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A friend of mine asked me recently “how do I get my email lists going?”.  He knew he needed to get his message out to more people, but wondered how you go about building up your own lists without buying in any data? 

In the recent 2012 Econsultancy Email Census, sponsored by Adestra, when asked, “Which three areas of email marketing do you really need to focus on in 2012?” segmentation came up top, but worryingly list/data quality has moved to fourth place. 

We all know it, but data is the key to effective email marketing. Having a good quality, up-to-date email database puts you up front in terms of deliverability and optimising your results. It’s also the basis for delivering relevant communications.

Getting your data collection and your list right from the start can make or break your email marketing plans. Here are 10 tips for building your list size without buying in data.

Not only is this a common question from start-ups and small businesses, but often one asked when clients of ours have established email programs where their list size may be stagnating or even shrinking.

I had also just finished reading this excellent article on the same subject over at EmailCritic.com which inspired some thoughts here.

A great phrase I can borrow (doffing my cap to Tim Watson, Email Consultant, in the process) is don’t fall in to the trap of “FIRE! AIM! READY!” which is often what people do when they realise they need email addresses.

That is to say, put together the plan of what you want to try to achieve first before going about implementing any random new scheme to collect addresses.

One of the fine people you’ll find on Word To The Wise, Laura Atkins (one of the people in the email world I respect the most) says “Have all your emails, templates, offers and processes in place before you collect your first email address”. 

When doing so, there are some key things most people don’t do and then regret it.

Below you’ll find a list of all the points I chatted to my friend about, some through experience and others I gathered from a variety of sources from around the industry. Hopefully it will get your cogs turning too!

Ready the database 

By this I mean make sure that you have a system in place that you can put all the email data into. So, all new collection points should funnel the data in to ONE pot. Don’t end up with data sitting in several different places.

Make sure also that you can adapt and update this database. All very well having chosen your pot and then to find out you can’t add that crucial ‘date of birth’ field your strategy hangs off.

Flag the source of collection in the data 

A personal soap box of mine, but also incredibly important. If you end up with two, three or ten places/systems that data is going to be collected, make sure you can write this information into the data.

It will mean you can track success of the collection process, and you can easily personalise emails for those who (for example) sign up off the website versus, say, an in-store card they filled in.

Moving forward you may be able to then track the success of your marketing against these sources. So not just how many people filled in the various forms you have, but compare which source ends up making the most money.

Prioritise all ‘new things’ you’re going to do

You might end up with a big ‘ole list of stuff to do. All exciting, all stuff you want to do. But some will take time to implement, some will cost more. Factor all those in and prioritise in which order you’re going to tackle stuff.

Don’t be afraid of paying someone Project Management fees to handle this either, it will help get it done.

Get emails to new signups quickly

Whether this is enforcing a double opt-in process or just sending them a thank you email. You should aim to send them their first email from you immediately.

It’s a technical issue to resolve but resolving it will be the biggest thing you can do to improve the engagement of your email list. I promise!

So assuming you’re rocking these four things, what’s next?

Social sign up 

If someone likes you on Facebook, follows you on Twitter or Google+ or LinkedIn, that’s great. At some point though, any or all of these social channels might change the game, making it more difficult to market to these valuable brand advocates.

It is not uncommon these days for a brand that has 300,000 likes on Facebook but only 30,000 people on their email list. The value of your efforts on your social channels is fine, and can be discussed elsewhere – but at least for now email is the still the best route for you to send messages with traceable results.

Every place you have a presence in the social world you should link to, or embed, a sign up form. And in available text boxes (think Twitter bios and G+ “About” pages) promote it (even incentivise it) and say what they should look forward to when they get your emails.

Have a read of Parry, one of our Account Director’s blogs on the subject here

Text signups  

Lots of ESPs (like us) offer the ability to rent a shortcode (or a shared shortcode) and use it for data capture.

Pick up your phone now and text the word ‘subscribe’ and then your email address to 81222. You’ll then see it in action.

It’s great for events, great for charities, shops and many other applications too. As per the social sign ups, if you go for this, don’t hang back in promoting it, put that text everywhere!

Make the most of all customer/prospect touch points

Even if you can’t run with the SMS signup route, and you only have a website signup, think about all the places you might be able to entice people on to your list, and how you can entice them.

Trade shows, training sessions, conferences… point of sale, shop window, partner websites, banner ads. Check out the section in the emaildirect blog post here, entitled “How to Build an Email List: Offline”

Give signups something in return 

Doesn’t have to be money off offers, we could be talking about some top tips. Send a personalised offer.. doesn’t have to be about money. Lay it out all through the signup process – tell them what they should expect to receive and show examples.

You can also think about ranking these new signups. Ask them what and when they might be interested in joining a paid program of some sort. 

Don’t forget your website

You may push all channels towards one form on your website. All cool. Don’t forget though that you can improve signups on your site through search or organic traffic. Make the form more obvious.

Link to it from your header and footer. Place links to it at points across your site enticing people with exclusive content if they sign up.

A step further?

Do you have “share this email” or “share this article” links in your existing emails? You can make this shared version of your email carry specific content, so think about adding a data capture form to all shared versions of email newsletters or promotions.

Right, that was enough to get my friend started list building. What about you? Would be great to hear your ideas on how to build a list organically.


Published 9 March, 2012 by Steve Denner

Steve Denner is Director at Adestra Ltd and a contributor to Econsultancy.

1 more post from this author

Comments (6)

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Nick Stamoulis

People need to know that there is a benefit for signing up to receive your emails. Tell them what they are going to get out of it. Include a sign up form prominently on your website. Once you get them to sign up, you need to consistently provide them with quality information or they will opt-out.

over 4 years ago


Jason Sisley

With the addition of Nick's comment, great post! Too many try to run before they walk and end up gathering data before they even know what to do with it. Even worse, they end up with the data and then realize what they forgot to ask for that could make or break the ability for ultimate relevancy. Ripping out the roots and starting over is rarely a good strategy.

over 4 years ago



You can also try a bit of behavioral targeting when offering a newsletter subscription on your website. This can mean, for example, waiting for each visitor to spend a certain amount of time on the website before a pop-up window appears and they find out about the newsletter.

Also, you should take into account the top two reasons for unsubscribing (irrelevant content and high email frequency). Perhaps you should try giving them the option to choose what they want to receive and how often, when they subscribe. In this way you can have more than one list, and you will know more about your subscribers.

over 4 years ago


Steve Denner, Director at Adestra

Nick/Jason - agreed. And thanks for your comments!

Brandusa - those modal pop ups, if done sparingly and appropriately can significantly increase your data collection. And I agree on the point about asking the questions of the recipients.

Always test those assumptions though - as it can be the case that someone will say they want to receive emails about product x once a week... and then go on to click and purchase product y from a daily send! All about continually testing.

over 4 years ago



Hah, I was just using Omea Reader and I seriously appreciate what you have
to say. Laters!

over 4 years ago


George Jackson

I agree that a key point is making sure that what you offer those for signing up is of a high value. Since people get so many emails, if you are not adding value, the opt out rate will increase.

almost 4 years ago

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