Let the Buyer Beware: email lists for sale

Heather Maloney, August 10, 2006.

In the email marketing arena, nothing is quite so tempting as the thought of being able to quickly reach hundreds of thousands of people with an email that costs next-to-nothing to send, by buying or renting a list of email addresses.

Businesses selling email lists may make claims such as:

  • We guarantee our email lists to be 100% spam free!
  • Our lists are double opt-in and permission based, NOT unsolicited spam email.

Are these claims valid, and do they protect you?

It is important to be aware that the provisions of anti-spam legislation in other countries (i.e. the country where the email list provider is located) may be quite different to the law in your country. You may be required to adhere to both the anti- spam legislation of the country where you are located, and also the anti-spam legislation of the country where the email recipient is located. Some countries have no anti-spam legislation, and such legislation is not the same in all countries! For example, the US CAN-SPAM law allows websites to collect email addresses for the purpose of selling them on to other businesses who may send commercial emails to such email addresses as long as this purpose is made clear to the email address holder when subscribing. Whereas under the Australian Spam Act "businesses should keep a record of all instances where consent is given, including who gave the consent and how. Under the Spam Act, it is up to the sender to prove that consent exists."

Another example of differences is that the Australian Spam Act describes a concept of inferred consent, where someone conspicuously publishes their work-related electronic address (for example, on a website, brochure or magazine) and your business wants to send them a commercial electronic message that relates directly to that person's line of work. However, you cannot infer consent if the publication includes a statement that the person does not want to receive unsolicited commercial electronic messages at that address. In addition, it provides that such published emails cannot be collected using email harvesting software.

Tip: Know the law of your country, and the country of the recipient!

Let's look at the claims mentioned above so that you can understand the selling proposition. Firstly, an email list contains email addresses, and not spam. Spam put simply is unsolicited commercial emails, so of course an email address list is 100% free of spam!

The phrase "double opt-in" presumably means that someone who has subscribed to receive emails via a general list has not once, but twice asked to be added to the email list. Of course, this may or may not be suitable as consent in your country (see point above).

The phrase "permission based" is stating that the person in the address list has given consent to receive commercial emails. The important questions you need to ask are:

  • does the permission received specifically permit emails from any organisation that buys or rents the list, on any topic?
  • has the person who gave permission been given the opportunity to revoke their permission? and if so, have you received the up to date list including any such revocations?
  • was the permission given for a specified period of time, and do you know when that period ends?
  • does the anti-spam legislation of the country you are in allow you to use such email address lists?

An email list provider who simply refers you to clauses on anti-spam legislation should not give you any comfort. You need to receive clear and specific information from the email list provider to determine whether their list can be utilised with certainty. Reference to inferred consent being obtained should also include specific details of how that consent is being inferred, so that you can analyse this yourself (or have your lawyer undertake the anlaysis).

Tip: Research the provider of the email address list, to ensure that their claims are valid, and that they comply with the anti- spam legislation that affects you.

After researching the validity of the email list provider's claims, and if you do purchase an email address list, look out for these tell tale signs that your emails will probably be treated as spam:

  1. Lots of generic email addresses such as sales@business.com, manager@business.com.au etc.
  2. Email addresses that look like they are variations on a theme.
  3. Lots of email addresses via free providers such as Hotmail and Yahoo!.

Tip: Look for tell-tale signs in the email address list.

I believe that it is far better to be safe than sorry, by taking the time to build your own email address list over time. Not only will this give you peace of mind, it will also give you the opportunity to build a relationship with the people you are emailing, and thus greatly increase the likelihood that they will actually read your email. Building your own valid email address list will also help you ensure that you do not ruin the reputation of your business by sending emails to people who have not consented to receiving them, and help ensure that anti-spam software does not label your email address as a source of spam (and therefore prevent your emails from arriving).

When building your email address list, make sure that you get specific consent to send commercial emails to the recipient - don't just assume that because they gave you their business card that they are happy to receive commercial emails from you.

Here's a few tips for getting consent:

  1. When someone hands you their business card, ask them directly whether they mind receiving regular updates from your business of the products and services you provide. Make a note on their card if they agree. This is a very simple step, and people will usually remember your request when they first receive your email and will respect your request for their consent.
  2. When you receive a request for information via the telephone or via email, when you are providing the response, ask that person whether they are interested in receiving updates from you via email in relation to your products and services. If they agree make a note of their consent, and if via email, include confirmation of the consent in your email reply.

Tip: People will respect your request for consent.

Once you understand the anti-spam legislation, it's not that hard to operate within it, and in fact doing so will help to improve your business reputation and help build sound relationships with your clients and customers.

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