Ask Al: How do I grow my list?

Sharon writes, "How do I build a list from scratch as a new company? Should I get someone to harvest them by hand so they are super targeted? Yes, I understand that spamming is unacceptable. Okay, so then how do I get a list or rather grow my own list?"

My expertise is more along the lines of email systems technology and ISP policy. Blacklists, spam filters and legal compliance are other areas where I feel pretty comfortable that my guidance is solid, if I do say so myself. I can tell you that harvesting addresses is a really bad idea. But marketing strategy? I certainly could give this my best shot (and have before), but it strikes me that it might be better to leave this one to the experts.

So, I asked an expert: Andrew Kordek of Trendline Interactive, an email-centric marketing consultancy. They conduct ongoing research on marketing trends and consumer behavior that provide the basis for our unbiased strategic advice to companies on how to grow their brands through better engagement with subscribers. Andrew tells me that "Trendline challenges companies to rethink what is relevant to their customers and prospects and how to best foster these relationships," and I've had the pleasure of working with him over the past couple of years. Andrew writes:

List growth and email acquisition seem to always be a central topic and source or anxiety amongst marketers. How do you grow a list effectively without compromising the quality of the subscriptions? There have been many articles written on specific tactics such as SEM (Search Engine Marketing), sweepstakes, co-registration, affiliate, display advertising, eAppends and even list buying. Some of these tactics can and have been effective for companies in the past and while we all have our opinion on each of them, the best advice that I can give anyone in the way of email acquisition is to sit down with experienced people who have been on your side of the fence before and perform an audit of your current acquisition model. Partnering with an agency and specifically an agency focused on email marketing can yield many benefits.

However, there are 5 main principles that companies should consider when thinking about email acquisition.
  1. Do a Grandma and Grandpa test. Take some you know who is not that Internet savvy (I like to use my parents) and ask them to go through your process of signing up for email. If they do it with no help, then you know your process is not complicated. Often people internal to an organization are diluted when it comes to the experience and having someone who is in no way affiliated with your company go through the process, can yield huge insights. Make it intuitive.
  2. If you have to look for more than 15 seconds to find the spot on your site to subscribe, people will leave. Make it easy.
  3. The subscription experience that a user goes through is like a party. The first 15-20 seconds is the most important. Do you take their coat and introduce them to all the party has to offer? Or do you let them in the door and push them into the room to fend for themselves after you fingerprint them? Make it count.
  4. Ask for my address. You better use it. Ask for my preferences. You better honor them. Ask for my birthday. I better get a birthday email. Don't ask for stuff you will never use. Make it simple.
  5. Offer incentives to subscribers to get friends in their social network to sign up. Make it social.
Email acquisition can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. Remember, it's your party and your subscribers will very quickly be the judges of how good of a host you have been.

What are your favorite list building tips? Link to them or tell us about them in comments, and I'll include them in a follow up post. -- Al


  1. I'd also suggest something exclusive for email. Nowadays everything gets spread across every medium in order to make access to content and traffic to the site as easy as possible. Which is fair enough, but too often people then rely on retweets and Facebook for your content and leave their inbox for personal emails and shopping transactions.

    Historically (pre Facebook and Twitter) the exclusivity of a list has been they key. Why not offer content that is only in the email?

    Some people like to offer prize draws for sign-up but that can be risky as people don't actually want the email, just the prize. On the other hand your email's might/could/should be so good that they want to stay after the draw?

  2. I agree with Captain Inbox in that once you have a new subscriber, sending valuable - and often exclusive - content is key to having those new subscribers remain on your list and as engaged as possible.

    That's also similar to #4 in your list. Collecting information to use for targeting and segmenting your audience will help keep subscribers happy as they're only receiving information relevant to them, but I agree with Andrew. Asking for too much information will cause people to abandon your form! KISS (keep it simple, stupid)

    Great tips, Al & Andrew!

    Amy Garland
    Marketing Manager, Blue Sky Factory

  3. While I think Andrew and his advice is great, the one thing that stuck out to me from the original question is that this is a new business. The tactics Andrew outlines are must-haves and there are other methods new businesses can and should utilize to grow:

    1) Build a plan to promote your email program and business via, potentially aggressive, PPC, SEO, social, banner ads, direct mail, personal email connections, word of mouth, etc. If you have a brick and mortar presence, utilize POS and key areas of the store to promote your email program. Anticipate a larger budget to get you off the ground than you would typically spend on each medium.

    2) Think about strategic partnerships with like companies that are complementary to your business model. You could leverage their list through a proper list rental (getting them to promote you to their list), an opt-in co-registration or the like.

    3) See if you can find some bloggers/industry associations that are willing and able to promote your brand and email program to continue to get the word out.

    Starting from scratch is very difficult, but there are many methods for growing organically which will allow you to maintain positive email response in the long term over "get list quick" schemes.

    Hope that helps!
    Kelly Lorenz

  4. In number 1, you have the word "diluted". I am pretty sure that you mean "deluded".


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