When it comes to your email list, growth for growth’s sake should never be the goal. Building a list of unengaged or, worse, unconsenting subscribers will only send your email performance and deliverability plummeting.
Instead, you want to build a high-quality email list of subscribers who fit your ideal customer profile (ICP), have actively consented to receive your messages, and are more likely to open and click when your message hits their inbox.
To do this, you need to get strategic and consider the subscriber’s journey before and after the moment they hand over that email address. In this blog, we’ll explore what makes a great email list and how you can build yours quickly, without sacrificing quality.
What makes an email list high-quality?
At a foundational level, an email list should not include inactive subscribers, duplicates, email addresses that bounce, and, most importantly, spammers. This blog on how and when to sunset subscribers will help ensure those foundational elements are met.
These foundational steps will help keep you out of the spam folder, but to truly succeed in email marketing, you want to go a step further and proactively grow an email list of high-quality subscribers who engage with your emails, stay subscribed in the long term, and are well-placed to go on to become paying customers.
To track quality, you need to get clear on your business’s unique definition of quality. Start by creating scores or benchmarks around these three things:
You want your email subscribers to resemble your ideal customer profile/s as this will help ensure a majority actually go on to become paying customers. To measure this, it’s best to set up an ICP fit scoring system in your CRM or CDP. Then, every time someone new subscribes to your list, they will be scored based on the criteria you set, and, over time, you will generate learnings about which platforms, campaigns, and messages generate the highest number of subscribers who fit your criteria. Plus, with scoring on a scale (e.g. 1-5) you can remain flexible in how close a fit qualifies. For example, an average ICP fit score of 3 or above would still be considered a good result for your growing email list.
Engagement is about more than vanity metrics. If your subscribers are not opening, clicking, or responding to your emails, you are sending email service providers a message that your emails are unwanted. This leads to poor email deliverability and can result in your emails routinely landing in spam.
Bringing in relevant, consenting subscribers is crucial to increasing engagement. Once those subscribers are in, you need to deliver on what you promised from the very first send — both in terms of content and the amount or frequency of emails.
You can track this by setting engagement benchmarks and KPIs for your email activity overall, and/or by creating an email engagement score that offers an at-a-glance view of how engaged individual subscribers, organizations, and your list as a whole are. In either case, the goal is to get a sense of your list health overall. If engagement starts to wane, you can do a deep dive to identify which contacts or campaigns are contributing, and how you can make changes to your email capture strategy or email marketing strategy to drive engagement back up.
Quantity should not be prioritized over quality, but you do need your list to continuously grow in order for your business to grow. A stagnant list could be a sign of misalignment with your product, content, and ICP, underperforming email capture campaigns, or high unsubscribe rates.
Establishing a benchmark and KPI for list growth is a great place to start. When establishing this metric, take the natural rate of unsubscribes into account as well as the expected volume of new subscribers to land on a realistic goal.
If you see growth slow, identify whether it is because you have a leaky bucket (in other words, unsubscribe rates are higher than you anticipated) or because net new subscribers are lacking. From there, you can start to look at either email content and permissions or list growth strategies and campaigns to address the issue head-on.
How to build an email list
Let’s get this out of the way first: Acquiring a free or paid email list is never a good idea. Yes, they result in huge overnight growth, but the subscribers will be low quality at best and pure spam at worst.
Instead, go back to basics with your email capture strategies, then layer on some more creative and experimental tactics to see what works, and grow your list the right way. For example:
1. Add opt-in forms to your website
Click through your website and take inventory of your opt-in forms and CTAs. How many opportunities do your visitors have to sign up for your newsletter or marketing communications? You might find that some pages are inundated with forms in the header, the footer, in-context, and pop-ups, while others don’t give your visitors the opportunity to subscribe at all.
Some opt-in forms, like the one in your website footer, may be simple and generic, asking your visitor to subscribe to stay up to date with business news, while others, including pop-ups and CTAs to subscribe to specific newsletters, will require fresh creative and copy.
