Why You Should Never Buy Email Marketing Lists (And How to Build Yours for Free)

Buying email marketing lists is a tempting shortcut to get campaigns off the ground. But is it worth it? This article will explain why buying lists is never a good idea, plus share innovative methods for dominating your email outreach.

Dan Moran
2023-11-09

Why You Should Never Buy Email Marketing Lists (And How to Build Yours for Free)

Email marketing is a foundational pillar of any good go-to-market strategy.

It’s a powerful and cost-effective channel that, when done well, can generate a huge return on investment: some studies put the return on email marketing as high as $36 for every $1 spent.

Like all good things, doing it right takes time, focus, and resources.

So for B2B pros looking to generate more opportunities through email campaigns, the question of whether or not to buy an email marketing list inevitably arises. After all, buying a list is easier, cheaper, and quicker than painstakingly building out your own.

So, what’s an enterprising marketeer to do?

The goal of this article is to convince you that, despite the initial appeal, buying an email marketing list is never a good idea. The risks to doing so can be substantial, including damaging your brand's reputation, tanking your email deliverability, and potentially getting hit with steep fines. You will learn:

  • Why the cost of buying an email marketing list is too much for any business to bear
  • Whether renting an email list is a viable alternative (spoiler: it isn’t)
  • Strategies for building an email list organically and why this is the best option

Plus we’ll reveal a new approach that’s only just become possible through the advance of AI tech—but has the potential to change email marketing as we know it

First, let’s break down what an email marketing list actually means.

What is an email marketing list?

An email marketing list is an inventory of email addresses of individuals, most often subscribers or customers, who have voluntarily submitted their information and opted to be contacted by your company via email.

Alongside email addresses, These lists are often supplemented by additional identifying information such as people’s names, where they work, their job titles, where they live, and phone numbers.

Building a strong email list is a mainstay strategy for many B2B companies because of the many benefits such a strategy offers. Email is a powerful channel because it is “owned”. This means you have direct engagement with current and prospective customers.

Because email is an owned channel, you have the ability to control who sees the content you distribute, in contrast to other "rented" distribution channels like social media and SEO which are driven by algorithms that can be appeased, but are ultimately out of your control.

Effective lists are dynamic and must be maintained to ensure your email marketing programs are effective. This includes regularly monitoring an email marketing campaign for engagement signals like open and click rates and removing inactive contacts.

RELATED POST: 2024 Guide to Cold Calling Lead Generation

3 Ways to Acquire Email Marketing Lists

There are really only three main ways to get a list of folks to contact via email: buy one, rent one, and build your own. Let’s take a look at each:

  1. Buy an email list

Working with a third-party email list provider, you create and purchase a list of individuals that meet a given set of demographic/firmographic/psychographic characteristics. For example, VPs of Marketing at B2B SaaS companies in the Greater Boston Area. This is a (supposedly) quick, easy, and cheap way to send an email. However, the many downsides to buying an email list will be expanded upon in depth below.

  1. Rent an email list

Renting a list is more like a partnership with the entity that actually owns the list. You enter an arrangement to borrow their list to send your message. An example includes partnering with other companies or creators who will, usually in exchange for financial compensation, send a promotional email on your behalf to their list of subscribers. We discuss the limits of this approach below.

  1. Create an opt-in email list

This is the holy grail of email marketing. Someone voluntarily provides you their email address with the direct expectation and permission for you to email them in the future. This is understandably the hardest approach to email marketing efforts and list building, but it’s the soundest strategy for sustainable growth. However, it isn’t immune to flaws. The rise of AI has revealed chinks in the limitations of current practices. Yet the very same technology presents an opportunity to rethink email marketing best practices.

Now we know how to get a list of emails, let’s consider…

Is buying email marketing lists legal?

Technically speaking, yes. It is perfectly legal to purchase email marketing lists. However, it’s what you do with those bought email lists that can land you in hot water. If you want to maintain your brand and deliverability reputation and also avoid potentially hefty fines, you must comply with the following regulations:

GDPR

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a comprehensive data protection law designed to give individuals more control over their personal data and online privacy.

Adopted in Europe in 2018, it ensures that all organizations—even those based in the US and elsewhere outside of the EU—must collect personal data like email addresses with the consent of those from whom it’s being collected.

GDPR applies to all businesses that engage in the “offering of goods or services, irrespective of whether a payment of the data subject is required” within the EU. Meaning your organization doesn’t need to be physically located in the EU for it to apply to you.

(Btw, in this context “data subject” is a fancy legal term for “person”.)

