Adam T. Sutton

Email List Growth: Finding low-cost and no-cost ways to grow your database

A common challenge we’ve heard at our Email Marketing Workshops is that marketers want to know how to effectively grow their email lists. This was true at the Seattle and Boston workshops, and I expect it will continue through Washington, New York, San Diego and Austin.

One tactic we describe is how to leverage existing channels between your brand and your audience to grow your list. Marketers can study how their audiences receive information from their brands and test adding an opt-in request to those channels.

For example, the New York Public Library used its transactional emails to grow its list. The library already sent automated emails to remind patrons that books were due. The marketers tested a simple addition to these emails:

“Get the latest NYPL news and events. Sign up for our newsletter at: [shortlink].”

This two-sentence request increased the library’s opt-ins by 120%.

More than transactional emails

I really like the above example. It shows how a simple idea in an existing channel can grow a database at nearly no cost.

Your company is not likely to be a library, but this idea extends beyond late notices for books. I saw another example while flying to our Email Workshop last week.

Delta In-Flight Email Opt-in

I took this picture on a Delta flight from Memphis to Seattle. I was poking through the touch-screen personal television at my seat and noticed, lo and behold, that Delta wanted my email address. As you can see in the second sentence, the page does a good job of emphasizing the value I’ll receive by handing over my information.

Here’s the next screen:

Delta In-Flight Email Registration form

I am not very sharp on the history of in-flight televisions, but I assume these screens were not installed solely to collect travelers’ email addresses. Instead, I assume that the opt-in request was added later at the suggestion of a clever email marketer. This is another example of a company leveraging its existing channels of communication to build its list.

Look for relevant audiences

In our Email Marketing Workshop, we spend the first half of the list-growth section emphasizing the importance of list quality and how it can be improved. We really hammer on the point that the size of a database is not as important as its quality.

For example, a large database that is loaded with disinterested subscribers is not going to help your marketing nearly as much as a smaller database with subscribers who are interested in your content and offers. You want high-quality subscribers who enjoy receiving your emails and clicking your links.

One way to help build a quality database is to invite only relevant people into your email program. The two examples mentioned above do just that.

  • The New York Public Library’s transactional emails reached people who had books checked out. These people had visited the library, so they might have been interested in receiving news about the organization.
  • Delta reached people in-flight on a Delta plane. These people were travelers, and they traveled with Delta, so they might have been interested in receiving offers and updates from the airline.

So when you’re looking to your existing channels to help grow your list, be sure to test the channels that reach the most relevant audiences for your email program. You don’t want to invite just anyone into your database. You want to build a high-quality list.

Related resources:

Email Marketing LEAPS Advanced Practices Workshop

Members Library — Growing Email Lists with Social Media: KFC’s Facebook tool adds subscribers

New Chart: Most effective email list growth tactics

Maximizing Email List Growth: How the New York Public Library drove a 52.8% lift in newsletter subscriptions

Email Marketing: Three lessons learned at the MarketingSherpa Email Marketing LEAPS Advanced Practices Workshop

B2B Marketing: Building a quality list

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Email Marketing



  1. July 3rd, 2011 at 17:50 | #1

    That is great how the NY Library used their late book people to get into an email list. My only question is how to do this for smaller organizations?

  2. Adam Sutton
    July 5th, 2011 at 08:38 | #2

    @Andy Nathan
    Hi Andy — Thank you for your comment. The principle remains the same for organizations of any size. My suggestion would be to start by listing your existing channels of communication with your audience. Then consider which would be the most practical to test the addition of an opt-in request.

  1. July 7th, 2011 at 08:35 | #1
  2. July 26th, 2011 at 03:02 | #2