5 Easy Ways to Build Your Email List

Unlike our social media lives, our email is still often a private, personal space. People are understandably guarded about their inboxes—it can get crowded quickly with junk. Most of us expect genuine communication in the inbox, rather than a wall of ads.

It’s not a coincidence that email remains one of the most lucrative ways for nonprofits to raise money and awareness. According to the M + R Benchmarks report (link: https://mrbenchmarks.com/#!/fundraising), 28% of all nonprofits’ online revenue in 2017 originated in an email. The key is to be welcomed into the inbox—and then stay there.

A subscriber who cares about your cause, and receives engaging and related content, is more likely to take action when you ask. Subscribers who were simply forced onto a list may just send your email on to the spam folder. (Hint: that’s not good for the health of your list!)

Obviously, you want the former kind of subscriber.

So how do you convince people in your target audience that your list is worth it? How do we attract the right kind of subscribers, and convince them to sign up?

TIP: “Conversion” describes the rate at which visitors to a page perform a given action—such as signing up for your email list. The higher the conversion rate (the number of visitors compared to the number of clicks), the more effective your message is to the audience visiting that page. It’s a good number to track as you try out different appeals on your website and discover what methods are effective or not.

1. Sign up in one click. Make it as simple and fast as possible for potential subscribers to get on your email list. The more steps someone has to take, the less likely they are to complete the process—and the lower your conversion rate.

  • Don’t make visitors to your website navigate to another page to get on your email list. Add a signup box right on the landing page of your website—and make it large and obvious! Graphics help a lot, too.
  • Consider adding the signup box as a floating element that appears on every page of your website.
  • Keep it simple. Ask for an email address and a first name. The fewer fields visitors have to fill out, the greater the chance that they’ll make it to the SIGN-UP button.

2. Be creative in how you ask. Most of us get enough email on a daily basis that we aren’t out looking for new lists to receive even more inbox clutter! While your longtime, dedicated supporters may be thrilled to get every single update on your nonprofit’s activities, simply asking visitors to “Join our newsletter!” probably won’t get you a lot of new email sign-ups.

Offer something! One way to spice up your sign-up ask is to position your email list as a value-add—something more than just junk mail. Perhaps you’re a food bank that sends out meal ideas using only inexpensive, easy-to-find ingredients. You could position your newsletter by offering subscribers the option to “Get more free, healthy recipes like this one!”

But most nonprofit email lists aren’t going to be all freebies, all the time. The key is to discover what your ideal target audience wants—and tap into that with your ask. Here are some ideas:

Say your nonprofit runs a pet shelter: “Do you love animals as much as we do?”

A wilderness preservation fund: “Need more epic landscapes and untouched wilderness in your day?”

An organization fighting homelessness: “Let’s eradicate homelessness in our city—together.”

You can tie your message into specific initiatives, like “End child labor,” or “Ban pipelines on sacred land.”

What does your ideal audience want? Design your call to action around the kind of subscriber who will take action on your nonprofit’s behalf.

Add an image! A high-quality graphic will go a long way increasing conversions to your signup form.

3. Every engagement is a sign-up opportunity. And we don’t mean just sneaking a link into your signup form on every social media post. Engagements happen all the time—in person, at your events, and yes, on your social media feeds.

  • Add an opt-in box to your event registration form. If you’ve allowed ticket purchases online, including the option to join your email list on the purchase form. (Remember to sell your newsletter by promising value.)
  • Collect email addresses from guests at your auction or gala. People who are supporting your cause at an event are just the kind of subscribers you want on your email list!
  • Gather email addresses when you circulate a petition or hold a networking event. Those are exactly the kind of people who will take action when called upon.

4. Provide free content that’s valuable to your audience. You’ve probably heard the term “gated” content—meaning the content only becomes available after the visitor has performed an action or completed a form. Gated content allows you to collect email addresses, names, or phone numbers for those who want access to the protected material.
Many nonprofits have jumped on the idea, publishing helpful blog posts, eBooks, whitepapers, or videos that visitors can only access with an email address.

REMEMBER: You have more valuable knowledge than you think! Turn that niche expertise into life hacks, tips and tricks, expert guides or helpful how-to videos that would be useful or interesting to the supporter base you want to be involved in your nonprofit mission.

But not everyone agrees that “gating” is the way to court new supporters. Some suggest that offering totally free, ungated content builds trust with your reader. It’s true that ungated, public content can boost organic search results.

An effective compromise is to make some of your content free and available without a gate, to build trust with visitors and establish yourself as an authority on the topic of your content. (It’s like giving someone a free taster.) Then, once you’ve hooked your reader with your free content, put more in-depth content behind a gate.

Perhaps your nonprofit is involved in wilderness preservation. You could publish detailed blog posts about a few popular trails in your area or national forest, with lots of helpful tips and photos. Then put a fully comprehensive guide on all the camping, trails, and wildlife in that area behind a content gate.

5. Hold a contest. We already know that people like free stuff. But the kind of free stuff you choose to give away in a contest will dictate who will enter to win. Pick something relevant to your cause that will attract your ideal audience. And use your email list as the entry fee!

You will likely still see a wave of recipients opt out of your email list after your first post-contest email, and that’s normal! Those who stick around are valuable additions to your subscriber base.

With a big enough promotional push, a contest can take your list to the next size bracket. Promote it on your social media accounts and ask staff and volunteers to forward it to their contacts. Be sure to promote your contest with a good-quality photo or graphic, and text written with care.

Choose the winners from those who signed up during your last push. And make sure whatever content you send to your email list after that is top-notch, so all your new recipients like what they get.

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