The Forward Observer

Why Marketing With Purchased Email Lists Is Like Unprotected Sex

Are you desperate to buy an email list for marketing? Bad idea. Like having unprotected sex, it might be tempting but it carries long-term risks.

I was contacted recently by an executive who had some marketing questions. Nearly every question he asked revolved around buying email lists and then sending email “blasts” (his wording, not mine).

The person I was speaking with argued that buying email lists are relatively cheap and seem like a harmless way to jump start an email marketing effort. He reminded me of a stockbroker pitching an investment that was a “sure thing.”

I tried to explain to him why buying email lists is not a good idea but, not getting the affirmation he was seeking, he ended the call.

This article is for that guy, his company management and anyone else who has considered buying an email list for marketing purposes.

It’s Cheap, Easy And You Can Get It Right Away

Email marketing is one of the most effective tactics in Internet marketing. It’s the connective tissue of all communication. And a McKinsey study has shown that for customer acquisition, email marketing is 40 times more effective than social media.

So to prime the proverbial marketing pump, many companies that don’t have their own email list are tempted to purchase one in hopes of jump starting their marketing efforts.

With just the swipe of a credit card, you can have thousands of email addresses available, and who knows – maybe you’ll get lucky.

Here’s why that approach can be the kiss of death.

It’s Against The Law

First off, there’s a law that governs sending email for commercial purposes. It’s called the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. The Acronym CAN-SPAM stand for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing. (It amuses me that U.S. legislators lump marketers and pornographers together.)

Highlights of the law include things like requiring you to include a valid physical address in every email you send out, providing a clear and obvious way to opt out of every email you send out and honoring unsubscribe requests within 10 days. You’re also required to include clear “From,” “To,” and “Reply to” information that accurately reflects who you are.

Additional requirements include that you cannot make it hard to unsubscribe or use deceptive subject lines in your emails.

And significantly, you may not sell or transfer any email addresses to another list. Of course, that does not stop companies from compiling and selling email lists, and spamming abuse is rarely pursued in U.S. Courts. But if you do get tried and convicted, you could face steep fines.

Risks Of Buying Email Lists

But aside from possibly running afoul of federal legislation, there are other detrimental and much more likely risks that you run by using purchased email lists.

Most lists are bad. Those lists for sale tend to have been compiled from old lists and public websites with lots of false, dead, or out-of-use email addresses. And to make matters worse, that list has already been used by an untold number of spammers. What’s more, even if someone (usually unknowingly) agreed to having their email address shared, they didn’t agree to receiving emails from you.

Good email lists are not for sale. Organizations work hard to build and nurture a subscriber list based on valuable content and trust. At some point in the future, quality, opt-in email addresses will be listed on balance sheets as a financial asset.

Your reputation as an email sender matters more than you realize. Have you ever received an unwanted email and used the inbox button that lets you mark an email as “spam” or “junk?” Sure, it deletes the email but it also notifies your email service provider that you’re spamming. The Internet service providers (ISPs) keep track of that information for deciding if all the sender’s emails should go directly to spam folders. Have you ever wondered how some emails go straight to your spam folder? That’s how.

You’ll get caught in a sting operation. Not by law enforcement necessarily but by ISPs who set up decoy email addresses to act as a trap for spammers. It’s sort of like the marked currency given to bank robbers. These are real email addresses set up purely to identify senders as spammers. The email addresses get sold (and resold) and don’t return a hard bounce when they receive an email. Instead, the sender gets reported as a spammer. Do you know which emails on that purchased list are undercover spam traps?

What To Do Instead

Start growing your own list. I wish I could tell you there’s a safe, easy, fast, “too good to be true” way to do this, but there isn’t.

The fastest way to grow your list is by being helpful. Offer great content behind landing pages like ebooks, webinars, templates, etc. If the content you offer is valuable enough, people will provide their email addresses in exchange for it. The more content you offer behind landing pages, the more opt-in email addresses you’ll get.

Another way to grow your email list is to offer premium content in return for subscribing to your newsletters. And remember that email was the original social media – ask recipients of your newsletter to forward the emails to colleagues or friends. Doing so can dramatically increase your database just by making it easy for recipients to forward emails.

Use social media to get subscribers. Promote your premium content on social media which will capture email addresses. Also, add calls-to-action on your social media channels which will encourage the exchange of an email address (either through an offer or a subscription signup form).

If that money that you were going to spend buying lists is still burning a hole in your pocket, consider investing it in traditional marketing and advertising to build your list. Host online webinars or offline events to collect email addresses. Leverage paid search and social media ads promoting your content.


While it may seem irresistible to buy an email list for a quick marketing hit, there’s a good chance it won’t end well for your company’s reputation. There is a pernicious downside of using purchased emails lists for marketing. The best outcome is that you’ll waste money. The worst outcome is that you’ll face federal penalties and your company’s emails will be blocked by Internet service providers.


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