Browse by...
Home Resources GUIDES

Table of Contents

An effective list strategy is crucial to the overall performance of email marketing for small and medium-size businesses (SMBs).

But what are the most significant barriers to the success of an email list strategy, and how are SMBs overcoming them?

To find out, Campaign Monitor partnered with Ascend2 to field the Email List Strategy Survey and completed interviews with 245 marketing influencers. This guide titled Email List Building in the New Era of Email Marketing exclusively represents the opinions of the 151 companies with 500 or fewer employees (SMBs) that responded to this survey.

In this guide, we’ll uncover how SMB marketers are approaching email list growth to build a quality email list that enables them to send the right message to the right person at the right time using personalization and email automation.

It’s no secret that email marketing brings in major results. For every $1 spent, email marketing generates an average of $38 in ROI. Not only that but marketers are 6x more likely to get someone to click through to their websites from an email than from a tweet.

But email marketing only works if subscribers want to receive emails from your company.

It used to be that marketers were set on building the largest email list possible, and many companies continue to boast about their “thousands” of subscribers. In order to stay competitive, marketers have tried tons of tactics to grow their lists, from pop-ups, to coaxing emails from lead gen assets, to running contests on social media that require an email address to sign up.

But tides are changing. Today, marketers are increasingly focused on engagement metrics, such as open and click-through rates, rather than just growing a massive list of subscribers.

A new era for email lists

Email marketing continues to be a powerful channel for marketers. It results in positive brand awareness, continued touchpoints with prospective and loyal customers, and increased revenue. The ROI of email is undeniable:

  • 82% of B2B and B2C companies use email marketing technology. (Experian)
  • You are 6x more likely to get a click-through from an email campaign than you are from a Tweet. (Campaign Monitor)
  • Six in ten (61%) American workers who use the Internet say email is “very important” for doing their job. (Pew Research)

These stats spell out huge opportunities for marketers, but some old tactics no longer work. Sending out large email “blasts” to huge subscriber lists is no longer resulting in high open rates. List decay is increasing. A large list doesn’t translate to results. The average open rate for branded emails is a mere 20-40%, and the click-through rate is even less.

Why aren’t age-old tactics getting results?

When digital marketing was in its infancy, it was relatively easy for brands to get results with social media, email, advertising, and content marketing. Their competition wasn’t engaging in the same tactics, and they had a clear advantage.

Today’s brands, however, understand the value of these channels. They’re sending more emails, and publishing more content. As brands compete for attention, the stakes have increased. In 1997, online ads got a 7% response rate. In 2011, they only got .1%, according to Marketing Zeus.

In 2014, inbound marketing influencer, Rand Fishkin, coined the term “content fatigue” in a blog post about how marketers could become their own worst enemy. Fishkin’s point? Brands are producing so much marketing content that it’s harder than ever to get noticed.

“8,765 hours is all that any of us have in a year. And while the time spent on social media, or mobile gaming, or watching online videos, or consuming infographics, or reading blog posts may go up, it is inherently limited. Every new activity cannibalizes another.” – Rand Fishkin

According to a report from Marketing Land, U.S. companies alone send 1.47 million emails per month. And indeed, so many emails are getting sent that recipients are getting pickier about the lists they subscribe to, and the companies they want to hear from.


The importance of building a quality email list

In this competitive climate, marketers are looking for ways to get results, and they’re increasingly focused on improving email list quality.

SMBs aren’t in the dark about the value of list quality. Our survey revealed that 66% of SMBs want to increase list quality, viewing it as more important than increasing conversion rates and email list size.


Email List Strategy Survey/SMB Benchmarks Campaign Monitor in Partnership with Ascend2, January 2016

Not only that, these same SMBs are taking action. According to the survey, almost half of SMBs believe that email list quality, in general, is increasing. Only 16% believe quality is decreasing.

Email List Building Survey - Quality Increase

Email List Strategy Survey/SMB Benchmarks Campaign Monitor in Partnership with Ascend2, January 2016

How do marketers know whether the quality of their list is increasing, decreasing or remaining the same? By tracking the right metrics for engagement, marketers can get a handle on the current state of their lists.

