Are you in the market to buy email lists? If you’re like most colleges and universities engaged in a traditional “search marketing” campaign (not to be confused with search engine marketing), it’s a cornerstone of your admissions marketing strategy.

The thinking that once applied to direct mail now applies to both print and digital communications: if you widen the top of your enrollment funnel with purchased contacts, more deposits ought to come out the bottom.

It seems like a solid theory. But how beneficial is the practice these days?

In this article, we’re taking a hard look at what drives enrollment marketers to buy email lists (and mailing lists), the shortfalls of this practice as a standalone strategy, and why it’s time to update the approach.

Fact #1: Open and click-thru rates from high-volume name buys are abysmal.

I know it comes as no surprise that unsolicited communications have low response rates. It’s a numbers game, right? If the expected response percentage is low, you simply increase volume.

That theory assumes a lot. For one thing, a convenient belief that the rate of return is fixed. If it is, then increased volume = increased leads.

Unfortunately, the reality is that in higher ed, only increasing the size of your email list through name buys without a more targeted strategy dramatically decreases your rate of return, and it’s been that way for years.

Of course, you miss that if you don’t have a clear idea of what a good rate of return is.

Consider these figures:

  • Average open rates for emails to contacts purchased from SAT = 10-15%
  • Average open rates for emails to organically-sourced contacts = 40%

I can tell you anecdotally that results from a name-buy-only strategy can be even worse on the print side. I’ve seen direct mail campaigns that result in just a single response out of thousands of mail pieces. (Though this can be significantly improved with smarter tools – see Fact #8 below.)

This puts the situation in perspective. To buy email lists just for volume is to get a certain result, yes. But is that result good enough? Let’s examine this further.

Fact #2: As open rates have fallen, list buying has grown more expensive.

The College Board has been providing the contact information of SAT test-takers to colleges and universities since 1972. In the past decade, the cost of this service has increased by nearly 47%. 

In 2010, they charged just 32 cents per name. In 2017, it was 42 cents. By 2019, it was 47 cents. This begs the question: How much is too much?

Many administrators aren’t asking that question, however, because a simple high-volume name-buying method goes basically unquestioned. The more you can afford to buy, the better.

If that’s true, The College Board and others – ACT, ETS (charging 60 cents for each name sourced from GRE tests) – can charge as much as they like because you can expect corresponding value.

I’m not going so far as to say these lists don’t have value … but it’s clear that to buy for volume alone without a guiding strategy could be a very expensive mistake. 

Fact #3: The result of high-volume name buys is visibly diminishing returns.

It’s easy to see how search marketing often plays out on the other side, from the recipient’s perspective.

  • Collegis Education staff collected one year of college direct mail sent to a single high school student. It included pieces from dozens of schools and weighed a whopping 17 pounds

This is a visual representation of what’s happening on the digital side.

  • Targetx discovered a Reddit thread about college emails in which a student analyzed a mind-blowing 2,347 emails received, which came from 115 different institutions.

I’ve seen this phenomenon myself. I have two sons in college. When they were in high school, they would get five to 10 pieces of mail from several different colleges almost constantly, enough to fill a huge basket. Email was even worse. 

The result is that students are becoming tone deaf to all of it. A sea of information that includes communications you hope will be relevant to them becomes irrelevant noise as a whole.

Fact #4: It is getting harder to do this ethically, even legally.

Let me be clear: I work with institutions that purchase lists. They are not categorically unethical. They are well-intentioned, of course. 

But this isn’t about intentions, it’s about carefully avoiding unintended consequences.

There is a reason why popular email marketing provider MailChimp expressly forbids list buying. They consider it unethical to have an email audience that you didn’t collect yourself.

The reason is unintended, negative consequences. The kind that purchasing long lists of names from The College Board can result in.

The Ethics of List Buying

Take, for example, the Wall Street Journal’s 2019 story about how elite universities use this data to encourage high application rates. It amplified the perception of exclusivity: more applications means a lower acceptance rate, which reinforces the idea that only the best get in.

In effect, the practice of targeted students who were not strong candidates gave them false hope by encouraging them to apply to several elite universities, only to be rejected by all of them.

I think it’s unlikely that the admissions teams at these universities sought out to crush the hopes and dreams of email recipients. They were likely just playing the numbers game as well as they could.

Your institution might not be Ivy League, but it’s wise to consider the tactics you’re using to play your own quantity-driven numbers game. 

  • Are you inadvertently encouraging someone to apply who is clearly a poor fit?
  • Or discouraging the ideal student to apply by making them feel like a number?

The larger the audience, the more urgent these ethical considerations become.

The Legality of Using Purchased Lists

Ethical concerns have even bled into legal ones since the European Union passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2016. The GDPR requires explicit consent to be contacted to be given directly to you, not to a third party.

True, contacts provided by The College Board will be, by and large, U.S. residents. But if there is any possibility that you might buy email lists that contain EU citizens, you had better run this past your legal team.

Putting questions of international legality aside, the main takeaway here is this: Seeking explicit consent to email contacts is now considered the best, most ethical, universally legal, practice.

This may seem like you shouldn’t buy email lists anymore at all, but as we’ll discuss below, there are new approaches to traditional search marketing that are more ethical and effective.

