Protect your business: 7 shady things when buying email lists
The magic of email marketing is based on the premise that your subscriber likes what you have to offer and happily opts in to join your mailing list. It’s hard work to attract those subscribers, but it’s also the reason why email marketing is the most effective marketing channel.
One day, you’ll get an email or phone call from someone selling an email list. They’ll talk about the quality of the list and the ability to segment and target your perfect audience. The seller seems legit, so you make the purchase. Going from a few hundred email addresses in your database to 20,000 feels really good. Until it doesn’t.
While a purchased email list will initially boost your numbers, that’s all it will do. From then on, it will be all downhill for your email marketing efforts, and it will be hard, if not impossible, to protect your business from the fallout.
If you're considering purchasing an email list, you need to read this now! We’ll give you 7 reasons why you should NOT buy a list as well as share some best practices for building a healthy, high-quality list.
But first, we always like to set the groundwork by defining the terminology we’ll be using so we are clear.
Essential email definitions to add to your lexicon
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a legal framework in the European Union for the collection and processing of personal data. EU residents can learn how their data is being used, submit complaints and request a company to delete all of their data.
(CAN-spam act) A U.S. law that sets the rules for writing and sending commercial emails such as marketing and promotional emails. It empowers recipients to unsubscribe and delivers tough penalties for violations.
What is email list buying?
Buying an email list is exactly how it sounds. A seller has a database of email addresses for different target markets, including job titles, industries, interests and many other segments.
These vendors will claim to have accurate email addresses with amazing deliverability. If this seems too good to be true, that’s because it is. Purchasing email lists is never a good idea.
Just remember that you are one of the thousands of people who the provider is trying to sell to. The lists are likely full of old email addresses that are inactive or invalid and result in larger bounce rates or worse—landing in spam traps.
In every case, these emails are from people who didn’t subscribe or opt-in to receive your emails. Sending them unsolicited emails is not only against the law, but also most of the recipients will delete or unsubscribe anyway.
How does purchasing an email list work?
Buying email lists
Email list vendors will sell you a group of email addresses that are yours to use forever. You can buy emails based on specific demographics or behavioral information such as purchasing habits or content consumption. The more targeted the emails, the higher the price. Another trick is to offer ‘opt-in’ emails. Providers will tell you that all the people in the list opted-in. While they might have opted-in to something, they definitely did not opt-in to your list! Don’t fall for this gimmick..
Renting an email list
Another scheme email-list vendors have concocted is to lease out email addresses that you never see. You request your targeting criteria and trust the provider to send your email to this mystery list. While some of these vendors might seem legitimate or even well-known, this is not email marketing, but rather advertising. The subscribers have not asked to receive your email and you will most likely annoy them.
How are “for sale” email lists built?
Email list vendors will be quick to assure you of the legitimacy of their product, with guarantees that all emails you are purchasing have opted in one way or another. For example, by consenting to be contacted by third-party senders. Aside from the fact that any third-party list is not actually considered opt-in, these lists are usually acquired by sketchy means.
Email harvesting: This is by far the worst method of the bunch. Bots are used to crawl websites, forums and blogs to scrape and collect email addresses. Lovely!
Spammy banner ads: You know the kind—those that tell you you’re the lucky winner out of 1,000,000. They’ll ask for your contact information in exchange for a prize and then add your email address straight to a list and sell it.
Trade shows: Have you ever been offered an email list full of industry experts from X, Y and Z events? These types of lists seem more legit, as they’re supposedly collected from industry events. But just because someone registered and attended an event, it doesn’t mean they’re interested in being contacted by you.
Partner “opt-in”: Signup forms try to encourage you to subscribe to their updates as well as their “partners’”. They’ll usually give you no choice, or design their forms so that you have to opt-out of consenting to third-party communication.
7 reasons you shouldn’t buy an email list
We hope we’ve been clear about the risks you face by buying email addresses, but just in case you are still tempted, we’ve listed five serious reasons for you to reconsider purchasing email lists.
1. Avoid buying email lists because it’s illegal
Let’s start with the most obvious and serious reason: It’s against the law to send people emails who didn’t give you consent!
Under GDPR, you must have explicit consent from your contacts to send them emails. It is a very clear law, and you will pay penalties for sending unsolicited emails, or even worse, some country’s anti-spam laws include jail time. Keep in mind, if your purchased email list includes people from other countries outside of your own, you’re subject to those laws.
Data privacy legislation around the world
General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) - Applies to the processing of personal data of those residing in all countries in the European Economic Area (EEA).
California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) - Applies to the processing of personal information of all California residents.
Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) - Applies to any country of organization processing personal information in South Africa.
Kenya Data Protection Act (Kenya DPA) - Applies to the processing of personal data of all subjects residing in Kenya.
CAN-SPAM - Applies to those residing in the United States
2. Email marketing software tools won’t allow it
Reputable email marketing tools will not tolerate users who buy email lists. Providers like MailerLite forbid list buying and consider it a violation of the service agreement.
This is because the deliverability quality of email marketing tools is tied to the quality of its users. As users share IP addresses, one person’s mistake of using a bad list can hurt deliverability for the other users. If emails are ending up in the spam folder or ISPs like Gmail and Yahoo are flagging your emails, the entire group of users will suffer the consequences. What’s more, the creators of these tools don’t want to be encouraging or be involved in illegal marketing tactics.
To ensure people are following the rules, email tools will monitor user behavior, assess the quality of your email addresses and track the recipient engagement. If you use a bought list, your email service will find out eventually and you’ll be blocked from using the service.
