Email marketing can sometimes feel like a numbers game, and for a good reason: It takes a lot of contacts, messages, and quality content to get results. If the focus is on quantity, there’s a temptation to pursue a quick fix — and there’s no speedy solution quite like a purchased email list.
Affordable and extensive, purchased email lists give the purchaser immediate access to numerous email addresses. These may be categorized by job title or demographic groups, and vendors promise that these addresses will expand your reach and build brand awareness.
The allure of a purchased email list is understandable when you’re desperate to get your business venture off the ground and have little time or money to spare. However, this approach could prove costly, ineffective, or even illegal.
Thankfully, there’s a better way, and by the time you reach the end of this article, you’ll feel confident about using alternative strategies, many of which are far more accessible than you might have previously assumed.
Below, we’ll touch on the legality of purchased email lists before examining their potential impact on your next marketing initiative. You’ll also learn how to build your email lists for free — and get the long-term marketing results you want.
Can you legally buy email lists?
Technically speaking, purchased email lists are fair game in the U.S. The reality, however, isn’t so simple.
While email lists are available for purchase, you aren’t necessarily allowed to send emails to your acquired addresses. We’ll explain this in more detail below as we highlight data privacy legislation in the U.S. and abroad.
Why you should never purchase an email list
Low cost and easy access to purchased email marketing lists make them appealing to business owners with so much on their plate. But with email marketing, there is no magic fix.
You might break the law
As previously mentioned, lists of emails are often legal to purchase, but when you try to use the addresses on those lists, you could find yourself in murky legal territory. It’s a good idea to have a basic understanding of several relevant pieces of privacy legislation, including:
Adopted in 2018 in the European Union but still relevant for many U.S. businesses, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was created to give individuals greater control over their otherwise vulnerable personal information.
Email consent is a core component of GDPR. To comply, consent for digital communications must be “freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous.”
This law also gives individuals the right to request copies of data regarding them or for that data to be deleted. Furthermore, if they no longer wish to receive marketing content to which they previously consented, they are within their rights to opt out.
Your need to comply with GDPR does not exclusively depend on whether you have a presence in the EU. If your business provides goods or services to individuals residing within the EU, GDPR applies to you.
Even if you don’t have to comply legally, making an effort is worthwhile. It shows your recipients that you’re “one of the good guys” and builds your credibility. It also gives you a leg up ahead of other companies as the U.S. moves toward more data-protection and anti-spam laws modeled after GDPR.
Canada’s anti-spam legislation (CASL) might not seem as strict as GDPR, but it’s often more relevant to U.S.-based businesses. After all, it applies to all companies that send “commercial electronic messages” (CEMs) to individuals within Canada.
This anti-spam law went into effect in 2014 and has since had a significant impact on a variety of marketing initiatives. At its core, it looks like similar privacy and anti-spam legislation around the globe: Electronic messages of a commercial nature are only allowed with consent. Other essentials include sender identification and a straightforward system for unsubscribing.
U.S. privacy legislation is nowhere near as strict as EU oversight, but it does exist. At the federal level, consumers are protected by legislation known as the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM).
Passed in 2003 in response to early concerns about unwanted emails, this law prohibits deceptive information while also requiring identifying information, such as return addresses.
Although buying and selling email addresses may remain legal under CAN-SPAM, it is ill-advised, and sending bulk unsolicited emails is out of the question — and that’s generally what happens when someone purchases an email address list.
While it has by no means stopped spam or purchased email lists, this law has certainly made it a less attractive strategy for most businesses. CAN-SPAM also explicitly prohibits continuing to send marketing messages after recipients have opted out.
While the U.S. has yet to adopt data privacy legislation near the level of GDPR, similar initiatives are beginning to appear at the state level.
The ultimate example? The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). Meant to protect the personal data of California residents, this law ensures covered individuals have the ability to understand when — and to what extent — their information is collected.
Additionally, California residents can refuse to have their personal information sold. Residents can also request that their personal data be deleted.
Generally speaking, businesses that are fully compliant with GDPR will also meet the basic requirements of CCPA. However, there is an important caveat: CCPA applies to personal information that is relevant to entire households instead of just individuals.
Purchased email lists are less reliable
Quality control is lacking when you purchase your email lists from third parties. The number of emails on your list says nothing about your ability to convert.
