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Should Companies Purchase Email Lists?

When it comes to generating new business, digital marketing provides almost unlimited opportunities to target and reach new prospects. There are long-term strategies like producing quality content and building a strong social media presence. Then there are digital marketing efforts more focused on short-term results such as digital advertising.

A strong digital marketing strategy ideally includes a good mix of short-term efforts that generate quicker results and long-term efforts focused on building recurring inbound leads and sales. And then there are, of course, the “quick fixes.” Those tempting opportunities that seem almost too good to be true (usually because they are).

One of those opportunities is purchasing emails lists. Let’s explore the pros and cons of this tactic and walk through some better ways to approach email list growth and outreach.

Risks of purchasing email lists

Purchasing Email Lists – The Risks

Maybe you’re just starting out with email marketing. Or perhaps you’re struggling to grow your email list at the pace you’d like. There’s a good chance you’ve been presented the opportunity to purchase a list of email contacts, or even explored the idea yourself. Seems like a great idea, right? You invest a little money and all of a sudden you have a targeted list of emails! Not so fast…

Email Service Provider Compliance

These days, many email service providers (the software or program you use to send your emails) require you to explicitly gain consent, or “opt-in”, permission from all subscribers. Here’s a line directly from MailChimp’s Terms of Use for example:

[By agreeing to these Terms, you promise to follow these rules:]

2. You won’t use purchased, rented, or third-party lists of email addresses.

It’s the reason you see a message asking if the emails you’re uploading have been opted-in. By checking this box when using a purchased list, you’re not complying with your email service provider's (i.e. MailChimp) guidelines, and risk being barred from using the service. This isn’t just a threat, we’ve seen this happen firsthand.

Sender Reputation

The simple fact is that when you purchase an email list, you’re emailing a group of recipients that likely have never interacted with you or your brand before. This has the following effects on your email performance:

  • Increases opt-out rates
  • Increases likelihood of SPAM complaints
  • Decreases engagement metrics like open rate and clickthrough rate

Not only do all these metrics look bad on paper, but they also increase the likelihood of even riskier outcomes:

  • Your email service provider may freeze your account until you’re able to clean up your list
  • Your domain may make it onto some very undesirable email blacklists by internet service providers, inbox protection services and firewalls

To reiterate, poor performance isn’t just an issue of short-term lack of engagement, it speaks to a much larger and longer-term issue of sender reputation. This is essentially a score than an Internet Service Provider (ISP) gives a domain or organization that sends email. The higher the score, the better the chance you’ll hit more inboxes. The factors that go into sender reputation include:

  • How many SPAM complaints an email sender receives
  • How often emails go into ISP’s spam traps
  • The domain’s inclusion in email blacklists
  • Recipient engagement (how many recipients are opening, clicking and generally engaging with the sender’s emails)
  • How many recipients are unsubscribing from the sender’s emails

As you can see, when you’re using purchased lists, you’re naturally increasing your organization and domain’s chances of tarnishing your sender reputation. Want to check your sender reputation? Here are some options:

Legal Issues

As if the above issues weren’t enough, emailing recipients who haven’t opted in can actually violate several laws, the newest of which is GDPR.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a European data protection law that went into effect in May of 2018, says that your email recipients must have opted in to receive email marketing from you. Simply put, if you’re emailing any recipients in the European Union, you need to comply with GDPR. And spoiler alert, this type of compliance regulation may be coming to other parts of the world, including the United States.

There’s also the CAN-SPAM Act, which has been around for a significantly longer period of time. While this law is a bit less stringent than GDPR, it does clearly state several rules to be followed:

  • Senders cannot use false or misleading sender information
  • Senders cannot use deceptive subject lines
  • Senders must identify the message as an ad (if it is such)
  • Senders must identify their location
  • Senders must explicitly give recipients the option to opt-out of future communications

While each of these has some level of interpretation, we highly recommend email marketers review CAN-SPAM guidelines before sending, especially if sending to recipients that have not opted-in or given consent.

Then there’s the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation, which, according to Constant Contact, “requires you to obtain and document consent before sending commercial emails to Canadian consumers.”

Poor Performance

As if all the above concerns weren’t enough, let’s not forget the performance of purchased lists. To put it bluntly, how do you feel when you receive a promotional email or email solicitation from a company you don’t know, or haven’t given permission to email you? It’s a rhetorical question, we all know the answer…

According to MailChimp, the average open rate for all industries is 20.81%. That’s naturally going to fluctuate by industry, but that’s the benchmark. But according to Opt-In Monster, “If you purchased an email list, you can expect open rates well below the industry average.”

Also consider this: if you purchased this list, others likely did too. That means that not only are those recipients receiving unwanted emails from you, they’re also likely receiving unwanted emails from dozens (if not more) of other senders too.

Alternatives to Purchasing Lists

Ok, you get it. Purchasing email lists isn’t ideal. If you feel like we’re your mother telling you not to do something, we’ve done our job. But if purchasing lists isn’t an option, their must be alternatives, right? Right!

