Buying an email list? Here are 5 reasons why it’s a bad idea

8 min

Believe it or not, people still ask me where I can buy a good-quality email list?

The short answer is very simple: please don’t! You should never purchase an email list, but explaining why takes time.

That’s why I’ve collected a few facts to prove that there is no such thing as a good quality mailing list available for purchase. Prepare yourself for a longer read, and allow me to explain why growing your own email list is the only way toward successful email marketing.

Five reasons why buying an email list is a bad idea

1. Email address vs. subscriber

If you want to drive conversion, you need a lot more than a database of email addresses. You need an engaged audience. You need subscribers – people who are genuinely interested in your brand, its products, and its services. People who want to find out what’s inside the emails that land in their inbox.

Subscribers are your prospects and customers. They are at the heart of your business. Your revenue depends on the ability to solve customers’ problems, so the more you know them, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to satisfy their needs and wants.

How can you run an effective marketing campaign without knowing anything about your target audience? How can you optimize your marketing efforts if you don’t know the recipient? You can’t, and that’s exactly what happens when you use a purchased database of email addresses.

If you put customers first, make list building a crucial element of your email marketing strategy. You will be able to attract and build rapport with the right people – your target audience. You can even make the subscription rate one of your crucial KPIs, telling you if people are actually interested in your products or services.

The sign-up form on the Blue Bottle Coffee website is designed with their target audience in mind.
The sign-up form on the Blue Bottle Coffee website is designed with their target audience in mind.

So the first question you should ask yourself is: do I need email addresses or subscribers?

Buying a list of email addresses sounds easy, but even if it’s segmented by category or industry, you cannot be sure if the data is accurate. Building a list of subscribers takes time and effort, but it’s the only way to go.

Just take a look at this comparison:

Email addressSubscriber
  • you don’t know how it was collected
  • you have no idea who the owner is (you don’t even know if it’s a real person)
  • the owner doesn’t know your brand
  • you don’t know if the owner represents your target audience
  • expressed interest in your brand by subscribing
  • most likely represents your target audience
  • prospect or a customer – should be at the core of your business

2. Permission: single opt-in vs. double opt-in

One of the fundamental characteristics of a high-quality email list is permission. If you want to build long-term relationships with subscribers and successfully turn them into customers, you need to make sure that they want to receive your emails in the first place. If not, it will be unlikely that they open or click the links in your messages.

Imagine a huge database of email addresses of people who haven’t heard of your company and didn’t give consent to receive your marketing messages. What happens when they see your email in their inbox? If you’re lucky, they will delete your message without opening it, it might get much worse if they decide to mark it as spam.

So how to make sure that the people on your list want to receive your emails? Simply by allowing them to sign up themselves. Permission is the ultimate guardian of quality.

There are many ways of collecting email addresses. The most popular is via an online web form but you can also ask customers to join your mailing list in a brick-and-mortar shop, at an event, through API, etc.

There are two ways to subscribe: single opt-in and double opt-in. Single opt-in requires filling out a sign-up form. Double opt-in requires filling out a sign-up form and clicking a confirmation link in a follow-up email.

You need to decide for yourself which sign-up method to use. If you’re unsure which way to go, read this in-depth article: single opt-in vs. double opt-in. However, if you want to build a high-quality email list, I strongly recommend using double opt-in:

Single opt-inDouble opt-in
  • one step process
  • you can get fake email addresses
  • you can get incorrect email addresses
  • two-step process
  • confirmation protects you from fake or incorrect email addresses
Pinterest requires double opt-in and sends a confirmation email.
Pinterest requires double opt-in and sends a confirmation email.

3. Targeting and personalization

A good email marketing strategy goes beyond a single campaign. It’s designed to build knowledge about subscribers so that each following campaign fits them better and brings better results. Your goal is to build trust and slowly collect meaningful data so that you start recognizing patterns in subscriber behavior and optimize your campaigns.

An email address alone is not enough to run relevant email marketing campaigns. You need to know much about your subscribers to communicate their needs and preferences.

Discovering meaningful information along the subscription process is called progressive profiling. You can learn how to collect valuable data from your subscribers and align email marketing communication with their needs from this ebook.

