You need people to email, and you need them quickly. Oh, and if you could get them pretty cheap, that'd be great, too.
That's the mindset many marketers find themselves in when they're on the phone with a list-purchasing company: We need new people to email to feed our sales organization. Acting on that moment of desperation, however, can cause them more long-term (and short-term) harm than good.
Yes, thousands of contacts are a credit card swipe away, but your email marketing program -- a critical part of a well-rounded inbound marketing strategy -- will seriously suffer. Curious why buying email lists is a legitimate email marketer's kiss of death? Read on. Plus, we'll give you a list of squeaky-clean and effective ways to build your email marketing list in lieu of list buying.
Methods of Acquiring an Email List
Before we get into the pitfalls of purchasing an email address list, let's review three of the most common ways marketers acquire contact lists:
1) Buy an email list.
You work with a list provider to find and purchase a list of names and email addresses based on demographic and/or psychographic information. For example, you might purchase a list of 50,000 names and email addresses of people without children who live in Minnesota.
2) Rent an email list.
Also working with a list provider, you identify a segment of people to email -- but you never actually own the list. As such, you can't see the email addresses of the people you're emailing, so you must work with the provider to send out your email.
3) Own an opt-in email list.
Someone voluntarily gives you their email address either online or in person so you can send them emails. They may pick certain types of email content they wish to receive, like specifically requesting email alerts when new blog posts are published. Opt-in email addresses are the result of earning the interest and trust of your contacts because they think you have something valuable to say.
When it comes to rented or purchased lists, you may come across vendors or marketers who say, "This email list is totally opt-in!" This means that the people on the list opted in to an email communication from someone at some point in time -- like the list provider, for example. What it doesn't mean, however, is that they opted in to receive email communications from your business. This is a critical distinction, and the next section of this post will go into more detail on why this type of "opt-in email list" (should be read with air quotes) is not a good idea for your email marketing program.
Why You Shouldn't Buy Email Lists
So now that I've told you a few ways to acquire email lists, I'm going to tell you why you should acquire them through method number three above -- the opt-in method in which you generate your own list of email contacts.
Reputable email marketing vendors don't let you send emails to lists you've bought.
If you're using email marketing software now or plan to in the future, you'll find that reputable companies will insist that you use opt-in email lists. You might be saying, "I'll just use a non-reputable email marketing vendor." Alas, ESPs on shared IP addresses that don't require customers to use opt-in email lists typically suffer poor deliverability. Why? One customer's ill-gotten email address list can poison the deliverability of the other customers on that shared IP address. You're going to want to hitch your wagon to the light side of the email marketing force if you want your emails to actually get into inboxes.
Good email address lists aren't for sale.
Unless your company is in the middle of some M&A action, you're not going to come across high quality email lists you can purchase. If it's for sale, it means that the email addresses on it have already been ripped to shreds by all the other people who have purchased that list and emailed the people on it. Any email addresses that once had value have since been spammed to the ends of the earth.
If someone actually had a good email list, they'd keep it to themselves because they don't want to see the value of those email addresses diminished by letting other people get their hands on it. Think about it -- would you sell or share the email addresses of those who have voluntarily opted in to receive email from you? I didn't think so.
People on a purchased or rented list don't actually know you.
I referenced this earlier, but it's worth going into some more detail on this subject. Rented and purchased lists are sometimes scraped from other websites which, I think we can all agree, is a dirty way to acquire email marketing contacts. But let's say they're not scraped and are acquired through considerably less sketchy means -- list purchase and rental companies may tout that those lists are opt-in. Sounds great, right?
Not really, because it means that the contacts have opted to receive emails from, say, the list-purchasing company -- not your company. Even if the opt-in process includes language like, "Opt in to receive information from us, or offers from other companies we think you might enjoy," the fact is that the recipient has never heard of your company, and does not remember opting in to receive emails from you. That means there's a really good chance a lot of the recipients will mark you as "Spam" because they don't recognize you or remember opting in to communications from you ... which takes us to our next point.
Your email deliverability and IP reputation will be harmed.