What metrics show engagement?

With today’s tools, it’s easy for marketers to track the performance of their email campaigns, right down to how many sales were generated from an email. Not all metrics, however, show engagement, and high engagement is the biggest indicator of a quality list.


Marketers are increasingly focused on improving engagement, rather than simply growing their email lists. To do this, they’re leveraging personalization and automation.

The rise of personalization and automation

In the new era of email marketing, where delivering highly targeted and relevant information to subscribers is paramount, marketers are using personalization and email automation to make this a reality.

Subscribers are more likely to open and engage with messaging that feels personal, which is why personalization is rising. Instead of sending out the same email to every subscriber, marketers are now taking buying behavior, gender, geography, and other factors into account to create personalized messages.

But marketers aren’t creating these messages manually. They need personalization at scale. Email automation is on the rise, as well, and marketers are setting up time and trigger-based emails to reach subscribers at the right time with relevant information. These automated emails are used to onboard new customers, welcome new subscribers, and lead prospects down a sales funnel.

The path to a quality email list

If you were building an email list from scratch, it would be easy to focus on quality. You’d simply set up personalization and automation from the beginning, have the right fields in your sign up forms, and watch the subscribers come in.

The reality, however, is that you’re probably working with an existing list, one that you’ve been growing over time. So, you need to assess your current list to see where it succeeds, and where it has the opportunity to improve. You need to commit to moving forward, turning what you’ve got into pure email list gold.


Significant barriers to email list success

Lack of an effective list strategy is a significant barrier to success for 50% of SMBs.

Email List Building - Barriers to Success

Email List Strategy Survey/SMB Benchmarks Campaign Monitor in Partnership with Ascend2, January 2016

But despite their best intentions, only 5% of SMBs say they are very successful at overcoming barriers and achieving goals with their email lists.


7 Email List Strategy Survey/SMB Benchmarks Campaign Monitor in Partnership with Ascend2, January 2016

In short, marketers recognize that quality email list building is important, but still struggle to create email lists with high deliverability and engagement rates.

An effective list strategy can help marketers map out a plan for success. Let’s look at how to build a quality list from scratch, or an existing list.


The qualities of a strong email list

Many marketers look at their current email list and wonder whether it needs improvement. Here are some indicators that you have a healthy, high-quality email list:

  • Open and click-through rates are stable or increasing
  • You have the ability to segment your list and personalize messaging
  • Email campaigns can be tied directly to ROI
  • List decay is stable or decreasing

There may be room for improvement if your email list lacks any of these items.


What to do with an existing email list

Most marketers are working with an existing email list. The challenge is to improve the list so that engagement rates increase. Here’s what to do with an existing list:

Assess what you already have

Start by asking “What do we want to send? What automation do we want to do? What personalization do we want to do?” Then work backward based on those goals. In order to increase the quality of your list, you must assess where you’re at, and make some goals about where you’d like to be. Once you’ve figured out the current state of your list, you can then build a strategy from the ground up.

Get rid of the fluff

You probably have subscribers on your list that haven’t opened your emails for six months, one year, or even more. Whether their email address has become invalid, or they’re simply not interested in your messaging, consider removing them from your email list. Removing these subscribers will negatively affect your subscriber count, but it will positively impact your list quality, which is more important. If you get rid of these disengaged subscribers, you should see engagement rates rise. You can send a re-engagement campaign asking these subscribers if they’d like to remain on your list or be removed. If you don’t get a response, you can feel confident removing them.

Conquer send fear

Many marketers are afraid of screwing up, and they let “send fear” take over. It’s important to try personalization beyond just using first names in the body or subject line of the message and have the confidence to test personalization for your brand. If you’re skeptical, use A/B tests to figure out if personalization resonates with your lists. Make sure all fields are mapped to the right things, so that when your campaign goes out, everything appears correctly.


How to create an email list that drives engagement

Whether you’re working with an existing email list, or starting to build a brand new one, there are a few ways you can create a high-quality email list that drives engagement.

