What Are Email Solo Ads? How They Work & How to Use Them

Like the idea of promoting your brand via email? But what if you’ve never ‘done’ email marketing before? Or are ready to look beyond the size your own email list?
There is another way. You can pay another brand to send out email marketing campaigns on your behalf to their list. This is known as solo advertising. Or solo ads for short.

Solo ads can be a perfectly good way for you to market your business via email. If you’ve never heard of a solo ad before, read on. In this article, I’ll explain what solo ads are and how they work. And I’ll share in-depth tips for getting the most out of them.

What is a solo ad?

Simply put, a solo ad is a type of paid-for email marketing. All sorts of businesses use email marketing to promote their goods and services. Vendors, bloggers, freelancers, consultants, digital service providers. You name it, they are promoting their business via email.

The standard approach is for businesses to run their own email campaigns. But for email marketing to work, you need a list of contacts to send emails to. It takes time and effort to grow an audience of engaged subscribers to make email marketing pay.

What if you don’t have such a contact list? What if you’ve got something you want to promote in a hurry? What if you can’t afford the time it takes to build an email list?

That’s where solo ads come in. Plenty of other companies have lists of prospects that are just right for you. And they may be willing to send out an advertisement on your behalf. It’s a form of email list rental.

Here’s a solo ad example from Pixel Surplus. They sent this solo ad email to promote Monday.com to their readers:

solo ad example from Pixel Surplus

Solo ads are different from sponsored newsletters. Sponsored newsletter usually include multiple topics and the sender dedicates parts of the newsletter to promote sponsors. Here’s an example of a newsletter with an ad promoting Trends:

solo ads example of a newsletter with an ad promoting Trends

People who want to monetize their email lists will advertise that they sell solo ads. It’s a nice little earner for them. And a useful service for people who don’t do much email marketing of their own.

How do solo ads work?

Getting started with solo ads goes something like this:

1. Find a solo ad seller

A solo ad seller should have lists of contacts that are relevant to your business. And they should be prepared to manage the campaign for you in return for a fee.

2. Agree on a price

Like other forms of digital advertising, solo ads are often charged on a pay-per-click basis. That means you only pay when someone clicks on your link. Alternatively, you might pay a fixed fee for how many contacts your ad gets sent to. There’s less guarantee of success with this option. Find out more about costs in our email marketing pricing guide.

3. Design your ad

Remember, this is going out via email. So your ad needs to be in the form of an eye-catching HTML email. Just like a standard email marketing campaign.

email marketing campaign templates

Often the solo ad seller will have some requirements, so it may need to go along with their brand style. But if you’re designing the email, a good place to start is to find some (free) responsive email templates and match it to your brand with a drag-and-drop email editor. Alternatively you could always have a professional email marketing agency do it for you.

4. Send out the email

Sending is done by the ad seller. You may think they’re happy to hand over their contact list and leave you to it. Nope. Most respectable ad reseller will never hand you their list. – and you couldn’t send from the ad sellers’ name anyway. People will flag marketing emails from unknown senders as spam. 

How to do email solo ads that drive sales

So that’s solo ads in a nutshell. It sounds like a win-win. One party gets instant access to a ready-made audience via email. The other gets to monetize the email lists they’ve built.

But there are plenty of pitfalls. You have to be careful about picking a solo ad seller. Anyone can promise to send an email to a list of contacts they claim to have. Are they legitimate? What kind of track record do they have with delivery and conversion rates? 

Then you have to think about the people you send to. Firing out email blasts to random lists of contacts is unlikely to get you the results you want. Email marketing works best when you pick your audience carefully. Solo ads are no different. 

So it takes careful planning to make solo ads work. Here are some tips to help you make a sound investment.

Set clear goals for your Solo Ad campaigns

It’s important to be very clear about why you want to give solo ads a try. There are a couple of things to consider:

Would other marketing options serve your needs?
Businesses tend to go for paid-for advertising when they need a quick fix. ‘Organic’ marketing like email campaigns and SEO is a slow burn. It takes time to build and reap the rewards. With advertising, you pay for faster conversions.

But why solo ads? There are other, better-known forms of digital advertising. Like paid advertising on social media or paid search on Google. As they are more established, they offer more certain returns. But, PPC can be very competitive and the rates are very high. Solo ads can offer a cheaper alternative. 

What would success look like?
Advertising is usually judged by how much direct revenue it generates. If your aim is to increase traffic to your website or grow your email list, do you need to pay advertising rates? You’d be better off with the slow and steady approach of SEO or email marketing. If you are paying for ads, you want direct conversions into sales.

This means doing a few financial calculations to set targets for your ad campaigns. First, you need to know the cost per conversion. This is the total cost of a campaign divided by the number of conversions you get.

Next, you need to have a return target. This is the total value of all the sales you get from campaign conversions.

