No more. Today, a number of reputable firms offer carefully screened lists of opt-in e-mail addresses, and more and more legitimate companies are buying or renting those lists to help promote their Web sites, or circulate their sales pitches.
But the minefields remain -- rip-offs are still common, and many a well-intentioned business person has scarred or even wrecked their business because they used the wrong list and were labeled as a spammer.
What to do? Peter Temes, president of Enterprise Interactive [http://www.enterprise1.com], an Internet marketing consulting firm, offers these tips:
- Opt-in is the only way to go. "There's no compromise on this point," says Temes. "You need verifiable assurance that the e-mail addresses on any list you rent or buy belong to people who have raised their hands and said, 'Send us e-mail.'" The fact is, even people who sign up to receive commercial e-mail often forget that they've done it, and complain about junk e-mail. But this is an absolutely necessary step. It will not assure a successful or ethical campaign, but it is certainly a requirement.
- Go with a pro. That means working with a company that has verifiable references, a Web site that stays up over the long run, and a track record of ethical marketing practices. Take the time to call their references. If possible, visit their offices. Remember, the damage you can do to your business if you e-mail to a poor list is unlimited.
- Avoid the vacuum lists. Many fly-by-night businesses will offer to sell you e-mail addresses of people who have posted to Usenet discussion lists. These lists are generated by programs that suck e-mail addresses up from public sources. "Most of these addresses belong to spammers who post opportunistic offers to Usenet," says Temes, "and the few valid consumer addresses belong to folks who are likely to be bothered by the large volume of unsolicited e-mail that their Usenet activity has generated." Mail to these lists, and you'll become a spammer whether you mean to or not.
- Get it in writing. Have your list vendor write you a letter that includes all the important features of the list you are renting or buying -- the fact that these are opt-in names, that the validity of the addresses has been tested, and that undeliverable and complaint-generating addresses will be at or below reasonable standards. This letter won't guarantee you that you're getting a quality list, but it should help. "You might be surprised by how many otherwise reasonable-sounding vendors simply won't commit their claims to paper," notes Temes.
Bulk e-mail is a risky business -- but you can minimize those risks by investing your time and intelligence in serious research of list vendors.
To start the process, the list available at Ralph Wilson's Web Marketing Resource Center is well worth a look: http://www.webmarketingtoday.com/webmarket/lists.htm
Another directory is the Direct E-Mail List Source at: http://www.copywriter.com/lists/