Improve sign up forms

Subscribers get on your lists through sign up forms, but are you collecting info that can help you improve engagement? Create a new sign up form and ask for information that you can use later. For example, Topshop asks for birthday information, which can allow them to send relevant birthday offers, horoscopes, and age-related messaging. The brand also asks whether the subscriber is a student, which will allow them to send related campaigns.


Leverage data you already have

You can’t begin to personalize your campaigns if all you have is an email address, so work to figure out what data you already have. Do you have information on past purchase behavior, length of time on your email list, customer status, or geography? All of these areas can be leveraged for personalization, which will, in turn, improve list quality. Where does this information live? Is it in your CRM, e-commerce platform, or somewhere else? Integrations can help you combine your email list with outside information.

Use integrations and APIs

Integrations can help you marry data from your CRM with your email lists. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a developer to help you improve your lists. Automation and personalization are now totally accessible for the DIY marketer, and you don’t need to be using an enterprise-level tool to effectively do automation and personalization. Campaign Monitor integrates with CRMs such as Salesforce, Zapier, Sage, and many others. It also integrates with e-commerce platforms such as Magento, WooCommerce, Shopify, Eventbrite, and more.

Rely on dynamic content

Today’s tools make it easy send more individualized messages. You can use dynamic content to change certain parts of the email based on information you have about your subscribers. For example, you can use dynamic content to show different images based on where your subscriber is located. You can select which lists or segments of lists should see a particular part of an email. Dynamic content allows you to create several versions of the email for different sets of customers based on what you know about them, all from within one campaign.

Once you have improved your email list, you’ll be ready to take advantage of personalization.

Using a quality list for personalization

You can easily recognize personalized messages in your own inbox. These messages speak directly to you, often using your first name, city of residence, and status as a customer. The marketers that send you these personalized email campaigns can do so because they have a quality email list.

Marketers can improve email marketing efforts by personalizing their efforts, and they can only do that with high-quality lists. Once you have a healthy list to work with, you can start creating personalized campaigns that increase engagement rates.

What is personalization and why does it work?

Marketers now have the ability to provide more personalized experiences. Today, you can tailor ads to increase conversion rates, create and send emails to a specific group with particular needs, and target social media ads to a certain, predetermined audience.

Personalization works. Emails with personalized subject lines are 26% more likely to be opened and marketers have found a 760% increase in email revenue from segmented campaigns.

Your audience is receiving lots of email messages, so you want to make sure you’re sending messages that are relevant to them. Personalization will help you stand out from the competition, and ensure that your subscribers get information that’s helpful.


How to think about personalization in your marketing

Many marketers have “send fear” when it comes to emai marketing. They know that screwing up recipient’s names or preferences can lead to turned off subscribers and list decay. And it’s true– if you don’t do personalization correctly, you can wind up sending irrelevant messages to subscribers. However, this fear is getting in the way of marketers’ success, and the best way to move forward is to experiment with personalization. Start small, testing a few changes, and grow your strategy as you get more comfortable.

Before you get started, ask yourself:

  • Who is the person receiving this email? What’s most relevant to them?
  • What email messages resonate in my own personal inbox resonate most with me?
  • How can I get started with personalization? Can I go beyond using someone’s first name?

How to use an email list to get started with more personalized experiences

Even if you haven’t collected subscriber information via an email sign up form (such as one on your website or blog), you can use information collected from your CRM or e-commerce platform to personalize your campaigns. For example, Salesforce might tell you which individuals live in a certain geographic area based on their billing address. You can then use this information to send emails that are tailored to a subscriber’s physical location, which is useful if you’re promoting an event in a particular city.

You can personalize emails by:

  • Gender
  • Geographic location
  • Age
  • Job title or company size
  • Interests
  • Transactional data such as past purchases or particular plan
  • Behavioral data such as customer vs. prospect

Examples of companies using personalization

Here are some prime examples of companies successfully using personalization in email campaigns:

Converse uses First Name in subject lines

Our own research shows that using the recipient’s first name in the subject line can increase the chance of the email being opened by 14.68%. Converse added first names into subject lines to encourage subscribers to check out their sale:

Campaign Monitor personalizes using geography

We recently personalized an email campaign based on subscriber’s individual location. We created different images for people in the UK, USA, and Australia and tested them against a generic version (with just one location-agnostic image) to see if personalized images worked better. By making the images in our email campaigns personalized to the subscriber’s location, we were able to increase our email click-through rate by 29%.


