LinkedIn: A list-building opportunity?

Wow! 500+ new subscribers! It seems an exciting and easy opportunity, doesn’t it? If you’re like me, you’ve got a big list of contacts that you’ve “linked up” with on social (business) networking site LinkedIn. So many email addresses!

My suggestion, however, is to resist the urge to export all of your LinkedIn contacts to subscribe them to any sort of email list. Don't do it. If you’re exporting their address from LinkedIn, and importing it into a list management tool, you’re heading toward headache. Here’s why:
  1. Expectations. Are those people expecting to receive list mail from you? Not every user of LinkedIn is there for the same reason you are. Don’t assume that they’re there to do “free for all” email list swaps or subscribe to everyone’s newsletter. Some of us, many of us, are there to keep in touch for purposes of one-to-one contact.
  2. Permisssion. You might think that because people choose to network with you that they are agreeing that it’s OK to get emails from you as well. Truth be told, what you’re doing, when you extract addresses from LinkedIn and load them up into your ESP, is akin to email address harvesting. It’s a very bad practice in the eyes of just about every ISP and anti-spam blacklist out there.
  3. No Subscriber Action. A happy and healthy list comes from people who affirmatively tell you they want to be on your email list. True opt-in starts with a subscriber-initiated request. When you make an assumption – based on the fact that they are previously connected to you on LinkedIn – this is you taking action, not the subscriber.
You may wonder, can I circumvent these concerns by sending everyone an opt-in request email, asking them to "click here" if they'd like to receive my fabulous newsletters? That’s probably not OK in the context of a list effectively coming from a third-party source such as LinkedIn. Spamhaus, for example, pretty clearly says says NO WAY! They write, “A permission-pass is only appropriate where an otherwise Opt-in list has got slightly dirty - not one that has been gathered by harvesting or from other questionable sources. You can not simply buy a list from a 3rd party and conduct a permission pass on it, you will simply be considered to be spamming and treated as a spammer.”

Also, using LinkedIn for list building is quite possibly against the rules. In section ten of their published user agreement, they state that you may not email anything that “includes any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising, promotional materials, “junk mail,” “spam,” “chain letters,” “pyramid schemes,” or any other form of solicitation.”

Today, I talked to a guy who did this very thing – harvested his list of connections from LinkedIn and sent a long winded “opt-in request” to all of them, myself included. Where do I even begin? First, it wasn’t quite the opt-in request he claimed it to be, seeing as it was over 900 words across more than a page and having about 20 different links with no obvious opt-in call to action. Also, it wasn’t “from” him – it was from his company. And then there's the main issue -- my use of LinkedIn is for one-to-one communication -- I am NOT there to be another set of eyeballs on somebody's marketing newsletter.

When confronted about this on Twitter, his responses ranged from “but other people do it,” to “my email complied with CAN-SPAM” to “you’re spamming me on Twitter, stopping spamming me, Al Iverson!” He also claimed that “he wanted a serious debate,” when not calling “bullshit” or asking me to take “personal responsibility” for “allowing [him] to access [my] contact info.” Anyway. Regardless of his frantic hand-waving to the contrary, this is just a big ole’ bad idea if you like solid deliverability and don’t want to get tagged as a spammer.

But don’t just take my word for it. I emailed Matthew Vernhout, Director of Delivery & ISP Relations for Transcontinental Interactive (formerly Thindata 1:1), to ask for a gut check on this one. We don’t talk much; it’s not like we coordinate hassling spammers or something. Turns out, though, that his opinion is much the same as mine.

"I got the same message," he said. "The only advice I've ever given when asked can I use my LinkedIn contacts as subscribers to my email goes kinds like this: Me: How many contacts do you have? Them: 500+. Me: How would you feel if each of your contacts subscribed you to their email newsletter? Them: That would be too many emails to deal with!”

Basically, as Matthew explained to me, he tells his clients, treat others as you would want them to treat you.

“Professional Troublemaker” Robby Slaughter replied to both myself and the other person on Twitter. The guy isn’t a spammer, Robby explained, but the mail the guy sent sure flirted very close to #4 on Robby’s own excellent “Top 5 Ways To Accidentally Become a Spammer” blog post from a couple of months ago. Number four on his list is called "the Soft Opt-in." He writes, "if I give you the explicit authority to send me messages, you can do so. But what if we meet at a networking function and I give you my business card? That means you can contact me personally, but it doesn’t mean I want to be added to any lists."

In the space of a few hours, the Twitter discussion blossomed into approximately twenty-nine folks agreeing with me that this was an inappropriate use of LinkedIn. Approximately three people told me that this was “edge case” or “to be expected” or “not spam.” That’s hardly a scientific survey, but it does make something very clear: Not everybody thinks that LinkedIn is an appropriate venue for list building. A significant number of LinkedIn users do not want to get added to your email list just because they’re connected with you on LinkedIn. And if your goal is to build your list without seriously pissing off some segment of your potential subscriber base, maybe you shouldn't build lists in this way.

Update: Laura Atkins published her own thoughts and suggestions.


  1. Great post, Al. Couldn't agree more. I've touched base on the similar subject some time ago on, by analyzing exporting Facebook friends and sending them marketing mail. Best, Maciej.


Comments policy: Al is always right. Kidding, mostly. Be polite, please and thank you.