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Why You Should Never Buy an Email List (And What You Should Do Instead)

  • Conversion Rate Optimization

As an e-commerce marketer, you probably understand the potency of email marketing.

It’s one of the best strategies for reaching a widescale audience and nurturing leads until they’re ready to buy.

And with a median ROI of 122 percent, it’s usually an excellent digital marketing investment.  

Getting the ball rolling, however, takes time, and you may struggle during the initial phases of building an email list. 

As a result, it may be tempting to take a short cut and do something to hasten the process, such as buying an email list. 

But this is always a bad idea and almost never ends well. 

In this post, I’ll explain some precise reasons why you should never buy an email list and offer more effective alternatives while highlighting examples from successful brands. 

That way, you’ll know how to grow your email list the right way and keep your e-commerce brand on the right track. 

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It’s Illegal

For starters, you should know that buying an email list is actually considered illegal and violates two specific laws/regulations.

First, there’s the CAN-SPAM Act, which states that it’s illegal to email consumers without their permission. 

It comes with some harsh penalties that can be extremely costly for your company.

According to the CAN-SPAM Act, “Each separate email in violation of the law is subject to penalties of up to $43,280, and more than one person may be held responsible for violations.”

Getting hit with something like this can be a death blow to many brands and isn’t a situation you want to find yourself in. 

Second, there’s the General Data Protection Regulation (GDRP), which is a data privacy act that was passed in mid-2018.

It applies to businesses that sell to customers within the European Union as well as the European Economic Area. 

Under this regulation, you must have explicit consent before sending emails, which, according to the GDPR, means a person must opt-in manually through a checkbox that isn’t pre-checked on your e-commerce site. 

So obviously buying an email list and sending out content without a person’s consent is a big no-no.

It’s Unethical

Besides the legal issues, it’s also extremely unethical to buy an email list. 

Just put yourself in a recipient’s shoes for a second.

Would you want to have your inbox littered with unsolicited offers from pushy companies you’ve never heard of and never signed up for their newsletter?

Of course not.

I find it a constant battle to purge my inbox of spam and unwanted email, and I’m sure it’s the same for many other people.

So all legalities aside, you don’t want to be an e-commerce brand that’s adding to this problem. 

It’s bad digital marketing karma. 

Instead, you want to stay ethical and do your best to deliver a great customer experience. 

That’s why I often recommend using a double optin where a shopper first signs up for your newsletter and then confirms their subscription before you start sending them anything.

Here’s an example from Horti, a plant subscription service for “people who want to create and care for indoor gardens.”

Shoppers first enter their email address at the bottom of Horti’s website in the optin box.

After doing this, they receive a confirmation email where they can click on, “Yes, I want to subscribe.”

This ensures that anyone who signs up truly wants to, which can eliminate a lot of problems and brings me to my next point.

You’ll Likely Experience High Spam Complaints

The spam battle has been raging for years. 

Fortunately, there’s been a significant drop in the global spam volume over the past decade, but 45.3 percent of all emails were still classified as spam in 2018. 

That’s still quite a bit. 

Buying an email list and sending content to subscribers without their permission means you’re contributing to this problem, and you can bet that a high percentage of recipients will mark your emails as spam as a result. 

And this is problematic because your Sender Score will drop with your email service provider, which can result in your account being closed as well as fines.

And in some cases, it can even lead to an email service provider taking legal action against you if there’s been a serious violation. 

For instance, Aweber has a very clearly written Anti-Spam Policy on their site. 

They state that users aren’t allowed to “send email to people who have not specifically requested information” or “use email lists they purchased, rented, leased, or in any way bought from a third party.”

They also highlight the specific consequences.

Termination of the account and receiving no refunds is guaranteed, and there may be charges and/or legal action. 

So as you can see, things can get ugly in a hurry if you receive a lot of spam complaints, and buying an email list is a surefire way to exacerbate this issue. 

A better approach for quickly building your email list and getting shoppers excited about signing up is to offer an incentive like a discount.

Take classic men’s clothing company Taylor Stitch for example.

To get shoppers’ attention, they offer 20 percent off their first purchase.

This is a great way to capture shoppers’ attention and should have a positive impact on their overall conversion rate. 

You’ll Have Low Engagement

Whenever you send emails to people who didn’t sign up and don’t have a genuine interest in your brand, low engagement will inevitably follow.

It’s simply unrealistic to expect good email performance when you’re resorting to ultra spammy tactics like buying an email list. 

According to recent HubSpot data, the average open rate across 28 industries is 32 percent. As for the average click-through-rate, it usually hovers somewhere around 2.5 percent

But if you’re buying your contacts where you’re essentially using a “spray and pray” technique, these numbers are nearly guaranteed to plummet. 

After all, these aren’t qualified contacts who are interested in your brand and want to know more about you. 