Dubsat sends from the relevant account manager

Dubsat uses personalization in a particularly clever way, dynamically changing the ‘From Name’ of the email campaign to the account manager that the recipient regularly communicates with. The recipient receives the email from someone they know, so the email feels like it’s coming from a friend, rather than a large brand.

Dubsat – Personalize Email From Name

Once you have personalization set up, you can begin to think about how to automate the experience.

Using a healthy list for email automation

Once you have high-quality lists and are able to personalize campaigns, you should begin to think about email automation. Automation allows you to set up particular emails based on timing and triggers that send automatically based on subscriber behavior. For example, you might set up an automated welcome email after a subscriber signs up for your list.

Automation gets results because it helps marketers provide a consistent experience with information that subscribers need. Every subscriber can get on boarded with a deliberate, predetermined process, resulting in higher engagement.

How to think about email automation in your marketing

When it comes to email automation, it’s best to think of it as a complement to existing email efforts. It doesn’t replace a weekly or monthly newsletter, or emails that promote particular products or campaigns. It’s best used when it helps subscribers get familiar with your brand.

One of the best ways to use automation is to set up a series of emails that take someone down a path, whether it’s to make a purchase, sign up for something, or get onboard with a new software system.

For example, you can create a flow so that you’re sending automated emails after someone becomes a new customer. They’ll receive automated messages 15 minutes after signup, 1 day after signup, and 7 days after signup.



Transactional emails, which are automated emails that are sent when someone completes a certain action, see a ton of engagement. In fact, the open rates for automated transactional emails are 8x higher than traditional campaigns.

Campaign Monitor – Transactional Email Open Rates

Examples of companies using automation

Here are some prime examples of companies successfully using email automation:

Mumsnet automates based on mom’s due date

Mumsnet, the most visited parenting site in the UK, uses automation to inform its pregnancy newsletter. If you’re pregnant, Mumsnet will send you a regular newsletter throughout your pregnancy to help you learn about the different stages, based on how far along you are.

The pregnancy newsletter is fully automated and uses the mother’s due date as the trigger to send emails. Mumsnet records the due date through a custom email sign up form and uses that custom field to schedule emails that the expectant subscriber will receive. This approach is a really effective use of automation, and it’s creative, too.

ZURB welcomes subscribers with automated emails

ZURB, a product design company, sends out several newsletters to its subscribers, and recently added automated welcome emails. After someone signs up for the newsletter, they get an automated email welcoming them. These welcome emails see 70-80% open rates and 40-45% click-through rates.

Email List Building - Zurb - Automated Welcome Email

Morgan Jewelers celebrates birthdays

Morgan Jewelers sends their subscribers an automated birthday email, as they collect birthday data when subscribers sign up. This automated email wishes the reader a happy birthday and provides an offer that encourages subscribers to make a relevant purchase.

Email List Building - Morgan Jewelers - Birthday Email


In the new era of email marketing, it’s not enough to grow your list with hundreds of thousands of subscribers. You need to focus on the quality of your list.

Any marketer can take steps to improve his or her email list. With the tips and tactics in this guide, you can grow a quality list, and use personalization and email automation to greatly increase the success of your email marketing campaigns.



Ascend2 benchmarks the performance of popular digital marketing practices using a standardized questionnaire and proprietary 3-Minute Survey format.

This survey was conducted online from a panel of more than 50,000 professionals.

The following are represented in this report:

Role in the Company
Owner / Partner / CXO 45%
VP / Director / Manager 32%
Non-Management 23%

Primary Marketing Channel
B2B 65%
B2C 19%
B2B and B2C Equally 16%

Straight to your inbox

Get the best email and digital marketing content delivered.

Join 250,000 in-the-know marketers and get the latest marketing tips, tactics, and news right in your inbox.


Get started with Campaign Monitor today.

With our powerful yet easy-to-use tools, it's never been easier to make an impact with email marketing.

Try it for free
Contact Sales