Legit email marketers consider the GDPR to be the gold standard of compliance. Even if you don’t necessarily need to comply—for instance if all of your business is conducted within the US—making an effort to comply shows your audience that you take their privacy seriously.

Non-compliance with GDPR can result in hefty fines.

And you better believe they’re happy to dish them out. Regulators issued more than €114 million in the first 20 months of GDPR being adopted.

CAN-SPAM

The somewhat awkwardly named CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 (it stands for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing) is the legislation that establishes the ground rules for commercial email in the United States.

Under the Act, senders must disclose their valid postal address (usually the one the business is registered to) and provide recipients a clear way to opt-out or unsubscribe, and these requests must be honored promptly. The Act also strictly prohibits further contact or send emails after a recipient has opted out.

While buying email lists under CAN-SPAM is legal, sending bulk unsolicited marketing messages is not. This makes the buying of the lists in the first place an unattractive option for businesses.

Although it’s not as strict as the GDPR, non-compliance with the CAN-SPAM Act can lead to tough penalties for your business. It is enforced by the FTC who have the power to administer fines for each email that violates the law.

CASL

The Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) occupies the middle ground between GDPR and CAN-SPAM in terms of how strict it is. Though in reality it’s much closer to GDPR compared to the relatively easy-going US legislation.

That said, CASL is more relevant to folks in the US due to simple geographic proximity between the two countries—it applies to all businesses that send commercial emails to folks in Canada.

Under CASL, businesses must obtain explicit consent from recipients before sending them marketing emails. Senders must also include identification info, include a clear and easy mechanism for recipients to unsubscribe from future correspondence, and maintain records of consent to ensure compliance.

CASL’s tough requirements for obtaining consent makes buying email lists essentially illegal, as any conceivable use of purchased lists wouldn’t conform to these requirements.

Violations can be particularly steep—up to $1 million for individuals and $10 million for businesses.

How much does an email list cost?

A marketing email list can cost you anywhere from $100 to $1,000+ per thousand email addresses.

The wide price range comes down to several factors including the quality of the contacts, the degree of targeting, and the overall volume of emails purchased. General consumer lists are typically cheaper than business email lists, especially those containing high-level decision makers.

Most sources put the cost of a business list at between $300–$600 per thousand emails. Let’s just say the average list of B2B leads will run you approximately 50c per email address.

While it seems cheap to break it down this way, costs can quickly add up. This figure takes into account neither the cost to run an email campaign nor the fines associated with breaking the laws outlined above should you happen to do so.

Should you buy email lists?

So, should you buy an email list?

While the advice of this article is a resounding “NO”, allow me to steel-man the case FOR purchasing purchased email address lists and marketing lists.

Pros of buying email marketing lists

Buying an email list is easy: Considering the alternative to list building (which are described below) buying a list is relatively straightforward.

It’s quick and scalable: Buying and selling email addresses and lists offers immediate access to a large number of potential customers, allowing for rapid market entry and scalability.

Purchased lists can be highly targeted, providing businesses with pre-qualified leads (in theory) and opportunities to target market and for niche segment marketing.

The ROI is easy to justify: The predictable nature of email campaigns can lead to logical assumptions around the ROI when compared to the variable and long-term costs of organic list building.

Cons of buying email marketing lists

There are flaws in almost every one of the pros outlined above.

  1. There’s no guaranteed ROI

Despite the ROI being clear on paper, real results with a bought list are far murkier.

Even if the individuals on the list fit the criteria you’re after, they haven’t shown interest in you or your brand, and they haven’t opted in to receive emails from you. Straight off the bat, the first impression of your company is poor.

That’s likely to drag down performance metrics like open, click, and response rates. Especially if you’ve benchmarked these rates against previous campaigns to a warm audience.

Poor engagement and conversion rates necessarily lead to low results, and perhaps none at all. Needless to say the ROI on spending $2,500 for a list of 5,000—none of whom convert on your email—ain’t great.

  1. Data is no good

There’s a good chance that a bought list contains junk data.

Providers often resell the same lists for years without updating or confirming the validity of the data in it.

Bad data and incorrect or invalid email addresses leads to high bounce rates which can damage your deliverability (more on that below). B2B email address lists are particularly dynamic—people move jobs, which renders their old email address useless.

  1. You’ll hammer your deliverability

One of the more severe downsides of buying an email list is the risk it poses to your deliverability.

Think of email deliverability as the ability of your emails going where they’re supposed to: the inbox. It’s a factor that most brands fail to give a second thought because it’s logical to assume that once you hit send your email goes straight to the intended recipient’s inbox.