Organic email growth

Growing email lists organically

This is the equivalent of your mother telling you to eat your vegetables. You might not want to hear it, but it’s good advice. Grow your email list organically by producing such high-quality content and value that people want to receive it!

Will this take more time? Yes. But there is a pretty simple process to growing a list the right way:

  1. Identify your audience. Whether you use personas, jobs to be done, or some other framework, you need to have a solid understanding of your target audience (i.e. who you want to populate your email list). Key in on the following:
    1. What industry topics are they most interested in?
    2. What are the challenges they have in their role?
    3. What publications/resources do they read currently?
  2. Develop high-quality content. And to clarify, content that your audience finds valuable, not what you think they need to see. It’s all about your audience. Consider the following:
    1. Topics – Just like putting together a content strategy, you need to understand the trends and topics that your audience is most interested in.
    2. Format – Does your audience like short snippets of content or longform reads? Are they more visual (infographics, video) or driven by research and data?
  3. Consider cadence. How often does your audience want/need to receive email? If you’re publishing pressing industry news and trends, maybe it’s more frequent. If you’re publishing longer-form editorial that may take awhile to digest, consider a less frequent send rate.
  4. Promote. Once you have a valuable email program in place, ensure that you’re promoting it in all the right places:
    1. Website. Pro tip: don’t add a form on your site that says “Subscribe:” with a box and a button. What am I subscribing to? Recipes? Celebrity news? Funny animal pictures? (go ahead and click, we’ll wait) You’re better than that. Put your copywriter hat on and follow this formula: “Subscribe to our newsletter to receive [your valuable content] just for [your audience] every [frequency].”
    2. Blog. Your blog is a slightly different animal than the rest of your website. Typically, the rest of your website is focused on your company, its products and services. But your blog is focused on content. Visitors that land on these pages are interested in content, and as a result are likely to be more interested in receiving continued content from you.
    3. Social Media. Your social media channels are already a place where your followers and fans have “opted-in” to receive updates from you on a regular basis. Occasionally, give them the opportunity to subscribe to email from you as well. Don’t forget to include a link in your social profiles as well.
    4. Offline. Do you engage in a lot of tradeshows and/or community events? Give people the opportunity to sign up for email subscriptions, either digitally through an iPad or laptop at the event, or by simply sharing their business card. Just make sure you make them aware (verbal or written) what they’re opting into. Constant Contact actually has a paper opt-in sheet that you can use to start.

Paid Email Growth

Using Paid Spend to Grow Email Subscriber Lists

You were thinking about paying for that email list anyway, so why not take that budget and put it toward some digital advertising to promote your incredibly valuable email subscription? Using digital advertising, you can get in front of a really targeted audience and encourage them to subscribe.

Facebook Ads are probably the best platform for growing email subscribers through paid advertising. Beneficial because of their cost-effectiveness, you can use the targeted audience you’ve already identified, leverage this audience in Facebook, and leverage a “Lead Ad” to encourage users to subscribe directly from Facebook without ever leaving the platform. Remember, write compelling copy about the immense value your email(s) provide, and set expectations about frequency right away.

Using Offers and Giveaways to Grow Email Subscriber Lists

Whether you’re using organic or paid methods to grow your email subscriber list, you need to have a compelling call-to-action (CTA). Starting with a clear value proposition about what the recipient will receive is critical. Beyond that, think about what you can communicate or offer to spur more subscriptions.

  • Coupons/Offers. Especially valuable for B2C and e-commerce companies, offering a coupon for signing up and/or ongoing offers as an “insider” provides additional value for subscribers.
  • Exclusive Content. Do you have an in-depth guide or research that can’t be found elsewhere? Offer this premium content to new subscribers.
  • VIP perks. Brand loyalists love to feel like a VIP. Whether than means sharing new products or deals before they go public, or publishing content that’s only accessible via email subscription, creating exclusivity can generate more email subscriptions.
  • Useful Tools. If you have the ability to develop valuable tools, subscriptions or applications for your audience, you can provide these for free (in exchange for an email address to sign up, of course). A perfect example is Hubspot’s Marketing Grader, which is perfectly targeted to their audience, and thousands of users are willing to exchange email to use this tool.

Growing Email Lists the Right Way

Even though it seems as if every year a new blog or publication proclaims, “email is dead,” it still remains one of the more effective digital marketing tactics when done right. Let’s summarize how to do it right:

  1. Don’t purchase lists. It’s really tempting, we know. But it’s a shortcut, and a dangerous one at that. When you purchase a list, you’re risking legal ramifications, damaging your sender reputation, and causing serious harm to your long-term email marketing success.
  2. Grow email lists organically. Develop a strategy, identify your audience, and produce truly valuable content that your subscribers can’t live without.
  3. Accelerate email list growth. Take advantage of cost-effective paid digital advertising like Facebook, integrating opt-in opportunities into your website, and leveraging high-value offers like coupons and premium content.

If you need help putting together an email marketing or marketing automation strategy set up for long-term success, let us know! Aztek has multiple email marketing partnerships and certified experts in-house with years of proven success.