They’re simply random people who ended up on a list you purchased. So you can’t expect them to engage with you. 

One of the best ways to raise engagement, however, is to infuse plenty of personalization into your campaign.

Take this email from online retailer Crate & Barrel, for example. 

They address the subscriber by name and offer personalized furniture recommendations that are unique to each customer. 

Or take this one from women’s clothing company Zalando.

They offer access to exclusive sales and specific product recommendations based on prior behavior. 

That way, shoppers receive content that truly interests them and links to products they’re likely to click on.

It Creates Friction With Shoppers

The entire purpose of email marketing is to build rapport and trust with subscribers over time. It’s the ultimate way for e-commerce brands to nurture relationships.

When you go about it the right way by building an email list from scratch, you can form positive relationships where a good portion of subscribers ultimately become loyal customers. 

But when you go about it the sketchy way by buying a list, you’re instantly creating friction from the start and setting the stage for turmoil. 

Just think about it. 

If you were an e-commerce shopper, who would you be more receptive to? 

A brand with a newsletter that you willingly signed up to with news and offers you’re legitimately interested in? 

Or a brand that obtained your email address through unscrupulous methods that you’ve never even heard of?

It’s always the former.

If your goal is to build long-term relationships and a devoted group of brand advocates, buying an email list is certainly not the way to go about it. Doing this sows discord right from the start.

A better approach is to build your own list by being upfront with shoppers about what they’ll get and providing them with real value. 

ban.do, “a clothing, accessories, stationery, tech and gift brand that encourages joy,” does a great job of this with their optin box. 

Here they briefly explain the perks of signing up, including getting access to new product releases, inspiration, and 10 percent off.

It’s all about letting shoppers know what’s in it for them by signing up. 

Do that, and you should be in good shape.

You Won’t Have Exclusive Contacts

Also, keep in mind that you don’t have exclusive rights when you buy an email list. 

Companies that sell email addresses are in it to make a profit and obviously aren’t concerned with running an ethical business.

Therefore, they usually sell the same email addresses over and over again, meaning your contacts will often receive a large volume of emails from numerous companies.

As I mentioned earlier, this tends to result in most people marking these messages as spam.

However, when it gets to the point that they’re completely barraged with emails, many people will simply shut down their accounts to stop the issue. 

This, of course, is problematic because your deliverability rate will plummet, and the emails you send will never reach most of your prospects anyway. 

So to say that the contacts you reach through buying an email list are unqualified is an understatement. 

In many cases, your efforts are completely futile because your messages will never reach the majority of the contacts on your list. 

That’s why it’s so important 1) to gain subscribers through legitimate means and 2) send easily recognizable emails where shoppers can instantly identify your brand.

Men’s clothing and accessories company Bonobos does a great job of this with this email featuring their chino range. 

Their name is displayed front and center at the top, and the messaging jives with their fun and playful brand identity.

Your Brand Credibility Will Take a Hit

When you put all of this together, you can pretty much guarantee that buying an email list is going to hurt your brand credibility. 

Whether it’s the fact that you’re breaking the law, receiving a high volume of spam complaints, or simply being annoying, it’s not going to do your reputation any favors. 

Over time, people will remember your company as one that sends unsolicited emails, which will create the type of negative brand awareness you don’t want.  

Word gets around quickly these days through review sites and social media, and you don’t want to have your name associated with shady email practices. 

Fortunately, it’s not that hard to build a legitimate list of engaged subscribers who genuinely want your updates.

It all boils down to delivering value and giving them something to get excited about.

I think that houseplant company Rooted NYC is a good example.

They clearly state that subscribers don’t have to worry about spam and that they get inside access to product drops, giveaways, and plant care tips.

And they back it up by sending interesting emails like this one that introduces a new line of plants that many shoppers will be curious about.

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Want More Conversion Rate Optimization Strategies?

Get access to our free CRO toolkit and skyrocket your organic traffic, on-page conversion rate and more (includes resources not found in the blog post).

Conclusion

At first glance, buying an email list may sound enticing.

After all, it’s a quick and easy way to bypass the often time-consuming process of amassing subscribers on your own. 

You can have access to hundreds or even thousands of contacts just like that. 

But as we’ve just learned, there are a ton of downsides, that when added up clearly negate the benefits. 

That’s why you should never buy an email list. 

It can harm your reputation, create strife between your brand and your customers, and potentially land you in hot legal water. So it’s just not something you want to mess around with.

Hopefully, by looking at the examples I provided above, you now have a better idea of how to go about email building organically and will walk away with some inspiration that you can use for your own campaign. 

That way, you can get your email marketing relationships started out on the right foot and generate a consistent stream of quality leads. 

How do you feel about receiving unsolicited emails from e-commerce brands?

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