Thou Shalt Not Rent Email Lists: An Interview With Adestra's Ryan Phelan

Ryan Phelan, VP of marketing insights at Adestra Inc., a global enterprise email service provider, likes to stir up trouble. He recently wrote a post saying that marketers should never buy or rent email lists. This must have outraged list managers who do not offer permission-based lists. But Phelan maintains that all email content should be sent only with permission. And that’s the position of The Email Sender & Provider Coalition, the group for which he is a member of the board of directors.

Phelan is a veteran marketer, but like many in the business, he didn’t set out with that as his goal. He was trained as a psychologist, and also studied for the Catholic priesthood. MediaPost interviewed him to get his views on privacy and email marketing in general.

What’s the logic behind your argument that marketers should not buy email lists?



For the past ten years, we in the email world have believed that email is a permission-based medium. Sure, we hear from people saying, "the law does not prevent me from doing it." That’s true: The law doesn’t do that. But you hear from the EPSs that you shouldn’t buy a list. You hear it from Spamhaus and Barracuda. You hear it from Gmail and the ISPSs. They say, "Don’t buy lists, or we’re going to blackball you." Buying a list is a lazy man’s way to try to make a sale. With the emergence of account-based marketing, there are new ways of contacting individuals based on what you deem as intent.

But what about the list firms that offer permission-based lists? 

That’s fine — if they have permission. That’s all we’re looking for, and that’s what the ISPSs want to know. But the ability to get your email delivered is also driven by the end user. What’s people’s reaction to your message? Did they delete, ignore or click, based on that volume? Do you have permission to send your content to the person, and are they looking for it? Have you done your due diligence? 

Is this as much of an issue in business-to-business?

In B2B, you may have one or two users mark as you spam, you’re cut off from ever getting into that company again, and you’ll never know. And it’s all because you’re too lazy to pick up the phone. I think it was David Baker who said, "email doesn’t always work,"

How do you feel about the FTC revisiting CAN-SPAM?

This is just a routine review of CAN-SPAM. It’s part of the regular regulatory process. It is common to ask the question: Do we still need CAN-SPAM? Anyone can submit comments about this law. is filling comments. It’s nothing to be alarmed at.

But what if they got rid of CAN-SPAM? 

We’d rather have a weak law than have Congress open that can of worms to tell us how to email. When it comes to compliance in email, the bottom rung is CAN-SPAM, and there are six layers above it. But we’re not going to say the law is worthless, and have them change it. Self-regulation is working.

Other than the privacy debate, what are you seeing in the email field?

We’re watching what marketers are doing in both B2B and B2C to take information and use it at scale. One kind of marketer is doing batch and blast. But you can go to Acxiom or Experian, one of the Big Data houses, and get thousands of points of information based on an email address: How much you probably make, do you have kids, where you live, what kind of golfer you are. They can use it to identify you outside of the experience of the brand. It’s not only good in targeting and segmenting -- it’s the ability to pull information. If they’re a left-handed golfer, you better have left-handed sets in the image. We call the people who can do this first-person marketers -- the consumer is the first person 

Can you extend this capability to other channels?

In this day and age, with the abundance of data and the ability to run media propensity models to see where people react the best, email may not be most effective channel. Do you use this data for email, or expand it in omnichannel?

So what are you advising clients in general? 

The way to move forward is testing something new -- to do something new every week, something that will lead you to a major step in innovation over a week or over a quarter. It’s making time every week for small incremental improvements. I laugh when startups talk about their two- to three-year plan. I tell them "Your two- to three-year plan is just to be in business."

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