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What happens if I buy an email list? Can MailChimp or Constant Contact tell?

A few days ago there was a Reddit thread of a person starting in a new role as Director of a non profit. Except the old leadership kept lousy records, and their email and mailing lists were next to useless.

Like most things on the Internet, a dumb commenter appeared. See if you can guess which one. My comment is at the top.

The question the Original Poster had was, “Can I buy a mailing list? Will it help?”

The answer to that is almost unquestionably “NO”, unless your market is targeting postal workers or the elderly.

For purposes of my discussion, I care more about the email side of things, because you can buy email lists, too.

No one ever agreed to sign up for most anything they receive in their mailbox or inbox. Everything in an inbox, however, is required by law to include an “unsubscribe” link. And email providers like MailChimp and Constant Contact require it, because they have an interest in preserving their service’s delivery quality.

Which leads me to a story about another client…

When buying your email list leads to trouble

We had a client who used to send emails “manually”, in bulk, through their own private email server. They’d churn out 10-20,000 emails at a time to people.

They questioned why their engagement rate was low, why no one replied, and what to do.

Enter SuperPixel.

“Well, let’s toss this into a proper system and find out.” We said. We wanted to look at analytics and get in compliance with the the US CAN-SPAM Act, which, among other things, requires an “unsubscribe” link on solicited emails.

We also wanted to import their email list and filter out the duds.

It was nothing but problems.

They had three email lists and between them about 30,000 subscribers. When we did the initial import, MailChimp’s Omnivore service immediately flagged them as possibly low-quality. Meaning, “MailChimp thinks you’re up to no good.”

The list was identified as having a lot of non-human accounts (think info@, postmaster@, support@, etc.). It was also filled with about 12,000 invalid email addresses. They were emails that had been identified in a global system as defunct, abandoned, full, or non-existent.

We immediately questioned whether the list was purchased or not. We were told it had been compiled “over ten years of working with clients.”

Except just because you interacted with someone, or got a business card, or emailed someone that one time, it doesn’t mean you get to add them to your email list.

This is like saying, “Welcome to Wal-Mart. We noticed you bought a toothbrush. We’ll now add you to our email list.”

Well, no, that’s not how that works. At all. And for good reason.

We kept charging ahead, trying to clean the list up and prepared it for our first campaign.

It was a disaster. So many emails bounced, were flagged, or didn’t work in addition to the ones we already knew about. Suddenly our 30,000 emails were down to about 11,000.

Fast forward a few more campaigns and the unsubscribes were unrelenting. And for good reason. The people who were actually real people were probably trying for years to get off this list. Now presented with an unsubscribe button they wanted out.

Before long MailChimp disabled the whole account. They had so many complaints that they had no choice, and good for them. Despite our advice to stop, the client has reverted back to their old way.

The problem: no one thinks you’re cool

So many people think they’re so amazing, people just have to hear about them. No one stops to recognize that if everyone thought that way, we’d be living like, well, like we do today.

People are tired of these tactics. They don’t care about you, because they have laundry and kids with homework and dinner to prepare and a book they want to read and work to do.

No one cares about your stuff as much as you do.

In rare instances can you find a company that people want to hear about, and to be sure, there are people who love hearing from certain companies and organizations. You are probably not one of them. At least not yet.

So if you have to rely on spraying a firehose of campaigns or mailers or other peddler’s junk to people just to survive, or try to survive, it’s time to rethink your strategies.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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