Email address lists: buy or leave alone?

Many people are intrigued by the idea of obtaining a ready-made list of email addresses they can send promotional emails to. Why wait months to slowly build up your own list of email addresses when you can piggy-back (for a price) on someone else's efforts?

While the idea seems attractive, there are many problems waiting for anyone pursuing this course of action.

The important issue is how you come to obtain that bulk list of email addresses. And here we distinguish between renting a list (list rental) and buying a list.

List rental

List rental is a recognized and broadly accepted practice in email marketing. Owners of address lists will send an email to their list on your behalf. And they charge you a fee for this service. The key point is that you never get to see the email addresses on that list. The list owner does the sending, not you.

Now there are lots of ins and outs to list rental, but for now you just need to understand that -- unlike with direct mail -- the actual address list never falls into your hands. So you pay a rental fee every time you want to send an email to the list.

Buying a list

The alternative is to buy a physical copy of a list of email addresses. After you pay the purchase price, there are no rental fees to pay. You can send your promotional message as often as you like to the list.

Sounds promising, right?

Wrong.

With very, very few exceptions, purchasing a bulk list like this is a shortcut to email marketing hell.

Let's look at the potential problems, including list fatigue, list quality, permission issues, legal/ISP issues, and their consequences...

1. List fatigue

Someone who has collected a list of email addresses for their own use has a valuable resource. That's why email marketing works so well: you have a list of people you can dip into regularly to boost sales, build relationships, drive downloads, whatever.

But the value of that list is only preserved if you don't abuse it. Send too much commercial email and people soon stop responding. In fact, "sending too many emails" is a top reason for consumers to unsubscribe from a list or report the sender as a spammer.

People are careful with what happens to their list. If they do choose to let other people use it, then they'll want to tightly control this use. And they'll only allow this if the recipients on their list have given permission (when they signed up) to receive such commercial messages from third parties.

Nobody wants to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

So what happens to that list if the owner does sell copies to anyone willing to pay the right price? Nobody is controlling how many emails or even what type of emails people send the list. The addresses get bombarded with messages and response falls.

Clearly, no self-respecting list owner is ever going to sell copies of their valuable address list. Not if they want to preserve its value.

So what does that tell you about the likely value of a list that is up for sale?

2. List quality

Building your own list of people who have asked to get your emails takes patience. It doesn't happen overnight. Although the effort is worth it, many niche list owners will need months and years to build a list of relevant email addresses with more than a few thousand names on it.

And yet there are niche email lists for sale that promise hundreds of thousands or millions of "quality" addresses. No list of that size is likely to be as targeted as the owner claims.

Such a big list is normally only possible by cobbling together addresses from old lists or pulling them off public sources (like websites) with no guarantee that the address is relevant to the name or purpose it's being sold under.

Size matters for those selling: the more addresses you have, the more you can charge. So they're not fussy about quality, nor are they concerned with the legitimacy of the addresses on their lists.

So such lists will commonly have a number of dead, abandoned or non-existent addresses on them. What happens when a big chunk of your emails goes to such addresses? The receiving systems - ISPs, webmail operators etc. - mark you as a "dirty sender", which leads to such joys as blacklisting, compromising your ability to get any emails delivered in the future.

3. Permission

Successful email marketing is closely associated with the idea of permission. People respond well to emails they asked for. If they didn't ask for them, they might still respond. Or they might not. Or they might report you as spam, which has numerous practical consequences -- all of them bad -- for your brand, bottom line and ability to do business over the Internet.

The less expected or wanted your email, the more likely you are to get labelled a spammer. So how expected will the emails be that you send to your newly acquired list?

We already know from the above that the addresses are not likely to be as targeted as you hope. So your email is probably going to be irrelevant. And irrelevancy is another reason recipients give for reporting a sender as a spammer.

[Don't fall into the trap of thinking your emails are relevant, they're not.]

And how many of those addresses gave explicit permission for their details to be sold and resold again and again to anyone with a bit of spare cash? You wouldn't give that permission, so why would anyone else?

As mentioned above, a lot of lists are put together by scraping sites where email addresses are displayed publicly. Obviously there's no permission involved there.

