yellow Pages as www.YellowPages.com; it is tough for us to ask too many questions here because the YellowPages.com states that it sources its own data via other partnerships. We can only assume that InfoUSA.com is one of these partners]
- New business filings
[This makes sense, and states like New York make such filings a matter of easily verifiable public information. Our concern, however, is not with the initial filings, but rather with that fact that businesses fall out of operation at an alarming rate. Just have a look at the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics “Survival Rates of Establishments 1994-2015 to see the attrition rates.]
- Daily utility connections
[Again, this is a partnership arrangement and is unverifiable from the outside. By implication, utility companies such as Central Hudson Gas & Electric presumably share information with companies such as InfoUSA.]
- Press releases
[We would consider this, statistically, a very minor source of good information. However, there are many online channels now that allow businesses to create and distribute their own press releases, i.e. www.pr.com, www.PRNewswire.com, www.ereleases.com, etc.]
- Corporate websites
[yes, this is great, as long as a business has a website, and, data is easily retrievable via bots. For SEO-friendly, well-designed WordPress sites, this is great; however, this would represent only a small fraction of all businesses. No silver bullet here, and of course, InfoUSA.com wasn’t about to share with us exactly what they do. For low-baud websites that might use a lot of images or *.pdf’s, robo-search bots will not be able to pick-up or verify such information. We would have been more impressed to see partnerships with Manta.com or other social media venues.]
- Annual reports
[We consider annual reports less reliable since it represents information published approximately 1 year after the close of a FYE (Fiscal Year-End). The info. is already a year old! Annual Reports do denote ownership, but, are not always reliable for real-time confirmation on corporate officers. Further, for most of our B2B prospects (businesses under 100 employees), they are not doing annual reports and probably would not be listed in annual reports.]
- User-generated feedback
[Honestly, how many people do you really think are contacting InfoUSA with their updated information such as store manager, Vice President of Operations, etc.? Hmmmm…. our guess: not many.]
5. Are these businesses in the line of business that I expect and need?
Some of this was addressed above, especially regarding SIC Codes. The challenge here is three-fold: first, many businesses change their main business focus over time, so their originating SIC code isn’t useful over time. Second, many businesses (if not most) have multiple SIC Codes. We found this out recently when sourcing a 2018 listing of “energy” companies in New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey. We were looking for oil and propane companies, but our own cross verification to check the list out showed that in some NYS counties, there were NO listed oil companies (!) from InfoUSA. We were able to pick up some of these firms by also including SIC codes for HVAC/Plumbing as well as other home services.
It turned out that some of these rural businesses were doing so many things that there was no good “primary” SIC code and they were not getting included in a purchased b2b data list. The client opted to have us source a much wider business list and then hire us to filter it down, manually, via line-by-line review and then include web searches to see who we might have missed. This is not an InfoUSA problem, but a general business challenge when using SIC Codes for B2B list sourcing. The take-away here is this: review your list carefully, if you can, before purchasing (i.e. ask for a sample group of records first) and then review the entire list carefully after purchasing. If you don’t like what you ordered, you might be able to get your money back if you make a formal, immediate request.
6. Is the contact person’s name (and contact info) correct?
Once again, above comments will prove helpful here. Because the updating of current contact information would the responsibility of the business, and there is usually no compelling reason or municipal mandate (aside from tax filings) for businesses to update such information, you can expect that a small business purchased B2B list would have no more than a 50% accuracy, in our experience. If having names is very important to you (and it is to us – we don’t recommend doing B2B mailings under 1,000 pieces using lists without verified contact names), you do have some third-party resources (aside from asking Cornerstone Services for help) such as www.LinkedIn.com, www.manta.com, SalesForce.com’s https://connect.data.com/ (formerly www.jigsaw.com), and of course, InfoUSA.com among other providers. (We are also hit with so many services pitching us “sales leads” from gmail.com addresses, it’s hard to keep count.)
The bottom line is this: you pay for what you get. Our belief at Cornerstone — and we believe that our experience backs this up — is that smaller more verified lists get better results. If you have a list, take the time to verify it and then use it again and again.
Another way of verifying your list is to do a simple First-Class Mail postcard mailing. The actual promotion of the postcard is less import than the fact that a First-Class Postcard will come back (at no additional charge) in most instances if the recipient isn’t there. Yes, this costs money, but if you are a non-profit attempting to get people to attend your annual gala event, sending a perennial First-Class Mail “Save-the-Date” card is a lot less expensive than sending out all the invitations on an annual basis without further verification. Besides, you can use the returned cards as a sales excuse to reach out and reconnect (or just connect) to the person to whom you were trying to reach.
7. If you were on this list, would you be interested in what you are mailing?
It’s a simple question: would you be interested in what you are offering if you received your own card (and you didn’t know you)? You could ask around, too. Ask a handful of people what they think truthfully… if they were to receive such a mail piece (letter, postcard, invitation, etc.), how would they respond. Few people actually ask this question, and if you don’t get a chorus of enthusiasm, you might just have your answer.