With 60 billion pieces of direct mail going out each year, there's opportunity awaiting anyone who can figure out how to cut through the mailbox glut. One person who's trying is Bill Randall, CEO of SmartNames Inc., a three-year-old company based in Waltham, Mass. His goal: to develop a system that will allow direct mailers to sniff out the best prospects, thereby improving response rates.

The technique involves combining different types of data -- from car registrations, real-estate records, census records, whatever -- so that companies can target mailings more accurately, and thereby avoid wasting money on unlikely prospects. Thus, if you wanted to reach households with high disposable income, you would be able to skip families with large mortgages and three children in high school, focusing on childless two-income couples instead.

Randall figures that SmartNames (which recently merged with a service bureau and bought a list company with funding from venture capitalists) is at least 18 months away from delivering the kinds of results that companies will find attractive. But he says recent tests have been encouraging. "And if we're successful in improving the response rate on ordinary lists, then we'll have real impact on this industry."

-- Bruce G. Posner

* * *