The other day, Laura at Word to the Wise got me thinking with her post, ‘Email is different‘. To loosely recap, the post answered a question which likely echoed the sentiments of many towards issues like anti-spam legislation and permission, being:

‘Why do so many feel that email should be somehow held to a higher standard than other direct marketing channels?’

In comparing TV and radio segments to email, Laura made some clear distinctions – the former two have been marketing channels from the beginning. They’re broadcast mediums. They’ve been created by marketers, are wholly paid for by owned by marketers and therefore marketers are entitled to pester each and all who choose to tune in with marketing messages.

Email is different because it’s not solely a marketing channel. The cost of spam isn’t borne simply by the sender, but by hosts, ISPs, recipients and everyone in-between.

Nonetheless, it must seem strange to those with limited email experience that it’s not okay to purchase an email list, while the practice of buying and selling personal information remains widespread amongst telemarketers and direct mailers. Why should email be put on a pedestal? After all, consumers don’t pay phone line rental in order to receive unsolicited calls at dinnertime… But they still happen, without consequence to the call center, or their clients.

I’m sure a lot of designers, perhaps you included, have had conversations along these lines. Personally, I think senders of unsolicited email should be held accountable because they cost ISPs and ESPs a supreme amount of development time – all those super-intelligent engineers working on spam detection and filtering tools could really be off making the world a better place in other ways. Senders can create worldwide, widespread inconvenience, with very little time and effort. They should also be held accountable because it’s technically possible to do so.

However, this is a can of worms I wanted to share with you. When your clients ask why they can’t purchase lists and send unsolicited email, what do you say? We’re looking forward to your opinions in the comments below.

  • Kris

    Most clients thinking of buying lists are usually new businesses with no idea how to get attention or followers. The problem is that if you’re a new company trying to break-in to some industry, reputation is very important. Buying lists will tarnish that reputation very quickly.

    Before mailing to a purchased list, I tell businesses to consider the following:
    – you’re mailing to people who do not care about you. you’re spamming people.
    – you’re mailing to people who might care about you but, usually, the first thing that happens is that they question how this sender acquired his/her email. Trust starts to break down. Reputation starts to become questionable.
    – if you already have opt-in subscribers, those people you just spammed could contribute to marking each email coming from you as spam, therefore, preventing your opt-in users from receiving email they subscribed to. (At least, I believe, Yahoo! employs this kind of spam filtering)
    – there’s a risk of company servers being blacklisted.
    – most first-time mailers get disappointing results (surprise, surprise!) which convinces the company to keep mailing. Again, you’re spamming people.
    – some worst-case scenarios involve people really going after your company, going as far as lawsuits, creative negative online buzz etc.

    Bottom line, reputation is on the line. If you’re a serious business, that’s not the route you want to take.

  • Purchased lists and unsolicited email are bad ideas because they devalue the medium and every participant in it. Laws and regulations, while useful as shackles on the morally bereft, shouldn’t even enter into it. It’s about respect for the wishes of your fellows. The argument should start and finish there. Everything else – laws, costs, wasted time – is peripheral. People don’t want unsolicited email, so don’t do it to them :)

  • We also note that anyone who ends up on one of these rented lists was probably at least slightly tricked — that the quality of these lists will be near worthless.

    And then we tell them…

    If you purchased this list, so did others who are less honorable than you.

    Our vendor prohibits it, so we can’t help you or advise you.

    There are plenty of other reputable organizations with similar goals and customers as ours. You’re better off purchasing space in their newsletter or having them send the email. (We use the example of Geico offers I receive from Navy Federal Credit Union. Geico provides the collateral but Geico never has my information. Even if I have no interest in Geico, I am a lot more forgiving than if I just got something directly from Geico.)

    I wish mail was treated to a higher standard. I used to write “This is spam. Return to sender” across envelopes and drop back in the mail, until the mailman stomped up to our door and yelled at my wife.

  • It’s a bad idea to purchase a list because the value of the email is in who it’s coming from. It’s isn’t anonymous – unlike your mail catalogs – the sender is identified. The effectiveness of email marketing rests on the recipient recognising the sender and valuing them as somebody who sends quality, helpful, engaging, relevant and useful emails. Without that trust – which is built over time – the email is just an anonymous email from an unrelated source. Just as helpful as a telemarketer calling at dinnertime.

  • Well, I say “Safeguards should be provided for subscribers against intrusion of their privacy by unsolicited communications for direct marketing purposes in particular by means of automated calling machines, telefaxes, and e-mails, including SMS messages. These forms of unsolicited commercial communications may on the one hand be relatively easy and cheap to send and on the other may impose a burden and/or cost on the recipient. Moreover, in some cases their volume may also cause difficulties for electronic communications networks and terminal equipment. For such forms of unsolicited communications for direct marketing, it is justified to require that prior explicit consent of the recipients is obtained before such communications are addressed to them.” (From Directive 2002/58/EC of the EU).

  • Why should we *not* hold email to a higher standard?

    I thought we were trying to move forward as a community of designers and marketers.

    Remaining stale and having bad practices in the same vein as traditional marketing channels such as direct mailing makes us no better, and as we move forward and embrace newer and more effective technology, we should continue to hold email to a higher standard. If not, perhaps it would fall by the way side with traditional media after being even more abused than it currently is?

  • Dave M

    Just to emphasize your point, I think it’s important to remember that TV and radio are broadcast media. It would be impossible to broadcast a personalized commercial to every viewer. Viewers either tune in or don’t, and yes, if they tune in, unless they use recording technologies or turn down the volume, they must inevitably hear the marketing messages that underwrite the expense of producing and broadcasting television and radio programming.

