Let’s Buy an Email List!

Or don’t. Probably don’t.

If you’re just starting up your email marketing program or are expanding into a new market, then perhaps you’re considering purchasing an email list. And why not? Purchasing mailing lists has a long tradition in marketing. Even today, I’m sure you get direct mail from companies that you’ve never heard of, but somehow found out that you’re in the market for a new driveway or dryer.

So what’s wrong with buying an email list?

Well, to start off, the use of purchased email lists is greatly discouraged in the marketing world. I know some marketing guys who would use the phrase “frowned upon.” I’ve even heard the word, “shady.”

Email is a much more personal medium than direct mail. Never-mind that everyone is already inundated by daily offers from Groupon, updates from Twitter, and pictures of the kids/grandkids/nephews, etc.

Email lists purchased from a “list broker” or similar source lack pretty much everything you want in an email list. First, there’s a total lack of “opted in” status. Would you opt-in to a list that you know would be sold to the highest bidder? I wouldn’t either. Second, there’s little or no accountability. Sure, you’ll get some good contact names and will certainly get some responses — that’s why SPAM still exists. Must most often, lists from a broker contain addresses that are old, “harvested” from public online sources, or may not exist at all.

What if I’m ok with all that?

Industry leading, reputable Email Service Providers (ESP = Constant Contact, MailChimp, iContact, HubSpot, etc) do not generally allow the use of “purchased, rented, or third-party” email lists. True, many times ESPs may not be able to tell through their automatic testing whether a list is purchased or “legit.” However, if the campaign has an extraordinarily high bounce rate (bad addresses) or high SPAM report rate, your account could get flagged for Terms of Service (TOS) violations. This means that the account could get disabled for a time; get deleted altogether; or you would have to go through a phone interview with your ESP to verify what’s going on.

Why would they care?

Reputable ESPs are very sensitive about maintaining high deliverability and low SPAM rates.

SPAM reports are just that, it’s when an email user clicks “SPAM” or “JUNK” on a message. This doesn’t just delete the message from their inbox, but also sends a report to their email address provider. SPAM reports impact deliverability.

Deliverability means the rate at which your email marketing campaign will get to your contacts’ inboxes, versus their SPAM folder.

ESPs use a certain number of servers to send out all the email campaigns for their clients. If an ESP’s clients’ email campaigns start to get a lot of SPAM reports, it not only reflects negatively on themselves, but on the ESP as well. If – for instance – Hotmail notices that a lot of SPAM reports are being reported on email campaigns coming from “server X,” then all future campaigns coming from those servers will be subject to closer scrutiny. Closer scrutiny could mean lower deliverability rates. The lower deliverability, the less attractive using that ESP becomes.

To conclude, ESPs that do allow purchased lists likely have low deliverability rates. Purchased lists usually contain a lot of bad email addresses. So the question is, why would you send an email campaign to a list of bad email addresses, using a provider whose service is unlikely to get your message in front of the remaining handful of good contacts?

The one exception to this whole ideal against purchased email lists, are lists that come from a Chamber of Commerce or industry/trade group. In these groups, members understand that their contact information may be shared with other members of that group. The thought being that people who join those type of member-based organizations want to network with each other as they share many similar business goals. Also, those lists are coming from the organization’s leaders, which most likely use the list themselves to communicate with the group. Thus the list is assumed to be “clean” (real, opted-in, current email addresses), and if they are not, the leadership is held accountable.

Please note: This “Chamber exemption” is my opinion, and is still technically against the rules of most reputable Email Service Providers. (ESPs) But, as I state above, it’s my sincere belief that it is in the best interest of the sender and receiver to get these types of messages.

For many smaller and start-up businesses, using another organization’s email list may be the only option to start an email marketing program. Again – in my professional opinion – this is a bit of a gray area. However, one that I never feel bad about taking advantage of.

To improve deliverability and reduce SPAM reports when using this type of list, I recommend a few simple tactics. First, use your name in the “from” line to make it more personal. Second, use a subject line similar to, “News from a Chamber member…” (or some permutation thereof), as it helps to improve “open” rates and tells people why they’re getting that message right off the bat.

I’d love to learn your thoughts on this. Please leave your comments below. Tell me about your successes or troubles using a third party list.