Digital marketing expert and entrepreneur Kevin Miller calls this approach, “all roads lead to conversions.” He says, “We primarily use CTAs – loud, orange buttons – to encourage potential clients to contact us. They’re friendly (‘work with us’), but noticeable, engaging, and noninvasive. We keep these CTAs in our banner and header and multiple spots along our landing pages. At the bottom of the landing page, we also keep a complete contact form leads might still see by scrolling without clicking anything at all. Having all these channels leading back to our contact form is essential. We want to build our email list and hook new clients with our case studies and track record, so finding that balance of accessibility without being too much in visitors’ faces is the actual work.
Remember to ensure that every opt-in form has a reCAPTCHA to protect against spam and links to your privacy and security policies to stay compliant.
2. Encourage social followers to subscribe
Your social followers are valuable, but they are an unowned entity and the majority of them are only seeing a very small percentage of the content you post. Shifting your social strategy to focus on bringing as many of your followers into your email list as possible can be a business game-changer in the long run.
Jaclyn Sergeant, B2B digital marketer and owner of Sergeant Digital advises, “Your followers are already engaged with your brand and messaging. It's a no-brainer to include a reminder of your newsletter as a regular post in your social media calendar. This is an opportunity to tease the next topic, ask for suggestions, and promote the opt-in info.”
If you use a link in bio service like Linktree, you can ‘lock’ certain pieces of content behind a subscribe gate. This should be reserved for useful, and highly-valuable content pieces rather than general blog content or generic eBooks. Interactive content like calculators and ownable content like reports and survey results can be especially powerful here.
3. Use segmentation to solve a problem with your email content
You will want to ensure you are capturing which emails your subscribers have opted in to receive, for example, general marketing or a specific newsletter. This opt-in status should be used to automatically segment your list into specific audiences to ensure subscribers only receive the messages they have consented to receive.
In either case, visitors are more likely to become subscribers if there’s a promise of highly relevant, personalized content that solves a pain point for them. It’s best practice to keep your opt-in form as simple as possible (three fields maximum), but there are plenty of other ways to gather intel about your subscribers to segment them effectively.
Luciano Colos, entrepreneur, advisor, investor, and founder of PitchGrade, has seen success in using the first email in a nurture journey to do this. He suggests, “create multiple paths within your email campaigns that subscribers can choose, essentially allowing them to 'choose-their-own-adventure'. For example, offer two buttons in the email: ‘Show me how to improve my SEO’ and ‘Show me how to improve my content marketing.’ Depending on what they choose, trigger a personalized email sequence that dives deep into the chosen topic.”
Mashal Davis, President of Ascendly Marketing, collects this information using “real-time behavioral triggers. For example, if a subscriber just read an article on your blog about healthy eating, trigger an email that offers a downloadable recipe book on the same topic. This not only increases engagement but also positions your brand as attentive and responsive.”
Over time, additional data points will paint a more robust picture of your subscribers to help you further personalize content and get a deeper understanding of your audience and their journey.
4. Add ‘content upgrades’ to your blog content
When you’ve already captured someone’s interest through a blog, you have a golden opportunity to turn them into an engaged, brand-aware subscriber. The most common strategy in this scenario is to ask them to subscribe to your blog’s newsletter. This can be effective, but there is another, more powerful, and targeted way of turning these visitors into subscribers.
Marshal Davis calls this the ‘content upgrade’ strategy. “One of the most effective ways to build a high-quality list is through content upgrades. Offer a downloadable PDF or a checklist that complements a blog post. This ensures that the people who opt-in are interested in your niche, making them more likely to engage with future emails.”
Anurag, Product Marketing Manager at Hopstack takes a similar approach. "Our strategy at Hopstack primarily focuses on providing high-value content in downloadable format and linking this with CTA blocks on our blog articles.”
Once the subscriber has received the content upgrade, they can be entered into a nurture journey that shares related, relevant content along with information about your product or brand, and how it supports their goals.