Did you know that there are organizations dedicated to combating email spam? Thank goodness, right? They set up a little thing called a honeypot, which is a planted email address that, when harvested and emailed, identifies the sender as a spammer. Similarly, things called spam traps can be created to identify spammy activity; they are set up when an email address yields a hard bounce because it is old or no longer valid, but still receives consistent traffic. Fishy, eh? As a result, the email address turns into a spam trap that stops returning the hard bounce notice, and instead accepts the message and reports the sender as a spammer.
If you purchase a list, you have no way of confirming how often those email addresses have been emailed, whether the email addresses on that list have been scrubbed for hard bounces to prevent identifying you as a spammer, or from where those email addresses originated. Are you really willing to risk not only your email deliverability, but also the reputation of your IP address and your company? Even if you find the light after purchasing or renting email lists and decide to only email those who have opted in with your company, it will take you months (or maybe years) to get your Sender Score up and rebuild the reputation of your IP.
Because you're not annoying.
How do you like it when you get an email in your inbox from a company you've never heard of? I bet that's not the kind of company you want to work for or marketer you want to be. If someone didn't ask to hear from you yet, it doesn't mean they won't want to hear from you later. It's your job to prove to them -- through helpful content and valuable offers -- that they should stay up to date with your company via email. If you force your email content on anyone too early, even if you know in the depths of your soul that they're a great fit for your products or services, you risk preemptively losing their trust and their future business.
How to Grow an Opt-In Email List
So what should you do instead? Grow an opt-in email list. We've already written a post of clever ways to go about doing this, which you can check out here. But below are the basic best practices that have a very big bang for their buck when it comes to consistently growing an email list.
1) Create gated assets so there's a reason for people to give you their email address.
Webinars, ebooks, templates, etc. -- these are all good long-form, premium content assets that people may find valuable enough to give over their email address. The more gated assets you have to put behind landing pages, the better -- a wider variety of content will make it easier for you to attract a wider swath of people.
2) Create useful tools.
If ebooks aren't your jam, create tools instead. I don't recommend a one-or-the-other approach, necessarily, but if you have more dev talent than writing talent, this may be a more attractive option for you. For example, we created Marketing Grader (formerly Website Grader, HubSpot's first tool) -- which is free to use, but prompts you to input an email address. We also took a similar approach to a more recent tool, the Blog Topic Generator.
3) Promote those gated assets on your marketing channels.
Now that you have some gated assets that can capture email addresses, spend a considerable amount of time making sure the world knows about them. You have plenty of channels at your disposal -- social media, PPC, and email are common ones to turn to. But none will provide lasting returns quite like your blog. Consider this scenario:
You promote your new gated assets by blogging about subject matters related to the content assets you've created, and then put CTAs that lead to the asset's landing page on every one of those blog posts.
Now let's say, hypothetically, your blog posts get about 100 views per month, and your visitor-to-lead conversion rate on the blog is about 2%. That means you'd get two leads from a single blog post each month.
Then, let's say you write 30 blog posts a month. That means you'd get 60 leads in a month -- 2 from each blog post. Now keep doing that for a year. The work you did to blog that first month will continue to drive leads throughout the year. That means you're actually getting 4,680 opt-in contacts a month by the end of a 12-month period because of the compounding effects of blogging -- not just 720 opt-in contacts (60 leads*12 months).
4) Run creative email marketing campaigns.
Most people don't think of email as a lead- or contact-generating channel. But because people forward helpful emails to colleagues or friends, it can actually expand your database if you simply make forwarding or sharing email content easy for recipients. Include calls-to-action in your emails that make sharing an obvious choice for recipients, particularly with your most useful assets.
If you already have a pretty large database, you also likely have some contacts that have gone quite stale. If so, I recommend running a re-engagement campaign that can help you both scrub your list and prevent the kind of spam and IP issues I addressed earlier, as well as reawaken old contacts that might have forgotten about you, but would actually be great fits for sales. If you want help structuring a send like that, check out this blog post.
What else do you do to generate legitimate, opt-in email addresses for your email marketing program?
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in May 2012 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.