Best and Worst Ways to Grow an E-Mail List

Silverpop recently released the results of its “2006 Email List Growth Survey.” In the it, the company asked respondents to list their most and least successful email list growth tactics, with some very interesting results:

  • Successful tactics:

    • Online marketing/search

    • Online advertising/direct marketing
    • Tradeshows
    • Cross-promotions

  • Unsuccessful tactics:

    • Viral marketing

    • Nonbranded list rentals
    • Offline advertising/direct mail
    • List appends

It’s nice to know my experience with clients is pretty much par for the course in the industry.

Successful Tactics

In February 2005, JupiterResearch identified online search as one of the most cost-effective but underutilized tactics. Be sure to have a way to sign up for your email list on every page of your Web site so matter where the visitor lands, it’s there. Paid search is hot, but don’t overlook good old-fashioned SEO (define), which is also effective.

I’ve had lots of success with online advertising/direct marketing, such as banners and ads in email newsletters, as an acquisition technique. But be sure to offer registrants something in return for their email addresses. Also, sell the benefits of being on your email list; make a case for why registrants need one more message in their inboxes.

Tradeshows are gold mines for new email addresses. Don’t just harvest email addresses from every business card dropped in your fishbowl to win a prize, however. That’s not an explicit opt-in. And your best prospects may not stroll into your booth. Have representatives out and about at the conference to meet people. Don’t just wait for them to come to you.

E-mail newsletters are a cost-effective cross-sell opportunity. They’re also a great way to build and maintain relationships with customers. When doing e-newsletters, ensure they’re customer-focused and maintain a reasonable editorial-to-promotional content ratio (from 60:40 to 80:20 is usually best).

Unsuccessful Tactics

I was glad to see others confirm my disenchantment with some popular tactics. Yes, we all loved Burger King’s masterpiece of viral marketing, Subservient Chicken, but for every Subservient Chicken, there are numerous viral marketing campaigns that never catch on. Successful viral campaigns have to be really, really cool to get people to voluntarily and enthusiastically forward them to their friends. Cool isn’t a $0.25 off coupon. The more limited your budget, the more creative you’ll have to get (not that spending a lot guarantees viral success).

Remember, viral campaigns rely on word of mouth. If your offer only applies to a select audience and those people don’t necessarily know each other, you don’t have a good launch pad for a viral campaign.

E-mail list rentals aren’t for everyone, either. Though the business-to-business (B2B) email list rental world is coming of age, the best lists are still expensive ($281 per thousand on average, according to Worldata’s fall 2005 index). On a tight budget, that’s a stretch. Business-to-consumer (B2C) lists are more affordable ($167 per thousand on average, according to Worldata), but they’re fraught with issues. Be sure to check how the opt-in was received.

Also make sure there’s a reasonable chance the list is what the broker says it is. If you’re looking for right-handed women who love football and high heels, find out exactly how each piece of information was collected from each person on the list. If it sounds too good to be true (“Not only do we have exactly that list, but it has 2 million email addresses on it and it’s on sale today for only $10 per thousand!”), it probably is.

Direct mail works, but not always. I’ve got nothing against it. It’s still the best way to reach some audiences. But try it, test it. Often if the call to action is online (as opting in for an email list often is), clicking is easier than asking someone to go to a computer and enter a URL.

Finally, list appends get you email addresses, but they don’t always get recipients who open, read, click, and convert. I’ve seen too many lists with deadwood email addresses that don’t respond and are sourced back to an append. If you must append, get an explicit opt-in, not the negative option opt-out most vendors rely on.

These are all great ways to grow your house email list — without spending a lot of time, money, or resources. Done properly, it’s an asset for your business. The key is to do more of what works while steering clear of what doesn’t. Inquiring minds want to know: which opt-in tactics have worked well for you, and which haven’t? Does your experience jive with Silverpop’s survey?

Until next time,


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