Once upon a time, there was a simple rule to email marketing: never buy, rent, or otherwise acquire an email list that wasn’t yours. While exceedingly jingoistic in nature, this rule nonetheless served and still serves as an excellent guideline for the novice email marketer.
The fundamental reason why is simple: when you acquire an email list that you don’t have permission to send to, you are at the very least sending email to people who didn’t ask for it, which means you run the risk of being banned from your email service provider. Depending on the laws of nations in which you do business, you may even be committing a crime. Better to err on the side of caution and simply not do it.
There are exceptions, however. One exception that is generally considered acceptable is a list media buy. This is effectively buying advertising on someone else’s mailing list. For example, you could buy an ad insertion for your golf club store in a newsletter about golf, and expect some reasonable performance from that media buy. You could even purchase (albeit at a higher cost) a dedicated send, in which your advertisement is the entirety of the content.
The trick with media buys is this: your ad must be closely aligned with the topic and audience of the newsletter. If the same golf club store were to buy an ad in, say, a cake-baking newsletter, they should expect significantly poorer performance because the ad is off topic and off theme. Additionally, the more aligned the advertisement is with the tone and feeling of the newsletter, the better it will tend to perform – think about some of the ads read on radio stations like NPR which are read by the hosts, in the tone of the show.
In this example, a list that is constituted of mostly marketers at companies is being targeted by a B2B marketing tool company. This is a reasonably good fit and aligned with the tone of the content, and as such, the advertiser can expect the ad to perform well.
The second exception to the rule of never buying lists is co-registration. In this scenario, you as a media buyer obtain permission from potential subscribers at the time they sign up for a source newsletter. Here’s an example from Travel Pulse:
Co-registration programs are considered opt-in but be aware that the performance of co-registration lists is typically much, much lower than your house list. Subscribers are generally not aware of what they are co-registering for, and even though you have (or should have) verifiable documentation of the point of opt-in, in the mind of the subscriber, they will likely not perceive that they’ve opted-in and will still flag you for spam.
So to summarize: is it okay to buy or rent a list of addresses that you can directly email? No. Is it okay to work with other organizations and leverage the power of their lists on your behalf? Yes, as long as you’re aware of the risks I’ve outlined above.
Christopher S. Penn