    As for telephone and fax, in Canada there are do not call lists, and if companies are not in specific industries (e.g. newspapers is one) or are not representing a political party, and have no existing business relationship with you, they can not call you either. Some do, though it has gotten better in recent years. You can lodge complaints and occasionally companies incur substantial fines.

    As for direct mail, in my experience it is either from companies I have a prior or existing relationship with, or flyers that have no addressee information on them that are simply delivered to forward sortation areas by the mail service (which there is no corresponding email equivalent to).

    So, given that spam is always addressed to a specific recipient, I think by and large spam regulations do in fact reflect the standards that other marketing media are held to, it’s just a matter of perspective.

  • Deanna

    One thing I’d like to add, because a company I used to work for did this tirelessly, is that you will see your open rates rise simply because readers are opening them to unsubscribe. So when they’re trying to look good to the executives they’re reporting to, they tote this open rate like it’s meaningful.

    I would explain to a client that when you do this, not only do you risk being blocked by the server itself from all future emails (if you hit them enough), but you risk the user him/herself mentally blocking you from future marketing campaigns. It’s essentially creating a name for yourself in the industry in a way that you do not want to be known, and losing people who could have been potentially strong clients early on in the game. There is no “nurturing” and no personalization.

    And buying email lists are only part of the problem – I used to work for a company that would ask for the attendee lists to every event they attended and when they didn’t get the emails along with the names/company/title (99% of the time no emials were included), they would get the intern to manually input them based off information they had for those companies in Salesforce. While it worked in the sense that you could guesstimate the emails for 90% of these people, BAM unsubscribe so fast and lost forever. And their answer was always “Everyone is doing it”. Is that really true??

  • Deanna

    @Benjamin Davidson – while I can see your point, and I certainly understand your frustration if NO ONE is offering you alternatives, but there is countless resources on the web on lead generation and nurturing that you can do quite cost-effectively. In this day-in-age, there is no excuse, I believe, to incorporate these campaigns via social media, landing pages to collect insights per campaign, and proper use of your website. While “lead scoring” is an often used practice, some say it is fruitless at a smaller company, however I think enabling these tactics earlier in the game will save you the money and time from having to restructure your marketing plans later on when your company grows.

    In regards to purchased list, here are my thoughts: I believe it has a lot to do with whom you are purchasing from. Some companies are reputable enough in their industry that they are a reliable source for “opt-in” emails who are aware that their email is doing to be distributed. Sometimes these companies will require you to stat in the email that you got their email from them; this may in fact help your cause if your company’s goal is inline with the company you are purchasing from. But I would do my due-diligence; ask them questions about where they get their information from, how often do they update it and how, how do they track how many times you hit their list with emails, do you get to keep the emails or are they rented, and how many people are leasing the same list.

  • I am an entrepreneur that runs 2 businesses in the service industry, 1 selling to consumers and the other businesses, so I know the rules and what does and doesn’t work. I get so frustrated by this kind of ubiqitous, high and mighty, marketing babble though. Designers and creatives in general are invariably advising against doing something and rarely offering advice on alternatives. Of course bought lists are not ideal and of of course spamming is evil, but unfortunately every business, on a limited budget must start somewhere. If there is a risk of gaining a negative reputation from emailing a bought list, what about thinking of a way around that? Offering something incredibly positive in the email for example?
    In my experience, it is all too easy to advise against something that can give clear ROI figures and rather more comforting for a marketeer to promote woolly ideas that provide no opportunity for measurement or accountability to the people paying them.

  • This is an interesting and timely debate.

    Not only in email marketing is spamming being addressed, but marketing in other areas too. For example the whole clamp-down on paid for links in the seo industry – where Google is now cleaning up a lot of the unsolicited ‘black hat’ link building techniques.

    What it is pointing to is a better experience for the user, through better content that they want to find and be informed by. Good stuff.


  • The value of purchased mail lists is minimal to both the business and the recipients. Neither party knows the other, and it’s the wrong way to start building trust. The expected return on this investment option is negative.

  • Where did that bought list come from? Did the vendor go and say “I want to find people who have a defined need for marketing/ widgets/ fancy underwear/ garden gnomes so that I can then send them to the suppliers of just those products and services”? Or, did the vendor (in the majority of cases) say “Let’s trawl up as many addresses as we can from those poor saps who’ve not had the common sense to protect themselves from indiscriminate spamming”?

    I know where my money goes and that’s why our clients don’t get to use bought lists on our system. We encourage them in good list-building practice, help them to make their mails extend outside the list’s reach through social media integration (and thereby drive new subscribers) and encourage them to raise the quality of everything they do to optimise their readership’s experience.

    Once you have those subscribers who *want* to hear from you – truly permission-based marketing – then the main job is to retain them.

  • Jim G

    Purchasing lists is also a bit like buying stolen laptops at the pub… all you’re doing is supporting the market and demand increasing the likelyhood that someone will steal and sell you’re laptop. At least that can be insured, but what about your privacy and private information?

  • Jay

    I’ve been told I’m quite good at explaining things to ludites. I alway try to use as little technical speak as possible. I’d answer “Because if someone that recieves your email were to click the “spam” button on their computer it sends a signal to their email provider that says “Hey! That was from a junk mail sender!”.
    Email providers all across the internet like to talk to each other and share info on spammers so they might start saying “Hey I heard that junk mail comes from there.” and will be less likely to accept any email from us too. Basically it could harm our reputation & decreases the chances that ANYONE (your subscribers or someone else’s) will recieve email sent through us.

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