Renting E-Mail Lists: What to Ask Before the Send

Renting third-party email lists can be a minefield. Here are three questions I recommend my clients ask before renting a list, along with guidelines about what you do — and don’t — want to hear in response.

Is This an Opt-In List?

Don’t assume. Ask. You may decide to go ahead and rent the list anyway, but it’s important to know what you’re buying. Opt-in lists tend to perform better (although rented lists rarely perform as well as your own opt-in house list, where you have a relationship with recipients). They also tend to cost more. At the very least, be sure you’re not paying more than the going rate for a non-opt-in list.

Be specific when asking. I’m reminded of a “Who’s on First” experience I had a number of years ago. I asked if a list was opt-in. The list broker responded with, “This list is totally permission-based.”

A few rounds later, I finally asked to see the mechanism by which people had signed up for the list. People had received two email messages informing them if they didn’t respond, they would be added to the list. That’s called negative option opt-out, which is very different from opt-in.

Bottom line: ask to look at the mechanism list members used to opt- in. The best-case scenario is a clear opt-in to receive email from third parties. Think twice if the site requires an email address for access to content and has “you will receive email from third parties” in small print with no way for registrants to opt out. Steer clear if the list owner can’t show you how these people got on the list in the first place.

Next, ask exactly what people on the list opted in to receive. This is just as critical as whether they opted in at all. I have a client who rented a list under the impression registrants had opted in specifically to receive promotional email from the company. When we investigated further, we found the permission email offered a negative opt-out on email from third parties. It wasn’t that the people on the list wanted to hear from my client. Instead, a small group (less than 0.1 percent) who very explicitly didn’t want to hear from the company were removed. That’s a very different audience.

Who Handles the Send?

Most likely the list broker or its agent; unlike with USPS lists, list owners typically don’t turn over addresses to the renter. With deliverability such a big issue, be sure whoever sends the mailing has a high likelihood of getting your email into the inbox.

The best email service providers (ESPs) tout deliverability rates in the high 90th percentile, meaning fewer than 5 email messages in 100 are undeliverable. Not everyone who sends email can claim these results.

I recently looked over a client’s historical campaign performance. They had done two sends over six weeks to a rented list. The first send had a deliverability rate in the high 80s. The second send sharply decreased, to the mid-70s. Roughly 25 of every 100 email messages weren’t reaching recipients. The sudden drop suggests the sender may have been blacklisted after the first send. It’s impossible to know how many of the 75 percent reported delivered got into the inbox (rather than a junk-mail folder or the black hole many ISPs use to handle email perceived to be spam).

Before you rent a list, find out who will handle the send and how deliverability stacks up. You’ll want to know how that sender calculates his delivery ratio. The most basic way is to subtract known non-deliverables from the number of messages sent. This can be misleading, though. Not all ISPs notify the sender when an email is blocked, routed to the junk folder, or otherwise not delivered to an inbox. A more accurate figure can usually be obtained from ESPs that have relationships with the ISPs and get reports on confirmed deliveries as well as non-deliveries.

Ask what processes the sender has in place to ensure your email will get to the inbox. Many ESPs have whole teams devoted to building relationships with the ISPs and ensuring their email gets delivered. Even if this isn’t the case, the sender should be doing something to help mail get through. Beware the ESPs that do nothing.

How Has This List Performed Historically?

Sometimes you can get this information, sometimes you can’t. It’s always good to ask. I like to pull this data (or an adjusted version of it, which is usually more conservative) into the spreadsheet where I estimate the campaign’s return on investment (ROI). Get this information and run the numbers before you rent. If it looks like the list won’t meet your ROI goals, adjust accordingly.

If you send the list and results don’t meet the broker’s quoted average, ask for a “make good.” A make good means you get another send to compensate for the poor performance of the first list. Sometimes this is to a different segment of the same list, sometimes to another list the broker manages. Not all brokers will do this, but many will. It never hurts to ask (nicely, of course).

As with USPS lists, test to see how the names perform before you commit to renting the entire list, if possible. The importance of testing increases with your list budget. And always include at least four cells — two creative concepts and two lists — in your sends. That provides some insurance against a bad list (or poor creative) tainting all your campaign results. More lists are even better. Sending to statistically significant samples of 10 lists teaches you more about which lists work, and which don’t, than mailing to just one.

Until next time,


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