Caveat Emptor: Beware of Purchasing Email Lists (or Any Other Data, for That Matter)
Before I wrote this article, I went back and forth: to share, or not to share. I am a consultant and trainer for nonprofit organizations, with significant experience helping clients make an impact to their communities. I’ve been doing this for over 15 years, and have been publishing electronic newsletters and other communications for just as long. Sharing my vulnerability with the world could impact my reputation as an expert, and cause people to question my judgment and capabilities. On the other hand, I could be helping others avoid the same mistake. I chose to share my experience and let the chips fall where they may.
One lesson I learned the hard way is to be careful when using purchased email lists or cold email lists that I have not used in a while when I want to do an email blast. I recently launched Nonprofit Utopia, the ideal community for emerging nonprofit leaders. I invited 25,000 people to join us using a popular social networking platform. These names were from a purchased list. As it turns out, the vast majority of the emails were not delivered, as many of the emails bounced (more than 6%), and it created a negative email reputation for me. Something similar happened when I used my own contact list, which had not been updated in a while. As a result, instead of adding what I’d hoped to have been up to 250 people to the community within a couple week’s time, assuming a 1% conversion rate, I am finding myself building community the old fashioned way — one member at a time.
Here are some of the lessons I learned:
- While purchasing email and mailing lists will, no doubt, be a part of my sales strategy, I will focus on building my lists more organically, through blog posts, live online and in-person events, etcetera. Companies that sell data are not transparent with their data collection methods. There is no way for us as consumers to know the source of the data, how the data may have been extracted, or how old it is. Even if the purchased database is flawless, it will still be harder marketing to cold leads, as opposed to marketing to people who have met me before, or with whom I have a relationship.
- The fact that my primary email lists have been developed organically does not prevent me from having a negative experience with email bounces. People change email addresses all the time for one reason or another, and if I don’t keep up with the changes, I will end up with a list with a significant number of emails that are no longer current. When emails are no longer current, they bounce, and the experience negatively impacts my email reputation. I will scrub my mail lists regularly to maintain quality and minimize the chances of being labeled a spammer.
- Just because the database is inexpensive doesn’t mean you won’t pay a hefty price. I purchased a list of 625,000 nonprofit and faith-based leaders from an obscure company that generates lists through data mining for less than half of what it would cost to purchase 28,000 contacts from a company that has a direct relationship with the IRS, and culls information regularly from public records. I should have known something was suspect from the price differential alone. As the addage goes, “Anything that sounds too good to be true, probably is.” While I saved money, my email reputation was negatively impacted, and it will take time to rebuild trust. While I’m rebuilding trust, I have to send emails out in smaller batches than I had in the past. This takes more time, and the opportunity cost is higher.
- I will purchase data from more reputable sources, even though the databases will be more expensive. As Frederick Douglass said, “Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get.”
As I reflect on this experience, it’s really much bigger than email lists for me. The bottom line is, I wanted to hit the ground running, and grow my online community, quick, fast, and in a hurry. The truth of the matter is, there are no shortcuts. Online community building, like community building and organizing in the physical world, is a developmental process, based on relationships more so than keystrokes on a computer. There is no substitute for “pressing the flesh”, talking to real people, and understanding their motivations. The same is true for building organizations, advocacy campaigns and the like. Yes, automation is necessary, but, not at the expense of quality and reputation.