You want your return to be higher than your advertising costs. Otherwise, you lose money. But there are a few unknowns. If you pay for clicks, how many of those clicks will turn into sales? And if you pay for sends, how many will lead to opens? And how many of those to clicks etc?

Start with a budget. Then fix a target amount you’d like to make. Using your average sale value, you can calculate how many sales you’d need to make this amount.

That in turn gives you an idea of the open, click, and conversion rates you’d need to generate those sales. And from that, the cost per click or per send that you can afford within budget. 

This is important when pricing solo ads or negotiating with sellers. But it also gives you benchmarks for what a good or average campaign would look like financially.

Do your research on Solo Ad sellers

There is no shortage of solo ad sellers out there. As mentioned, it’s a popular way for people to monetize the contact lists they have built. A lot of solo ad sellers are solopreneurs or microbusinesses looking for an extra source of revenue. 

examples of solo ad sellers

This poses a few challenges. One is finding solo ad vendors. This is not big business with vendors spending millions to promote themselves online. Sellers are spread around different niches. You have to go looking.

Another issue is picking out a solid, reliable seller. Again, the cottage industry nature of solo ads means there’s no effective regulation. How do you know how contact lists have been built? How do you know you can trust a list owner’s claims about conversion rate?

There’s no substitute for doing your research. Here are some tips for going about it:

Ask around for recommendations in your industry

It’s important to find solo ad sellers who operate in the same niche as you. You want to target contacts who are interested in what you offer. Word of mouth in an industry can be the best place to find the best list owners and solo ad vendors.

Use industry forums

Again, these are great places to get recommendations on solo ad sellers for your sector. And in your area.

Check out solo ad marketplaces

There are now a few online platforms that match solo ad sellers to buyers. Udimi is one example. You can also find sellers on freelancer sites like Fiverr

solo ad marketplace such as Udimi

Read user reviews and social profiles

Marketplaces and even a simple Google search will find solo ad sellers for you. But if someone hasn’t come as a recommendation, you have to be even more careful. What are their credentials? Are they offering what they claim? Search for user reviews and look up the social profiles of email list owners to read comments and feedback. Yes, online reviews can be fake. But if you cannot find any positive feedback for a vendor, be very cautious.

Talk to sellers directly about their email lists

Once you think you’ve found the right seller, it’s time to talk to them. This is important so you can make your own decision about the person you are about to buy from. Sure, they come recommended and you’ve seen good reviews. But it’s important to trust your own impressions, too. After all, you’re about to do business with them.

Apart from that, you’ve got some important questions to ask. Especially about their contact lists. Here are some essential questions for the list owner:

Who is on their email marketing list?
This is critical. Successful email marketing depends on sending to the right people. If you fire off emails at random, you’re more likely to annoy people than get clicks and conversions. People respond well to marketing emails when they are relevant to their interests. So you have to pick your audience carefully.

With solo ads, that means picking a vendor who has the right kind of contact list. You should ask for details about demographics, company info, and interests. And for evidence that a campaign for your product or brand will work with that audience. A good way to do this is to ask to see details of previous solo ad campaigns, including results.

How did they build the list?
This is important from a privacy perspective. If people receive your ad email without knowing why, it could reflect badly on your brand. Or even lead to privacy complaints. To be on the safe side, ask for evidence of how the seller builds their ad list. 

Ask to see the sign-up forms used to build the list. Some people use a ‘squeeze page’, a special landing page with a sign-up form on. Look for the opt-in confirmation, and whether it has a double opt-in. If possible ask to run the list through email verification software, like Bouncer

Bouncer email validation software tool checker verification

Bouncer finds inactive and invalid emails on an email list. Then, you can ask the vendor to remove these email address from your solo ad. This reduces invalid addresses and spam traps to improve deliverability and campaign performance. Make sure you only pay for emails that gets delivered, try Bouncer for free here.

Also, ask about how the seller deals with unsubscribes. You want to be sure you’re only sending to people who are still happy being on the list.

How often do they send to the list?
Beware of solo ad sellers who bombard their contacts with ads day after day. This is a red flag because it suggests they aren’t too careful about what they send. They just want the money. And their email subscribers are likely fed up with it all, too.

Do they use the same lists for their own campaigns?
Ideally, you want a seller who cares about the quality and relevance of the campaigns they send. This is more likely if they use the same lists for their own email marketing. They won’t want to risk alienating their audience. Or damage their sender reputation by getting lots of spam complaints.

What are their open and click rates like?
The best way to judge how your campaign is likely to perform is to ask to see performance metrics. A high open and click rate will tell you several things. One, it will tell you it’s an engaged audience. Two, it tells you this vendor picks the right type of solo ads to send. Three, it gives you confidence you’ll get a good ROI on your campaign.

