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Should you be buying email marketing lists in 2021? Blog Feature

Kristen Harold

Director of Marketing, 10+ Years of Digital Marketing & Lead Generation Experience

February 9th, 2021 min read

Years ago, I was working for a company that was expanding into a new market, in a country outside of the United States. 

Anyone who has ever brought their business to a new territory knows that this isn’t an easy task. Especially when you’re literally speaking a different language. Now, I like to think of myself as an ethical marketer. I prefer quality over ease and am willing to put in the work to attract qualified leads over easy traffic. 

Unfortunately, my boss at the time wanted a quick boost. 

They were looking for a way to get our message out to as many local prospects as possible and fast. Just about this time, they received an email from a company that was promising a verified list of thousands of email addresses from the country we were targeting.

🔎 Related: 18 email marketing best practices you need to know for 2021

I had never heard of this company before and the offer sounded far too good to be true. Upon researching this country’s SPAM regulations, it also appeared we would be walking a fine line if we were to move forward. 

In the end, it was decided (over my objections) to purchase the list. 

Not only did this put me into an ethical gray area, but it was potentially putting our company at risk with our email platform, as using purchased lists was against their terms. 

However, the campaign moved forward. 

In the end, we didn’t get penalized by our email provider. But, because the contact information that was on the list was so outdated and irrelevant, there was little engagement and zero sales generated. The entire thing was a complete waste of time and money. It was not worth the risk involved.

So, is buying email lists a good idea? No.

What does it mean to buy an email list?

If you’re a marketer or own a business, you’ve probably received an email (or many) with the promise of a targeted, opted-in, or verified email list that’s just a credit card transaction away. 

On the outset, it sounds good, right? 

After all, it’s an instant list of leads without all the work of actually getting anyone to come to your website and elect to subscribe to your emails. What could go wrong?

A lot.

🔎 Related: 11 email marketing mistakes you need to stop making

Many companies who sell or rent out email lists have termed themselves “list brokers” and make promises to expertly curate a list of targeted, opted-in contacts to meet your business’s specific needs and goals. 

The reality is, the data that these “brokers” are providing may have opted-in to receive emails from a company, but not your company. The data can oftentimes be outdated and therefore will bounce the moment you hit send on an email — or it was illegally mined from a website, and you have no way to verify any of it. 

Does buying an email list still sound good? Let's dig a little deeper into the cons.

Buying email lists can be illegal

Buying email lists is not just "frowned upon," it's actually illegal and with increasing concerns on privacy and user data, regulations are only getting tighter. 

CANSPAM

The 2003 CANSPAM Act set forth rules for commercial emailing in the US. While these rules don’t expressly say “it is illegal to purchase an email list,” there are plenty of ways you can violate CANSPAM rules if you do.

Here’s an excerpt from the FTC’s (Federal Trade Commission) website

The CAN-SPAM Act doesn’t require initiators of commercial email to get recipients’ consent before sending them commercial email. In other words, there is no opt-in requirement. So in general, as long as you follow the 'initiator' requirements of the Act, you can send email until the recipient asks to opt out. But buying lists like that can be risky. There is the possibility that addresses on the list belong to people who have already opted out of receiving email from your company. And there’s a risk that the list was put together using illegal means like address harvesting or dictionary attacks. Therefore, some companies choose to send marketing email only to people who have affirmatively asked to receive them or with whom the company already has a business relationship.”

Since the CANSPAM act doesn’t require an opt-in, just the ability for a user to opt-out, the act of purchasing isn’t necessarily illegal.

However, you still have no way of knowing whether or not the company you purchase the list from obtained its contacts legally. If it didn’t, and you emailed these contacts, you may be held liable. CANSPAM violations can result in over $40,000 in fines. 

Is that a risk you’re willing to take?

CANSPAM covers the federal rules for email marketing, but we’re starting to see new legislation on the state level. Enter, California and the CCPA.

CCPA

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) went into effect on January 1st, 2020 and is considered to be one of the strictest privacy laws in the US. 

While the CCPA is focused on protecting the personal information of California residents, that doesn’t mean that businesses outside the state don’t need to pay attention. If you have customers who reside in California you need to comply if you meet any of the following criteria:

  • Your company has a gross annual income of $25 million or more.
  • You obtain or release personal information of 50,000 California residents.
  • Make 50% or more of your total annual revenue comes from selling California residents’ information.

According to Deloitte, here’s what businesses who meet these criteria will need to comply with:

“Businesses will now have to honor requests from California residents to access, delete, and opt-out of sharing or selling their information. Additionally, businesses will have to consider a number of CCPA-specific requirements when updating their privacy programs, such as the CCPA’s prescriptive opt-out measures, and the need to stop selling consumer data upon an individual’s request."

States like New York, Nevada, and Maine are passing similar laws, so it’s only a matter of time before regulations like the CCPA become the norm

With all of these regulations to consider, you simply can’t trust that a company selling email lists has actually made sure to comply. You could be left holding the bag.

GDPR

The examples above only account for US residents and businesses. The regulations globally can be even stricter when it comes to list purchases.

In May, 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect in Europe. Overall, GDPR has a lot of implications for marketers, so I’d suggest doing your research if you’re unsure whether or not you are GDPR-compliant. 

