Wanted: Large Email List, Now!

Every few months, someone asks me, "How can I build a big list quickly?" This question usually comes from an email newcomer, often an entrepreneur or small-business executive just getting his business going or a marketer who comes from the direct-mail world or another discipline. 

They're all looking for the "easy" button, the one best way to make a mailing list grow overnight. But, as I've written previously, there is no "easy" button for email marketing.  

To begin with, the rules are different for email, beginning with permission and continuing on with cadence, content and deliverability via the spam-complaint button.

Having a large list sounds ideal, but it guarantees nothing -- except, perhaps, potential deliverability challenges. It certainly doesn't ensure the high ROI for which email is famous.

Is a Big List Really the Answer?



It's easy to argue in the abstract that an active and engaged smaller list can drive better results than a larger one comprised of mostly inactive subscribers.

However, the average marketing boss is probably going to be more impressed by big numbers (probably also the same person whose solution to increasing email revenue is "Send more email!").

At the same time, a large list is not guilty by association of low quality. A list with millions of names can provide a wider reach and has the flexibility to support meaningful segmentation and targeting. It also might correspond with your addressable market opportunity. And, no matter how engaged your customers are, 100% of them are not likely to buy at the same time.

Variables Affecting Potential List Size

So, should you "supersize" your list? Consider these variables:

·       Market size/share: Are you entering a new or growing market, a shrinking or stagnant one, or a highly select niche market?

·       Prospect acquisition cost: Do you have an adequate budget and resources to aggressively grow your list? Are your acquisition costs low enough to expect a return on your investment in a reasonable time frame?

·       Relationship with your brand/company: Are you acquiring email addresses from people who have a relationship with you -- or prospects who might take years before they provide any meaningful return?

·       Customer lifetime value: Are you building your list full of customers who will buy only from your deepest discounts and thus represent a very low lifetime value to your company?

·       Demographic and psychographic profiles: Are you acquiring names of people who fit your ideal customer profile -- or just warm bodies filling up your database?

·       Stage in the purchase or product lifecycle: Are you acquiring prospects all along the purchase cycle -- or just those at the top of the funnel, who might take years for you to nurture and cajole into making a purchase?

·       Buying frequency: Replenishable products, like printer paper or coffee beans, encourage more frequent and regular buying, which a smaller list of active buyers could support. Seasonal or big-ticket items might be purchased only once a year or every several years; so, you might need a very large marketing base.

·       Cross-sell/up-sell potential: If you market items people buy only every few years, such as high-end sporting goods, you have longer repeat-purchase and consideration cycles. Can you create value from this base by marketing accessories and maintenance packages, and enabling loyal customers to do your marketing for you?

·       Message value: A large list generally has a more diverse audience than a small one. Can you provide enough content in your messages to leverage this diversity, or segment your list to create individual message streams that reflect multiple interests?

·       List churn: If you already have a sizable list, one-third to one-half of it is likely inactive. It can be even more if you aren't providing significant value for subscribers but continue to just pound away at their inbox.

·       Organizational support: Aside from the budget to pay for list acquisition and deployment costs, you need marketing and possibly IT personnel to handle the demands of a large database.

In the end, a list -- large or small -- is only as good as what you do with it. Are you also nurturing new subscribers and waking up inactive subscribers, managing deliverability, providing relevant content and offers, reacting to email behavior, finding ways to encourage subscribers to promote your program in their social networks, and more?

What Worked (Or Didn't Work) For You?

Now it's time for you to weigh in with your own experiences. Do you have a success story or tactic that helped to build a mailing list from zero to six or seven figures (or more!) efficiently and effectively?

On the flip side, did you ever have to cope with a list-building disaster? I invite you to share your experiences in the comment section.

Until next time, take it up a notch!

4 comments about "Wanted: Large Email List, Now!".
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  1. Dave Fiore from davemail, February 25, 2010 at 2:37 p.m.

    Loren -- Over and over again, my clients report to me that it is the meaningful interactions with loyal customers that are making a difference for them. Unlike the old sales models, this is not a numbers game, it is a game that is won with precision and quality. Like you said, big is not bad, but big is certainly not good just becuase it is big. (You said it better than that.) Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Mike Gerbino from Theorem Inc., February 25, 2010 at 2:45 p.m.

    I am willing to meet with reps in the online digital space in the NY City area and share contacts in Publishers, networks and agencies.

    Call me on my cell at 973-951-1099.

  3. Karma Martell from KarmaCom Inc., February 25, 2010 at 3:18 p.m.

    Great stuff-and I was nodding my head as I made several of the same points to a recent group of my email marketing seminar attendees. I even used the "easy button" analogy!

    List management is so important, as you point out. I had one client with a 62% delivery rate because of bad list management. We cleaned it up and put in new practices/methods for acquiring new list members (including asking for - and getting- key demographic indicators). The initial list lost significant volume after clean up, BUT: The delivery rate went to 99% and the QUALITY of leads, including size of purchase, increased dramatically.

    The opt-ins from the new list (we purposely separated them to track behavior) had much higher CTRs to the same newsletter.

  4. Barry Dennis from netweb/Omni, February 26, 2010 at 12:10 a.m.

    When I read a good piece like this, I think back to my days of building Mail (not email) lists from magazine and newspaper mailed Catalog Requests, from Tests with Related lists, from Insert Programs, from Fulfillment Packages; any and every ways of testing for better response, better initial order size, better Lifetime Value, all the metrics.
    So what's different with Mass Marketing E-mail? (AKA Spam)
    As a Marketer I can't think of a better place to be than with access to low cost, high volume "vehicles" for testing.
    Yes, the "package" designs and restrictions are different, there are size and "color" limitations, the "deliverry" limitations stricter, and more.
    But...but, there is opportunity.
    Yes, there is more competition. Yes, segregation and testing, profiling, and testing, design and testing, and ...testing are important.
    And, in spite of all your intellect, all your hard work, testing, retesting, planning. A/B splits, sequential rollouts and a hundred other things, once in just get lucky!

    Take heart, you pioneers, there is hope!

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