Wisepops logo

Last updated Mon Apr 22 2024

Email Lists: What’s Recommended…and What’s Legal?

We’ve all been there.

You’re trying to grow your own business or please your boss, and you want fast results.

You read that email marketing’s performance has no equivalent.

But to send emails, you need a recipients list. And you don’t have the time to try email list building strategies.

Fortunately, you find a shortcut: websites offering to sell email lists.

Could it be that simple?

In this article, we’ll tell you why it’s not and how you can build your own list effortlessly.

Build your email list with intelligent onsite notifications, popups, embeds, and bars

What Exactly Does Buying an Email List Mean?

Of course, everyone knows what buying an email address list means.

But things are not as simple as they look.

There’s an important distinction to draw between the email marketing lists that you can rent and the lists that you can buy.

When you buy an email list, you get a file containing a list of contacts that you email yourself.

When you rent a list, you send your email to someone else’s list. The list owner will send the email for you, and you’ll never get to see who received your email. It’s as if you paid for an ad in someone’s newsletter.

Then there’s the question of the type of lists that you’re buying.

There are a few ways to get an email list:

Most companies selling marketing data don’t clarify how the data is collected. Here’s a page from a prominent player in the field that explains their policies:

Screenshot from google search results for "buy email list" phrase
Sample Google Search Results

The Rules in the United States

To understand what is acceptable in the North American zone, I spoke with Travis, a lawyer working in the compliance department of a prominent American bank (and yes, he wanted to remain anonymous).

Here’s what he told me about what’s legal in the US.

The rules that apply to commercial emails were defined in 2003 in the CAN-SPAM act.

The law makes it possible to buy or rent email lists, as it doesn’t require you to get the recipients’ consent before contacting them.

But for the email to comply with the law, you have to observe the following rules:

  • Don’t use false or misleading header information

  • Don’t use deceptive subject lines

  • Include an opt-out mechanism and honor opt-out requests promptly

  • Include your physical postal address

  • Identify the message as an advertisement

One of the main risks, if you’re buying or renting an email list, is contacting people who’ve previously asked to be removed from your list. To avoid that pitfall, make sure to exclude all the people who have opted out from your communications.

The Rules in Canada

Canada maintains one of the strictest positions when it comes to email lists. The CASL (Canada Anti Spam Law) set precise rules for commercial messages.

The first one is that citizens must provide their consent before you can email them. In short, you can only contact people who have given their explicit consent to be contacted, or, in some cases, people with whom you have an existing business relationship.

Of course, if you’re buying an email list, you’re not complying with these requirements. So buying email lists that include Canadian residents would be illegal.

Renting an email list, on the other hand, can be OK if the provider collected consent in an appropriate way.

The Rules in Europe

To understand what’s allowed with European citizens, I interviewed Emilie de Vaucresson from EDV Avocats, a prominent IP/IT law firm based in Paris.

Emilie told me that EU law imposes very strict rules on email marketing, as it has to comply with two pieces of legislation:

  • The first one is called the ePrivacy directive. According to this text, the use of an individual’s email for direct marketing purposes is lawful only if that individual gave his/her prior consent.

  • The second is the GDPR. This text explains that for the consent to be valid, it needs to be freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous.

One stipulation for a consent to be valid makes it particularly difficult for bought email address databases to be lawfully used for direct marketing purposes: the requirement concerning prior information. In order for an email database to be activated by an email marketer who has purchased it, the individuals who consented to receive marketing emails must have been informed – at the time their consent was given! – that this particular email marketer would send them direct marketing emails.

In practice, this isn’t likely to happen: email list sellers generally focus on obtaining an individual’s consent to receive direct marketing emails, and then worry about being able to sell the list. To compile a legal list that can be lawfully activated by the customer purchasing the list, the email list seller would have to know who he was selling it to before compiling the list. This severely limits the seller’s agility in compiling lists to sell, as it limits each list to one specific purchaser!.

However, EU law is not as hard on the process of renting email databases as it is on buying them.

When a company rents a list of email addresses, it never actually has access to the addresses to which its emails are sent. The list owner does all the direct marketing operations in his own name and is, as such, the only one who has to comply with ePrivacy and GDPR obligations.

