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

However, 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.

Read on to discover 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.

Email marketing generates an average of $38 in ROI and marketers are 6x more likely to get someone to click through to their websites from an email than from a tweet.

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

A marketer’s goal used to be building the largest email list possible, and many companies continue to boast about their “thousands” of subscribers. To stay competitive, marketers have tried a number of tactics to grow their lists, such as pop-ups, coaxing emails, lead gen assets, and running contests on social media that require an email address to sign up.

However, times are changing. Marketers are now focusing more on engagement metrics, such as open and click-through rates, rather than just growing a massive list of subscribers.

Chapter 1

Why is an email list important?

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. (Medium)
  • You are 6x more likely to get a click-through from an email campaign than you are from a Tweet. (Campaign Monitor)
  • Checking and using work email is expected to increase by 25% (Really Good Emails)

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 pointed out that 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 by Radicati, as of 2018, there were about 124.5 billion business emails sent out and received each day compared to 111.1 billion consumer emails sent and received each day. 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 regularly.

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 are aware of 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.

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

These same SMBs are also 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.

Source: 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 came 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, by 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.

However, 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.


Chapter 2

The path to a quality email list

If you were building an email list from scratch, it would be easy to focus on quality by simply setting up personalization and automation from the beginning, having the right fields in your signup forms, and watching the subscribers come in.However, you’re probably working with an existing list 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.

Significant barriers to email list success

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

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

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

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

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. Read on to discover how to build a quality list from scratch or an existing list.

How do I set up an email list?

Many marketers look at their current email list and wonder if 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 can 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 and personalization do we want to implement?” then work backward based on those goals. To increase the quality of your list, you must assess where you are currently 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 and, 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 do I get more email signups that drive 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 signup forms

Subscribers get on your lists through a signup form, but are you collecting info that can help you improve engagement? Create a new signup 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.

Source: Topshop

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, and you don’t need a developer to help you improve your lists. Automation and personalization are now totally accessible for the DIY marketer. For example, 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 to send more individualized messages. You can use dynamic content to change certain parts of the email based on the 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.


Chapter 3

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, the 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 endeavors 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 are now able 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 helpful information.

How to think about personalization in your marketing

Marketers know that screwing up recipient’s names or preferences can lead to turned-off subscribers and list decay. If you don’t do personalization correctly, you can wind up sending irrelevant messages to subscribers. However, “send fear” is getting in the way of marketers’ success, and the best way to move forward is to experiment with personalization. Start small by implementing only a few changes, then begin testing those 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 in my 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 signup 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 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 a particular plan
  • Behavioral data such as customer vs. prospect

Examples of companies using personalization

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

Converse uses first name in subject lines

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

Email List Building - Converse - Email Personalization

Source: Converse

Campaign Monitor personalizes using geography

We recently personalized an email campaign based on the subscriber’s 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” portion of the email campaign to the account manager that the recipient communicates with regularly. 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.

Source: Dubsat

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


Chapter 4

Using a healthy list for email automation

Once you have high-quality lists and can personalized campaigns, you should consider 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

It’s best to think of email automation 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.

Source: BuzzFeed

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

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 signup form and uses that custom field to schedule emails that the expectant subscriber will receive. This approach is an effective and creative use of automation.

Zurb welcomes subscribers with automated emails

ZURB, a product design company, sends out several newsletters to its subscribers, as well as automated welcome emails to recently-added subscribers. These welcome emails see 70-80% open rates and 40-45% click-through rates.

Source: ZURB

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.

Source: Morgan Jewelers


Chapter 5

Email list building under GDPR

The GDRP stands for the General Data Protection Regulation. It is a joint proposal created by the European Commission, European Parliament, and the Council of the EU. The GDPR helps to provide individuals with greater control over the collection and use of their personal data.

Initially, the GDPR caused email marketers both stress and anxiety. However, once marketing teams took the time to review and study the new rule and regulations, they found it wasn’t nearly as complex as it originally seemed.

Many feared their email marketing lists were going to decrease dramatically. However, it turns out that the opposite was true. Nearly 60% of organizations that reworked their marketing strategies to comply with the GDPR saw less than a 10% change in the overall size of their marketing lists.

What Is GDPR?

While the goal of the GDRP proposal was to protect all EU citizens from any privacy and data breaches, some are still unclear on what this new regulation means for local citizens and marketers worldwide.

One of the most noteworthy changes brought on by this proposal was that the jurisdiction of the GDPR increased significantly to state that “all companies” that process personal data of citizens in the EU must follow the regulations set. This change impacts companies both in and outside of the EU that process any personal data of EU citizens.

Companies are responsible for legally collecting and protecting the data of their consumers. If they do not comply, they can be fined up to 4% of their annual global turnover or $22,487,060.00 (US dollars), whichever is the larger amount.

How GDRP saved email marketing

Those are some big numbers, so it’s no wonder that companies were concerned.
However, if marketers are already applying best email practices, there is little for them to worry about regarding these changes.

The GDRP requires marketers to be completely transparent with their subscribers when it comes to how they plan on communicating with them. It also requires the subscriber to make their preferences known to the company.

A proper email marketing strategy should include some form of onboarding or opt-in for subscribers, meaning that you are reaching out to consumers to offer a service or content and the consumer has the choice to say, “Yes, I want to receive information,” or, “No, I want to opt-out/unsubscribe.”

Consider this example from SXSW.

They have a very clear call to action here: either opt-in or opt-out of receiving emails, then customize the content you want to receive.

Source: Campaign Monitor

This one-or-the-other option is great for email marketers because it helps you build a list of subscribers that truly want to receive the information that you have to provide.

If you are already practicing the steps we’ve discussed for email list building, then the GDPR shouldn’t be of too much of a concern for you. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay updated on the proposal and the details as they continue to update.

Maintaining email list hygiene is particularly important, so be sure to send out an updated message allowing users the option to “opt in” to continue receiving your emails. For those who don’t respond or remain inactive, it’s safe to say that you can purge those emails.

Chapter 6

Wrap up

In this new era of email marketing, it’s not enough to simply 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.

Some steps include:

  • Maintaining list health
  • Using campaign automation
  • Personalizing your campaigns

With the tips and tactics presented throughout this guide, you can grow a quality list and use personalization and email automation to increase the success of your email marketing campaigns.

Have a subscriber list but need help with personalization and automation? Campaign Monitor can help! Get started today for free!

Survey Methodology

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%

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