If you enter ‘buying email data’ (or similar) into your favourite search engine, apart returning over half a million results, you’ll see two main types of article.
First, and due to the way adwords works at the top of the page, you’ll see a selection of adverts from companies promoting the value of data purchase and offering their data lists to you. Here you’ll find words like ‘high quality data’, ‘regularly updated’, and ‘fully opt-in. Click through and you’ll find lists either for sale, rent or per use subscription. Most can be segmented by a number of criteria from location, job title and industry sector to more specialist criteria like interests, purchases and other personal demographics. Looks good.
Below these, as well as further organic returns from the largest data providers you’ll see articles from most of the ESPs (Email Service Providers) persuading you why purchasing data lists is not a good idea after all. Scroll for a few pages and you’ll see that the authors cover the whole spectrum of service providers from large enterprise level solutions to small software or service agencies. Here you’ll actually see many of the same words, for example, high quality and opt-in but the context is somewhat different. Hmmm?
So who is right?
First, we need to establish the legal situation. It’s not illegal to sell, buy or use data from a third party. Provided certain conditions are met in the way the data is collected (by the data broker) and used (by the marketer), third party data is generally within the law. Of course, as a user of purchased data you rely on your broker’s compliance regarding the capture and consent for intended use of their data. This is increasingly important as the latest EU regulation has tightened the definition, making intention a higher hurdle to jump. And as a user, you yourself are responsible for the further requirements of self-identification, fulfilment of that intention and unsubscription.
Consent and Permission
The legal definition of ‘consent’ and the generally accepted definition of ‘permission’ are similar but contain a few essential differences. In its marketing context, the term Permission is widely accredited to Seth Godin and his publication ‘Permission Marketing’. In it he defines permission as ‘the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to receive them’. In terms of the requirements for a clear, unambiguous and positive action of opt-in the legal definition of consent is included in this, but the implications of permission set a somewhat higher level of engagement. With permission it is not just permitted but becomes a mutually beneficial relationship, based on trust which is upheld and deepened over time.
Building a permission based subscriber database takes time and effort. There are lots of ways to collect data but it can still take months or even years to build a significant list of fully-opted in contacts. Creating or enhancing your list with purchased data might seem like a good shortcut, especially as compared to other marketing investments data purchase or rental is generally not seen as expensive.
That established, perhaps the more important question regarding third party data is – does it work? Here are some things to consider.
Data brokers will confirm that the contacts you are about to purchase have indeed given their consent for hitherto unknown parties to send them email. If so, and providing it is a clear, affirmative action then legally this is consent. It’s worth knowing that the latest EU data protections (the GDPR) has tightened the definition of consent and also now require that the intended use is also clear at the point of collection.
Nonetheless, ‘consent’ and ‘permission’ are different animals. As discussed above, permission, as defined by Seth Godin and as adopted by permission marketers everywhere, extends the concept of consent to messages that are not just accepted but which are actively requested, anticipated and welcome. For third party data even with selective profiling by the broker it’s hard to see how this could practically apply.
Email data naturally decays at around 35-40% per year, so with a regularly used and actively maintained subscriber list, hard bounces (unobtainable email addresses) should be relatively low. Delivery rates of less than 97% delivery is typically the tipping point of concern.
To combat data decay data providers will report an active program of maintenance. But as a user you’ll have no visibility or control of this process, and if you’ve bought the data outright that onward responsibility now falls to you. It doesn’t follow that all third party data is poor quality, on the contrary, but in my experience when sanity checking a purchase sample against known companies or contacts that are well known to me, I’ve been disappointed.
It’s a business based on single collect, multiple sell. ‘Your’ contact data will have been sold or rented to many other marketers, many times over. Even with a subscription to blind data usage it’s rare for a data broker to exert restrictions on to who and how often the data is used. Unlike with your own data, you have no visibility or control over what other messages, when, and on what topic your subscribers are receiving.
It’s therefore possible that your audience will be experiencing email fatigue, thereby reducing the chances that they will positively respond to your message.
Reputable ESPs (Email Service Providers) will generally not allow the import and use of third party data – it’s a contractural restriction of many ESPs, including Sign-Up.to. Reputation is an important consideration in email marketing and a tarnished reputation can spread from the customer to the service provider and then onwards to other customers of the ESP.
Although many ESPs charge by the number of subscribers a customer holds in their system, they rely heavily on their sender reputation in order to do what they do. It’s simply not worth damaging this reputation for the sake of a large but dubious subscriber list. If your ESP refuses you on the basis of your data, take it as a sign that you’re probably not going to be that successful with it anyway.
Email clients increasingly look at sender reputation as a criteria for delivery. Even if your campaigns have great content, if your they exhibit large scale or repeated rejection this will negatively impact the fate of your future campaigns. Poor engagement is a downward spiral. It not only affects the impact of your current campaign – it means that your future campaigns are less likely to be delivered. So even if they are welcome chances are they’re less likely to arrive.
Even if somebody has signed up to receive emails from ‘selected’ or ‘recommended’ companies, along with the subject line, sender recognition, that is who an email is coming from, is one of the key influences in whether or not an email is opened. Since they haven’t explicitly signed up to hear from you your sender credentials (your from-name and other recognition credentials) will not be known to your rented subscribers. Even with a super compelling subject line it’s likely that suspicion will get the better of many and your message will be ignored, deleted or reported as spam.
Audience engagement and relevance are closely linked. Think about it. The relatively few messages that we open, read and respond to are those which address our particular need, interest or timing. Data brokers will offer segmented data based on selection criteria which in principle allows a certain degree of targeting. You may get lucky but a broadcast type approach, with content and timing to suit your needs, is unlikely to resonate with the majority of your audience. In short, it’s hard to be relevant and add value if there is no relationship in place. You’ll undoubtedly get some response but meaningful engagement is likely to be low.
To be balanced…
By way of research, I contacted a number of well known data providers. They are all legitimate, professional and successful organisations for whom data is their primary business offering. All were very open and clear about the opt-in credentials of their contacts and how this was in compliance with current EU regulations. A typical response was that ‘the contacts are all opted in and open to receiving relevant offers as targeted by our profiling techniques’. They were happy to discuss their maintenance program – monthly outbound telephone calling to selected samples of the audience was the norm. Had I pursued my interest some were also happy to provide pre-purchase samples and performance statistics from use in recent email campaigns, even to contact my ESP in order to help qualify their data offering.