With purchased lists, there’s no way for you to verify the names are accurate or that the addresses are current. You also have no idea when or how these addresses were acquired. And there’s no reason to throw away precious resources on something that’s more likely to have a negative impact on your business than a positive one.
Purchased email lists aren’t exclusive
If affordable email lists seem too good to be true, it’s because they are. You certainly won’t be the only person enticed by these — so chances are, other businesses will also use the contact information you receive.
The result? Contacts on these lists will be bombarded by marketing messages from many sources. The more their inboxes fill with emails they didn’t sign up for, the less inclined they’ll be to open any given message. They’ll consider all unexpected emails spam, causing both your open and click-through rates to plummet, the opposite desired effect.
Messages sent to purchased addresses are often treated as spam
Ideally, email recipients will remember whether or not they signed up to receive your marketing messages and they’ll likely perceive your emails as spam if they haven’t purposefully opted in.
The result? Meager open rates — and even worse, click-through rates and conversions. Not to mention an abundance of unsubscribes.
And all this assumes that your emails actually arrive in potential contacts’ inboxes. In reality, messages from purchased lists will likely go straight to the spam folder.
Chances are, any purchased email lists you obtain will have hidden spam traps. Both will compromise future efforts to nurture leads via email.
Using memorable names, honeypots consist of fake email addresses that appear legitimate to the untrained eye. These are designed specifically to catch spammers. They are not in active use by real people but instead distributed as decoys exclusively meant to act as bait.
As soon as you send emails to a list containing honeypots, you will be marked as a spammer and blocked by top service providers. Once you’ve been caught, it can be challenging to restore your reputation. You’ve got enough to worry about as a business owner without cleaning up “spilled honey.” Better to avoid purchased email lists and the potential for “sticky” situations by trying some of our suggestions for growing your email list below.
Similar to honeypots but sometimes easier to identify, spam traps occur when inactive (but previously legitimate) email addresses are blocked by email service providers.
Sending emails to these addresses may result in soft bounces.
Avoiding honeypots and spam traps altogether can be challenging, but they’ll be far less of a problem if you actively build an opt-in email list. In the long term, this will help you sustain the visibility your emails desperately need, leading to higher open rates and boosting many other metrics. More on that later.
Reputable service providers won’t allow them
While responses to purchased lists can vary dramatically from one email service provider (ESP) to the next, it’s common for this strategy to be banned outright.
The reasoning for this is simple: ESPs want to promise exceptionally high delivery rates. These can be difficult to procure when messages sent to certain addresses (especially purchased ones) are more likely to bounce. Beyond this, ESPs simply don’t want to enable activities perceived by the public as spammy.
Some ESPs go as far as blacklisting IP addresses for users caught sending messages to addresses on purchased lists. Other potential consequences include account termination and even legal action.
What about using rented email lists?
Different terminology, same problem.
Rented lists come with all the same issues as their purchased counterparts. They’re ethically and legally murky, not to mention likely to be regarded as spam by recipients and service providers.
A few key distinctions are worth mentioning, although both strategies are best avoided. With rentals, your timeframe for using provided addresses will be limited. Instead, the rental company deploys all messages on your behalf. Rental lists are also generally more expensive than their purchased counterparts. Your valuable and limited resources can be used much more effectively by building a real email list of your own.
If you want quality leads that are the most likely to produce conversions, grow an email list that allows prospective and current customers to opt-in to receive your marketing emails.
Is there such a thing as a purchased list with opt-in?
Be wary of email list providers offering lists with contacts who have opted in. You’ll be charged a premium for a meaningless designation.
Technically speaking, these providers may be correct: At some point, collected contacts agreed to share their email addresses. They did not, however, agree to receive emails specifically from your business, meaning they have not truly provided consent.
For email marketing to be effective, all recipients must have enjoyed impactful interactions with your business before signing up for your emails. Whether these contacts originated with social media, brick-and-mortar locations, or word of mouth, they must be genuine to ensure that leads fully trust your brand.
How to legally obtain email addresses for free — online
Now that you understand why purchasing an email list is not a good idea, let’s talk about what it takes to legally obtain quality email addresses.
Create desirable lead magnets
People need a reason to sign up for your marketing emails. Therefore you need to provide an incentive. Something to entice them to opt into your email list willingly. A lead magnet.
