How to Build a Strong and Intentional Email List

In the flurry of start-up mode, you’re consumed with building relationships and cultivating your network. Being intentional about adding those contacts and brand ambassadors to your email list is one of the best ways to ensure those relationships continue to grow and thrive.

Your email list is a tremendous asset. It will serve as your lifeline for communications when you’re ready to launch your business and share your unique value proposition with the world.As in any relationship, you need to make sure that the people on your email list are there by choice, and that they’re receiving real value from the communication you provide. Intolerance of unsolicited email is at an all-time high. Businesses can no longer assume that even their closest brand ambassadors want to hear from them (okay, I do include my mom on the list, but I highly doubt she will report me).

Write this down: If you aren’t outright asking your contacts, even those you know personally, if they’d like to be on your email list, it’s not okay to include them.'

Email marketing tools continue to crack down on compliance with opt-in requirements as mandates from government demand it. Two of the leaders in this landscape, Constant Contact and MailChimp (for tips on compliant email practices, see MailChimp’s guide here), have implemented a few hurdles to jump through before allowing you to send your fabulously designed campaigns to a list:

  • They restrict the number of contacts you can upload from large files.

  • They require that the opt-out option or unsubscribe is a clear choice for the reader.

  • They don’t rely on individuals to clean up their own lists; they automate that for those of us who may be too overwhelmed to be diligent.

Once you get explicit permission from the people who opt-in to your email list, you’ll need to make sure that you’re providing them with relevant and valuable insight and information. Just because technology makes it easy to blast a general message out to an uncurated audience, that’s no excuse to communicate carelessly. Asking a “qualifier” question or two as people sign up for your email list is a great way to divide your audience into specific buckets, for which you can then design specific content. A school board, for instance, may want to tailor the same core message slightly differently for students, parents, and teachers.

When you know who you’re talking to, you can confidently include the information relevant to their interests, and use the appropriate tone while doing so. (You may want to strike a slightly different tone with potential funders than you use with members of your book club.) Gaining permission from someone to add her to an email list can be a daunting, uncomfortable task with seemingly low return. But with a little creativity and effort, you’ll not only be legally compliant, but better poised and more confident when you hit “send.”

When the recipient knows your message is something they actively chose to receive, they’re automatically more receptive, enthusiastic, and engaged with content you’re sharing. Those are the people you want to be talking to.

So how do you make a creative and compelling invitation to join your email list? Here are a few simple tips:

Ask in person

Live, face-to-face human interaction is an awesome opportunity to be direct, form a connection, and receive a much higher opt-in rate than a pesky pop up box on a website. At the conclusion of any meeting, reconfirm the value that resonated with them about what you or your business has to offer. Then ask, “Would you be interested in getting occasional emails from me (the company/organization) so we can continue to stay connected and engaged?”

If you’re super savvy, you can have the opt-in screen open on your device that merely requires a first and last name, an email, perhaps a pre-determined qualifier or category (i.e. retailer, wholesaler, distributor or other). They select “yes, I agree,” and it generates an email to them confirming their opt-in, perhaps even sending your most recent communication. Boom.

Integrate the Ask into Your Follow-up

After meeting in person, you’re top of mind with that person for 24, maybe 48, hours. So as you’re following up by reaching out on LinkedIn or in a personal email, craft language and provide a specific link (not your website home page, unless the opt-in box is set to appear there) to invite them to take action. Reconfirm the value they’ll receive and why you’d like to reach them in this way.

Cater Your Ask

People do not want to be added to random lists. Respecting their inbox is critical. “Can I add you to my email list?” makes people uneasy. If you’ve already done the work of identifying the audiences you want to reach (as you should), put your invitation in that context. Make it specific and personal. You don’t need to go all out. In fact, simple is better. I recommend dividing your audience into 2-4 subsets. Figure out your core message or value proposition, then tweak it to target each subset in tone and emphasis. This helps you be comfortable and consistent with your ask and value proposition (i.e. “We cater our content to leaders in healthcare architecture and design, so I believe you’ll find it relevant.”)

Ask on Your Website

The ask on your website – most often in the form of a pop-up box – achieves a few things. It lets the viewer know you actively create and provide content (your site is not just a static placeholder), and it demonstrates compliance. The key is to keep your pop-ups to a minimum and recognize that opt-ins will trickle in, but may not be your core source for opt-ins. (Remember that your opt-in rate will be higher if you have worthy blog content that provides real value and shows personality and a strong point of view.)

Note that if you’re solely relying on your website to do the work with a sidebar navigation opt-in tucked away, you’re not going to find significant traction. Maybe 5% of user visits will turn into opt-ins. Even a website that triggers a pop-up ask is only effective 10% of the time. If you’re going this either route, be sure to automate it with your email service so you can continue to add names and emails to your list.

Ask on Social.

The secret sauce to credible opt-ins on social media is creativity, great imagery/video, a clear value proposition, mention of content and frequency, an incentive, and a sense of relationship. It’s easy for invitations to get lost on social media channels (i.e. “sign up to receive our monthly enewsletter” hidden away in a bio or channel description is simply not compelling enough). An invitation to opt-in will probably look slightly different on every social media platform. What works on Facebook may not work on Twitter or Instagram. Resist the urge to rely on a one-size-fits-all approach. Your presence on social media should also offer value and interest independent of the ask (no one wants to follow a Twitter account that’s only posting invitations to subscribe to a enewsletter).

Start Now

Be creative. Be compliant. Consider the five areas outlined above when building your email list. And remember that technically we’re talking about an email list, but it really represents your relationships, your network, your champions, funders, cheerleaders, and brand ambassadors. This is your set of influencers and evangelists who will drive brand legitimacy and adoption by others. The way you connect with them will set the tone for how your brand resonates with all the funders, customers, clients, and connections that will follow as you grow and expand.It’s imperative. Start your intentional ask today!