Guide to building and growing your email list

“The money is in the list”. A saying which is often heard when it comes to email marketing. Building and expanding their email list is an ongoing priority for email marketers. Today, the money is in the list in many other ways than what the expression originally meant. Email deliverability is one of them. And, as you’ll read, the real money is in engagement and active list (and overall contact and customer data) management.

Each organization has a “list”. In fact, they have multiple lists but not all are ready to be used for email marketing (permission and opt-in!) and often there are even different lists that reside in totally disconnected silos, far away from the ‘single customer view’ organizations hoped to achieve with social CRM and even marketing automation.

Building and growing an email list

Building an email list: what you need to remember first

Having “a list” for email marketing is de facto more and more a matter of connecting lists, focusing on permission, hygiene and engagement when it boils down to the (part of the) list that can be used for email marketing. Furthermore, as email marketing is moving away from the “batch and blast” tradition towards an integrated and customer-centric email marketing strategy, email intervenes in various interactions/touchpoints with people on/across various (sub)lists (e.g. in your lead nurturing program, during and after online transactions, etc).

Nevertheless, whatever your current situation and how your email marketing list looks like (connected, siloed, etc.), the most important elements are:

  • Making sure that your emails offer relevant content/promotions, aligned with your promise to the people behind the addresses on your “list”.
  • Treating your (future) subscribers or anyone in any list as human beings with higly individual preferences and behavior.

When defining an email subscription strategy from a more traditional email list approach, think from the viewpoint of the people you would like to subscribe. What do they want? What are their needs? What are their preferred communication channels?

Listen, ask them and create a preference centre where future subscribers can decide for themselves. You can, for instance, use social media monitoring, surveys and face-to-face contacts to know what your target groups want. Obviously, you then need an integrated approach to combine all the data you thus obtain and you need to know what goals you (and your subscribers/contacts) want to achieve.

The life cycle of an email list and the need for quality over quantity

Every email marketer knows that, when starting an email program, lists tend to grow pretty fast: it’s new, you launch actions, you engage people etc. But once the list gets more “mature” you often see a slow-down in list size growth.

Although it’s important to keep growing your list, it’s really not the most important challenge and task. Not for management and not for our subscribers. Here is why in a nutshell. Unless you’re constantly making an effort to expand your email list by continuously offering new value (and I’m not referring to the value of content itself, which is a must), the expansion of an email list will stabilize somewhat after a while. New subscribers will arrive and others will unsubscribe (offer the latter an alternative and ask them the reason why).

This is a natural phenomenon that grows stronger as the email list gets bigger, more mature and more stable. Some subscribers will not need the information anymore while other people will sign up for the first time, etc. Obviously, a slowdown in the growth of an opt-in list can be a sign that your content and email marketing program have not been adjusted to the current market(ing) reality and the needs of subscribers. This is easy to find out.

But what counts, isn’t the absolute size of your list: i.e. quantity. What counts is the interaction between you, your emails and your subscribers: i.e. quality. Open rates are merely one of the many indicators of this. Also, the amount of NEW subscribers is an indicator of how successful your email marketing strategy is. As an email marketer, it is your duty to keep your email list active and keep expanding it, but that is not the essence of  what the return (what is interesting for management) and relevance (what is interesting for management and the subscriber) is really about.

Note that engagement and interaction of your email subscribers is THE deciding factor in email deliverability. Furthermore, don’t forget that your existing subscribers can play an important role in growing your email subscriber list. Add the possibility in your emails to your existing subscribers to invite their friends or colleagues. And with the rise of social media, you can add social sharing tools as well.

It’s assumed that an email marketing list degrades by approximately 25% every year (it of course depends, can be more or less). The overall degradation can be due to many factors but, in general, remember that people are dynamic. Unless your email marketing program is incredible valuable for them, they’ll forget updating their profiles when they change emails (for instance, when changing employers). If the content/promotions etc. you send don’t interest them anymore, in general they won’t bother telling you and very often they won’t bother to unsubscribe as well, simply trashing your messages. The list of reasons is virtually endless, from behavior-related to even “technical”. We feel the degradation of email lists occurs most of all because we still look upon them as…lists instead of people of flesh and blood.

Some tips which will help you build and grow your email subscriber list.

