E-Mail List Quick Fix: Too Good to Be True?

Add thousands of highly targeted email addresses to your list every hour! Fully automated system; includes database integration for easy sorting, exporting and protecting your data [sic]! Just $49.95

Sound too good to be true? That’s because it is.

Yet such offers are tempting for some companies, even large ones with healthy brand names. I get email every month asking about questionable practices like this one. Often they’re from people firmly determined to take the questionable course of action. Other times, they’re from uncomfortable people who want to convince their organizations not to do it.

These are just quick fixes. When response rates are down and list growth is waning, you want to add new blood to pump up results. Maybe you’re in a niche market and feel you’ve exhausted all legitimate means to acquire opt-in names. Or you feel there are no targeted email lists to rent out there, and this offer seems like a great way to build your own.

If these problems exist in your world, thousands of highly targeted names an hour is enticing. There’s one big problem: often, these quick fixes are illegal.

Yup, illegal. We’re not talking SpamCop anymore; it’s the real police you need to worry about.

The above claim is from a Web site selling “email spider” software, designed to gather (“scrape” or “harvest”) email addresses from Web sites. You can purchase a single license to use yourself or buy a brandable version to resell as your own.

But, harvesting is illegal. It has been since CAN-SPAM went into effect. Lawmakers were so determined to ban this practice, they wrote it into the law without waiting for the FTC to investigate and make a recommendation.

The legislation terms harvesting an “aggravated violation” in Section 5(b)(1) and says:

It is unlawful for any person to initiate the transmission, to a protected computer, of a commercial electronic mail message… or to assist in the origination of such message… if such person had actual knowledge, or knowledge fairly implied on the basis of objective circumstances, that… the electronic mail address of the recipient was obtained using an automated means from an Internet website or proprietary online service operated by another person.

Many offline direct marketers liken spamming to list compilation and don’t understand why it’s illegal — or a bad idea.

Offline, compiled lists are built by companies, often directory publishers, to a marketer’s specifications. You might request a list of CEOs of companies based in the Midwest with 2,000 to 5,000 employees. Or you might want to reach CIOs in the electronics industry with company revenues exceeding $5 million a year for the past three years. The complier will use publicly available information to create such a list for you.

Even in the offline world, there are issues with compiled lists. They rarely perform as well as organically built lists (e.g., lists of people who subscribe to certain publications), and they almost never see a response rate that beats the house list’s.

And as with the online world, there are legitimate list compilers who give you exactly what you asked for and others whose lists aren’t what you wanted. Sometimes a small portion (10-20 percent) of the list is off-track; other times it’s a much larger (90 percent or more) portion.

Even when harvesting was technically legal, I didn’t recommend it to clients. In addition to the offline problems, there are unique issues online. First and foremost: it’s not permission-based, and it’s not opt-in.

Before harvesting was illegal, you set yourself up for lots of spam complaints and (likely) little response. Every legitimate email marketer I know wouldn’t go near a harvested list, let alone harvest names themselves. It’s always been considered a sketchy practice, long before CAN-SPAM.

Some marketers set on compiling online lists rather than build them through opt-in are trying to skirt the new law. They pay people to surf the Web and manually (instead of using automated means) pluck addresses from Web sites. This isn’t illegal… yet. The FTC considered outlawing this, based on the recommendation of a coalition of domain name registrars. It decided to solicit further data before making a determination.

I’m not an attorney, but it certainly seems if manual harvesting doesn’t violate the letter of the law, it does violate its spirit. Moreover, it opens you up to spam complaints and miserable response rates.

Here are three quick rules for evaluating any email marketing idea.

Know the Law — and Comply

If you’re U.S.-based, CAN-SPAM is the one to watch. Portions of it are still being defined and turned into regulations. Check out the original bill’s full text. The FTC continues to hone the details. See the latest in the Federal Register, Part IV (released May 12, 2005; comments must be received by June 27, 2005).

It’s always surprised me how many organizations don’t know the laws governing their marketing efforts. Fax, direct mail that looks like an invoice, use of the word “free,” and telemarketing are just a few marketing activities governed by U.S. regulations, as email now is. If you do any marketing, be certain you’re in compliance. If you’re not sure, contact an industry association or an attorney.

Only Do Business With Those You Trust

Would you conduct business with someone who hid his identity from you? Probably not. Don’t deal with shady Internet characters, either.

I always check company and contact information on Web sites. No postal address, no corporate officers’ names, and only generic email aliases (sales@, questions@, etc.) are dead giveaways. Don’t get sucked in.

Sound Too Good to Be True? It Probably Is

Skepticism is probably your best defense. Ask questions. If the answers don’t sound right, walk away. If there’s the slightest doubt, get another opinion. Ask to talk to customers (that alone isn’t enough; they could be just as shady, or shadier, than the vendor). Use search engines to investigate the vendor.

Just because it’s for sale on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s legal. It can be legal to sell software for a particular purpose, but illegal to use it. The risk is all yours. The downside could include fines, negative publicity, damage to your brand, and worse.

Next time you’re tempted by a quick fix, take some time and investigate further. Your brand may depend on it.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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