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12 Tips for Growing Your Nonprofit Email List

Email is an integral part of any nonprofit online outreach and fundraising plan, but what steps can you take online and off to grow your email list?

Growing your list is crucial to your mission. The more engaged supporters you can connect with, the greater your impact.

One of the first things you should be doing (once you have your strategy set, of course) is to work on growing your list. This way, when it comes time to make the ask, you’ve got a solid base of support who are ready to take action. There are lots of ways to grow your list. This infographic presents ten great ways to grow your list- some things you may already be doing and some you can employ today to see quick, quality results.


Top Ten Strategies to Grow Your List Infographic


To improve your digital marketing strategy, here are ten tips to help you build a compelling permission-based supporter list:

1. Optimize your Website to Encourage Email Sign-Ups

The first thing you must do is offer supporters a compelling reason to hand over their email address. Sometimes offering a free newsletter just isn’t enough. Explain what information you will send them, and be sure you have a good content strategy in place before you do anything. Then you’ll need to optimize your website to make sign-up a breeze! Here’s how:

  • Create a prominent “above-the-fold” email sign-up button on your website home page. Visitors shouldn’t have to scroll or navigate around to find it.

  • Make sure your email sign-up box appears on every page of your site.

  • Use a sign-up incentive such as informative white papers, FAQs, cheat sheets or even a monthly draw.

  • Whenever anyone donates or registers for an event, make sure to tell your supporters that they will automatically receive your email newsletter.

  • Remember, CAN SPAM laws require you to have someone’s permission to collect and send to their email address, so be sure to develop and publish a clear online privacy policy (a quick Google search will offer templates that you can use).

2. Offer Flexible Sign-Up Options

Supporters will be more likely to sign-up for emails if they know what content they can expect. A simple way to do this is to segment your emails by giving supporters the option of receiving emails only on the topics they are interested in.

3. Use Offline Events and Direct Mail Appeals to Gather Email Addresses

Don’t forget to solicit emails during events, meetings, presentations, and so on. If people are interested enough in your organization to come to an event, don’t be shy about asking them for their email addresses. Ask for business cards, create a sign-in sheet and ask for email addresses at event registration desks. Also don’t be afraid to go old school and ask for information in your direct mail appeals!

4. Use your Email to Boost Subscriptions

Don’t forget to use your email communications to nurture your community and grow your list:

  • Send new subscribers a welcome email that introduces your organization, your cause, and how they can get involved!

  • Add social sharing features and “forward to a friend” options so that supporters can share your emails with friends.

  • Use analytics to see what email content is working and what isn’t. Are folks unsubscribing? What are they responding to?

  • Be sure to communicate with your subscribers regularly - twice a month ideally, once a month at a minimum. This helps to keep your list active, engaged and more likely to grow and support your goals.

5. Use Facebook to Grow your Email List

Facebook is an important tool to build and grow your supporter community, but it’s not the most reliable way to communicate your most important messages. So how can you use Facebook to grow your email list? Here are a few tricks of the trade:

  • Use Page Apps - One way to convert Facebook fans to email subscribers is to use page apps (formerly tabs) to highlight campaigns, initiatives, newsletter sign-ups, or add call-to-actions such as: “Take Action”/ “Join Us”/ “Donate Today” and so on. You can see an example of these page apps at work on these nonprofit pages underneath the main page cover photo: Survival International and Mercy Housing. You can find examples of page apps from Facebook here.

  • Use Compelling Content - Encourage fans to subscribe to your email list to get more information about videos, photos, and other updates posted to your Timeline that have a deeper story to tell. If you’re unfamiliar with the new Facebook fan page, this article from the Ad Council explains what it means for nonprofits.

6. Try a Contest

People love competition and free stuff. And, there’s no need to break the bank conducting these contests. Try giving away t-shirts, small gift certificates (think coffee), some of your company’s swag, books, etc. It is an easy and inexpensive way to improve your email list, and hopefully get some legit prospects out of it! (Keep in mind, there are those that will just be in it to win it). Simply put, it’s a give and get: give them free stuff, get their email address.

7. Use all of your Platforms

Your organization (like the rest of us) may use a seemingly infinite number of social channels on which to share your content. Be sure to use all of your channels to reach the different audiences that are on each one. Share your information via social media including Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, Google Plus, etc.

Also, use your blog to share great content and provide sign-up links so your supporters (who love the information you’re sharing) are given the opportunity to give you their email address!

8. Keep it SIMPLE

Make it as simple as possible for your supporters to sign up (whether it’s to attend an event, webinar, or download a whitepaper). Ask for the minimum amount of information you need to not scare off supporters with extensive forms. Make it as straightforward as possible to avoid any confusion.

