Dear Business Person: Want to buy an email list? (Hint: no, you don’t!)

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We all get the emails, and they look something like this:

Example Email: Hi there, My name is Vicky, and I wanted to know if you would be interested in reaching key decision-makers across Information Technology and other industry verticals. We provide opt-in business emails with contact’s full name, company name, job title, phone and fax number, mailing address, SIC codes, industry description, employee size and revenue etc.

Often, English usage and grammar aren’t quite this good, but you’ve likely seen something similar in a million industries pop up in your inbox. Sometimes these offers target those going to a trade show like CES or Outdoor Retailer, hoping you will assume they are affiliated with the show (they usually aren’t) and can get you great access to your fellow attendees’ contact information.

Let me cut to the chase: buying email lists is at best lousy marketing and, in some cases, is illegal. The CAN-SPAM Act explicitly prohibits email harvesting – the purchasing or trading of an email list that’s been scraped or generated by simply guessing the nomenclature (e.g. first initial, last name @ company). Additionally, CAN-SPAM requires that all emails sent in bulk must be obtained using opt-in methods — as in, everyone on this list said, in some way, it’s OK to email me. Although CAN-SPAM allows for the “renting” of email lists (that is, a limited number of uses), that is still a risky move, if not legally, just from a customer relations standpoint.

Making matters worse, with Europe’s new data privacy act, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), in effect, simply adding an opt-out option is no longer sufficient. Marketers now must have explicit consent in order to send emails to their contacts in all GDPR countries.  

Finally, just how good do you think a list will be when you got it from the online equivalent of a sketchy-looking guy selling “genuine” Rolex watches from the back of a van parked in a dimly lit alley?

Let’s address the common questions:

  • The use of the phrase “opt-in” makes it OK, right? Two words: um, no. Think about it this way — when is the last time you gave your email address to someone and said it was fine if they sold it to other people? I’m thinking maybe never. When it comes to rented or purchased lists, the people on the list may have opted in to an email communication from someone at some point in time — not necessarily communications from your business. So, if the list is truly opt-in, it’s likely to have about a dozen really lonely people on it that would be only too happy to talk to your sales staff for hours without buying a thing.
  • But isn’t this from the trade show? When you signed up to go to CES (or any other event), did you give them permission to sell your email address? Yeah, no one else did either. More likely, the lists were harvested. Someone researches the companies attending a show like CES then simply compiles a list of all the email addresses they can find from all those companies.
  • Am I still receiving thousands of contacts in my industry vertical? In short, maybe. It’s impossible to know. When an email list is purchased, there’s almost no way for you to confirm the industry each contact operates in, how often those email addresses have been messaged, whether the addresses on that list have been scoured for bounces to prevent identifying you as a spammer or from where those email addresses came from initially.
  • There’s at least some value to be gleaned from the list, though, correct? Purchased lists usually contain outdated, incomplete or missing info as well as addresses illegally harvested from the web. If a list is for sale, it likely indicates there’s something amiss. Consider this: would you sell the email addresses of contacts you’ve worked hard to nurture and who have volunteered to receive your email communications or marketing content? I didn’t think so.
  • It’s just one email, what’s the harm in that? Well, for one, you can come across as bothersome. Would you like to receive correspondence from a company you’ve never heard of? I doubt it — especially if it contains marketing content you’re uninterested in. By reaching out to someone who didn’t ask to hear from you, you’re likely to annoy that individual, and as a result, you risk losing the trust of someone who could be a potential customer down the road. Additionally, each separate email sent in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act is subject to penalties of up to $41,484, so non-compliance can get really expensive really quickly.

So, what can companies do to combat this issue and solve the email list problem? By building one from scratch! Yes, this is a laborious and time-consuming endeavor, but it’s one that is totally worth it in the end.

In order to get people to sign up for your email list, you need to entice them with relevant, useful and engaging content. You need to offer something of value (solid content) in order to receive anything in return (an email address). If you’re able to build trust with content prospects can use to improve their business or everyday lives, people are more likely to sign up for your list.

While a quick way to attempt to secure some business, buying email lists is a waste of money and could get you on a first-name basis with your attorney — and not in a good way. Whether launching a new company or growing an existing one, this “shortcut” is likely to cause more harm than good. Even if it sounds intriguing to add thousands of prospects to your email list overnight, you have to ask yourself, “is it worth the potential legal liability, the harm to your company’s reputation or the loss of potential customers?” Grow your own list of potential customers who actually want to hear what you have to say, and the results will soon follow.

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