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Rolling The Dice On Email Lists

by Alf Nucifora

As both personal and business communication increasingly migrate away from the hard-copy page to the email pipeline, traditional direct response strategies are forced to confront their vulnerability in a marketplace that responds with lessening enthusiasm to the printed piece arriving through the mail. Direct mail, as a marketing tool, has developed into both a refined art and a codified science as a result of decades of "on the firing line" experience. But the certainty which applies to the traditional direct mail format and application no longer holds true in the fast-growing, online universe. Which begs the question…if email has now become the preferred manner by which we communicate with each other, can we, as marketers, purchase email lists of customer prospects and, if so, how reliable are they?

The current state of affairs

Email lists are available for rental or purchase from any number of providers running the gamut from fly-by-nighters to reputable list houses. Respectable database management firms and direct mail brokers will offer reasonably reliable, targeted lists at an appropriate price-point. Understand, however, that in many cases these lists are compiled from opt-in respondents who have checked a box providing permission "to be sent advertising and marketing communications from affiliated suppliers and vendors". Even though the addressees have agreed to receive these marketing messages and solicitations, their degree of interest in a third party solicitation is probably marginal at best and suspect at worst.

There is also the issue of mobility. Industry experts surmise that up to twenty-percent of B2C email communications go astray because of outdated or corrupted email addresses. That's in the case of addresses that were obtained from paid sources, e.g. ISPs, ecommerce vendors. That number grows to fifty-percent where the addresses were obtained from "free" sources, e.g. free email providers. The reality is, while most people don't move their physical address (and hence their postal address that often), that same immobility does not apply to email. Consumers can and are changing email addresses at almost the same rate as they change their underwear (industry estimates place the average email user holding 2-3 free email addresses, in addition to one paid address). All of which bodes badly for promoters of email lists and the marketers who use them. On the plus side, one area where email solicitation does carry a hint of legitimacy is in the use of voter registration lists which are increasingly listing email addresses in addition to residential or physical locations.

What should one do?

For a legitimate marketer who has a clear definition of its target audience, the best way to acquire a reliable email list is to build it, albeit a laborious and sometimes expensive process. But, this "permission based" marketing effort (only securing names by opt-in) provides legitimate addresses representing consumers with a pre-disposition to buy, as distinct from those who instinctively reach for the delete button at the sight of an online marketing message. How does one build the list? Michael Pridemore, CEO of Socketware, the Atlanta-based makers of the Accucast email suite of services, recommends the following basic strategies:

  • Advertise in hard-copy or online newsletters offered by companies who provide similar products or services. For example, a company marketing auto loans would be advised to run banner ads on sites where car buyers tend to congregate, such as Edmunds and Kelly Blue Book.
  • All marketing communications, whether in online or offline form, should always carry a call to action inspiring the reader to respond by entering an email address.
  • Make opt-in easy, with appropriate drop-down boxes and a simplified data entry process. Wherever possible, provide an incentive for responding.

Pridemore also advises that additional data can be appended to current email addresses for more precise targeting purposes. In fact, some of the more reliable database houses will provide a variety of appended data including first and last names, zip code, etc.

The fly-by-night marketer who is seeking the quick kill will fail in the online universe, or, as spammers are beginning to find out, only gain marginal success in an environment that is growing increasingly hostile. Where email, as a marketing tool, works best is as a retention vehicle. In this scenario, the marketer, who acquires the address via legitimate channels, uses on-going communication in order foster a relationship with the customer, which, in turn, results in mutual respect, and ultimately in a long-term partnership.

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