Seven Questions to Ask an E-Mail List Vendor

Renting third-party lists is one of the most common ways to acquire customers and/or build in-house e-mail lists. Where do you begin? Doing your homework saves headaches later — headaches driven by poor results, spam complaints, wasted time and money, and bad public relations.

There seem to be a limitless number of companies pitching e-mail lists. Truthfully there are more outfits to avoid than those you’ll want to do business with. Get recommendations from colleagues, and call vendors yourself. Grill them on their list-acquisition practices. What kind of permission do they secure from individuals on their lists? Permission-based marketing isn’t enough. Don’t accept anything less than confirmed opt-in or double opt-in.

What you are looking to establish through this initial contact is individuals on this list truly want and have an interest in receiving messages similar to yours and they granted this specific vendor permission to send them these messages. If the vendor in question works with partner sites to build its lists, ask for a list of the partners. Check out the sites that pertain to your target market. Make sure these partners are required to follow the same permission rules.

In addition to contacting traditional and e-mail-only list brokers, you might want to look at possible alternatives. Consider your target audience and try to determine where they go for information, or perhaps entertainment, in the case of a consumer audience. What do they read? What sites do they visit?

Then, contact these organizations and inquire if they have an e-mail list you can rent. But only do so if individuals have given explicit permission to receive e-mail marketing messages from third parties. Alternately, you might be able to acquire names via ads on relevant Web sites or online publications.

Questioning Prospective Vendors
After whittling down the field of prospective vendors based on this first round of research, take your questioning a step further. See if they can deliver the list and services you need. Listed below are several topics you may want to start with, but your own questions may differ, depending on your business:

  • Demographic selects. In addition to interest in a particular topic, can you select names based on geography, title, company size (e.g., revenue or number of employees), industry, or purchasing power? If consumers are your target, gender, age, and income are selects you’ll want to explore. Keep in mind with each additional demographic select, you’ll typically pay an additional change.
  • List hygiene and quality. How many bounces does it take before an address is removed from a list? How old are the names on the list? What’s the turnover rate (i.e., how many times have names been contacted within a given month, and when was the last contact)?
  • Service-level agreements (SLAs). Perhaps the company doesn’t have formal SLAs, but it should be able to guarantee a specific turnaround time. It should also guarantee the names will be validated, the number of names you bought will be delivered, and you won’t be labeled a spammer. A money-back guarantee is a positive sign the company takes its business — and yours — seriously.
  • Creative capabilities. Can the vendor handle HTML and rich media messages in addition to plain text? What percentage of the list base elected to receive HTML messages?
  • Price. Perhaps this should top the list, as it’s the overriding factor in most of our decisions. In list rental, it shouldn’t be. Important: If you speak with several vendors (as I recommend you do) and find one is significantly cheaper than the others, warning bells should go off. You get what you pay for. In the case of e-mail lists, perhaps more names at a lower price. You risk quality and lower response rates, as well as working with a less-than-ethical company that gathers names through harvesting and other dubious means. Price inquiries can also include minimum buy and discounts for follow-up mailings.
  • Reporting. What kind of tracking is available? How do you gain access to it? Make sure to get sample reports to see what statistics you’ll have when your mailing is complete. Can the vendor split a mailing and track different messages? Does it track pass-along e-mails? Specific URL tracking? Figure out what’s important for your campaign and see if the vendor can meet your needs.
  • Additional services. Some companies offer additional services, including recipient feedback and advice on copy and subject line. Find out what services are included and which will incur additional fees.

By no means is this list of questions complete. You should build your own agenda in determining what e-mail list vendor to award your business to.

Adapted from

Kendra Jaros manages’s newsletter publishing group, which includes and 175 other e-newsletters. Her background is in print newsletter operations, database marketing and direct mail. She’s also managed’s events group, responsible for developing and producing such conferences as ClickZ’s E-Mail Strategies and Search Engine Strategies. Previously, Kendra worked at R.H. Donnelley where she helped drive an initiative to bring online marketing opportunities to small businesses. At Simba Information, a publisher of strategic business information, she built her marketing and operations experience through management of several functional areas. She holds an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business.

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