The Pros and Cons of Buying Media Lists
There has been a lot of discussion recently in PR about whether or not buying media contact lists or databases is a good practice. Here we break it down so you can make your own decision about what to do.
Buying media lists seems like a quick and painless way to jump start your PR campaign, especially if you are just starting out. Unfortunately sometimes things really are too good to be true, and buying lists of media contacts has plenty of cons to go with it.
The biggest advantage to buying a media list is that it is quick and easy. Discovering new media contacts otherwise takes a lot of research and investment in relationships. But consider this: which one brings more value to your organization?
Buying a list is efficient. It saves you time and gets you a ready-made group of contacts that you can start using. But it is effective?
Obviously there is something to be said for a new PR strategy that requires contacts outside your network, but buying a list doesn't save you from the work that you'll need to put in to verify those email addresses and research the interests of those journalists and influencers to send them the most relevant information.
There is also the caveat that many other people have also bought that list. The value you perceived of being able to get greater reach by pulling out your credit card is deflated by the competition.
The effectiveness of your campaign will rely on you putting in that extra work to not burn those contacts immediately out the gate. These people might already be inundated by other PRs clamoring for attention.
Annoying your contacts is never a good practice. A poorly timed or irrelevant email will ensure you get ignored, or worse, marked as spam. Your long term goal should be to move away from buying and working with an established, engaged list that you can feel good about.
Your email address has a reputation. There is actually an email sender score that determines how well your emails are delivered to your recipients. Some things that make up your score are:
- Number of emails sent by your organization
- How many complaints or times you are marked as spam
- If your email ends up on a blacklist
- How many times your emails "bounce" or fail to deliver to unknown or defunct recipients
Send out an email blast to tons of contacts at the same time and you are running the risk of lowering your email sender score significantly if you don't take the right precautions. And it isn't just email@example.com that gets penalized, it is the entire yourorganization.org that feels the pain.
There doesn't seem to be any regulations explicitly stating that the act of buying an email list is illegal. However, using bought email lists could very well be illegal, or at least put you dangerously close to a legal pickle.
Pre-GDPR, the US took on unsolicited commercial emails with the CAN SPAM Act. This law laid out the rules for commercial emails (which includes the promotion of a product or service) that includes allowing for easy opt-out and implies the need for recipients to be opted in of their own volition. It's like GDPR-lite. Fines for this reach above $40,000.
One of the things that is strictly prohibited under the CAN SPAM Act is the use of "Email Harvesting". Some of the practices defined as email harvesting is the purchase of lists with the intent to spam, using webcrawlers to scoop up addresses, or using a "dictionary attack" where you try to guess the email address of someone by using multiple variations of the same email (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, initial.lastname.company.com...etc).
Of course you aren't buying the list with intent to spam, but you can still get into hot water if someone accuses your organization of doing so. It is on you to prove otherwise.
Then there is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and for PRs and digital marketers it is still a grey area when it comes to legality. GDPR states that:
Consent must be freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous. In order to obtain freely given consent, it must be given on a voluntary basis. - GDPR, Article 7
What you are up against here is trusting that the email list you bought is made up of people who have consented to be on it and it is really hard to say if that is the case.
There is another lawful basis apart from consent that saves you a bit here and that is the legitimate interest clause. This makes it okay to send unsolicited emails to your recipients based on the assumption that you are sending something they want. But again, this is up to them. All you can do is make sure you send relevant, timely information that shows your best intentions, not an email blast with no rhyme or reason.
We don't recommend it, but if you do end up buying a list you should be doing these things to ensure you are as legal and relevant as possible:
- Sanitize your lists and ensure those email addresses are valid
- Enrich your lists and find out as much as you can about the people on it so you can send the right information to them under legitimate interest
- Give them the opportunity to opt-out of your communications
- Track interactions and stay abreast of who is actually interested in your communications. Stop sending if they don't engage.
- Store their data securely so that you are GDPR compliant
The only other alternative to buying a list of media contacts is to do the work yourself. While this sounds daunting, it is way more effective and fruitful. Here are a few things you can do:
- Work your network to find new media contacts
- Start building rapport with journalists and influencers in real-life and on social media
- Search for public email addresses on news sites or social profiles
- Use an Inbound PR approach that attracts media to you, not the other way around
There is a lot of value (and peace of mind) in building up your own media lists. Though it may take more time, it will increase engagement and interest in your news.