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Ultimate Guide to Grow Your Email List (Legally and Ethically)

Stephanie Fisher

Posted by Stephanie Fisher on 4/26/16 9:30 AM


Read Time: 10-14 minutes

You see an opportunity to purchase an email list, and you start to consider it.

You feel that pressure to GROW. YOUR. LIST! The idea of your message being sent to thousands of people in one fell swoop ... so temptingly easy. 

But at what cost? Answer: Your soul.

Maybe it's not that dramatic, but there are definitely costs. Let's explore those, along with ethical and legal, and, quite frankly, more effective ways to grow your email lists.

List Management

Email is an inexpensive and easy way to keep in touch with customers; according to Exact Target, 91% of people use email on a daily basis. That's a big pool of potential, but don't get too excited. Your beloved email contact list erodes by 22% each year, which means that roughly one in five of the names on your email list is a dead end.

How do you manage your list to ensure that your message it getting to the people who want and need it? Do you use a professional email management system, like the one available at HubSpot, or do you have an in-house database of your own design?

We at SpinWeb use HubSpot to maintain email lists using different criteria, such as 'No Activity for 12 Months' or 'Hasn't Opened an Email in 6 Months'. This allows us to send friendly inquiries, and if the addressee is uninterested, we can remove them from the list.


It's purely a matter of personal preference, but whatever you choose, keep in mind that email lists, like bonsai trees, require pruning in order to grow. 

The average person received 88 business emails per day in 2015, with 12 of those emails spam that breached the filter; that number is expected to continue to climb over the next few years. That's a LOT of email that your potential customer must sift through every day.

spam_chart.pngChart data:

Fortunately, spam filters are improving, and studies show that the percentage of unwanted email has fallen to a new low of 49.7%. This is the lowest the spam rate has been since September 2003! These major upgrades in the spam catchers mean that you must put forth some effort in generating your mail list; purchased lists are not the way to avoid being tagged as spam. 

Content Quiz

Let's discuss your content. Do you focus on sheer quantity, or do you prize quality when it comes to your emails? An email with an offer of useful information, such as an online tool or a free ebook, is more likely to be read by potential customers. Only send an email when you've got something to say; nobody wants to waste their time reading fluff you've created just so that you had something to send. 

You should keep a laser-like focus on quality, not quantity; quality engagement, quality targeting, and quality content are key to effective email. 

Here's an example of high value content email. Ash at Middle Finger Project doesn't sell her workshop so much as she dials right in on the recipient's needs, demonstrating how well she gets it. It's all about the client, and she manages to convey the importance of registering with a sense of urgency and charm.

The email ends with a call to register for Ash's workshop and by then, I'm like: take all my money!

The quality of your content matters when it comes to email engagement, retention, and growth.

Tone-deaf offers, bad content, and pushy email is one of the quickest ways to get folks to click that unsubscribe button, or worse: the SPAM alert button!

Segmentation and Engagement

You should also consider your email methods; do you send email blasts to everyone on your list, or do you segment your list, sending specific content to a targeted audience based on their interests and demographics? According to this study by MailChimp, segmented emailing results in an increase of just over 14% in opened email rates. The same study finds a decrease in unsubscribe rates when you target your audience. 

Why is this important? Well, for one thing, segmentation is a good way to maintain your email list. Open email is email that's being consumed by potential customers, customers who (hopefully) don't consider your offerings to be spam.

But beyond that, engagement metrics, such as open-rates, affect spam filtering.

If you're generating emails with poor open and click through rates, filters will mark your subsequent emails as spam.  Remember, we're at the mercy of our spam-seeking overlords – we want to stay on their good side! 

Eyes on the Prize

Yes, you want to grow your email list, but don't lose sight of your ultimate goal: growing your list of customers. If your email is being deleted without being opened, you're no closer to your goal than you were before you sent the email in the first place. A cultivated email list will boost your open rates, elevate the all-important click-thrus, and engage the contacts. If that's not achieved, what's the point? 

What NOT To Do

  • Resist the urge to buy an email list. It's a waste of your money, and a waste of your potential customer's time. Nobody likes spam, and that's how your carefully crafted emails will be viewed if they're going to people who didn't ask for them.
  • Don't make it difficult to unsubscribe. If the recipient isn't interested, making your unsubscribe process unnecessarily convoluted isn't going to make them change their minds. If anything, it will reiterate their desire to eliminate contact with your company.  Remember, you're not for everyone. And that's okay. 
  • Never, NEVER add an email to your list without permission. This will tarnish your online reputation, and you'll leave a potential customer with a bad feeling about your business. Bad idea. 