9. Self-Promote

Don’t be afraid of a little self-promotion! Share with your audience exactly what they will get out of your services and content to encourage them to sign up. Let them know what they will learn and how beneficial it will be to them. Once they know that, they will be more likely to sign up.

10. Let Others Promote for You, Too!

Let other people who are passionate about your mission or cause do some promoting for you, as well. Your organization is limited to your audience, but remember, each of those supporters has relationships of their own (friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances, etc.).

  • Peer-to-peer fundraising encourages your supporters to raise money from their peers on your organization’s behalf. When a supporter shares a page with their personal network, an organization (hopefully yours!) will be connected to an extended network that they may have not been exposed to otherwise. That’s a whole new audience without you having to do anything! And people are more likely to support an organization that their friends are passionate about, so each new supporter that donates on behalf of a friend can also help to grow your list.

  • Reach out to other like-minded organizations and ask them to promote your content. Find organizations or groups that are interested in your cause and ask them to share the content with their audience. It’s a win-win. By giving them the right to promote your content in their email communications (which adds value for their audience), your organization gets exposure to new contacts and email addresses.

11. Don't Purchase Lists!

Email campaigns are one of the most popular marketing tools for nonprofits. That’s because emails are easy to create, cheap to send, and can reach a large number of prospects in one pass. But they don’t always work.

According to MailChimp, the average open rate for nonprofit emails is about 26 percent, with a three percent click rate — pretty close to average, compared to other industry benchmarks.

But maybe your campaigns aren’t doing as well. Maybe you’re looking at a 10 percent open rate with a one percent click rate and wondering where you went wrong.

If you’re using purchased email lists, that could very well be your problem. Purchased lists are supposed to be a shortcut to building a database of contacts that might otherwise take six months to assemble. And in that sense, they do save time. But when it comes to results? Not so much.

Sure, it's tempting for nonprofit marketers.

Purchased lists are the low-hanging fruit of email marketing . . . only the fruit is rotten, and possibly poisonous. But did I mention it’s low-hanging? Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons nonprofits think purchased lists are a viable way to grow revenue. Here are some of the most common:

  • - It’s easy: Purchased lists give an organization on-demand access to thousands of contacts without requiring them to invest time into gathering those contacts. Some list sellers even claim to provide targeted, permission-based lists (for example, if you needed a list of U.S. women over age 30). It’s like a buffet: pay a fee at the door, then take as many prospects as you want.
  • - It’s cheap (or so you think): On the surface, it may seem like a pretty rewarding investment: spend a little money, get access to a bunch of contacts. But keep in mind you don’t always get direct access. Many list dealers only rent their lists, which means you pay a per-use fee to send one email to x-number of contacts. According to Worldata’s List Price Index, the average CPM (cost per thousand) for rented donor lists is about $88 —  to send one email.
  • - It’s technically legal: For the most part, the courts don’t care how you obtained email addresses. The CAN-SPAM Act allows organizations to send commercial emails without explicit permission, as long as the content and format of the messages meets some basic guidelines (but did you know purchased email lists are now illegal in Canada?).

5 Reasons Purchase Lists Can Hurt You

There are a number of ways purchased lists disappoint. In terms of lead generation and revenue, you can expect a mixed results, at best. At worst, a purchased list could damage your reputation and cripple your marketing campaigns. Here are six of the biggest dangers:

No True Opt-In

List sellers may claim that their contacts are 100 percent opted-in, but you should be suspicious. Typically, list sellers dupe subscribers with equivocal language and fine print — e.g. “Check here to receive relevant offers and communication from our partner companies.”

Chances are, the site visitor didn’t even read this message, let alone understand what they were agreeing to. Some list sellers even use scanning bots to capture email addresses from random websites and forums. 

Shared IPs

Conducting some brief marketing automation comparison will show you that most reputable solutions are permission-based, which means they don’t run campaigns with purchased lists.

Instead, you’ll need to use a less reputable marketing automation service that forces you to share an IP address with other list buyers. As other companies’ messages are blocked, reported, and marked as spam (and they will be), your campaigns could also be blacklisted. Guilty by association. 

List Fatigue

List sellers aren’t known for their data integrity. They often sell or rent the same list to multiple organizations or have duplicate contacts on separate lists.

That means a lot of the people you’re emailing get frequent, unsolicited email from multiple sources, which creates a kind of numbing effect.

After a while, they start spam-flagging and deleting emails from unknown parties without even looking at them (we’ve all been there). About 46 percent of consumers will mark email as spam because they receive it too frequently, and 36 percent will do so if they didn’t purposefully subscribe.


Poor Deliverability, Failed Personalization

Purchased lists are notoriously inaccurate, whether in the email address itself (which will cause failed delivery) or in other contact fields, like name, address, occupation, or company.