5. Create a referral program
You don’t have to restrict referral programs to customers. Subscribers who are getting value from your email content can refer their network to your newsletter, helping you to grow a list of like-minded people. In fact, Morning Brew famously grew their newsletter audience to 1.5 million using a referral program.
One of the benefits of a referral program is that your audience are naturally inclined to have a network of like-minded people who are more likely to engage with your emails. Plus, since someone they know has made the recommendation, they’re more inclined to open the first emails they receive. If your content continues to deliver, they could become a loyal subscriber — and go on to become a paying customer.
As with any referral program, you will need to think about how to reward your advocates. An incentive to refer a subscriber does not have to be as valuable as the incentive you would use for customer referrals, but it should be enticing enough to make the send worth the effort.
6. Drive signups with a lookalike campaign
Pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns can be responsible for the kind of low-quality, high-quantity subscriber growth we’re looking to avoid. But when there’s a strong strategy behind the targeting, call to action, creative, messaging, and welcome journey, it can bring net new perfect-fit subscribers in quickly.
It all starts with who you target. Lookalike targeting is one of the easiest ways to uncover people who resemble your best customers and most engaged subscribers. Start by building an audience segment that acts as source data for the ad platforms. You can do this by filtering your audience for things like ICP fit, engagement score, MRR or ASP, or NPS promoters.
Once you have a list of your top customers and subscribers, ad platforms like Meta or LinkedIn will use it to identify a list of people who have similar interests and attributes. This list will be targeted with your ad set.
Use your source audience data to gather more details about who your target audience is. For example, what industry they work in, which features of your product or service they use and like, where they are located geographically, and use this to inform the creative and messaging you serve through your ad campaign. This will help the content feel more personalized and relevant, driving more subscribers.
7. Offer a course or other e-learning experience
An immersive e-learning experience is an enticing, engaging prospect that can attract new subscribers to your list, while educating them on how your product or service could help them reach a goal or overcome a challenge.
Draven McConville, CEO & Founder at Klipboard, shared “The art of building a high-quality email list involves forging connections with people who are truly interested in what you have to offer rather than just collecting names and email addresses. Consider your lead magnet as a digital icebreaker and a friendly gesture to start this adventure.”
For example, he shared, a SaaS business, “came up with the wonderful idea of offering a free online course on the inner workings of their product. They promoted it on their website and social media platforms, and it turned out to be the secret to gaining over 10,000 new email subscribers in just one month.”
E-learning experiences can include video, a series of educational emails, or interactive coursework with self-evaluation quizzes. Whatever form they take, use email to keep engagement high throughout the course and ensure that the coursework is related to your product or service so you don’t lose them after its completed.
8. Host a webinar or event
Hosting a webinar or an in-person event is a great way to bring in a highly-targeted audience of people who are actively interested in your brand or products. With events, you can often reach a very niche audience, as Derrick Hathaway, Sales Director at VEM Medical did.
He shared “to grow our email list, I hosted webinars and workshops where I provided valuable insights into the latest developments in plastic mold manufacturing for medical equipment. Attendees were eager to learn more and happily shared their contact information for future resources and updates. This approach proved successful, resulting in a remarkable 60% conversion rate from webinar attendees to subscribers.
But it wasn't just about acquiring new leads. I also implemented an effective re-engagement strategy. By monitoring engagement metrics, I was able to identify inactive subscribers and tailor reactivation campaigns to reignite their interest. As a result, we saw a 30% increase in re-engagement, showing the importance of nurturing relationships with all subscribers.
Over the course of nine months, our email list at VEM Medicals grew by a significant 55%, with open rates increasing by 40% and click-through rates by 25%. These targeted strategies not only brought in leads that fit our business's ideal customer profile but also ensured they remained engaged and interested in our products and services.”
Growing your email list is all about finding an audience that matches your ICP, and targeting them with highly-relevant and useful content. But the work isn’t over when they hand over their email address, you need to deliver on your promise by adhering to the preferences they’ve set, sending personalized content, and following email deliverability best practices to ensure you land in the inbox.