The list owner still has to obtain individuals’ prior consent for the use of their email addresses for the promotion of a third party’s products and services, but it does not have to identify the third party for whom it will send direct marketing emails at the time the consents are collected.

All in all, renting an email database is the only legally viable option for marketers in the EU.

Before moving on to the next section, let’s recap the situation:

Legal recap

The Rules Set by Your ESP

So far, we have seen that buying email lists is only legal in the United States.

Let’s say that you’ll contact recipients in the US. What happens once you’ve bought the list?

Well, there’s one last obstacle: the rules set by email service providers.

Most ESPs have their own policy regarding email lists. And often, they are stricter than the law.

MailChimp’s website, for example, explains that buying opt-in lists is a strong no-no.

Screenshot from Mailchimp documentation explaining that buying opt-in lists is a strong no-no.
Source: MailChimp

The same goes for a majority of ESPs, from Klaviyo to Pardot and Aweber.

So even if the legislation allows buying an email list, you’ll have to find an ESP that tolerates 3rd-party contact lists. For example, you can see from the excerpt below that Klaviyo–even though it’s based in the US–requires you to have permission to send emails:

A screenshot of article section that describe requirements of email's lists
Source: Klaviyo

But why do ESPs care so much? We’ll see later in the article.

Is It a Good Idea to Purchase Email Marketing Lists?

These past few years, the rise of Growth Hacking has blurred the line between what’s legal and what’s not. What are now major companies have based their growth on strategies that most judges would consider as breaking the law– from AirBnB reposting listings on Craigslist automatically to startups massively scraping LinkedIn to find hot leads.

So let’s assume you found an ESP that lets you import your purchased list, and you’re contacting US citizens or that you’re renting an email list. Can you expect good results from a 3rd-party email list?

No, Because You Never Know What You’ll Get

As Guillaume, a cold emailing expert and founder of Lemlist, explains: “The problem we see with lists is that you can’t really verify the accuracy of the data until you’ve sent emails to the recipients of that list…In most cases, you can get a sample of the list but it’s often not really representative of what the actual list looks like…
In the end, you’ve got two end-results possible:
#1 (Best case scenario) – The list is accurate and all emails are verified, which means that your bounce rate is low – Yay! ?

#2 (Worst case scenario) – The list is poor in terms of quality, and your bounce rate is super high – which means that you’re currently ruining your domain reputation.”

Would you ever buy a car if you knew there was a chance it would never work?

If not, why would you do the same for your email contacts?

No, Because Their Results Are Usually Pretty Bad

To prepare this article, I contacted a few lead generation experts.

Their opinion about purchased email lists was unanimous: The results you’ll get with them are usually pretty bad.

Let’s start with testimony from Keller, a lead generation professional from Leadsurance.

“I’ve only purchased email lists a few times. Every list I have ever purchased has contained many non-existent addresses and also recipients who aren’t my target market. I’d much rather have control over the process and create highly targeted and valid email lists than buy them and risk hurting my deliverability rates. When I create my own list, I consistently see 30%+ open rates, vs. when I buy lists I see around a 7% open rate.”

But why this performance issue?

There are several reasons:

  1. Most of these lists are not up-to-date. They often include emails that no longer exist, thus generating a high bounce rate (the rate of recipients that will never receive your email).

  2. Most email services will flag your email as spam (among other things because they can use spamtraps to detect that you purchased a list), thus generating a low open rate (the proportion of your recipients that actually open your email).

  3. These lists are usually quite broad and include contacts that are not in your target market.

  4. Your recipients have probably never heard of your brand. It means that they will be less likely to open and click your email and more likely to ignore it.

Azaar, Head of Growth at UserPilot confirmed this experience:

“I’ve been in Sales for 6 years now. We’ve bought a list twice (at a very early stage). Our reply rate was less than 5%. I think it was because they were outdated and included contacts that didn’t match our buyer persona. We had to adjust ourselves to the list rather than the list to us.”

No, Because It Can Affect Your Email Marketing Future Performances

This one applies to purchased email lists only.

