A Marketers in Demand company

Should You Buy an Email List?

Jacob Brain


This is one of those questions we get asked from time to time, and honestly, my answer to this has changed in recent times. Here’s our view after avoiding it for years and then trying lists for a few clients.

It’s Not Ideal.

I want to make sure we make it very clear: buying email should be on the “no-no” list. This is not a go-to-market strategy that reaps great results in the B2B space. We’ll get into the reasons why it doesn’t make “cents” (even if it can sometimes makes sense).

To start, it defies a pretty common mode of thought known as permission marketing.

Permission marketing is this idea, coined by marketing expert Seth Godin, that being able to market to your customers works really when they have given you permission to do so because of the value you bring.

Buying lists flies right in the face of this philosophy.

So, from the outset, buying emails steps on the idea of privacy. That’s a big deal – just look at the news lately. It’s also what’s at the center of the CAN-SPAM act. No one really likes getting junk email. But disliking it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work.

Junk is in the eye of the beholder.

So, let’s make sure we all know – say it together with me – Buying email lists is not a good plan.


There is Always a But.

That’s the problem with hard rules, of course – there’s the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. You should not buy email lists if you’re not thinking about how doing so fits into your overall strategy, or if you think buying is going to be a shortcut to success.

Yet, buying lists is a viable experiment in marketing strategy as you push into trying to grow your universe.

The key is to treat it like a gamble.

If you’re sinking your last marketing pennies into this strategy, I’d rather you buy your current clients a Starbucks gift card. You’d get more in return. But if you are using this as an experiment and are well aware this might be a loss, you’re good to go.

When to Buy Lists

This is the big question. The truth is that buying email lists has a lot to do with your goals for the campaign. The most common use of list buying is to enter new markets where you have lots of volume to explore and a PROVEN MESSAGE.

No, that is not a typo – that was all caps for emphasis.

You need to have a significant volume of prospects, because buying email lists to send to has a very low return. There is a high likelihood that a 1% return could be a high-five moment for your team. So you need to be thinking of buying thousands of names, not hundreds, to increase that return chance.

Second, you need to have a proven message. You need to be working with some messaging, or an offer that you know works. You don’t want to go to bat with an experimental campaign and unproven messaging.

If you don’t know if you have proven messaging – you don’t.

The pain of proving your messaging results in an unforgettable experience and a deep knowledge of the process. Conversely, using purchased email lists could be a great way to test a messaging strategy in the macro sense, but it’s not going to drive revenue from the gate.

What to Expect and Pay

So, the next question is how much should you pay and what to expect in the process.

There are some good and bad list houses. You’ll have to contact me of you want my opinion on which are which – I can’t publish that here. But you’ll want to explore different houses to see what deals you can get. Your negotiation skills could really make a difference here. I’d budget around .02 to .10 per email address, depending on the details of the query.

I’d always go a bit broader on the query than you’d expect. If you are going to target a city like Chicago, I’d grab a 50 mile radius, rather than the downtown zip codes only.

But work with your rep. You’ll get a rep and plenty of attention when you start knocking around the doors of list houses. They have great ideas and they are vested in your success.

Leasing is a good option if you don’t have your own system or don’t want to buy the list. It can be a bit cheaper and you’ll have more bandwidth for other tactics.

How the Numbers Work Out

The expectations are low on this type of campaign. You should be looking at this as a branding campaign more than as a direct response campaign. This means that you should make sure you build brand value in the email, but also make sure that you use a very clear call-to-action so that the recipient has a logical next step.

As I mentioned previously, you might see a 1% return on a campaign like this. So if you are looking to build some awareness in a new market, that might be enough of a return on a CPM-type cost basis to justify the spend. I’ve yet to hear of a email service that offers cost-per-click pricing, but that would be amazing.

So, if you buy 10,000 names, you might see 100 people click and view your landing page or offer. If you know your funnel metrics, you can run the value from there. So, you need to see what makes sense in terms of a cost. If that 10K names cost you .02/per, or 200 dollars, and you can achieve that value in your funnel with your current conversion rates, then it make sense.

Are You Game?

So what do you think? Can you run the numbers to make email buying work for you? It’s a risky strategy, but the truth is that it does contain some upsides if it’s played correctly. Like any investment, it’s all about leveraging risk and making sure that you understand the risk that you have.

If you are interested in trying it out, let us know.

Because, while this isn’t a tactic we recommend for most marketing solutions, there are times it may make sense. And we’d be happy to explore the options with you.

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