Why Purchasing Email Lists Is Always a Bad Idea

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You need people to email, and you need them quickly. Oh, and if you could make them pretty cheap, that'd be great, too.

That's the mindset many marketers find themselves in when they're on the phone with a list-purchasing company. Acting on that moment of desperation, however, will cause them more long-term (and short-term) harm than good. Yes, thousands of contacts are a credit card swipe away, but your email marketing program -- a critical part of a well-rounded inbound marketing strategy -- will seriously suffer. Curious why purchasing email lists is a legitimate email marketer's kiss of death? Read on, my friend ... oh, and bookmark this list of squeaky-clean and effective ways to build your email list.

Methods of Acquiring an Email List

Before we get into the pitfalls of purchasing an email list, let's review (for those who are new to the game) three of the most common ways marketers acquire contact lists to email:

1) Buy a list. You work with a list provider to find and purchase a list of names and email addresses based on demographic and/or psychographic information. For example, you might purchase a list of 5,000 names and email addresses of people with children who live in a certain city.

2) Rent a list. Also working with a list provider, you identify a segment of people to email -- but you never actually own the list. As such, you can't see the email addresses of the people you're emailing, so you must work with the provider to send out your email.

3) Generate an opt-in list. Someone voluntarily gives you their email address either online or in person (at a trade show, for instance) so you can send them emails. They may pick certain types of email content they wish to receive, like requesting email alerts when new blog posts are published. Opt-in email addresses are the result of earning the interest and trust of your contact because he or she thinks you have something valuable and helpful to say.

When it comes to rented or purchased lists, you may come across vendors or marketers who say, "this email list is totally opt-in!" This means that the people on the list opted in to an email communication from someone at some point in time -- like the list provider, for example. What it doesn't mean, however, is that they opted in to receive email communications from your business. This is a critical distinction, and the next section of this post will go into more detail on why this type of "opt-in email list" (should be read with air quotes) is not a good idea for your email marketing program.

Why You Shouldn't Buy Email Lists

So now that I've told you a few ways to acquire email lists, I'm going to tell you why you should acquire them through method number three above -- the opt-in method in which you generate your list of email contacts!

Reputable email marketing vendors don't let you use purchased lists.

If you're using email marketing software now or plan to in the future, you'll find that reputable companies will insist that you use opt-in email lists. You might be saying, "I'll just use a non-reputable email marketing vendor." Wrong again. Using ESPs that don't require their customers to use opt-in email lists suffer poor deliverability if they're using a shared IP address. In other words, one customer's ill-gotten email list can poison the deliverability of the other customers on that shared IP address. You're going to want to hitch your wagon to the light side of the email marketing force if you want your emails to actually get into inboxes.

There's no such thing as a good email list that's for sale.

Unless you're in the process of acquiring an entire company, you're not going to come across a high quality email list you can purchase. It being for sale at all means that the email addresses on it have already been ripped to shreds by all the other people who have purchased that list, and emailed the people on it. Any email addresses that once had value have since been spammed to the ends of the earth!

If someone actually had a good email list, they'd keep it to themselves because they don't want to see the value of those email addresses diminished by letting other people get their hands on it. Think about it -- would you sell or share with another business the email addresses of those who have voluntarily opted in to receive email from you? I didn't think so.

People on a purchased or rented list don't actually know you.

I referenced this in the previous section of this blog post, but it's worth going into some more detail on this subject. Rented and purchased lists are sometimes scraped from other websites, which, I think we can all agree, is a dirty way to acquire email marketing lists. But often list purchase and rental companies will tout that their lists are opt-in. Sounds great, right?

Not really, because it means that the contacts have opted to receive emails from, say, the list-purchasing company -- not your company. Even if the opt-in process includes language like, "Opt in to receive information from us, or offers from other companies we think you might enjoy," the fact is the recipient has never heard of your company, and does not remember opting in to receive emails from you. And that means they will mark you as SPAM ... which takes us to our next point.

Your email deliverability and IP reputation will be harmed.

Did you know that there are organizations dedicated to combating email SPAM? Thank goodness, right? They set up a little thing called a honeypot, which is a planted email address that, when harvested and emailed, identifies the sender as a spammer. Similarly, things called SPAM traps can be created to identify spammy activity; they are set up when an email address yields a hard bounce because it is old or no longer valid but still receives consistent traffic. Fishy, eh? As a result, the email turns into a SPAM trap that stops returning the hard bounce notice, and instead accepts the message and reports the sender as a spammer.

If you purchase a list, you have no way of confirming how often those email addresses have been emailed, whether the email addresses on that list have been scrubbed for hard bounces to prevent identifying you as a spammer, or from where those email addresses originated. Are you really willing to risk not only your email deliverability, but also the reputation of your IP address and your company? Even if you find the light after purchasing or renting an email list, and decide to only email those who have opted in with your company, it will take you months (or maybe years!) to get your Sender Score up and rebuild the reputation of your IP ... and your brand.

Because you're not a jerk.

How do you like it when you get an email in your inbox from a company you've never heard of? I bet that's not the kind of company (or marketer) you want to be. If someone didn't ask to hear from you yet, it doesn't mean they won't want to hear from you later. It's your job to prove to them -- through helpful content and valuable offers -- that they should stay up to date with your company via email. If you force your email content on anyone too early, even if you know in the depths of your soul that they're a great fit for your products or services, you will preemptively lose their trust and their future business.

What do you do to generate legitimate, opt-in email addresses for your email marketing program?

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