Gated content is anything that requires leads to enter their email information before accessing the offered freebie. These types of lead magnets can take many forms, such as webinars, ebooks, quizzes, or signups for future email courses.
If you’re unsure which resources to provide, conduct a survey to determine what would resonate with current email subscribers. Otherwise, anything that addresses common pain points should do the trick.
Your content should be relevant to your target market and consistent with your brand messaging. Pique leads’ interest and get them craving more.
After they’ve made the most of your lead magnet, they’ll be more familiar with your brand and more inclined to read follow-up marketing messages in the future.
In the e-commerce industry, coupon codes, free shipping, or other promos can often take the place of traditional lead magnets. Some businesses even promise a free gift for first-time customers who sign up for email lists.
Customers primarily read marketing emails in hopes of scoring discounts. Entice them with an especially impressive promotion, and they will be happy to continue receiving emails in hopes of scoring that next big deal.
There’s nothing more attractive than having the opportunity to get something that not everyone can have.
Promising content that leads can’t obtain anywhere else, like insider tips or access, or providing information in advance of broader announcements or releases can be the perfect lead magnet.
To make it work, promote your email list as the go-to resource for things like, “first looks,” “insider tips,” “backstage access,” “VIP offers,” or “advance sales,” and continually provide your email list with the exclusivity they signed up for.
Provide easy access to website sign-up forms
Once you’ve created a compelling lead magnet, it’s time to let leads in on your secret. These should be easy to find on your website. Then, search engine users who arrive at your website can instantly sign up for your emails and resume browsing your page.
Sign-up forms come in all shapes and sizes. The following are especially helpful:
- Pop-up. As their name suggests, these forms pop up for website visitors. Like the example above, they’re impossible to miss, so this is one of the best options for getting potential customers to notice.
- Flyout. Similar to pop-up forms, flyout sign-ups instantly attract attention. These slide into view, originating near the top, bottom, or even the side of the page. Their main benefit (or disadvantage, depending on the situation) over pop-ups is that they allow website visitors to continue browsing the page before they sign up or exit.
- Banner. Simple yet distinctive, a banner display stretches across your webpage. Banners can be placed near the top or bottom of the page to encourage visitors to join your email list.
- Inline. An inline solution is probably your best bet if you have a specific vision for your sign-up form’s function and location. Embedded within your site’s content, these are among the most versatile and adaptable solutions for getting visitors onto your email list.
No matter which style you prefer, your sign-up form should highlight the advantages of receiving emails from your business. Be sure to emphasize your lead magnet or promo.
Some would-be recipients may appreciate it if you fully disclose how often you send emails and what they contain.
Many otherwise enthusiastic leads will avoid signing up for lists if they suspect they’ll receive emails more than once per week. Use your web-based sign-up form to reassure them that they’ll receive your emails just often enough — and that every email will be informative, personalized, and relevant.
Experiment with the timing and frequency of your sign-up forms to determine which approach gets the largest share of visitors to opt into your email list. Run A/B tests to compare a control version of the signup landing page with a variation.
Encourage word-of-mouth sharing with share and join list buttons
As your list grows, employ word-of-mouth marketing by encouraging your current subscribers to share your emails with others. Current contacts can sometimes be the most powerful form of outreach.
Leads who arrive via existing clients or customers are more likely to trust your brand before you’ve even had the opportunity to nurture them.
Provide a simple prompt in your email campaigns that encourages readers to share your content and convince their contacts to join your email list.
Share buttons especially stand out. These should encourage readers to share via email forwards and on their social media pages.
You’ll also want to provide a simple means of getting these new readers to join your list. Make this as straightforward as possible with a “join list” button prominently displayed on your emails. Readers who click this button will be directed to a landing page where they can quickly submit their contact information.
Skip the shortcuts and build an email list designed to convert
The desire for a quick fix is understandable, but purchasing or renting email lists won’t fix anything. They’re costly, ineffective, and often illegal. Thankfully, they are also entirely unnecessary. There are other alternatives to building email lists online.
From lead magnets to coupon codes and exclusive content, there are plenty of ways to entice prospects to sign up for your marketing emails. A little effort can go a long way as you obtain qualified leads who are genuinely engaged with your brand.
Give leads a compelling reason to subscribe to your emails, and you’ll end up with a robust contact list that produces impressive conversions — and an impressive return on investment.