Have you ever heard about sender reputation?

In short, email services such as Gmail, Yahoo, and Microsoft evaluate your reputation as a sender. If you send emails that their users flag as spam, or if you send a lot of emails, etc., they will identify you as a spammer.

Sending emails to people who have not given their consent to receive your emails will most likely harm your sender reputation. It means that, in the long run, the probability of your emails arriving straight in the SPAM folder of your recipients will increase.

And what makes this even worse is that fixing a damaged reputation takes a lot of time and effort.

In short, sending emails from a purchased list will most likely:

  • Drive poor results

  • Affect your email

What can you do instead?

I think by now you should be convinced that buying or renting a lead generation database is not your best option.

“Then what IS my best option?” you may ask.

Well, your only real option is to work on building your own email list! Let’s see what the best ways to do this are.

1. Collect Leads on Your Website

The easiest (and the best) way to start a list is to collect emails on your website.


Start by thinking about what might convince someone to join your email list. Will you share exclusive news? Educational content? Will your subscribers get a freebie when they subscribe? Are you holding a sweepstakes?

Once you’ve found your lure, give it maximum visibility.

Add call-to-actions and banners to your articles. Here’s an example at the end of an article on Campaign Monitor’s blog:

Banner with call to action button as a section in the blog article
Source: Campaign Monitor’s blog

Use an email popup. Countless studies have proved the positive impact of email popups. On average, they convert 3.75% of visitors into email subscribers.

ecommerce popup example
Shop now sales popup
Free popup templates

Get a head start on designing website pop-ups. Browse our library of designer-made popup templates. Start converting your traffic.

➡️ Go to templates

Yespark, a parking lot rental service, uses onsite notifications, popups, and bars to collect 4.5K emails:

Add a signup form to your pages. Signup forms are great complements to calls-to-action and popups. When you’ve found the right position on your website, they can bring a significant flow of contacts.

signup form example

Collect email consent during the checkout or signup process. Ask your customers if they’d like to receive your marketing emails when they purchase something from you.

Newsletter form with additional consent field
popups templates hero visual
Add a popup to your website in minutes. Create custom campaigns for different visitor groups. Convert your traffic 5x faster.

2- Build Your List Offline

If you’re participating in fairs or have an offline presence, leverage these assets to grow your list.

You can use a tablet, for example, to let people enter their email address.

Tablet's mockup with newsletter form
Source: Freshmail

You can also collect business cards and turn them into contacts using a scanner app.

Mockup of phone with snapping business cards function
Source: FullContact

3. Make Your Own List

In the US, it’s OK to contact people if their email is publicly available on the web and if you use their contact reasonably.

In that case, you can build your email list by browsing the websites of your target contacts and looking for their email. You can use Hunter to help you save some time.

Once you find their contacts on the website, save a screenshot of the page as proof that you found the email address online.


Let’s do a quick recap.

Before you purchase email lists, there are a few questions to answer:

  • Is it legal to email people without their consent in my target country?

  • Does my ESP let me import 3rd party lists?

  • Am I sure that the list I bought is relevant for my business? Do I have guarantees that the data is up to date?

  • Are there any better ways to grow my business, such as building my own lead database?

If, after answering these questions, you find that building your own lead database is your best option, then you can:

  • Collect leads on your own website, using call-to-actions (CTAs), banners and popups to convert more visitors into email subscribers.

  • Physically collect emails offline at special events or turn collected business cards into contacts via a scanner app.

  • Getting your email list from public contact information found on websites.

Good luck with your email lists, however you choose to obtain them! Emails are one of today’s best marketing tools – so you want to use them legally and in a respectable manner. We hope this article has helped you understand the confusing and sometimes conflicting regulations concerning the collection and use of email lists so you can own this tool and grow your business.

Greg D'Aboville

Greg is a former Head of Growth at Wisepops. He has a degree from the ESSEC Business School and has been working in digital marketing since 2014.

Related articles


Check out these email list building strategies to grow your email list fast.

CaseStudy springly


Learn how Springly, a nonprofit software, builds their client list with onsite popup campaigns.