3. It harms your email deliverability
Ever heard of spam traps? They’re exactly that—traps to catch spammers (and organizations that don’t pay enough attention to the health of their email list).
They’re essentially fake email addresses created by internet service providers (ISPs) and blocklist providers to weasel out spam email. Because these email addresses don’t have any real user behind them, there is no way that the email could have opted-in.
And that brings us to other types of invalid emails, such as disposable emails. These emails were valid at some point, but are short-lived. In most cases, they are created for temporary use, for example, to gain access to a discount code. If someone signs up with a disposable email, it’s unlikely that they want to receive marketing emails from you—so this is probably not the kind of email you want on your email list. There’s a high chance they’re inactive, so they’ll likely bounce.
Purchased email lists are full of these, because the vendor who builds the list isn’t checking the validity of the emails they’re selling. Sending emails to invalid addresses will have a negative impact on your sender reputation and email deliverability, causing you a much bigger headache than your purchased list was worth.
4. Unsolicited emails can ruin your brand reputation
If you’ve read this far, we can assume you’re running a legitimate business and want to grow your list. We also know you’re not a spammer. You know you’re not a spammer. But when people get emails from you that they didn’t ask for, they’ll think you’re a spammer! And actually, isn’t that what makes a spammer?
When you send emails to people that didn’t give you permission, it’s spam. You might believe that your content is valuable or even relevant, but the truth is that people won’t recognize your sender name and will move your email to the spam folder. The best way to avoid spam filters is to only send emails to people that permitted you to do so.
The last thing you want is to be perceived as a spammer! Do you want potential customers to find bad reviews from angry people who received unsolicited emails from you? It’s not a good look!
5. Low return on investment
If you could send emails to a list of 100 true, opt-in subscribers and get 5 conversions, or a purchased list of 1,000 and get 0, which would you choose? When it comes to email lists, it’s all about quality over quantity.
Purchased emails have never agreed to be contacted by you, and they may not even know who you are. This adds up to a lack of interest in your content, minimal or non-existent engagement from subscribers, and low return on investment.
And to add salt to the wound, email marketing tools will charge you more the bigger your email list is. This means that, aside from the money lost on buying a low-quality list, you’ll also be spending more to send emails to disengaged and unconsenting subscribers.
6. You’ll skew your email engagement metrics
How do you know if your last email marketing campaign was effective? The best way to track your campaign performance is to compare your metrics with previous campaigns sent to the same audience.
Sending a campaign to a newly purchased email list will completely ruin the benchmarks you’ve already set to measure success. Click-through and open rates for an unsolicited email will be far lower than your usual campaign.
If you mix your current list with email addresses that you just bought, your results will look horrible. Engagement will drop. How will you know if it was the content or the list? Are you willing to see your email campaign metrics tank?
To ensure your campaigns deliver optimal engagement, you should periodically clean your email list with a tool like MailerCheck.
7. Other marketers are using the same purchased email list
Email list providers can’t make a living selling their email list once. They are going to try to sell those emails to as many people as possible. These salespeople are contacting hundreds and hundreds of people a day.
Can you imagine the frustration and anger of the people on the other side of those email addresses? Chances are they are getting bombarded by unsolicited emails. Let’s just say they will not be in a happy mind space to receive your email.
Your email will be one of many that never get opened. The recipient simply checks all of these spammy emails and moves them to the junk folder. And your email marketing service is likely in the process of blocking your account.
When it comes to building your email list, it never pays to pay! The best tactic is to put in the time and work needed to create a subscriber list for the long-term. Here’s how.
Best practices: Building a high-quality email list
The message is clear: Avoid buying email addresses. Now it’s time to shift our focus to doing it the right way.
Building your subscribers one email at a time will indeed take longer, but it’ll be so worth it. To get you started, we’ve included this guide to list-building as well as the top 5 places to find more subscribers.
Embedded forms: These are the subscribe forms you can place on your website. It’s best to include them near your content or in the footer of every page of your site. Make it really easy for a website visitor to find.
Landing pages: Whenever you want to feature one special product or service, you can send people to a unique landing page that focuses on converting visitors with one single-minded offer. This can be a lead magnet (like an ebook download) or a special promotion.
Pop-ups: Believe it or not, pop-ups have become a more accepted tactic when executed properly. You can set pop-ups to appear at the right times and also to not show up after the visitor has already seen it once. By strategically placing pop-ups in the right places, you can generate great conversion rates and grab more email addresses without completely interrupting the user experience.
Social media: Your followers, who are constantly engaging with your social content, might not be on your email list. These people are the low hanging fruit that are highly likely to join your email list if you ask them. Create a lead generation campaign by adding landing page links or inserting subscribe forms within your social media pages. Email marketing and social media can be powerful when they work together.
Your newsletters: Did you know that you can encourage your readers to forward your email newsletters? It’s similar to word-of-mouth marketing, where your subscribers are recommending your content to their friends. Make it easy for them to forward the email with a clear call-to-action.
Email marketing works best with a high-quality list
The secret sauce of email marketing is that people want to hear from you. They gave you their permission! Almost every other type of marketing or advertising interrupts people in some way. It doesn’t matter how relevant or enticing the offer, the customer did not ask to see it.
When you buy an email list, you lose the power of email. You become another annoying interruption that will hurt your reputation, get you kicked off your marketing tools and maybe cause trouble for you with the law.
Approach your email marketing like you approach your business—with integrity and determination. In the long run, you’ll be in a much better place.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in July 2020 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
What are your favorite tactics to grow your email list? Let us know in the comments!