In the instance of email marketing, here’s what you need to know.

Even if you are a US business or based outside of Europe but you have customers who reside in the EU, you must be GDPR-compliant.

For email marketers, consent is the number one key to GDPR compliance. 

A customer must actively consent to opt in to your email marketing. You know that old trick of having your opt-in pre-checked in hopes customers just submit their data and don’t uncheck the box? That’s no longer GDPR-compliant. Customers must actively provide their consent by checking that box themselves. 

Email Marketing Lists GDPR

(Source: https://litmus.com/blog/5-things-you-must-know-about-email-consent-under-gdpr)

Email consent also must be kept separate from other terms and conditions or offers, and the language must be clearly visible and understandable before a user gives their consent. 

Here’s what we do at IMPACT on our Inbound Scorecard

IMPACT GDPR
Notice that the “I agree to receive communications from IMPACT” box is not pre-checked and we have clearly stated how this user’s information will be used. 

With the complexities of GDPR, there is simply no way to purchase an email list without violating these regulations. 

Look to GDPR and CCPA to see where data privacy is going

Europe and California aren’t the only two regions tightening the rules on data privacy. This is a trend that we are going to see continue. As users have become more aware of how their personal data has been abused over the last few years, marketers have no choice but to be transparent with our customers.

Your relationship with buyers should be built on trust

If you know us at IMPACT, you know we believe in building trust with buyers, and one of the biggest problems with buying email lists is that you are starting a relationship with a user on a foundation of mistrust.

Think about how many emails you’ve received from a company that you’ve never heard of. What’s the first thing most of us do? 

Delete it or mark it as spam.

Off the bat, your first experience with that company isn’t a good one. They have taken up inbox space and probably made you question how they got your email in the first place. 

That company is now untrustworthy to you. 

Your email provider won’t trust you either

Email marketing providers like HubSpot or MailChimp have gotten pretty strict with identifying purchased lists, and if you’re caught, it could harm your future deliverability — and possibly get you kicked off the platform. 

Even if you’re not caught uploading a bad list, when you start getting a lot of spam reports, bounces, or unsubscribes, you’re likely to get flagged.

🔎 Related: List Hygiene & Email Deliverability: Getting Into Inboxes & In Front of Subscribers [Interview]

Good email marketing is relevant, personal, and useful to a recipient. This is why putting your focus into getting users to want to opt-in is always going to outweigh the quick fix of buying a list. 

What can you do instead of buying lists?

Now that we’ve established why you shouldn’t purchase an email list, let’s look at a few things you should be doing to ramp up your email marketing. 

Inbound marketing

Instead of wasting your time with list brokers, start focusing on ways you can attract potential customers organically.

By creating content that is useful, helpful, and relevant to your ideal customers you have the ability to attract a steady stream of highly-qualified leads who will be more apt to give you their consent when it comes to email marketing. 

Focus on the things you know your potential customers are asking themselves about products or services like yours. Things like cost, problems, comparisons, and reviews are a great place to start! 

Optimize your content for search; stay consistent and make it easy for customers to opt-in once they are on your website. 

Lead generation campaigns

A good lead generation campaign will provide your ideal customer with something they find valuable like an e-book, webinar, whitepaper, or even an exclusive offer in exchange for providing their contact information. 

Whatever you piece of content or offer you’ve chosen to put behind a “gate” (opt-in form), it needs to be thoughtful, relevant, and truly useful to your user. Nothing is worse than filling out a form and receiving a glorified brochure on the other end. 

You can promote your campaigns within your website, on social media or through a paid media campaign. By promoting high-quality content that is also useful to your prospects, you’re already starting to build a relationship based on trust and are creating a list of email contacts that are far more powerful for your business than buying an unvetted list!

Event sponsorships

I get it, there are times you’re thinking “but I just want an easy to way to get in my ideal customer’s inbox.” While email list buying isn’t your answer, event sponsorship very well might be!

Conferences and trade events often have varying levels of sponsorship available. Depending on their terms and conditions, there will usually be an option for you to get in the inbox of attendees one way or another. 

Sometimes the event will send an email about your product or service to the attendee list from its own account. This means that attendees will get an email from the event host, but it will be about your company. This type of opt-in should be clear in the attendee terms and conditions when people register.

Rarely (but it happens) an event’s terms will stipulate that attendee information will be given to event sponsors. In this case, you’ll receive the attendee list from that event.

You might be saying “but Kristen, isn’t that buying a list in a way?” You’re not entirely wrong. 

But, in this instance, you’ll have visibility on the event’s opt-in policy and you’ll be able to ascertain that the list is above board. Just be careful how you use the list! Make sure these contacts know how you received their information upfront and why you are following up with them.

Focus on the quality of your marketing, not on what’s easy

With all of the regulation that has come into effect in the last decade, it’s safe to say that email list buying should not be in your 2021 marketing plans. 

You know the old saying, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. 

List buying might seem like an easy way to kickstart your email marketing. But the reality is the risks you’re taking can have long-lasting effects on your deliverability, the health of your database and the trust consumers have in your business. 

Put your focus on the things that will bring you qualified leads, the right way. It might not be as quick, but the payoff will be enormous!  

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