Hey Buddy, Can You Spare a List?

You’d think after a decade of working so hard to make e-mail marketing a respectable, permission-based profession that we’d no longer be discussing what a bad idea it is to buy a list. Yet, I still get asked this question. So clearly, the issue isn’t closed.

Let me say this unequivocally:

  • Never buy/borrow a list from any source and add data to your file. Never.
  • Never take internal data that has been “sitting around” and add that to your active file. Never.
  • Never take data from a partner and add it to your file. Never.

Why? First, because you don’t have permission. While it’s not illegal in the U.S. to mail the list, it’s pretty foundational to e-mail marketing – and any business relationship – that both parties want in.

Further, you don’t know the source, age, or quality of these lists – or who else has purchased the records. If you did mail to them, you risk high complaints (clicks on the report spam button), which will quickly destroy your sender reputation and get all your messages blocked to all subscribers – even those other subscribers who really gave you permission or who have been enjoying your messages.

It just isn’t worth risking overall inbox deliverability for some data of dubious value and unknown origin.

Think I’m exaggerating? I wish. Consider these true horror stories:

  • A B2B (define) publisher added records from a third party to their e-mail newsletter file, and in one day went from 90 percent inbox placement to 15 percent inbox placement. You can imagine what happened to readership and advertising clicks when so few messages reached the inbox (Answer: they plummeted). It took more than six months to recover to a reasonable sender reputation, and this publisher has yet to regain its former 90 percent glory.
  • A software company paid $2,000 for 1 million records. They thankfully mailed to just the first 100,000. About 85 percent of the records were invalid and bounced. They tried again with the second 100,000. Bounce rates were 83 percent. Worse, what got through generated a 50 percent complaint rate – half of the people who got the message reported this marketer as a spammer. The money, time, and resources could have been much better spent.
  • With no authority or approval from the list owner, an insurance company added a trade show list of brokers to their e-mail marketing database. Complaints were so high that the marketer was fired by their e-mail broadcast service. They had to scramble to find another provider, while word quickly spread in the industry. They found themselves blackballed by many reputable ESPs.

The appeal of buying data is understandable. It’s a fine practice in postal marketing. It seems like a good way to quickly get into the e-mail marketing “game.” There’s pressure to grow the file. If you’re spending time on creative and production, it’s nice to have a sizeable file. It’s also inexpensive to send e-mail marketing, so list size isn’t a barrier.

It’s also just not worth it. There’s no quick fix in relationship building.

There are great ways to build an active and engaged list. The best way is to gain permission through organic measures like your own Web site, sales/service teams, the call center, and social marketing. Optimize e-mail capture on every landing page and through event sign-ups and white paper download experiences by presenting a strong value proposition prominently on every page.

In addition, you may try to “rent” a file. This is like a media buy. You send them creative assets and the list owner mails the message for you, or your ad is placed around their content.

Of course, you’re at the mercy of their sending practices, so enter such deals cautiously, as there are many bad actors, as well as some innocents who don’t realize the danger of sharing lists. Consider these points:

  1. Ask about inbox placement rates or check the list owner at senderscore.org (a service provided by my company). Even the best third-party list rental companies earn inbox placement only in the mid-70s or lower. A higher score is a strong indicator of how well they treat their subscribers (and how your brand will be perceived), and if you can expect any response.
  2. Be sure you can sign up for their program as a subscriber. See what comes to your inbox, and make sure it’s an appropriate environment for your brand and message.
  3. Tailor messages to the experience. Remember, these are people who may know your brand, but are signed up to get e-mail from someone else. Calls to action like a white paper, Webinar, free trial or, insider information usually work best. Be clear about the value of opting in to your program directly.

Despite the high ROI (define) and dependable revenue of e-mail marketing, many of us are under pressure to squeeze ever more out of the channel. A seemingly easy way to do this is to just add a lump of data. However, it won’t work. Instead, focus your energy on gaining permission and building relationships.

Please share your war stories on data management, and your success stories for list growth and engagement below.

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