Fact #5: You can buy email lists, but you also have to earn them.

Outbound marketing still has its place. There is nothing wrong with using direct mail and email at the top of your funnel to support your awareness-building efforts.

But outbound marketing can be smarter today, thanks to its inbound marketing partner.

I can’t define inbound marketing any better than HubSpot:

“Inbound marketing is a business methodology that attracts customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to them. While outbound marketing interrupts your audience with content they don’t always want, inbound marketing forms connections they are looking for and solves problems they already have.”

Think of outbound and inbound as working at opposite ends of a spectrum. When you buy email lists and conduct mass email (or direct mail) campaigns, you’re about as far out on the outbound end as you can get:

  • High volume
  • Virtually unknown recipients
  • No personalization
  • Low ROI

On the inbound end, the farthest you can imagine is basically an enrollment marketer’s dream. You’re using email and direct mail not to be interruptive, but rather to seek – and earn – connection. As a result:

  • Every recipient pre-qualified
  • Personalized for each and every recipient
  • Highest possible ROI

There’s a lot of room to operate in between, but the goal should be to get as close to the inbound end as possible. Let’s talk about how and why.

Fact #6: The opt-in approach will yield the best results.

Earning that 40% open rate requires reversing the trajectory of your marketing approach from outbound to inbound. Let’s call it hunter vs. gatherer.

The Hunter

When you buy an email list, you’re essentially thinking like a hunter. Go out. Find game. Target, shoot, hope you hit a lot and stop them in their tracks.

As we’ve already established, there are too many hunters. Your targets aren’t impressed with your outbound approach. They’re frankly annoyed and prefer to tune out the noise.

The Gatherer

But when you go for an opt-in approach, you’re thinking like a gatherer. Collect and develop resources (content). Create a strong center (website). Build points of access (landing pages).

Gatherers do all this to make entrance to their digital assets attractive, so that when they ask targets to come, they’re more likely to voluntarily opt in. Now, a connection is formed.

Attractive resources include:

  • Helpful advice on finding scholarships.
  • Quizzes to help them choose a major.
  • Stories about people like them who have done great things with their degrees.
  • News about student organizations or amenities that they care about.

Gatherers don’t just seek consent, they promise better content than hunters, and they are prepared to deliver.

(Also, gatherers don’t violate the “hunting laws” – GDPR’s rules of consent.)

Fact #7: 93 percent of students expect personalized emails.

This is no longer just a theory. Today’s traditional students largely ignore hunter (aggressively outbound) tactics and expect the gatherer (inbound) approach. 

In its 2017 Social Admissions Report, TargetX reported that a whopping 93% – basically all – students said they “expect personalized communications from college admissions throughout their search and application process.”

And they’re going to pay more attention to the communications they expect.

What happens too often after institutions buy email lists and mailing lists is this: they send out a massive amount of generic communications and consider the job done.  

Meanwhile, others are meeting the demand. Following inbound opt-in tactics, they’re using CRM tools, automation software, and above all, useful content carefully geared toward a variety of personas to build relationships, to offer pre-application value. To make students feel known.

Does that mean there’s no reason to buy email lists? Not necessarily … if you’re willing to rethink how to use them.

Fact #8: Recruitment is the end goal, but it is not the only reason to buy email lists.

Name buying can still be effective if you think beyond recruitment. Instead, consider utilizing your purchased list as part of a broader strategy to get more targeted, relevant and ultimately geared toward an inbound approach.

Refining Your Top-of-Funnel Approach

Higher ed marketers today are using purchased lists not to expand the top of the enrollment funnel, but refine it. 

  • Smaller buys. Some schools are carefully selecting subsets of lists so they can be more personalized. The College Board makes some personalization data available – ethnicity, sports and other extracurriculars, etc. – you just have to be willing to synthesize it.
  • Experimental vs. control groups. Pay attention to how the group you don’t contact behaves. Franklin & Marshall College sends nothing to a subset of their purchased names (control group), and compares their behavior to the group that received communications (experimental group) to see how effective their efforts really are.
  • Smarter direct mail tracking. The use of modern tools such as ThinkPatented’s Mail 360 to send and track direct mail helps significantly with making the print side of your search campaign more strategic and efficient.

This expands your goal from recruitment to self-assessment. There is value in that for you. But what about delivering value to the student?

Supplementing Your Mid-Funnel, Opt-In Approach

Rather than focus solely on telling your prospects to visit, inquire or apply, consider focusing more on asking them if you can contact them further.

Sure, they checked a box when they took the SAT that gave the College Board permission to share their information with you. But that’s old-school, legally minimal, third-party consent that they don’t fully understand

As I’ve discussed above, there’s a new standard.

Consider telling your purchased contact less about why they should apply to your school and more about what you plan to offer them for free, before they even apply (see Fact #6 above for ideas on what that content might be!).

Then, simply ask them if they want access to that content and let them know how they can get it: typically, opt-in to a completely separate email list. A list of names you’ve earned. A list of people who want to get to know you, and who are far more likely to apply down the road.

Before you buy email lists, let’s talk about how to use them strategically, ethically and effectively.

I want to help you stand out rather than get lost in the noise, deliver value rather than hope for a response, and build meaningful relationships with your prospects.

Just let me know when you’re ready to get started.


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