Should I rent an email list? What you need to know before renting a list…

This is one of the more frequent questions I get from people. Many marketers think that obtaining (buying or renting*) an existing list is the silver bullet of list building. Unfortunately, this will usually lead to undesirable results and, likely, enormous frustration.

Here’s why:

  1. Not your permission – professional email marketing is called "permission marketing" because the marketer obtains permission from the reader to send email. When you rent or buy a list, the subscriber or reader didn’t give YOU permission. And, in many cases, you may discover that the list broker may not have received permission either. This, of course, leads to a whole discussion of your legal right to mail to the list (CAN-SPAM), which I won’t get into here.
  2. Not expected – Seth Godin, in his acclaimed book,  Permission Marketing : Turning Strangers Into Friends And Friends Into Customers, emphasizes the necessity that people on your list expect your email. (If you haven’t read this book, I’d strongly recommend it. It’s a quick read and gives you a great overview of permission marketing.) Related to my point on permission, even if the list broker has permission to email to the list, the reader may not be expecting an email from you. They may have given permission at some point long ago to "send information on other local activities," but they were never expecting such email from you. So, if they weren’t expecting it, you risk being "junked."
  3. Not relevant – Even if the subscriber had provided permission to someone for some types of email, a list broker may rent the list for purposes outside the sphere of interest of the list member. So, if you send them an email about a great new online backup system because they’re a director of IT, it’s not necessarily the case that they’d be interested just because of their title. It comes down to what the user had indicated when they were added to the list. They may simply be interested in issues surrounding process automation. Since you will likely know very little about how or why someone was added to a list, and the chances are that your product will not match their interest, you’re email will likely not get opened.
  4. List abuse – a list broker is in the business of renting lists, right? Right! That means that they are trying to send as much email as they can to the list. And, if they’re successful, the recipients, in effect, are getting spammed (receiving unintended, irrelevant, unexpected mail). The more emails that are going out, the less likely your message will ever get through. The more the recipients mark emails from the broker as "junk" or "spam," the more likely the list broker’s email reputation will go down. That further exacerbates the issues surrounding deliverability.
  5. Poor email reputation means poor deliverability – As indicated by the above reasons, a poor performing list will have more than its fair share of "mark as spam" complaints, "mark as junk" on the subscribers’ computers, etc. Also, a high bounce rate for a poorly managed list makes the list even worse. The Internet Service Providers will progressively drive down the email reputation for the list broker. I recently checked out the email reputation of 2 list brokers, and both were as low as I’ve ever seen in the industry. That means their mail is unlikely to make it through corporate spam filters or client junk filters.

Given all of these reasons, while paying over as much as hundreds of dollars per thousand names, the intended recipients will never see your email. So, what is one to do to grow a list? Stick to the professional tactics of list building, such as those described in "18 Ways to Build a Bigger, Better List." The results may come a little more slowly, but you’ll have a high quality list that can deliver for you over the long term.

*Note – some people refer to buying an email list vs. renting a list. When you are paying for the ability to send emails to someone else’s list, that called renting an email list. You would actually buy a list if you are purchasing the names forever, and no one else can buy access to it, unless you are selling such access.

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