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How to build an email list

Earning a place in people's inboxes takes work, and it's not something an email marketing team can do alone. Learn the secrets to email list building success.

By Kristen Hicks

Published April 22, 2020
Last updated February 23, 2021

According to the Data and Marketing Association’s 2019 study, you see a £42 return for every £1 you spend on email marketing. That’s the equivalent of $57 for every $1.36 spent.

That’s the kind of ROI that makes marketers want to invest heavily in their email strategy. But having a great strategy means nothing if you don’t have the right email list to share it with.

In order to succeed in email marketing, you have to build a list of solid leads and then continuously prove that your emails are worth reading.

Basic principles of email lists

An email list is a valuable marketing resource, but it requires careful and ongoing stewardship in order to deliver results. Think of your list as a packet of seeds for your garden: if you give the seeds water and light, they’ll bear fruit. If you just dump them on the ground, not much will happen. So here are the fundamentals of managing your email list.

  • The number one key to maintaining a strong email list is to provide useful information to your readers. That’s easy to do in your first exchange, but you need to make sure every email you send provides value, or your engagement will dwindle.
  • Sending the right number of emails is crucial to keeping them valuable. Don’t abuse your audience’s patience by overloading them. Likewise, keep your messages short and relevant.
  • Never misuse your readers’ information or share it in any way that goes against their original sign-up agreement. And when readers do sign up for your email lists, be completely transparent about what they can expect from you.

Keeping these rules in mind, here are ways you can grow your email list:

  1. Offer value in exchange for contact info

    When you ask prospects for their email address, the first question that will likely pop up in their heads is, “what’s in it for me?”

    The easiest way to get people to opt in to your email list is to offer them something in return. You need to give contacts something that is worth the trouble of filling out the form and adding more emails to their inbox.

    The offered incentive may be as simple as a discount code for new signups or a free gift. Or, the email campaign might be the incentive if the messages provide valuable information, like a series of onboarding welcome emails.

  2. Add an opt-in form to your blog

    Content marketing plays a big role in list building, so make sure you promote email signup in that space to gain subscribers. Many people who sign up for your mailing list will do so because they already like your blog content and want to see more of it.

    Content Marketing Institute has an opt-in sidebar right on its blog page. The “pay off” to get emails is that “everyone else is doing it.”

    Add an opt-in box somewhere obvious on your blog and landing pages with a brief and compelling case for why readers should join. Share what type of information they’ll receive and how often they’ll hear from you. You can even include calls to action within the blog post to garner more email subscribers.

  3. Create high-value gated content

    You can win new email subscribers with your company blog, but only by delivering content that gives readers a real incentive to sign up. So instead of only writing blog posts, consider offering gated content as well—high-quality, value-added pieces that readers can only see if they submit their contact information.

    Brainstorm with your content team to develop value-packed downloadable content (DLC) that goes above and beyond what your audience can find online for free.

    White papers are short hard-hitting reports focused on a specific topic or issue. They can be helpful for positioning your brand as an expert on a particular topic.

    Original data is research your company has conducted or studies you’ve financed. Like white papers, these reports can showcase your company’s industry expertise and give readers data they can leverage. Zendesk publishes original data every year in our CX Trends Report.

    E-books are long-form content, similar to print books. This format is ideal for creating an ultimate guide to a broad topic.

    Our own pop-up campaign is a pop-up on our blog. Readers offer their email in exchange our newsletter.

    Once you’ve chosen your format and completed your DLC, gate it. The form readers are required to fill out should ask for their email address. But it should also include a checkbox confirming the downloaded content and let them know signing up constitutes opting in for your emails, too.

    If someone downloads your content, make sure the first email new subscribers receive before the content is a genuine thank-you email.

  4. Make your opt-in forms short

    Someone willing to share their email address may change their mind if they have to fill out a lengthy form. Keep your forms concise and succinct for the best results.

    Research backs up the “short and sweet” theory, too. Quick Sprout found that keeping forms to three questions leads to a conversion rate of at least 25 percent, compared to a typical conversion rate of 2.58 percent.

    It’s tempting to use email opt-in forms to gain as much info as possible about prospects. However, the more fields you add, the more obstacles you put between your business and potential subscribers. Be considerate by keeping the form to the point.

  5. Promote your email list on social media

    For the best list-building results, be sure to promote signups on social media. This step is especially relevant if customers are already interacting with your brand on social media.

    Meet with your social media team to discuss the best way to promote your email list across your platforms. Consider linking to a signup form in your Twitter bio or Facebook About section. You can also share updates to encourage people to join your list or promote it in targeted ads.

    Consider also asking your workforce to encourage signups on social media. Sharing a gated asset on LinkedIn, in particular, can lead to tons of traction. Partner with the right internal teams to enable them to be social media ambassadors.

  6. Host webinars

    Like gated content, webinars are another way of leveraging your expertise to provide added value for your audience. They’re also a great way to gather email addresses.

    Enlist internal subject matter experts or experts from related brands for a webinar discussion. Promote the webinar on your social media feeds and your website to generate excitement and interest, and link to an enrollment form where attendees have to provide their email addresses.

    Webinar attendees are already interested in your industry, maybe even your brand, too. With this background, they’re likely to become customers down the line.

  7. Use segmentation to differentiate between sub-audiences

    One reason people hesitate to subscribe to a new list is to avoid getting a flood of irrelevant emails in their inbox. Demonstrate to your target audience that you only plan on sending information they’re interested in to win them over.

    Customer segmentation – grouping your audiences by similarities—is one way to accomplish this. You can segment by consumer interest, age or location demographic, or industry, for example.

    Segmentation is especially easy to achieve if you have a CRM set up to filter by your categories. Zendesk’s customer segmentation analytics makes splitting customer groups and analyzing your results simple.

    Once you’ve determined customer segments, you can create personalized email campaigns just for that group. If your subscribers are only receiving hyper-relevant content from you, they’ll likely see your emails as valuable.

    For a simpler version of segmentation, you can give subscribers the chance to opt in to only the type of content they want. Consider including checkboxes on your form where people can decide if they want emails about promotions, free trials, continuing education, or all of the above.

    Zendesk Sell integrates with email marketing platforms like Mailchimp, making it easy to combine audience segmentation with deep insights about content performance for each section and campaign.

  8. Bonus: How not to build an email list

    Ethical email marketing requires giving all recipients the chance to opt in to your mailing list. In some countries, adding someone to your email list without their permission is illegal. If you send emails to people who haven’t given you permission to show up in their inbox, at best, they’ll ignore you. At worst, they’ll mark your emails as spam—or you could face legal ramifications.

    Adhering to email opt-in best practices leads to better results and keeps you on the right side of the law. To create a legitimate list of subscribers, don’t buy a mailing list from a third party and don’t add anyone to your mailing list who hasn’t given explicit permission.

    You may even go one step further to be extra safe and implement a double opt-in. That means that after a customer gives you an email address, they then have to confirm their email to get on your list. A prospect that’s willing to go an extra step to confirm their signup is more likely to open and engage with your messages.

    Build and maintain a strong email list

    By using these best practices, you’ll be creating an email list of people who want to read your emails. As you build your list, it’s just as important to keep your subscribers and customers. Find ways to reward your subscribers for their loyalty, and make sure every email you send is relevant and valuable. To keep your email list strong, you have to earn recipients’ continued interest and trust with every message you send.

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