Buying Email Lists is Risky. Here’s How to Do it Right.

We offer custom email list building services for B2B companies. This is a great outbounding solution for service businesses.

Here’s why you shouldn’t buy email lists from companies and several alternatives to increase your email list size and reach.

When I was an email marketing analyst for the Tribune Company I sent emails to millions of subscribers a week. I was in charge of several large publishing markets across the United States and directly saw the metrics coming back from these large sends. A client was lucky to get a 10% open rate and a 1% click rate on their emails and these were from subscribers. People who willing signed up to receive email.  Now let’s talk about the question at hand: what are the best companies to buy email lists from? In my opinion the answer is none and here’s why.

How many emails from strangers do you open a day?

What do you open more often: emails from your friends or emails from total strangers? When you buy email lists, you’re sending email to people who likely don’t know who you are. Whether you purchased a list of companies or consumers, they didn’t sign up to receive your information and they’re going to be very unresponsive. Unless you have a killer subject line, a killer offer and some serious targeting happening here you should expect poor results.

Email lists you purchase are sometimes legal but usually totally sketchy.

Companies that sell email lists typically say they are 100% opt-in lists. But what they don’t tell you is a lot of these customers are opt-ins from a tiny 6 point font terms of service agreement they either failed to read or didn’t care to read. You know, those things that say ‘Win an iPad” with a box that’s already checked for spam. These people aren’t going to be thrilled to hear from you.

Email lists you buy could also be appended data from multiple (creepy or unreliable) sources.

When I worked heavily in database marketing it was a common practice to append data to lists through use of a data warehouse. Think of a data warehouse as a giant puzzle making factory. You come to them with some information about a customer and they put the pieces of the puzzle together to build that puzzle. Let’s use an example. You’ve got a customer named Bill Smith and you have his phone number. You give this information to the company and they scrape data from websites to give you his email, date of birth, address, etc. You now have a complete demographic profile of Bill Smith that you will of course want to use so your email is better targeted. The problem with this is Bill Smith never gave YOU this information. He gave it to a variety of websites and it was harvested through his web browser cookies or back-room deals with data warehouses. So when you send him a “Happy Birthday” email he’s going to think “how the heck do you know it’s my birthday” which could be off putting or damaging to your brand.

Most purchased email lists are total junk.

Most email lists you can rent or purchase will end up being high bounce rate emails. What this means is the email address is inactive or not a real email address. So aside from not wanting your emails, these are just plain undeliverable emails which leads me to the next point.

Buying email lists from companies greatly increases your chance of getting blacklisted.

Getting blacklisted is when your email domain (typically your company’s website domain, eg. mine is gaintap.com) is associated with too many spam complaints or sends to undeliverable email addresses. The email client (Gmail, AOL, Yahoo, etc.) then assumes you are a spammer and blocks emails from your domain. This means all emails from your domain will go immediately to the spam folder of those email clients. If you work in marketing at your company and get your domain blacklisted your sales team will not be pleased.  In addition to getting blacklisted you run the risk of substantial fines due to the CAN-SPAM act. Read up on that and tell me if you’re still thinking about sending unwanted email in bulk.

Email marketing software companies hate purchased lists.

Email marketing software companies like MailChimp absolutely hate email spam for the above reason. They put filters in place to auto-detect spammy activity and they’ll shut your account down. This has nothing to do with total list volume. It has everything to do with what percent of your emails are undeliverable and marked as spam. I was curious about this and wanted to test this theory, so I set up an account with MailChimp and sent an email to 300 purchased emails. These emails were not found in a wastebasket. They were purchased as legitimate emails from a popular, reputable thought leader in the trade-show industry. The result from this test was I had such a high rate of undeliverable (expired or fake) email addresses that I got my Mailchimp account shutdown for a week. MailChimp forced me to remove all purchased emails before turning my account on. Again if you’re working in a marketing role for a company, getting your email marketing software shutdown is a fast way to draw attention to yourself and your inability to perform your job function responsibly.

Ok, so what are some alternatives to buying email lists from companies.

Here are several alternatives to purchasing email lists from companies that will help you grow your email subscribers.

Build a custom list of outbound prospects

Go niche and build targeted lists of prospects. This is very effective for B2B services and high margin sales.

Find a business buddy to exchange content with.

A very easy way to get in front of a similar audience is to find partners, vendors or non-competitive businesses in your industry with similar customers who have email lists established. Pitch them a content swap where you write about each other and send to your lists. This way, they get in front of your subscribers and you get in front of theirs. There’s a high-end liquor store down the street from me that has a good sized email list. They could easily partner with a BYOB restaurant in the area who also has a good sized email list and promote each other. Same customer, different needs that crossover, not competing = win, win.

Focus on building your email list from web visitors.

Have a good offer on your website and make it easy for people to subscribe to your email list. Just focus on capturing an email, don’t bog your email sign-up form down with any other fields. The key here is you need to have a great offer. Just putting “sign up for my newsletter” will do very little. Understand why someone is on your site and offer them something they want. For example I worked on a retail site that had no pricing. You had to contact the company to get a quote for everything. Guess what the number one way to drive email sign-ups was? Putting “Download Pricelist” on the web form. This was so powerful that changing the title to “Download Catalog” cut email sign-ups by 81%.

Cross target your email list through other channels.

Facebook makes it incredibly easy to upload a list of emails and target self-serve advertising to customers on Facebook with the same email address. This can be an effective way of communicating with those customers in a way they’d prefer to be reached. I hope that gives you a better understanding of why you shouldn’t buy email lists from companies and that you’ve got options out there. Get creative and always think about your customer first.



Author: Graham Onak
Graham Onak is the owner of GainTap, a Chicago based online marketing optimization company. He brings a wide array of experience to his work and writes primarily about technical optimization techniques for websites and online marketing programs.

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