Letter of the Law

Shady email practices will not just make potential customers see red, they can land you in real trouble with the Federal Trade Commission.  The FTC has implemented the CAN-SPAM act, a law that regulates the content of commercial email and gives citizens the right to stop the spam. Here's a breakdown of some of CAN-SPAM's requirements for business email:

  • Be honest about the objective of your message.
  • Inform recepients about your location.
  • Give the option to unsubscribe.
  • Provide accurate header information and an honest subject line.
  • Keep tabs on people acting on your behalf

Should you choose to disregard these guidelines, you might experience penalties up to $16,000 per transgression. Yikes. 

Elementary Ethics

You're adhering to the bare minimum the law requires, but is that enough? Hopefully, your answer is a resounding NO! Remember the golden rule, and treat your clients (and their email addresses) the way you'd want to be treated. 

To-Do List

You know what you SHOULDN'T do; what SHOULD you do? Here are some helpful tips that will get your list growing. 

Facebook Lead Ads – Facebook's new Lead Ad feature lets users fill out a tiny form right in their Facebook feed, allowing them to instantly get your cool offer or trial, and you to capture their email address. Read more about Facebook Lead Ads here.

Pop-up on your website  Presumably, someone visiting your website is interested in what you're doing. A pop-up with an email opt-in makes it very easy to sign up.

I realize there are different schools of thought on this, and some of you will be crying NO! Death to pop-ups! I hear you, I really do. They can be annoying.

BUT, what if I told you Neil Patel does it.... right, see what I mean? Can't be all bad. And this is a bold one, too, because he's asking me to sign right on up for a webinar! Note: Just a guess, but he might be using smart pop-ups that know I've been on his website before, or that I've signed up for a webinar in the past. Regardless, it's a good practice to use smart technology if you're going to do pop-ups because you don't want to be annoying the same people over and over again with it.


Point of sale check out – As your client is checking out, offer an email opt-in. Same goes for other forms on your website, if you want to entice a visitor who fills out a Contact Form to become a blog subscriber as well.

Many people will encourage you to make the default as "box checked" so that you can sneak it through with those who aren't paying attention. Would I say that? I will leave it up to you.

Trade shows/events – If your company has a presence at a trade show or industry event, brainstorm some creative ways to capture new contacts (i.e., not a boring sign-up sheet). 

Before you even go, it’s important that your team agrees on the overall goal of the trade show. It could be anything from obtaining leads to educating people about your company or product. Whatever the reason, your goal will inform your strategy, so make sure those pieces are in place.

All in-person events should be tied to your marketing systems, either via online registrations or other digital mechanisms like an online form that you can easily bring up on a tablet in your exhibit booth, for example. Integrating those leads into your inbound marketing process is the next step. 

Share with a friend (utilizing current audience) At the bottom of your emails, offer an option for the recipient to forward the content to a friend or share on social media. Basic best practice.

Send a "check In" message  Offer your contacts a chance to subscribe to your blog, or update preferences, using a list like I mentioned at the top of this post. I've gotten emails that are refreshingly straight forward, like this:

"Hey, Stephanie, we noticed you haven't open any of our emails in a long time. While we hate to lose you, we don't want to annoy you, so we're removing you from our list. If you want to stay, just click here to update your preferences...that way we only send you the email you want!"

Maintain the Magic

You've cultivated your list, so now you need the tools to maintain it. As stated above, roughly 1/5 of your list becomes defunct every year, so you must stay on top of it to be sure your valuable content isn't being sent into a void. Here are some useful suggestions for pruning your list.

Remove inactive email addresses Hanging on to addresses that aren't engaged or have unsubscribed is simply providing a false sense of the size of your customer base.  Weed 'em out regularly, and you'll have a clearer, more accurate picture of the size and scope of your list.

Provide a subscription center – This is simply a link at the bottom of each email that allows users to update their subscription preference.

Keep an eye on your email deliverability – Use the data at your fingertips and check that your emails are actually reaching inboxes. Spam traps, blacklisting, and bounces can block emails from getting to the recipients, so be sure these aren't an issue for you. 

Final Thoughts

If, after all that we've discussed, you should happen to acquire an email list, don't just upload it to your database and blast away.

Instead, send your contacts an introduction email, offering them something they might actually want, along with the chance to opt-in as a blog subscriber or email recipient.

Or, as we discussed in a previous post, you can harness the power of Facebook to put that purchased list to work.

Remember, if an email recipient just isn't that into you, then you don't want them either. Everyone's happier when you keep that in mind. 

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Topics: email, marketing

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