Should I Buy an Email List? (The Answer is NO!)

One question we often get from clients is:

Should I buy or rent an email list?

Our answer, pretty much always, is “No.”

Buying an email list is problematic for two main reasons:

  1. The list will be crappy. Yeah, yeah, I know you’re buying it from a great source. They’re vertical specialists in your industry. It’s verified by phone every six months. It’s opt-in. It’s blah-blah… It’s crap. In fact, any list you can rent or buy is, by definition, crap. But it doesn’t matter because:
  2. Even if there’s nothing wrong with the list itself, your results will still be crappy. Big bounce rates. Terrible open rates. Even worse click-throughs. This is true even if the people who initially created the list did a good job.

Here’s why your results from a rented or bought email list will suck:

  • The people on those lists receiving your emails have never heard of you. And what do you do when you get an email from a company you don’t know? That’s right, you delete it. (Or report it as spam and then delete it.) Your recipients will do the same. Even worse, if your initial communication is designated as spam, this is likely to cause any future emails to also get plucked by the spam filter, never to be seen again. So, even if you DO start to build a relationship with this prospect later on, there is a good chance they will miss your email marketing campaign.
  • Even if people see your email and actually take the time to read it, they’ll know or suspect that they didn’t ask to be emailed by you. And this, in turn, will lower their trust in you and your brand. That’s bad.

But my boss said we HAD to start an email campaign tomorrow!

I hear you, but you’ve got to make the case that this is a bad idea. There is plenty of solid research available to help you prove your point. Here are four great articles to start you off:

For one of our own clients who needed more convincing, we took them though a simple experiment. We sent out two of the same exact emails at the exact same time — one to a house list where everyone had willingly opted in; and one to a small sample of their “really targeted and high-end” rented list that they were sure would ramp up their marketing efforts. Here are the results:

House list

  • Open rate: 41%
  • Click through rate: 20%
  • Spam and opt-outs: < .1%
  • Delivery success: 99.4%

Rented list

  • Open rate: 5%
  • Click through rate: .001%
  • Spam and opt-outs: 3%
  • Delivery success: 63%

The sample rented list was 10x bigger than the house’s opt-in list, but produced exactly zero leads and essentially no positive impression on our audience, with a significant negative impact. But the house list yielded mostly positive interactions and 11 hot leads.

We have no/a very small house list. What to do? We need leads now.

Suck it up and start building a house list. How do you kick-start it? You create something of value for your prospects — something they want enough to give you their email address and their blessing to use it. Maybe it’s quality content about your industry. Or maybe it’s a demo of your product.

And Advertise. Use promoted tweets, native Facebook advertising, promoted placement in industry blogs, or re-marketing networks like, to promote your (valuable) content — and hang a newsletter signup right next to it.

Ok, but that’s a lot of work. I’m gonna get fired if I don’t do something fast now.

I get it. But buying a list isn’t your only trick here. Here’s what else you might try:

  • Piggyback onto someone else’s permission-based newsletter in an adjacent industry. Ask them to give you a shout out like, “Don’t miss our good pals over at XYZ who do ABC… they’re offering (something valuable).” Then point that link to your newsletter signup. You can do the same for them in return. Or sponsor an industry event and negotiate the right to be included in their updates with useful/cool/fun content of your own.
  • Buy a snail-mail list and do a direct mail campaign via USPS. Those campaign DO work. And you’re not breaking any laws, creating ethical quandaries, or tarnishing your brand. Make the call to action something like: “Send us your email address and we’ll send you something awesome.”

Remember, whatever else you do, DON’T dump bought or rented names into your main database. That will stink up your results for evermore.

And if you’re still asking yourself whether something is OK to send out, Mailchimp has created an EXCELLENT guide here, with do’s and don’ts covering various scenarios.

Rich Quarles

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