  • Provide a subscription form on your website or blog. This is obvious but let us look at some ways to do it better: integrate a subscription form for visitors of your website to subscribe to your emailing list. Some rules of thumb: keep the form simple and don’t ask too many details. If potential subscribers see themselves confronted with too many questions they will not subscribe. You can enrich the profile of the new subscribers further in the marketing process. Marketers should think of dating when they create web forms: you don’t ask for a complete medical history on a first date. Likewise, with a first web form, you should only ask for some basic information, including a valid email address.
  • Don’t just use one form to enable people to subscribe to your emails.
    Use more forms on your website and other properties online to provide new subscribers the opportunity to sign in when they want, with the opt-in rules kept in mind. You can, for instance, add the option to subscribe to your emails on forms for downloading white papers, registering for events, feedback, support tickets, e-commerce, etc. But also look at your blog, Facebook page and more, as long as it makes sense. Try placing a mini-form on every page of your website, on top of a more “general” subscribing page. On such a mini-form, you place a link to an example of your emails and the privacy policy (as you do in your email program overall), without asking for too much information.Ideally, all registrations from various owned, earned and paid sources are connected. You want a single view and this is one of the areas where marketing automation platforms come in handy, even if several email service providers offer cross-property registration possibilities.
  • Use email signatures. Probably, you have already noticed that many people ‘sign’ their individual mails with a standardized message including their contact details. Often marketers use these ‘email signatures’ to include corporate messages. You can use the email signatures to invite the recipients of your email to subscribe to your newsletter. Some marketers have a corporate email signature policy and use tools to make the email signatures uniform across the company.
  • Create trust, choice, and clarity.
    People don’t just give away their email address, so you must “sell” your email to them. Create the right expectations by saying what kind of content your emails contain, offer different options (for example, in the field of frequency, timing, and content), place links to your archives, your privacy policy, a page where one can unsubscribe, etc.
  • Offer an incentive for subscribing to your email list.
    This could be, next to relevant content, a white paper, or another benefit for the subscriber. Don’t only do this for new subscribers, but also pamper your existing subscribers every now and then to keep them from unsubscribing.
  • Transform the subscribing process into a positive experience.
    Once you have the Internet user’s permission to send your emails, you’re not quite done. Provide a professional confirmation mail, create a thank you page, and make sure that the whole process is worthy and user-friendly.
  • Never ask for too much information all at once.
    When someone subscribes himself to your emails, it marks the beginning of a relationship. In a relation, you don’t ask about everything at once. Limit yourself to elementary information, including of course the… email address, and acquire more data through interactions later on. We mentioned this before but it can’t be stressed enough. There is a quid pro quo and progressive profiling in a journey-based email marketing context (which fits in a broader marketing approach) should be obvious by now.
  • Set up a viral recruitment campaign.
    Often, the purpose of viral campaigns is to build a database that in its turn can be used for your email actions, follow-up interaction/engagement, lead nurturing, etc. Online marketing campaigns built around concepts of prize games and so on include viral marketing components: the participant is challenged to invite as many friends and colleagues as he or she can. Often the purpose of viral campaigns is to gather email addresses. You can add the possibility to register for your email marketing program, newsletters, etc. However, be clear about it.
  • Create an extra field in other forms.
    You don’t need a viral recruitment campaign to add an optional field for people to register for your email program. You can do it anywhere really. As long as it’s relevant to do it at that specific point in time and it doesn’t interrupt. During an online transaction, for instance, you want to do the sale first and not distract shoppers by forcing them to sign up for something, so be smart about it.
  • Learn from unsubscribes.
    It has no use to attract new subscribers for your email when you’re losing them just as fast. Ask people who unsubscribe about their reasons for doing so. See if you can perhaps offer them another channel, other content, or another delivery frequency. The feedback will teach you a lot, and will result in fewer unsubscribes as well.
  • Find new ways to incentivize your opt-in.
    The tried and true method for incentivized opt-ins is with a free report or content-based resource, but that is only the surface of this marketing method. Rather than sticking with a report, why not offer something else than the obvious? What about free coaching or advice? If you are marketing online business services and platforms, your audience might appreciate your expertise so much that they buy your product. Of course there are many other ways to incentive your opt-in besides good old free report or content.
  • Use offline interactions. To build/grow your email marketing database you can use virtually any existing contact moment to invite your customers or prospect to subscribe to your email list. These contact moments include face-to-face contacts, offline vehicles (from your letterhead over brochure to invoices and business cards) and interactions between the customer and the various departments of your company: pre-sales, sales and after sales.
  • Find a blogger, partner or community owner in your niche. There are thousands of bloggers and maybe even business partners with big email lists and no way to use them. Rather than using them by themselves, they let them sit and collect dust. If you see a blog, community or website in your niche with an opt-in form, it could be worth approaching the owner and trying to find a way to find a partnership that provides value to the owner, your business and all the people that took the effort to share their email address. If really nothing is done with the list (even not a monthly update) you should ask subscribers for their permission again however, and tell them, together with the owner, what they can expect so that you only keep subscribers that are truly interested.

Building your email list is easy. All it takes is listening to people, thinking from their viewpoint, offering value and making the whole subscription journey a pleasant one.

The most effective list building tactics according to a marketingsherpa poll from 2013
The most effective list building tactics according to a marketingsherpa poll from 2013

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