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It’s Time to Bust a Myth About Email List Rentals

Published by Eric Josephson

“Email list rentals don’t work.”

At conference after conference, and in meeting after meeting, nonprofit marketers repeat this maxim to me time and time again.

And every time they do, my heart breaks because I’m watching talented and motivated marketers give the proverbial stiff-arm to the rocket fuel that could launch their programs to new heights.

The time has come to bust this myth about email list rentals. The time has come, to paraphrase Tim Kachuriak, to “punch conventional wisdom in the face.”

Friends, I’m here with good news. Great news, in fact! Email list rentals don’t just work — they have the potential to transform the way you identify supporters and raise money, and to do it all faster and more efficiently than you ever thought possible.

Still skeptical? That’s ok. All are welcome on this journey into the wonderful world of email. When we get where we’re going, I’m confident that you’ll look at this misunderstood medium with a new curiosity… and maybe even dip your toe into the water.

Why should I even consider email?

Before we tackle the myth, let’s make sure we all understand why this discussion is so important. We’ll start with an illustration from history.

Legendary bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks.

His reply: “Because that’s where the money is.”

As a nonprofit marketer, you know that your organization’s email list is your most reliable and readily accessible channel for generating activism, volunteers, and funds. And that means that the bigger and more engaged your email list is, the more effective you can be as an organization.

So as you’re looking to grow your email list, where are you going to focus your efforts to find new subscribers?

If you’re like most nonprofits, your answer is probably Facebook, or maybe paid search.


If you’re looking for a prime ribeye steak, would you go to McDonald’s? Would you charter an offshore fishing boat to hunt deer?

Then why would you go to social sites or search engines to try to find engaged email users, when you could reach a pool of known, verified email users right from the start?

I’m not trying to diminish the value of Facebook or paid search as tools for acquisition. On the contrary, they are highly effective and minimally risky laboratories for optimization. And once you’re ready to scale up, they can bring in a good number of names that don’t exist in the large, but finite, email rental universe.

But we must always remember that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. And generally speaking, that means that you’re going to have some amount of difficulty turning someone who interacts with you on Facebook into someone who reads and responds to your email regularly.

On the other hand, subscribers acquired via email list rentals have measurably higher engagement rates, and consequently, much higher lifetime values to your organization.

For example, last year, we took a deep dive into the list of one of our clients with the expressed purpose of determining their highest value channel for acquisitions. After 12 months on the email list, we found that names acquired through email list rentals had double the open rate of names acquired via Facebook, as well as double the click-through rate. Even before we get to the donation page, names acquired via email list rentals have four times the value of Facebook acquisitions!

For a bank robber like Willie Sutton, it was perfectly natural to rob banks because that’s where the money is.

For us, as marketers, it should be just as natural (though infinitely more wholesome!) to conclude that the most engaged, most valuable email subscribers are going to come from lists of verified, engaged email subscribers. We’d be foolish to write off the entire medium.

Why do you believe what you believe?

Every time someone tells me that email list rentals “don’t work,” my response is a simple question: “Why do you believe that?”

Their stories are all unique in their own way, but almost without exception, they boil down to one of two central themes:

  1. A friend or an advisor somewhere along the way has told them that email list rentals don’t work, and they took that advice as gospel truth.
  2. They have tried email list rentals themselves, and couldn’t get them to work.

The rebuttal to both of these stories is the same:

Your (or someone else’s) failure to make an acquisition channel work does not have the final say on whether or not that channel works.

That might seem a little harsh at first glance, but it should really be encouraging. Why? Because here’s the implication: Even if you haven’t been able to make email rentals work for your organization, I assure you that there is someone out there who can. That is great news!

Need proof? Open your email inbox. Chances are you’re subscribed to a few lists that get rented periodically. You see the organizations that are renting those lists time and time again? They’re making email list rentals work. They’re not throwing good money after bad. They keep mailing because they’re seeing success. And if they’re seeing success, so can you.

So you have me convinced. Now what?

The best place to start is by setting appropriate benchmarks for email success. When you’re doing this, remember that email and Facebook are two completely different animals, and they should be treated as such. If you pay $.50 per acquisition on Facebook and expect to meet or beat that on email, you’re going to be disappointed every time. But remember — in the analysis I mentioned above, we found that subscribers acquired via email were up to four times as likely to engage with regular emails as Facebook-acquired subscribers. Watch the long-term performance of your email acquisition folks, and you will likely see a similar trend. If you do, it’s entirely justifiable to pay more for more engaged subscribers.

Don’t have the budget to rent? There are many creative pricing models that have become commonplace in the space, which will mitigate your risk as you dip your toe into the water. Consider trying a cost-per-acquisition arrangement, a no-risk rental, or a cost-per-donation. These arrangements are not scalable beyond a certain point, but they are low-risk ways to determine if you have a hot offer on your hands.

Still don’t have the budget? Try arranging a list swap with another organization in your space. The fairest way to arrange this is to exchange the equivalent number of openers, as gross list sizes can be deceiving.

Consider bringing in the advice of experienced players in the space. The accumulated knowledge of an email marketing firm is immensely valuable. They have years of historical data on thousands of creative/list combinations and will put that knowledge to work to get you the best results possible.

Consider talking to a big data firm that has an email product available. Several of the larger data firms have begun making inroads into email by constructing audiences around certain issue areas or constructing modeled audiences to match your current supporters on an array of data points. This latest phase of targeted email marketing is in its infancy, but it offers some very sophisticated ways to target like-minded prospects for your organization.

As always, test, optimize, and test your creative again.

And learn from your failures. When you find that winning formula, email list rentals have the potential to scale your program like nothing else can.

Published by Eric Josephson