Come to a clear agreement about how you will track campaign performance

To make it all work, you need to track how your campaigns perform. You need to know how many sales have come about from the campaign. If you’ve agreed pay-per-click pricing, you need a way to track clicks. 

Overall, you need data so you can decide whether the campaign was a success or not. Or change tactics if the numbers aren’t what you hoped for.

Anyone selling solo ads as a service will likely offer analytics. After all, they are almost certainly using email marketing software. The best email newsletter software offer performance analytics.

What you need to do is have a conversation about how that data will be shared. Ask what kind of metrics the vendor tracks, with evidence. Some email marketing platforms offer better analytics than others. Find out what software they use and whether it can provide the details you want. Also, discuss how the data will be verified so you know it’s from your campaign.

Use an email template builder to create a professional design

Quality counts with email marketing as much as careful targeting. People respond best to emails that grab their attention. That starts with a catchy, relevant and ideally personal subject line to encourage lots of opens. But that’s only half the job. Then you want lots of clicks to your CTAs. You need to get your message right. And present it with a winning design.

Your solo ad vendor may offer to design your ad for you. This has some advantages. If they use email marketing software, they will have drag-and-drop email design tools. If they do this regularly for customers, they may be skilled at it. Again, ask to see examples and compare them to their performance data.

Asking a vendor to take care of the design for you will save you time. Especially if you are new to creating HTML emails. But you do lose control. At the very least, you should ask for final sign-off on designs. 

If you want to keep control over what your ad looks like, it’s easy to design HTML emails these days. You don’t need to know how to code. You don’t even have to sign up to an email marketing service. You can use a free HTML email template builder. These online tools offer user-friendly drag-and-drop editors for creating eye-catching branded emails. The best ones also include hundreds of pre-made customizable templates to get started with.

Don’t try to do too much too soon

One final tip for solo ads is to start small and build over time. There are never any guarantees you will get the returns you want from an email campaign. It can take a lot of trial and error to work out what works before you get strong conversion rates. Throwing a lot of money at a big campaign right away is risky. If you don’t hit your performance targets, you lose money. 

Wrapping up Email Solo Ads

So that’s the nuts and bolts of solo ads. What are your thoughts? Does it sound like a good marketing option for your business?

If you have no experience in email marketing and don’t have the time to start, solo ads could be a good fit. Same if you don’t see yourself using email marketing on a regular basis. Solo ads are great for occasional, ad hoc use. Especially if you want a quick turnaround.

The flip side is you need to put in some groundwork to make solo ads pay. You need to find a reputable vendor in your sector or niche. They need to have a contact list of people likely to respond well to what you’re promoting. You need to create a campaign that will grab attention and hopefully lead to high conversions. And you need a clear view of how campaign performance and costs will add up to success.

FAQs about Email Solo Ads

Do solo ads still work?

Yes, solo ads can work very well for promoting your business via email. Paying established email marketers to take care of your campaigns takes away the learning curve. Solo ads give busy small businesses access to established subscriber lists. And the best vendors are experienced in creating emails that deliver results.

But success isn’t guaranteed with solo ads. You have to pick the right partner to work with. Finding them can be tricky, as it’s a small industry. Most solo ad vendors are microbusinesses or creatives running a side hustle. You need to put the work into finding a solid vendor in your sector. Someone with lists of contacts who match your target demographic. And someone with a proven track record of results.

Are solo ads legal?

Yes, solo ads are legal. There is nothing unlawful about someone sending email blasts on someone else’s behalf. Or charging for it. What you have to be careful about is how any solo ad vendor built their list. Anyone on a mailing list has to have agreed to be on there. And they have to have given their consent to receive marketing emails. Including, in the case of solo ads, consent to receive emails from third parties. Sending to anyone who hasn’t given this consent could be a breach of privacy laws.

Always ask for proof of how an email list owner has built their lists. And if possible ask to run the list through email verification software, like Bouncer. Find out more with our review of the best email verification tools

Where can I get solo ads?

The best way to find solo ad vendors is through professional recommendations. The people who offer sole ads tend to be solopreneurs and small businesses offering a side hustle. They don’t have huge marketing budgets of their own. They’re not always easy to find.

Ask around your business contacts. Or on industry forums and social media sites. Ask for direct recommendations, and read user reviews and testimonials.

About Jakub Ziecina

Jakub is the CMO at Bouncer. He specializes in SaaS and B2B Marketing. Big fan of the email channel who believes that in addition to content, deliverability is the critical factor of successful email marketing campaigns.
He's building marketing strategies and processes, managing the revenue funnel, and leading an effective marketing team. He's well versed in creating and executing strategies and new marketing technologies and tools to build effective digital marketing campaigns.
He collaborated with companies like SsangYong, Isuzu, Sizeer, Grafton, Ricoh, Timberland, CallPage, Creogram, Intellect, Navifleet, Sparkee, and Inso.

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