Building an Email List

Well, I didn’t get flamed as badly as I thought I would for last week’s article, which recommended rethinking the notion of purchasing opt-in email lists. Actually, most of the feedback I received was positive and supportive. I only got flames for failing to follow through with the idea by giving some advice on building your own email list.

Email can be a powerful marketing tool, but it’s up to the marketer to initiate and maintain relationships via email — not the list broker, list aggregator, or any other entity. Currently, marketers rent, buy, and barter email lists, and some of them don’t understand why a robust relationship doesn’t come with an address they acquire from someone else. When you consider how the average consumer deals with his inbox, it’s obvious why that isn’t the case.

So, what is the best way to start and build your own email list? Read on!

First things first. You need to determine what the ultimate value proposition is for consumers. Why would they want to receive email from you and your company? What content would they expect from you? In many cases, it’s a good idea to do a few focus groups to get definitive answers from your user base and from your target audience. After focus groups, you can get a better understanding of how your expectations of what you might deliver in an ongoing email communication would differ from the expectations of the people you’re trying to speak to. When you get a handle on this, try to distill the value proposition into a sentence or two. For example: “The Gringo Love Show Mailing List is for fans of the rock band Gringo Love Show. On a weekly basis, the list receives a list of the band’s upcoming gigs, specials on merchandise, stories from the road, and an occasional link to an MP3.”

The value proposition represents your half of a transaction — one that is made when a prospect becomes interested in what you have to offer and agrees to exchange his or her email address and trust for ongoing email from you and your company. It establishes expectations and ensures that the people who sign up for your list are interested in what you have to offer. When you settle on a value proposition for the consumer, stick to it and always deliver on it. You’ll be happy with the results.

After you decide on the value proposition, it’s time to take stock of all assets that might be used to acquire members for your list. Though your Web site and online ads may be primary drivers in an acquisition campaign designed to build your list, there are many other ways to acquire subscribers. Consider as well offline media, especially direct mail; onsite promotions and events; print and broadcast ads; and out-of-home media, in addition to any other communications channels your company might be making use of. A little creative brainstorming will help you decide which media can best help to build your list with subscribers who are interested in your offering.

Through these media, you deliver your value proposition to your prospects, along with privacy and acceptable use policies that reassure your subscribers that you won’t abuse the trust they’ve placed in you and your company. Developing privacy policies and acceptable use guidelines is another article for another time.

Before you launch any ongoing email initiative, you should be sure to have appropriate technology assets in place to manage responses, opt-ins and opt-outs, mail preferences (HTML, text, or other), and bounces. These assets should consist of a database married to an email deployment solution. Several companies operate within this space. Currently, my agency uses e2 Communications to provide these functions, but there are plenty of choices out there, including DoubleClick DARTmail, Xpedite, Bigfoot Interactive, and CheetahMail, to name a few.

Of all the components needed to successfully build an effective email list, the most important component is the value proposition to the consumer. If you are forthright with regard to what you plan to give the consumer, you will build a list of interested prospects. Keep in mind that while you might want to deliver price lists to prospects each week, that’s probably not what they want or expect from you. It is more likely you’ll have to package sales-y content in such a way that it entertains and holds interest. In other words, you may be able to get away with disseminating a price list to an email list, as long as the email also contains something of entertainment value consistent with the value proposition — perhaps a story about a unique application of your product or a Flash game. Boring content, or content not consistent with the value proposition, will cause people to unsubscribe. Be sure to deliver what consumers expect.

The best email lists concentrate on quality, not quantity. I’d rather have a list of 5,000 prospects who want to hear from me on a regular basis than a list of 20,000 who are only marginally committed. Good email lists deliver as much value to a subscriber as the product or service it promotes. Keep that in mind, and you’ll do a fine job of building an effective list.

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