RiverBend Growth Association

8 Ways to Build Your Email List

by Jeff Kline posted Nov 12 2013 4:42 PM

In this second installment of email list management for nonprofits, you’ll learn best practices and tactics for building a high quality email list. If you missed part 1 of the mini-series, check out How To Keep Your Email List Squeaky Clean. You can also download our email marketing glossary to use as a reference as you read today's post.

What's in it for me?The best strategy for acquiring (and keeping) people’s email addresses is to give them something valuable in return, whether it’s free information or a promotional offer. Make your list-building strategy about your members, investors and donors—NOT yourself. When someone is asked to give out their email address, that person is going to immediately think: Are emails from this organization worth adding more clutter to my inbox? Do they send information and offers that will benefit me? What’s in it for me?

Before I discuss specific tactics for building your email list, I want to go over two very important best practices: opt-in and opt-out.

Opt-In and Opt-Out

In last week’s post, I discussed the importance of keeping a clean list to prevent your emails from being reported as spam. It’s also important to take precautions when building your list to keep it clean and devoid of harmful addresses. There are two best practices for building a quality email list: the Opt-In and Opt-Out methods.


The Opt-In method is a component of permission marketing, which Seth Godin describes as “the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.”

Example of Opt-In - subscribe to blogOpt-in works like this: When people want to begin receiving your organization’s emails—maybe your weekly blog posts, maybe your monthly newsletters—they will willingly sign themselves up using a form on your website. Because they sign up on their own, you can be assured that everyone on your list actually wants to receive your emails, so they won’t report you as spam. And, as long as your form includes a reCaptcha, you can be 99.9% sure that they are all real people, not spam traps.

The downside of the opt-in method is that you have to rely on the quality of your content to drive people to sign up to receive it, which could be a slow process. However, the people who do sign up for your emails are much more likely to support your organization!       


Although the opt-in method is today’s all-around agreed-upon best practice for building a high quality email list, the traditional opt-out method can also be effective—when it’s done right.

The opt-out method works like this: You, the email marketer, obtain email addresses from reputable and reliable sources— trade shows you’ve attended, your organization’s networking events, your personal list of contacts, etc. You add these email addresses to your email list and begin sending these people something on a regular basis—perhaps your weekly blog post—but you always clearly give them the option to unsubscribe (aka opt out).

Unsubscribe - the opt-out method

Many email marketers argue that using the opt-out method is a bad idea. One of the biggest worries people have is that recipients who haven’t given you permission will get irritated by your emails and report them as spam. However, I believe that by carefully considering what you send them (making sure it is strictly educational, useful information that doesn’t try to sell them anything ) and making it effortless to opt out, you can greatly reduce the risk of being reported as spam.

Here are some other best practices that are CRUCIAL to follow when using the opt-out method:

  • Before you send to a new email list for the first time, give it a good scrub.
  • Be sure your unsubscribe button is prominent and that the process requires very little on their part.
  • Pay attention to your feedback loops. Are people reporting you as spam? If so, it’s time for damage control. Remove those people from your email list (because, clearly, they don’t want to be receiving your messages) and try to deduce why they didn’t like what they were receiving. Could you make your content better? Send less frequently?
  • NEVER PURCHASE an email list. That’s where you’ll run into a spam trap.

Now that you understand how to use the opt-in and opt-out methods to build a clean, high quality email list, let’s talk about some specific tactics you can implement.

8 Ways To Build Your Email List

1) Offer a free download, like an ebook, in exchange for people’s email addresses.
Other types of content to offer in exchange for email addresses include FAQ sheets, webinars and whitepapers. (A few weeks ago, we offered this free download.)

2) Ask for an email address when people register online for your events.
This same tactic can be applied when people make an online donation.

3) Place "Subscribe" forms all over your website.
Make it easy for people to find a way to opt-in to your email list. Place forms on your blog, homepage, news page, etc.  And keep your forms simple—just ask for a name and email address.

4) Use social media to promote your free downloads, events, blog, and other email-acquisition items. 
Share your offer in a post, or create a custom Facebook tab that includes a form. Check out the Fort Myers YMCA Faceboook tab for collecting email addresses!

5) Network among your existing contacts
Ask current members and business associates to share email addresses of people they know who might benefit from your organization.

6) Leverage your speaking engagements.
Include a link to your email signup on the last slide of your PowerPoint presentation, or simply pass around a sign-up sheet.

7) Promote paperless communications in your direct mail.
Provide a link or a QR code so people can go online and change their preferences from snail mail to email.

8) Collect email addresses at trade shows. 
This can be as simple as a few sheets of paper on a clipboard or as fancy as a signup form on an iPad.


Building your email list is something you have to keep working at every day—the job never ends. But if you stick to the rules of opt-in and opt-out, and put these 8 list-building ideas to work, you should see continuous growth in your subscribers! 

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