We get a lot of requests for direct mail or email blasts using purchased mailing lists.

A mailing list is a list of potential business targets which knowingly or unknowingly signed up for a list that is shared, sold or stolen and then sold to other companies for use.

At the surface, it seems like an easy, cost-effective way to reach a wide audience. And with the abundance of demographic information available, the targeting options suggest that simply purchasing a mailing list from a third party company and exposing your target audience to a compelling direct mail piece is easy and effective. You can target by age, income, address, gender and other basic information. But you can also purchase specialized lists that let you target based on shopping habits, lifestyle, hobbies, memberships and other slightly creepy information that you’ll be a little uncomfortable to discover marketers track about you.

Of course, things that seem too good to be true usually are. And purchased mailing lists are definitely not the exception.

A lot of companies don’t have a large database of customers or potential customers that they can draw from when they want to do some direct mail or email blasts. So step one is: get one.

There are essentially three ways to acquire a pool of addresses for marketing use:

  • Buy a list
  • Rent a list
  • Develop a list

There are pros and cons to each, although not every pro or con carries equal weight.


Let’s talk about buying or renting lists first. Buying a list means that you purchase the whole list, or a subset of a list, and can use it for the purchased amount of time and/or number of releases. Renting a list is a one-time purchase. If you’re planning a campaign, buying a list is a better option. If it’s a one-time promotion, renting is usually more cost effective.

The pros for purchasing lists are that it’s easy, allows for targeting and cuts out a lot of the legwork. A lot of these lists are fairly inexpensive, and they’re promised to be clean lists with a low bounce percentage.

The cons are that high quality mailing lists simply don’t exist.

The people on these lists aren’t some magic, secret audience sitting around anxiously waiting for any great deal to find its way to their inbox. They aren’t going around adding themselves to every mailing list they come across because they’re deeply passionate about great direct mail. They’re people who probably just forgot to check “don’t share my information” when they were filling out a form. Just because they were interested in one communication with one company doesn’t mean they’ll care about yours.

The company that’s selling you the list ultimately has one goal: harvesting contact info for mailing lists.

And in a nutshell, that’s the problem with purchased lists. There is no shortcut to an engaged, interested audience, no matter how much targeting is done.

Purchasing email lists can lead to even more pitfalls.

Spam filters are sophisticated. The algorithms involved in identifying spam before it hits your inbox are complex and, most of the time, fairly accurate. With reputable commercial email blasts, one in five never makes it to the inbox. And that’s the high end of the deliverability spectrum. When you purchase an email list, it is impossible to promise that the list is clean. It is impossible to promise that the list is clean. Spam traps are common, and they don’t bounce emails back, they accept the email and report it as spam, making it extremely difficult to guarantee that every email address on a purchased list is good.

So a few emails don’t get delivered. You still get thousands of new leads and visibility, right?

Did you know that email deliverability is tracked back to your email and IP address?

That means that for every email that gets reported as spam, it becomes a little less likely that your next email will make it through the filters. Do it enough, and mailing services will ban you.

On a purchased list, they can’t promise a clean list without spam traps or invalid addresses. And even if you do get a clean list, the recipients don’t know you. They didn’t ask to receive communication from you, which means they’re still pretty likely to either delete your email without reading it or report it as spam (because essentially, it is).

Oh yeah, and a lot of the time, when you buy an email list you aren’t just committing to the list. You’re committing to the sending service as well. A lot of reputable sending services (MailChimp, for one) won’t accept purchased mailing lists. It’s not just self-serving – they understand the many, many pitfalls of purchased lists. If you’re lucky, the company you bought the list from has a sending service (that you can also buy). If you’re unlucky, you bought a list you have no good way to send.

One last thing about email marketing: response rate is about 1000x* more valuable than open rate. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

Buying and renting lists isn’t really a great idea, we’ve talked about that. That leaves us with option number three: develop your own list.


The pros here are pretty numerous. And powerful.

You have a clean list because every single person on it has requested to receive communication from you. They’ve shown interest in your company and what you can offer them. They trust that the information you send them relates to them in some way, so they’re less likely to ignore it. And you’ve earned their interest and trust, not tried to buy it or find a shortcut that doesn’t exist.

Have we mentioned yet how incredibly valuable a list of loyal followers is? It’s so valuable; people are willing to pay a lot of money to buy a list that can’t promise a quarter of what developing your own will yield. There is no more powerful tool in marketing than a well-kept list of people who definitely want to hear from you.

How do you generate this list? New leads are a crucial part of this process, so how do you get them without hitting thousands of strangers with unsolicited communication?

You get it by giving them valuable content.

Creating and promoting valuable, engaging content is the best way to draw in new leads. If you’re not sure what that means, check out last month’s blog post about it.

The premise is that simple. Here are a few more tips about developing a database based on content marketing.

  • Content marketing is a slow-yield strategy. It won’t happen overnight. It’s a long-term investment in your company, not a gimmick or flash sale.
  • Gated content can be a good way to gather contact information. But it only works if viewers have a reason to believe that what they’re handing out their personal information for is going to be worth their time.
  • Opt-in incentives can also yield good results, but be sure to follow through on the promise and be cognizant of what you can truly afford to give away.
  • For goodness sake, make sure your content marketing fits the criteria for good content marketing. It needs to be engaging, well written, compelling and shareable.
  • For email marketing, never send emails from your personal account/server. Use a reputable email service. Some are free, some aren’t.
  • Anytime you produce content of value, give viewers the option to sign up/request more information/stay in touch. Get ‘em while they like you.

Sometimes, renting or purchasing mailing lists is effective. It’s not always a terrible idea, but developing your own database for marketing communication IS always the best idea.

If you spend all the time and energy creating a list of loyal, trusting followers that you can market to, would you sell it to another company?

Probably not. We wouldn’t.

*This is a hyperbole, with the statistic not backed by any research. But the point is accurate.

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