It won’t be a surprise to anyone to say that developing and working with databases is one of the greatest challenges to success with 1:1 printing. And yet, we hear about companies—even small and mid-sized companies—having great success. What’s their secret? There isn’t one. Success is merely a function of good old-fashioned legwork. If you want to have a great database, you have to create one. It just takes commitment and planning.

There are five primary ways to create great customer databases:

1. Work with your in-house customer database. Many companies have in-house customer databases populated with all sorts of data, but these databases often aren’t usable for 1:1 marketing at the outset. In order to make them useful, you must take a number of steps first.

Start by locating all the appropriate databases within the organization. That data must be merged into a new and unified database, and cleansed and updated, if necessary. It must also be separated into the appropriate fields if it isn’t already. A database set up with “Mr. John Smith” as a single field won’t work when you want to personalize by first name.

This can be a time-consuming proposition, but gold when it’s finished. You can easily update and tweak the new database as you develop and refine your programs.

2. Work with in-house mailing lists. Even if they don’t track anything else about their customers, many companies have basic mailing lists. You might not think this is much to work with, but it is a terrific place to start because these customers have already done business with you, giving your company instant name recognition. This is a valuable starting point that even the best mailing list can’t provide.

Once you have this list cleaned up and ready to work with, you can begin prospecting. Do preliminary mailings or surveys to learn more about these customers, their needs, and their preferences. Build what you learn back into your database to refine your campaigns in the future.

3. Buy a mailing list. If you don’t have an in-house list, you can rent or purchase lists sliced and diced by any demographic you desire—age, income, marital status, number of children, occupation, ZIP code, hobbies. Even if the list was a one-time rental, once you get responses back, those responses belong to you. This gives you a pre-qualified list of prospects from which to begin building a relationship.

4. Append an existing database. Maybe you have an in-house mailing list, but you want to find out more about your customers before you start your prospecting. Perhaps you want to divide them out by salary or occupation. You can purchase just the information you need and merge it with your existing database, giving you a more well-rounded data set.

5. Get creative with the Internet. There are lots of ways to prospect beyond mailing lists. Set up a free registration on your Web site. Use surveys to learn more about your visitors. Set up a sweepstakes to drive traffic. Utilize personal URLs (each person visits his or her own landing page, populated with his or her personal information) or other tools to motivate responses, implement surveys, and track behavior.

Certainly, these don’t exhaust the opportunities to build your database. There are a lot of ways to do it, and the right solution will vary with each company. Though it might seem daunting, the end result can be powerful if you take it in small bites. When you look back, you’ll be amazed at what a little extra effort and attention to data gathering can do.