When is it okay to buy an email list?

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.

Bought email lists can make your emails appear like unwanted ads.

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 is an exception to the rule of never buying media lists.

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
Director of Inbound Marketing, WhatCounts

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8 Comments

  1. The problem I have with both these methods is that is promotes the general concept of spamming: receiving mail you did not specifically ask for. It is always better to have direct permission.

    Reply
    • I don’t disagree. That said, for those companies who are wiling to do whatever it takes to beef up a list, these are at least methods that have the least-bad consequences as compared to, say, harvesting web sites which is blatantly illegal.

      Reply
  2. Disagree. You just need a trusted list source and a valid sending tool so you don’t worry about getting banned. Our solution has worked for our customers for 12 years without any banning or legal issues or serious problems.

    Reply
  3. I’d also make the case for outright list purchase. It can – and does work … in some cases. Not many folks want to talk about buying lists as it’s very frowned upon in the email marketing industry and often done poorly. But … it can work. I have (anonymous) case studies to prove it!

    For the record, I don’t advocate for list buying, but it’s not illegal.

    Reply
    • Outright list buying in the United States is not illegal, that is true. CAN-SPAM provides allowance for it. FISA in Canada, however, prohibits it, as do some of the European nations, I think.

      Reply
  4. Does What Counts allow and encourage its clients to send out messages to addresses obtained through co-registration methods such as the one shown above?

    Reply
    • Coregistration is permitted as long as you can provide, on-demand, verifiable proof of opt-in. This includes:
      Date and time of opt-in via co-registration
      URL of co-registration page that clearly indicates the user knows they are signing up for a co-reg list URL of accompanying privacy page that clearly documents co-registration IP address of user submission

      We also strongly encourage co-registration users to use double opt-in instead of confirmed single opt-in because the quality of addresses tends to be much lower on co-reg.

      Reply
  5. Look up the word “jingoism.”

    Reply

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