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How to Gain Subscribers Without Buying Email Lists

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Buying email lists is evil. Don't be evil.

Few things are as antithetical to good inbound marketing as purchasing a list of strangers' email addresses and blasting them with your latest campaign. You may get a short-term win, but emailing to a purchased list can be detrimental in the long run.

Beyond that, it's bad practice in general and causes frustration for the recipients, who haven't opted in to hear from you.

There are also two significant business risks associated with emailing to a purchased list:

1. It will damage your sender score


A company's sender score, which is tracked by Return Path, rates the reputation of every outgoing mail server IP address on a scale of 0-100. A company's sender score is determined by an algorithm that takes into account the ratio of undeliverable emails and spam reports for a company's sends.

Purchased lists are naturally higher in hard bounces and spam reports, and they can wreak havoc on your sender score. If your sender score drops, it severely limits your ability to have your future emails—even good, non-spammy ones—end up in recipients' inboxes.

That is what one bad email list can do to your sender score.

2. It could get you blacklisted

In addition to harming your sender score, purchased lists can contain spam traps or defunct email addresses that may land you on an email blacklist. B2B companies in particular need to be careful, because many corporate domains will use spam reporting services such as spamcop to identify and completely block emails from blacklisted senders.

Grow your opt-in list via inbound marketing

Inbound marketing is a strategy that focuses on building useful, interesting content to attract subscribers and prospective customers. The basic idea is this: Provide value, make it relevant, and the subscribers will come. The whole point of subscribing to something is because you're interested in it enough to want to be clued in to all future editions.

Tactically, possibly the best way to start with inbound marketing is to launch a blog and start creating good, search-friendly content. Blogs, social media, and organic search are the least expensive marketing channels; and, according to HubSpot's 2012 State of Inbound Marketing Report, inbound leads have a 13% higher close rate than traditional outbound leads.

To optimize your blog for subscriptions, make sure you have a clear call to action at the top of your blog. Kuno Creative http://www.kunocreative.com/ does a nice job of it:

In addition to driving subscriptions via your blog, incorporate email subscription options into any offers or registration events on your site.

Remember, when recipients subscribe to your email sends after reading a piece of content, they're expecting the same quality of content to be delivered to their inbox, so don't switch over to a heavy sales pitch as soon as you have their email addresses.

Give subscribers options

A good way to get website visitors to opt in to future email communications from you is to give them options about what type of subscription they'd like. Rarely will a subscriber be interested in every type of content you have to offer. Allow recipients to sign up by topic area or frequency.

For example, maybe I'd like to get occasional information about new products and announcements, but not the newsletter that you send out each week. Letting visitors narrow down their subscription type to just the information that matters to them will help them feel more comfortable giving you their email address and will result in a more engaged email list overall.

You have other ways to increase subscribers

  • Run a co-marketing event: Join up with another company to co-host a webinar or a similar interesting event. Encourage the attendees to opt in to additional content and information from both companies.
  • Investigate AdWords communication extensions: Google AdWords has been experimenting with enabling searchers to subscribe to a company's email list directly from the search results. Though it's too early to tell how effective those extensions are, if you're already investing in paid search ads you may want to give it a try. Search marketing company Wordstream does a nice job of explaining how communication extensions work and how to try them out.
  • Provide clear benefits for subscribers: Make sure people who subscribe to your emails have an edge over those who don't. Provide them with sneak peeks of new products or offer them email-only discounts.

* * *

The bottom line is this: Email should provide value to subscribers, not interrupt them with a barrage of marketing messages. If a recipient doesn't remember your company or understand why he or she is getting your emails, there's a good chance you'll end up in the unread pile—or worse—on a blacklist.

Building an email list organically via opt-ins may take a little longer to reach the volume you want, but permission-based emails will always be more effective than those on purchased lists.

If you have any additional ideas for building an email list responsibly, I'd love it if you'd leave it in the comments below.


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Meghan Keaney Anderson is a product marketing manager at HubSpot, a provider of inbound marketing software that includes lead nurturing, marketing automation, and email marketing tools.

Twitter: @meghkeaney
LinkedIn: Meghan Keaney Anderson

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  • by John H Thu Feb 28, 2013 via web

    There is a difference between buying an email list and sending it out cold through your own email server to people who don't know you and a sponsored email campaign where the list owner sends out an email on your behalf. I believe Marketingprofs does this with many of their sponsors correct? It also gives you implied endorsement from the list owner. The issue is reaching the right people and getting them to respond. If you have a blog with great content and nobody knows about it you still need to get people to visit the blog so they can engage with you, thus a sponsored email campaign can be a great alternative to buying a cold list and sending it out yourself.

  • by Tobias Schremmer Fri Mar 1, 2013 via web

    John, I was thinking this same thing when I read the article. Her points are valid and organic list growth is the ideal for sure. Yet a distinction between "purchasing a list of strangers' email addresses" and renting a 3rd party/outside list from a trusted partner/publisher should be made. And yes, MarketingProfs, like many publishers, does send vetted third party emails on behalf of advertising partners - just about everyone on our list sees those each week.

    There is also a distinction to be made between B2B and B2C. In the B2C world, deliverability concerns are magnified since the vast majority of a company's email database consists of email addresses from the big consumer ISP's (Yahoo, Gmail etc). In contrast, the email lists for B2B marketers are more dominated by corporate domains, which have their own spam-filtering rules, some of which are similar to consumer ISP's. I'm not a subject matter expert on deliverability but B2B v. B2C is another key distinction to consider when evaluating list growth options. There are reputable companies that "sell email data" - like NetProspex, ZoomInfo, Hoover's and Salesforce (Jigsaw) - that, when used intelligently, greatly help B2B marketers acquire valuable information, including email address, on their prospects.

  • by Mark M. Wed Mar 6, 2013 via web

    Thanks Meghan, great read. Content continues to be king.

  • by Sally Cummiford Sat Sep 14, 2013 via web

    I have never had much luck with buying an email list and sending it out cold.I really think those are very stale. I have had more luck with a sponsored email campaign where the owner sends out an email on my behalf. It does give you implied endorsement from the list owner. I do agree that an organic mail list would be ideal.

  • by T Samuel Mon Mar 17, 2014 via web

    This article is informative, and I can definitely see some validity. Where I'm at a loss is balancing ethics and business needs. If an email list is opt in and targeted, wouldn't it be more likely to be a useful tool? I'm having discussions with the VP of Marketing here, and we're grasping at straws.

  • by Colleen Wed May 14, 2014 via web

    Does anyone have a tool/platform recommendation to manage the actual subscribers? We use Marketo and are able to opt people in and out, but how do I design a way for leads to say, "I want X emails every X time frame regarding X topic."? Ideas welcome!

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