Email address lists: buy, rent or leave alone?

by Jon Penn

Many people are intrigued by the idea of obtaining a ready-made list of email addresses they can send promotional emails to. Why wait months to slowly build up your own list of email addresses when you can piggy-back (for a price) on someone else's efforts?

While the idea seems attractive, there's a big trap waiting for anyone pursuing this course of action without care.

The important issue is how you come to obtain that bulk list of email addresses. And here we distinguish between renting a list (list rental) and buying a list.

List rental

List rental is a recognized and accepted practice in email marketing. Owners of address lists will send an email to their list on your behalf. And they charge you a fee for this service. The key point is that you never get to see the email addresses on that list. The list owner does the sending, not you.

Now there are lots of ins and outs to list rental, but for now you just need to understand that -- unlike with direct mail -- the actual address list never falls into your hands. So you pay a rental fee every time an email gets sent to the list.

Buying a list

The alternative is to buy a physical copy of a list of email addresses. After you pay the purchase price, there are no further fees to pay. You can send your promotional message as often as you like to the list.

Sounds promising, right?


With very, very few exceptions, purchasing a bulk list like this is a shortcut to email marketing hell.

Someone who has collected a list of email addresses for their own use has a valuable resource. That's why email marketing works so well: you have a list of people you can dip into regularly to boost sales, build relationships, drive downloads, whatever.

But the value of that list is only preserved if you don't abuse it. Send too much commercial email and people soon stop responding. They may even report you as a spammer.

So people are careful with what happens to their list. If they do choose to let other people use it, then they'll want to tightly control this use. And they'll only allow this if the recipients on their list have given permission (when they signed up) to receive such commercial messages from third parties.

So what happens to that list if the owner does sell copies to anyone willing to pay the right price? It gets ruined. Nobody is controlling how many emails or even what type of emails people send the list. The addresses get bombarded with messages and response collapses.

Clearly, no self-respecting list owner is ever going to sell copies of their address list. Not if they want to preserve its value.

If somebody does offer to sell and send you a bulk list of email addresses, 99 times out of 100 you're getting a spam list. That's a list of addresses of people who have not agreed to receive messages like yours, or who are on a list that's been blasted to uselessness by other mailers.

At best, your messages to that list just elicit a poor response. At worst, you're labeled a spammer, which has numerous practical consequences -- all of them bad -- for your brand, bottom line and ability to do business over the Internet. You can end up on a few nice blacklists.

So when you see offers like 1 million addresses for $100, run as fast as your electronic legs can carry you in the opposite direction.

Can you ever buy a list legitimately?

Yes. Lists can change ownership, such as when the parent website owning that list is bought out by another company. That's a specialist situation though, where the list itself (not a copy) is being sold. The seller retains no copy for himself.

You can also pay for email addresses through co-registrations, where other websites invite people to sign up for your own list and charge you a fee for the service.

But buying a copy of a list - nope, don't do it.

This advice may seem logical, but confusing given that marketing professionals and the media seem to talk happily about purchased lists or buying lists. There's no paradox there. They use words like "buying" or "purchasing," but they really mean "renting."

As for the whole piggy-back concept...well, it's no substitute for building your own email list of email addresses from people who have explicitly requested to get commercial messages from you. If you use rented lists, you pay each time you send a message. And it's hard work ensuring you get the right list to match your message and goals.

Homegrown, house lists are by definition matched to your needs, since people are proactively choosing to get your messages because they want to hear from you. And you pay no rental fee when you use that list.


Jon Penn is a Research Manager with Prospect Email (; Jon Penn is solely responsible for the contents of this article.