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How to build an email list

Earning a place in people's inboxes takes work, and it's not something an email marketing team can do alone

By Kristen Hicks

Published April 22, 2020
Last modified May 27, 2020

Email marketing can be extremely beneficial for a business. Marketers see a $42 return for every $1 they spend on email marketing, according to research from the Direct Marketing Association. Beyond the bottom-line benefit, email can be a solid way to build connections with your audience. But you need to build a strong mailing list—in size and quality—before you can start forging relationships.

Though it's one of the oldest forms of electronic communication, email is also among the most intimate. When someone opts in to your mailing list, they give you permission to stay in touch for the long term. The benefits are clear: You can use it to grow your relationships with leads, turn website visitors or casual blog readers into customers, and increase customer retention.

How not to build an email list

Before we get into how to build an email list—tapping into the usual tips and tricks for sending emails as a brand—it’s important to establish that there are some well-documented wrong ways to do it. First and foremost, ethical email marketing requires giving all recipients the chance to opt in to your mailing list. If you send emails to people who haven’t given you permission to show up in their inbox, at best, they’ll ignore you. At worst, they’ll mark your emails as spam.

Adhering to email opt-in best practices leads to better results and keeps you on the right side of the law. To create a legitimate list of subscribers, do not buy a mailing list from a third-party email marketing service. While it may sound like a good idea at the time, having the quantity over quality can impact your longer-term standing. To that end, be careful not to add anyone to your mailing list who hasn’t already given explicit permission. You may even go one step further to be extra safe, and implement a double opt-in; anyone willing to take a whole extra step to confirm their sign up will really care about the emails you send and are that much more likely to open and engage with your messages.

How to build an email list

An effective email list is one people sign up for because they genuinely want to, but people already get a lot of emails. Earning your place in their inbox takes work. And it’s not something an email marketing team can do alone. A good email list strategy involves working with the entire marketing organization to demonstrate yours is a brand people actively want to hear from.

Here are a few strategies to encourage willing subscribers and grow your email list.

Promote your email list on your website

Work your mailing list promotion into the design of your website. That entails collaborating with your web development team to discuss where or how to add an email sign-up box on the homepage, the blog, and more for maximum impact. Many websites include it across the entire site by adding it to the footer or alongside the menu that shows up on every page.

To further incentivize visitors, you might offer a discount or a special gift to people who sign up. And while pop-ups ads and requests can be a polarizing technique, many businesses see results from using pop-ups smartly, so consider testing them out on the site, as well.

Add an opt-in form to your blog

Content marketing plays a big role in both list building and ensuring you consistently have something valuable to send to subscribers. Promoting your email list on the company blog, therefore, makes perfect sense. Many of the people who sign up for your mailing list will do so specifically because they like your content and want to see more of it.

Add an opt-in box somewhere prominent on your blog, with a brief and compelling case for why readers should join. Share what type of information they’ll receive, how often they’ll hear from you, and why they should trust you. Consider including additional calls to action (CTAs) to join the email list within a blog post, providing additional, easy opportunities to sign up for an email newsletter or a demo.

Create high-value gated content

The freely available content you publish as blog posts helps build your brand reputation and provide valuable resources your audience needs. But to get people to hand over their email addresses, sometimes you need to provide a content upgrade in return. Collaborate with your content team to brainstorm topics your audience is particularly interested in. Then, work with them to develop a value-packed, extremely helpful piece of content, such as an in-depth guide or whitepaper, that goes above and beyond the utility of a blog post or other content they're likely to find online for free.

Once complete, put the content piece behind a lead-generation gate, which is a form readers must fill out to gain access to the asset in question. Somewhere within that form is a way to confirm they want to receive that asset, as well as an option to receive future ones the marketing team might find helpful in the future.

Once someone downloads your content, it’s a good sign that they’re interested in your email updates, so leveraging content as lead generation is a good approach to earning an option in. Once they’ve signed in, ensure a genuine thank-you email is one of the first touches before sharing additional content and starting to build that relationship.

Make your opt-in forms short

It’s tempting to use email opt-in forms to gain as much information as possible about prospects. But the more fields you add to an opt-in form, the more of a barrier you place between your business and potential subscribers.

Someone who may have wanted to consume your content enough to share their email address may feel differently if they’re also required to include too many other pieces of information such as a business name or phone number.

You want to combine the importance of driving marketing qualified leads with user-friendliness, so it’s important to make joining your list easy and painless.

Promote your email list on social media

Cross-functional collaboration across teams is clearly important to ensure emails have maximum impact and relevance for your audience, and the social media team is another essential stakeholder in that goal—especially if customers are already interacting with your brand on social media.

Meet with your social media team to discuss the best way to promote your email list across your main social platforms. That could include linking to a sign-up form right in your Twitter bio or Facebook About section, sharing social updates that encourage people to join your list, or even promoting your email list in targeted ads. The major social platforms let you choose your primary goal for each ad campaign, and include getting email signups as an option. Some well-written Facebook ads or Twitter updates could mean a big boost to your list. Consider also leveraging the insights and power of your own leadership and workforce; a blog post or gated asset can gain tons of traction after being shared on LinkedIn, so partner with the right internal teams to enable and engage them to be social media ambassadors.

Host webinars

As with gated content, webinars are another way to leverage the expertise you have in-house to provide something of added value to your audience. Enlist internal subject matter experts or find experts from related brands to collaborate with for a webinar discussion that provides useful insights for your audience.

Promoting the webinar within your existing email list, as well as requiring advance registration that requires an emailaddress, can go a long way. After putting on an amazing webinar, follow up by encouraging them, again, to opt in to your email list. Webinar attendees are a relevant, addressable audience that’s already interested in your brand, which makes them more likely to fill out your opt-in form, paving the way for them to become subscribers or even customers down the line.

Use segmentation to differentiate between sub-audiences

One reason people hesitate to sign up for a new email list is to avoid getting a flood of irrelevant emails in their inbox. If you demonstrate to your target audience that you only plan on sending information they’re interested in, it can help win them over. Segmentation is one way to accomplish this, allowing you to personalize the emails you send and cut down on the noise your recipients receive in their inbox.

Give subscribers the chance to opt in to the type of content they want. Let people decide whether they want to receive your email newsletter, see promotions, sign up for a trial, or learn more about content about different topics. Then, use email marketing software to create segmented lists. Use different email lists for customers than for prospects that haven’t converted yet, ensuring the emails you send are relevant to where they are in the sales process.

Keep your email list strong

Building a good email list is the first step in successful email marketing. By using these best practices to create your list, you’ll be contacting an audience that actually wants to read your emails and is more likely to convert into customers as a result. But it’s just as important to work hard to keep subscribers and customers once you’ve earned them. Find ways to reward your subscribers for their loyalty—segmented lists can come in handy here, as well—and make sure every email you send is relevant and valuable. To keep your email list strong, you have to earn recipients’ continued interest and trust with every message you send.

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