The behind-the-scenes reality is more complex than that. Modern email service providers perform hundreds of checks in fractions of a second to make sure incoming emails are legit before allowing them into your inbox.

Suspicious emails that look like spam are sent to junk, or blocked all together. Offending senders are then more likely to have their messages go to junk in the future, or become permanently blocked altogether by being blacklisted.

They’re very good at recognizing when emails are sent to purchased lists, and can flag such sends as spam.

Good email deliverability is very hard to rebuild, and damaging it will lead to poorer performance and wasted resources on all of your future campaigns.

💡 Tip: Learn everything you need to know to hit the inbox every time in our ultimate guide to sales email deliverability.

A call to action to download OneShot.ai's ultimate guide to email deliverability.
  1. Damaged brand reputation

Alongside potentially damaging your deliverability and domain reputation, buying and blasting email lists can also damage your brand's reputation.

Unsolicited emails can be viewed as spam.

For your recipients, an unwanted email is not a very good first impression of your business.

Your brand reputation is as influential to your overall marketing success as the more technical elements of email marketing such as deliverability and domain health. If you are perceived as a spammer in the eyes of your potential customers, it can be very hard to redeem that reputation and foster a long-term relationship.

  1. Reputable email automation platforms won’t let you send to bought lists

If you’re using email marketing software like HubSpot or Marketo to run your campaigns, there’s a strong likelihood that these services won’t allow you to send a blast email to a purchased list.

It’s in their best interests to ensure their customers are following best practices and legitimate procedures so they have more success with the platform and stick around as a customer as a result. Plus, it only takes one spam infringement against a sender on a shared IP address to implicate ALL email addresses on the IP. This can affect deliverability and performance for an entire organization.

Without the proper protocols in place, such as records that indicate the contacts on an email list have opted in to be contacted by you, many reputable email software providers will simply block you from sending to a purchased email list.

  1. You could violate spam laws and be fined

Actions that violate anti-spam laws like GDPR and CAN-SPAM can result in hefty fines for your organization.

Because contacts on purchased lists have not opted to receive marketing and promotional communications from you, sending bulk emails to them anyway is a sure way to run afoul of these regulations. Unwanted emails that violate privacy norms are one of the main things these laws protect against.

Financial penalties can quickly wipe out any benefit to picking up a few thousand email addresses on the cheap.

Should you rent email lists?

Renting an email list allows you to avoid many of the pitfalls of buying one. But it still has its drawbacks.

When renting an email list, you’re essentially entering into an agreement with the owner of the list to contact those on it on your behalf. As the contacts on the list haven’t opted to receive content from you, you’ll never actually see their details yourself. But, you avoid the risks of buying outlined above.

Renting is more of a warm introduction than the out-of-the blue nature of cold emailing a bought list. And it can be an effective strategy.

💡 Example: You partner with an organization to run a campaign to their email list. The offer inside the email is a lead magnet; your lead magnet. The people who take you up on your offer and provide their info in exchange for the lead magnet become your contacts.

That said, renting a list does still have disadvantages:

  • Pricey: Renting a list is often more expensive than buying one. There’s a strong argument to make that your budget would be better used building a list of your own.
  • Lack of control: You don’t control the list and can’t directly manage the relationship with the contacts on it.
  • Consent & spam issues: As people on the list haven’t opted to be contacted by you, they may still perceive your outreach as spam—as will service providers.
  • Data quality: There’s still the risk that the data quality is poor, which can lead to poor results.
  • Limited usage: There are often restrictions on how many times you can use the rented list, and you cannot tailor or segment it as you might with your own list

In the grand scheme of things, general consensus is the best path forward is to commit your limited time and resources to building an email list of your own. Here are five ways to do it.

How to Grow/Create an Email List for Free

Now you’ve explored the pros and cons of buying and renting an email list, let’s dig into methods for creating and growing your own.

In the world of B2B marketing, this is considered the best way to go because it’s free (compared to renting/buying) and the outcome is a highly engaged audience who want to hear from you and consume your content.

A business email address is essentially a form of currency. In B2B, they’re not really all that far removed from actual revenue. Email addresses are the fuel that power many sales and marketing campaigns. And just as you must exchange a customer's money for value in the form of the product or service you provide, you must also exchange their email addresses with value in the form of content.

The key to building a strong list of engaged contacts is to create content worth paying for.

Here are five types of content assets you can produce as lead magnets to capture email addresses.

