Employed for Good

Tech tips for impact professionals. Do well at doing good.

Buying lists? Here’s why your org can’t just email everyone on it.

Is your org in a tough spot right now?

I get it. You needed to start reaching more supporters yesterday. The urgency is there, but the well of prospects might not be looking so full from where you’re standing.

Companies understand this. That’s why buying lists is a thing.

But heed this advice before you pull out the credit card! If your only strategy is to blast emails to everyone on that list, then your org is unlikely to see a great return on the investment.

In fact, quite the opposite! Your org could do some real damage to your email reach.

There’s a reason your marketing person isn’t gung-ho about this. To understand it (or if you’re that person trying to make their case), here are 5 reasons why your org shouldn’t e-blast to any purchased lists.

1. It likely violates your marketing platform’s terms of service

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Let’s start with the most pertinent reason. If you use an email marketing platform (like MailChimp or Constant Contact), then there’s a 99% chance you’re not even allowed to do this!

That’s because most marketing platforms have a permission-based email policy. By using their service, you agree to only reach people who have given their consent to be contacted. Otherwise, it amounts to spam.

So when in doubt, read up on your platform’s email policy. 

Tip: This stipulation can usually be found in the terms of service. But if you’re having trouble, try web-searching “[Your vendor] permission policy” or reach out to their customer support team to ask.

2. You may see negative results because of CAN-SPAM requirements

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If you’re a US-based org who has never heard of CAN-SPAM, then let’s brush up on this piece of legalese. (Disclaimer: not a lawyer, and this is certainly not legal advice.)

The CAN-SPAM act was passed in 2003 to cut down on misleading commercial emails, by setting standards for what those emails must include.  While it doesn’t prohibit marketing to purchased lists, it does require that recipients have an easy way to opt out. This is a fantastic thing for ALL of us, btw!

But imagine being on that list, and receiving emails from an org you’ve never interacted with. Assuming your message reached a real human (more on that in #3), conventional marketing wisdom says you can expect more unsubscribes than normal. More later on why this is a bad thing

Tip: It’s important to stay in the loop on laws like CAN-SPAM. This article by The Balance does a great job at summarizing the must-know pieces for nonprofits.

3. That list might have hidden spam traps

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If those last two words sound scary, then great! Let’s keep that momentum going. 

A spam trap is indeed a “trap”. It’s a fake email address used by ISPs & other organizations, to flag malicious senders who relay messages to that address. Spam traps can be new email addresses, or “recycled” ones that used to belong to real humans but have been invalid for a long time.

Now, you may not fall under the “malicious sender” category. But it’s still possible to get spam traps in your email database. And yes, one common way this happens is through purchased lists.

To my curious friends – Litmus has a great article that explains the different kinds of spam traps, how they work, and how it all relates to proper list hygiene.

4. You risk wrecking your email sender reputation

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When I say “reputation”, I’m not talking about your org’s street cred.

Sender reputation is a real, technical phenomenon. It’s basically a judgment call by internet service providers, that determines how likely your emails are to hit someone’s inbox folder (vs their spam/trash folder). That score is based on many things, including: how often your org hits spam traps, how often emails bounce, and how often people unsubscribe or flag your emails as spam.

Have you ever perused your spam folder and found some wonky, downright WEIRD stuff in there? You’ve got sender reputation to thank for that.

Remember, sender reputation doesn’t just impact intentional spammers! It can impact well intentioned orgs who don’t observe list hygiene best practices.

5. Finally, you risk leaving a bad taste in people’s mouths

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This may be last, but it’s certainly not least. Recall the last time you received an unsolicited email from a company. Were you excited to hear from them? Or did you wonder “how the heck did they get my email address?”

Look, we are all competing for the inbox. It’s a means to an end: for companies, nonprofits, even bloggers like me!

But email addresses are personal data, even if the U.S is slow to treat it that way. And to the person on the other side, the inbox is also personal. It captures their attention, for better or worse. Some of us could not work without it. And it’s frustrating when others try to make it a soapbox for their own interests, no matter how well-intended.

BTW, always respect people’s privacy and honor their preferences. Getting affirmative consent is one great way to do both.

Okay, I get it. But where does that leave my prospecting strategy?

I am not here to be the wet blanket on your org’s growth. Get out there and prospect your heart out!

Just don’t rely on a strategy that requires you to mass email random people. There’s too much risk to your long-term marketing that way.

If you do decide to go the list route, the best things you can do are:

– Ask the seller how they build their list. It’s better if they can verify that members have consented to having their info shared, but that’s unlikely (unless the list is from a conference or trade show).

– Look into messaging platforms that allow for mass cold outreach. I’m most familiar with Salesforce Engage, but there are plenty of alternatives

– Tread with caution if you plan to use a personal email to prospect. You don’t want to hit daily send limits (Gmail has 2000) or do anything that might get your address blacklisted. More on this here

– Pay attention to bounces and opens. If a person doesn’t open your emails, then that’s a good sign to pull back.

Thanks for reading. And cheers to ethical and compliant prospecting!

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