Depending on the industry, you’ll need different information to start with. Ecommerce businesses often ask for an email address and gender in their web forms. This way, they can target male and female subscribers with a completely different offer from the very beginning.

A customer loyalty program might be a great way to get to know customers better.
A customer loyalty program might be a great way to get to know customers better.
You can design your emails in a way that helps customers find the right products and at the same time allows you to segment your list properly.
You can design your emails in a way that helps customers find the right products and at the same time allows you to segment your list properly.

4. Reputation and deliverability

Another problem with a purchased list is that you don’t know how the addresses were collected. They might have been harvested or even made up of random letters and numbers. Such lists might be full of incorrect email addresses and spam traps that will damage your reputation and deliverability. You might even face a heavy fine or criminal penalties – including imprisonment.

Check the legislation, e.g., under the CAN-SPAM Act, each separate email in violation of the law is subject to penalties of up to $16,000. The Canada Anti-Spam Law (CASL) is even more severe:

If you think that you can use a purchased email list because your ESP (Email Service Provider) will deliver your messages to subscribers anyway, you’re wrong. It’s true that ESPs do a lot to maintain high deliverability and help you with your overall email marketing efforts (e.g., by keeping up with the technical requirements, automatically removing hard bounces, or handling unsubscribes).

But keeping the list clean, that is, removing incorrect email addresses or inactive subscribers, is your responsibility. Such addresses hurt your email marketing statistics (e.g., high bounce rate, low open and click-through rate) and might even lead to terminating your account.

At GetResponse, we use Hydra, our in-house anti-abuse system that verifies imported email lists and helps to assess the risk related to our customers’ accounts. Its role is to help the good guys and eliminate the bad guys, so you’d better decide which side you’re on. To learn more about Hydra, read this article.

If you want to learn more about deliverability, I recommend this post on achieving the best deliverability possible.

If you need a longer read, check our Email Deliverability from A to Z ebook or this article on why emails go to spam. You’ll learn more about reputation and what you can do to leave a good impression on both your subscribers and ISPs.

5. Quantity vs. quality

As a marketer, I know that sometimes we can be tempted into believing that the more, the better. If you catch yourself thinking that way, remember that it’s true only if the quality is maintained.

Just as your subscribers don’t want to be flooded with poor-quality leads, you don’t want to create and send campaigns to a long list of random email addresses. It costs time and money and brings more harm than good.

Let’s compare a purchased and organically grown email list:

Purchased email listNaturally grown email list
  • low engagement
  • low conversion rate
  • high spam complaints
  • destroys reputation as a sender and causes deliverability issues
  • no meaningful data about people on the list
  • your own medium to communicate with subscribers
  • high engagement
  • high conversion rate
  • reliable source of information about subscribers: prospects, and customers

Do this instead: build your own list

A high-quality email list is one of your company’s biggest assets. It allows you to connect with your target audience and gradually turn prospects into customers – and that’s exactly what the marketing department is supposed to do.

So, if you ask me how to buy an email list, the answer is simple: please don’t! You can’t; there is no such thing as a good-quality list available for purchase. You will waste money on a database of uncertain email addresses that will harm your email marketing efforts.

But if you ask me how to build an email list, I suggest that you read the following blog post – How to build an email list from scratch.

If, however, you’re looking for inspiration, check out our case studies section.

There, you can read and hear stories from customers who’ve successfully grown their businesses using permission-based email marketing and organically built email lists.

Here’s one example coming from Sharvette Mitchell, Marketing Agency owner from Richmond, VA.

Good luck with growing your email list! Feel free to ask any questions or leave a comment below.

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Irek Klimczak
Irek Klimczak
Entrusted as Content Project Manager at GetResponse, Irek expertly and smoothly runs content marketing projects at all stages of the customer journey in Polish, Russian and English-speaking markets. He possesses more than 6 years of experience in online marketing with a broad teaching background. Irek regularly runs workshops covering digital marketing strategy and tactics, and has delivered presentations at many international events (e.g. Singapore, the US, UK, Poland). You can reach out to Irek and connect on LinkedIn.