Downloadable resources and guides

These are premium content offerings like ebooks, reports, guides, and checklists. The best downloadable assets are relevant and immediately actionable—meaning they cover a topic your intended audience cares about and provides takeaways that will have a measurable impact right away. Whatever the format or the content, these resources must be valuable enough for people to hand over their email address in exchange. If it doesn’t live up to your reader’s expectations, they’ll be less inclined to engage with your content in the future.

The cover of OneShot's sales email delivery guide, 11 Best Practices for Hitting the Inbox Every Time.
Our Email Deliverability Guide is an example of an ebook lead magnet that (hopefully) brings value to our audience. Want a copy? Grab it here.

Templates

More of a product-driven play, templates are a valuable lead magnet as they offer immediate and practical value with a low barrier to access. They simultaneously address the specific requirements of your target audience, while also showcasing your brand’s expertise and how your product can help solve their challenges and streamline their workflow.

Newsletters

Newsletters can be a fantastic method of keeping your audience engaged and informed. While more common among creators, media companies, and B2C brands, they are an effective tool for B2B brands, too. Newsletter signups are often driven by compelling calls to action (CTAs) that succinctly explain the benefits of signing up. Check out this example from Morning Brew.

Morning Brew's newsletter subscription call to action describes exactly what you'll get by signing up.
Morning Brew's newsletter subscription call to action describes exactly what readers stand to gain by signing up.

Free tools

Tools that offer a basic output in exchange for an email address are another effective way to grow your email list. Examples include this subject line grader and this domain authority checker. Lead magnets like this leverage a psychological phenomenon known as sunk cost fallacy, which posits that someone is less likely to abandon a course of action if they’ve already invested time or energy into it. In this context, people are more likely to provide their email address in exchange for the output or answer because they’ve already done the upfront work of providing the information required to calculate it.

Webinars

Webinars have received pushback in recent years with detractors deeming them ineffective. In reality, most ineffective webinars are thinly-disguised product tours. Or they’re just boring. Webinars can be excellent for lead generation if they provide the audience with clear, actionable tips and tactics delivered in a compelling manner. The collaborative environment and opportunity for the audience to learn, in real time, from an expert is part of what makes webinars great lead magnets to this day.

Creating an email list of engaged contacts takes time.

But it’s often worth it in the long run as the end result is a direct line to a solid collection of customers and potential new customers who’ve all put up their hand to hear from you.

Let’s recap:

We’ve established there are three main ways to acquire an email list

  1. Buy 👎

Buying a list is fraught with risk and costs your business far more than the “cheap” upfront purchase. Avoid.

  1. Rent 🧐

Renting a list is a smarter move in some circumstances. But it can be an expensive use of limited time and resources that can probably be better spent elsewhere.

  1. Build 👍

Building and growing your own email list is the safest bet.

However...

Building a list properly takes time. And significant resources. What if there was a middle ground?

How to run effective email campaigns in the age of AI

No matter which way you slice it, people’s inboxes are more crowded than ever before.

Generic messages abound, and it’s harder than ever to break through the noise and capture attention.

The rise of AI technology has unlocked an entirely new realm of possibilities for B2B teams who use email to generate new business opportunities.

No matter how your list of contacts was acquired, sending the same email to everyone on your list just doesn’t cut it in an era where buyers expect personalized experiences are table stakes. Across the board, between both sales and marketing, email performance has gone down. People are switching off.

AI has unlocked personalization at scale.

Now instead of sending one email to 10,000 people and hoping it resonates, you can send 10,000 individual emails to everyone on your list, each tailored to resonate with each contact while still communicating your desired message.

Artificial intelligence has a superhuman ability to ingest and process insane amounts of information at superhuman speeds and generate a succinct

When applied to email marketing, AI systems can:

  1. Find publicly available information on contacts in an email list, owned or created by a data provider.
  2. Research each prospect to uncover relevant information
  3. Generate hyper personalized outreach based on insights uncovered in the research phase

And it can do it for thousands of contacts at a time, in minutes.

Sounds too good to be true? It’s not, because that’s exactly what OneShot.ai is built to do.

OneShot.ai leverages advanced AI and machine learning technology to usher in the next phase of intelligent email marketing. One where every single interaction with a prospective customer is relevant and personalized, and sales and marketing pros are free of tedious manual work.

Hopefully this article has helped you answer whether or not you should buy an email list and provided useful tips and tactics for building your own.

Growing an owned email list is still an effective B2B marketing strategy, for now. If you want a glimpse of what the future of email marketing looks like, take OneShot for a spin and book a demo.

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