Buying data - avoid the pitfalls

In this article Steve Long explores the issues when buying email contact data.


With the growth of the internet and e-commerce, there are lots of companies using the internet to supply ready-made lists of data for companies to use with their email marketing campaigns. It is relatively easy for a company to purchase a database of 'opt-in' email contacts to use with an email campaign. However, its very much a case of buyer beware, and there a lots of pitfalls. To help you, we sampled some of the best and worst, and below are some common traps to avoid.

Quality is king

Quality is crucial for direct marketing and email marketing. Whilst it is virtually impossible to ensure that every email in a commercially available database is up to date, it is essential to choose one which is as up to date as possible. Quality varies wildly, and for email contacts we found failure rates as high as 61.2% - that's 3 in every 5 of your emails don't even make it to a recipients inbox.

These failures are purely because of problems with the email address - either the user no longer exists at that address, or the domain (the bit after the @ in an email address) no longer exists, or there's a typo in the address.

Quite apart from the waste of money - up to 60% of your fee has gone down the drain - these address failures can affect your reputation. A domain that sends out a lot of emails that 'bounce' will be labelled as a bad sender by the companies that handle email traffic. You can therefore inadvertently be blacklisted as a spammer, even if the activity is genuine. Aside from the reputational impact on your business, this then has an impact on your regular day-to-day email activity too, as these emails are then blocked by email software because you've been blacklisted.

Is it really opt-in?

All of the companies we examined claimed to be 'opt in' email address list - implying that the contact had agreed in some form to be included on the list. But we have to question how realistic this is. It might even be true that they checked a box to say that their email address could be shared with 'carefully selected' partners. 

But how likely is it that they consented to having their email address sold repeatedly to hundreds of companies? Not very. As such there is a good chance your carefully crafted email campaign will go straight in the trash, or worse, get marked by the customer as spam - not quite the result you wanted.

Yet more spam.....

There are other ways that your email campaign can be labelled as spam. Many internet service providers and internet security companies plant 'honey pots' to catch out potential spammers. These are fake email addresses which are designed to catch out companies that send a lot of spam. It is impossible to identify these honey pots because they are designed to look genuine, out of our sample we identified 3 out of 500 email addresses which looked like potential honey pots. Whilst this is just 0.6% of email addresses, hitting just one of these could get you labelled as a spammer.

List fatigue

The more an email address receives un-solicited email, the less likely future emails to the same address will be productive. This is known as list fatigue, and its more likely in purchased lists, because many companies have already contacted the list you've just purchased. As a result, response rates will be even lower than normal. A good response rate from an email campaign will be about 1%. For our sample we achieved a response rate of just 0.11% of the emails that actually got delivered.

Your options

There are a number of options open to you to avoid these pitfalls.

  • Use rented lists or an email marketing company. A first step to improvement is to use a rented list. Although this may appear more expensive, in the long run it will save you time, money and hassle. The company will maintain ownership of the list, and should send your emails for you. As a result they have a greater stake in keeping the email address list clean from errors, since it will be them who are identified as the spammer, not you.
  • Generate your own email opt-in list. Although this takes longer, it is well worth doing and is much more productive in the long run. Collect email addresses wherever possible from customers and potential customers, and pretty soon you'll have a list of contacts. More importantly, these are people who are genuinely interested in your services.
  • Get a bespoke list. If you really need an email list, make sure you get one that has been developed specifically for you. There are many companies that will collect contacts specifically to your requirements. This can help eliminate many of the problems associated with purchased email addresses. A good research company can help you collect valid, quality email addresses. A good bespoke list of 100 email addresses will have the same impact as about 2500 emails from a purchased list.