Chances are the addresses on that list did not expect to find themselves in your hands. There is no permission.

In rare cases, at least some address owners signed up to the original list, knowing their email address would be passed on to third parties. No relief there, unfortunately. Even if they did, they're still not actually expecting email from you. There is still no explicit permission.

And if they did allow the passing on of their address, there's a strong chance they submitted a throwaway email address or a fake one. After all, how many people really give away their prime email address, knowing it could end up anywhere as a result?

"Opt-in" lists for sale usually aren't truly opt-in. Any opt-in claimed by the original list owner is likely a lie or an irrelevancy, perhaps with the "permission to sell my address" buried in terms and conditions that nobody read when they submitted their email address.

4. Legal and ISP issues

US spam legislation allows you to send email without first gaining the address owner's permission, provided you satisfy certain requirements concerning what you put in your emails.

That seems to suggest permission isn't so important after all. Wrong.

First, not everybody lives in the US. Anti-spam legislation in just about every other country in the world does require an opt-in before you can send that email. Do you know which country those email addresses you bought come from?

Second, only the courts care about the legal definition of what is and isn't spam. Those managing email (like ISPs) and those receiving it (address owners) have their own set of criteria. If they think you're spamming them, then they can and will block and blacklist you, a privelege that is actually enshrined within the same US anti-spam law that allows you to send those unfortunate emails in the first place.

And there's more...

Even with all the arguments outlined above, there are still many who want to believe the list buying dream. This section is for them:

1. Check out the average prices for renting opt-in email lists. It's $100-300 per thousand addresses. That's for a one-off send to addresses you never get hold of yourself.

So explain how anyone can sell a list of any kind of quality for, say, $300 per million addresses? You can't, you wouldn't. Logical conclusion: those incredibly cheap lists are incredibly cheap for a reason.

2. Here's what experienced, professional email marketing consultants say:

John Caldwell of Red Pill Email:

"You can't buy or sell someone else's permission. Buying lists is bad. Don't do it."

Al Iverson of Spam Resource:

"You're talking to me because you have deliverability issues. You have deliverability issues because you're buying email addresses."

Stephanie Miller of Return Path at ClickZ:

"Never buy/borrow a list from any source and add data to your file. Never."

Read Stephanie's article for real-world horror stories about what happens when you disregard this advice. (And here's another one.)

3. If buying lists was OK, email marketing services would have no problem letting you send to that list using their infrastructure.

They do have a problem though.

From the MailChimp terms of use:

"No purchased lists (no matter how expensive)."

From the Campaign Monitor terms of use:

"purchased lists may not be used"

From the AWeber anti-spam policy:

(On the company's "Things you may not do" list) "Use email lists that you purchased, rented, leased, or in any way bought from a third party"

From the StreamSend terms of use:

"You MAY NOT import members from co-registered or purchased sources"

From the ExactTarget anti-spam policy:

"Our clients certify that they will not use rented or purchased lists..."

Just about every professional email marketing service out there has a similar policy.

4. But my friend used a purchased list and it worked for him.

Maybe it did. Then he's very lucky. People tending to use lists more than once are those who don't care about issues like branding or the reputation of their email infrastructure. They might push an affiliate promotion to a purchased list, take what they get in responses, burn their bridges and move on to the next list using a new set of sending tools. A kind of nomadic slash and burn marketing. Not what most businesses want to be associated with.

So can you ever buy a list safely?

Yes. Lists can change ownership, such as when the parent website owning that list is bought out by another company. That's a specialist situation though, where the list itself (not a copy) is being sold. The seller retains no copy for himself.

But buying a copy of a list - nope, don't do it.

In summary

If somebody does offer to sell and send you a bulk list of email addresses, 99 times out of 100 you're getting a spam list. That's a list of addresses of people who have not agreed to receive messages like yours, or a list of extremely dubious quality.

At best, your messages to that list just elicit a poor response. At worst, you're labeled a spammer, You can end up on a few nice blacklists.

So when you see offers like 1 million addresses for $100, run as fast as your electronic legs can carry you in the opposite direction.

For more information on these issues, browse these articles and categories: Growing a list | Permission | Introduction to email marketing

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First published: June 2010