Email Lists: Should You Rent or Buy?

It was only a few years ago that I would have told any client who asked (and many did) that it was never a good idea to purchase an email list, and that moreover, any list of email addresses that was available for purchase was by definition compiled through nefarious means and not worth the risk.

That was then. Today, the decision of whether to rent or buy an email list isn’t quite so clear-cut. If you’re looking to integrate email into your lead generation mix in 2012, you would do well to consider list purchase as an increasingly viable option.

Say you’re marketing a new product, and inbound marketing alone (content syndication, search, social media) won’t cut it. It’s clear that you need to include more proactive outreach to the type of prospects most likely to have a need for your new solution, even if they don’t know such a solution exists. You decide that you want to email those prospects with an offer to download a white paper about the business problem your product solves. Let’s consider your options:

List Rental

List rental is the traditional (and some might say: outdated) way of acquiring marketing lists. Renting a list, as the term implies, means 1) you only get to use the emails once, and therefore only acquire contact information if the prospects actually respond to your message, and 2) you never actually see the list. Instead, you send your email creative to the list owner, and that owner broadcasts your message.

Most rented lists are opt-in, at least in the sense that the persons on that list have given their permission to the list owner to receive information from third party advertisers (that’s you.) Most list rentals make available a wide range of select criteria, enabling you to target prospects by job title, company size, etc. Rented lists can be expensive (50 cents per name and up), however, and for one-time use, it takes a very successful campaign (or a very large average deal size) to generate a respectable ROI.

Bulk Rental/Co-Branded

Bulk rental and co-branded emails are variations on list rental. A bulk rental is also a one-time, “blind” use, but typically involves broadcasting to an entire list without the use of any select criteria. Costs for bulk rental, often around 25 cents per name, can be less than traditional rental. Bulk rentals make most sense when an entire list, say a magazine list focused on a particular demographic, meets your target criteria.

A co-branded email is so-named because the email will be “from” the list owner (typically a publisher) but 100% of the email content itself will be the advertiser’s. (This is a creative route around opt-in requirements because technically every recipient is already a subscriber.) Like bulk rentals, co-branded emails also typically involve broadcasting to every name on a list, and are less expensive than straight rental.

One downside to the co-branded option is that list owners need to control the frequency with which they email the subscribers (to avoid oversaturation), so co-branded emails can often require a lead time while you wait for a space to open up on the publisher’s broadcast calendar.

List Purchase

In recent years, a number of long-time business database companies (InfoUSA, Hoovers, Dun & Bradstreet) have been joined in the list market by so-called “crowd sourced” databases like (formerly Jigsaw), InsideView, and others. When you purchase contacts (including email addresses) from any of these vendors, you’ll get of many of the same select criteria as you would through via list rental, with the distinct advantage that you own the data and can therefore (in theory) broadcast to those lists on an unlimited basis.

One vendor with whom we work frequently at Spear has compiled and de-duped many of the more well-known databases, will allow us to de-dupe their list against a client’s existing database, and guarantees their broadcasts against hard bounces. Cost is around 65-70 cents per name.

The clear downside to purchased lists is that these are not opt-in names, not by any stretch. Quite beyond the ethical considerations, the risk to using lists that aren’t opted-in can mean that you put your email reputation, and that of your IP address, in jeopardy. Personally, I’m of the opinion that these risks can be minimized by keeping your emails professional, informational, and infrequent.

Purchased lists also generate lower response rates, all things being equal, compared to rented lists, in part because (the theory goes) if someone has given their permission to receive ANY kind of email, as in the case of rented files, that individual is more inclined to respond to your campaign.

The argument in favor of purchased lists, then, is purely economic. It’s simply far more cost-effective to purchase someone’s email address and market to that individual, in drip fashion, over a period of time. Furthermore, a multi-step, drip approach eliminates the accident of timing that must occur in order for a rented list to be successful – that is: at the very moment someone receives your email they happen to be of the mindset on that given day to show interest in your product. Emailing to that individual multiple times over a period of weeks or months increases the chances dramatically of reaching someone at a time when he or she may feel a need for your solution.

If yours is a relatively finite audience – say, one confined to a specific vertical market, or job title, or company size, or all of the above, then purchased lists may be the way to go. In essence, you’ll be building a database of potential prospects, all of whom meet your target demographic, that you can then nurture, educate, and market to over time.

2 thoughts on “Email Lists: Should You Rent or Buy?

  1. Jim alamia

    Good article. I haven’t seen one like this in a long while. If you buy lists from a solid vendor you won’t have an issue with high level complainers or spam traps, avoiding these is the real issue as it pertains to a purchased email list.

  2. Amanda Brill

    In my experience, purchased lists yield good response rates. Our company recently purchased lists from,, and We were pretty satisfied with the results; it reached our target audience and there was barely any bounce backs.


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