That’s because people can tell when they’re signing up for a questionable email list, and many use fake credentials to protect their anonymity. “Namey McNamerson” probably won’t be interested in your latest fundraising campaign, since they were only trying to win a free iPad.

Campaign Underperformance

Just because you’re sending to a high volume of prospects doesn’t mean you’re more likely to get results. In fact, the opposite is true. The more you send irrelevant content to unsuspecting people, the lousier you can expect your results to be.

MailChimp recently published some findings from their anti-abuse system. As they put it, “Positive engagement falls off a cliff as purchased correlation increases.”


Compromised Data Integrity

Sending batch emails to purchased prospects is damaging enough, but if you’re feeding those same contacts into your nonprofit CRM system, you’re creating an even more insidious problem: a database full of invalid credentials, expired addresses, and phony names.

How will you weed out the valid contacts from the bad ones? Will you waste time and money on fundraising campaigns that fall on deaf ears? Can you trust your marketing analytics? 

What To Do Instead 

Prospect generation can be hard, but it’s the best way to stay away from purchased lists and build relationships with people who are actually interested in your mission.

The approach is entirely different: instead of soliciting donations by blasting untargeted emails, you draw prospects in by offering them something of value. 

One common example is through targeted content, like whitepapers, research studies, newsletters, and blog posts. Prospects can give their email address in exchange for access to these assets, or to receive updates about new content.

You can use your website, social media accounts, and paid media to draw traffic to this content, or to other landing pages that request contact information.

Many nonprofits use networking events (fundraising dinners, conferences, etc.) as sources of new opt-in lists by asking guests to sign-in with their contact information (and give clear consent to receive communications).

You can also try more inventive methods, such as raffle giveaways, contests, “members-only” site areas, webinars, and pop-up CTAs (calls-to-action) that ask participants for their information.

Nonprofits need to raise money and attract new supporters, and they don’t always have time to watch an inbound fundraising campaign slowly crystallize.

But buying a list of contacts could permanently damage your ability to conduct email marketing. High-quality, opt-in leads aren’t for sale. They’re the ones you acquire by knowing and engaging your prospects, creating targeted content, and trading value for permission.

(Aleksandr Peterson is a technology analyst at TechnologyAdvice. He covers marketing automation, CRMs, project management, and other emerging business technology. Connect with him on LinkedIn.)


12. Keep Your Lists Clean!

When you’re staring at a bunch of goldfish in a tank, you can’t blame just one of them for making the tank so dirty. The same thing goes for best practices in email list management.

Multiple factors can contribute to sinking email deliverability and response rates. So once you understand these reasons, the better prepared you’ll be to improve overall list health and keep your tank clean!

Not sure what to do? Here are four simple steps to get you started:

Frequently monitor email deliverability

  • Use a service like Return Path, 250ok, or MultiRBL to see how your emails are landing in (or getting blocked from!) inboxes. 

  • Make sure you have the reports you need to keep an eye on your list growth and new supporter records. You should be able to quickly and easily see if there’s a spike in your new signups, and you should be able to identify where they came from. 

  • Make it a habit to check your deliverability and signup reports ideally at least once a day. 

Verify new supporter email addresses... immediately!

The very best way to improve your deliverability and email performance is by making sure that you have a clean email list and that no spam trap emails have accidentally made it onto your list. 

Officially welcome new supporters to your list in an engaging way

Make sure you’re following best practices in opt-ins for your list. Just because someone emails you to ask about your program or hands you their card at a conference, doesn’t mean they want to receive your weekly newsletter. Start by sending an email that says, “It was nice to meet you,” and add “sign up for more information, if you’re interested.”

And remember why you’re sending an email in the first place. When emailing your supporters, you’re doing more than sharing information: You’re trying to start a conversation. 

If they don’t bite, throw ‘em back. Remove the most “inactive” supporters from your list.

Finally (and this is often the hardest part), keep your fish tank clean! If your supporters haven’t “participated in a conversation” with you in the past six months, you should stop emailing them. 

  • A list that you imported in 2014 is almost certainly not good data anymore.

  • What you choose to remove is up to you, but a good rule of thumb is that they should have taken action in the past six months. What is an action? Query to find who signed your petitions, who submitted donations, who has opened or clicked an email in the past six months and so on. A query for active supporters through Salsa’s Cosm could look something like this, for example:
  • If six months feels too soon, start with a year. Your goal is to find your supporters who are not engaged and then stop emailing them. Whether you actually remove them from your list is up to you. You could also consider a short re-engagement campaign to re-activate those lapsed supporters using particularly enticing incentives or other forms of creative content. 

The quality of your email list is more important and more valuable than just having a bunch of records. With a well-planned routine, you can make sure your list is performing at its peak. By improving the quality of your data, you can leverage your good email reputation to grow your list and increase donations.