The New Rules of Email Subscriber Acquisition


For as long as marketers have been using email, email subscriber acquisition has been an important element of successful programs. The larger an email list, the greater the revenue opportunity. The more addresses a marketer acquires, the better chance he or she has of bringing on some great new customers.

Furthermore, keeping a list large and growing is not something that can wait “until later” as over the course of a year 30% or more of addresses on a list will lose their value either by becoming inactive, unsubscribing, or by being discarded by the address holder. And unless the traffic to a brand’s website is huge and likely to subscribe on the site, keeping a list growing through organic means only is nearly impossible. So acquiring as many new email addresses as possible at the lowest cost has always appeared to be the best strategy for email marketers. Particularly in light of the fact that sending emails is and has always been a very low-cost proposition compared to other marketing tactics.

In short, according to the traditional rules of email subscriber acquisition, quality was overrated in comparison to quantity. Whoever had the largest subscriber list was the winner. Whoever sent the most emails was the winner. A 5% engagement rate on a list of 10,000,000 subscribers always beats a 20% engagement rate on a list of 1 million subscribers according to the traditional rules. The financial cost of mailing to the bad addresses was negligible and was far outweighed by the benefits of the transactions generated. But there were other costs incurred in pursuing this strategy that made this approach extremely risky, becoming increasingly risky in recent years.

ESPs have always been aware of the risks of an acquisition strategy that focused on adding as many new email addresses at the lowest possible cost. This is because:

  1. Paid sources of new email address invariably include a lot of bad addresses, including spam traps, and,
  2. The performance of the new email addresses acquired from paid sources is marginal at best (unless getting a client blocked is a performance metric)

That’s the reason ESPs have never been comfortable with clients sourcing new addresses using co-registration, let alone rented lists. They know it is only a matter of time before that client’s deliverability nose-dives, (which can also impact other ESP clients because of shared-IPs).

Given the attitudes of the ESPs toward email subscriber acquisition, the practice was in some ways driven underground. Email marketers did what they thought they needed to do and kept the details of where new subscribers came from to themselves. Or they would issue ultimatums to their ESPs to run a co-registration program on their behalf, “or else”. Attendees at the numerous email marketing conferences began to follow their own version the of the Rules of Fight Club from the 1999 movie of Fight Club starring Brad Pitt and Ed Norton:

  1. The first rule: you do not talk about Email Subscriber Acquisition
  2. The second rule: you DO NOT talk about Email Subscriber Acquisition!

Fast forward to today. Ignoring the need to add new email subscribers to your list is no more an option now than it was before. Your list is either growing or it’s shrinking. Shrinking is not a good strategy for any email marketer. Besides, email is not just for retention. New subscribers have a funny habit of becoming customers. There isn’t a brand in existence that has ever managed to grow its market share by only mailing to existing subscribers. So what’s an email marketer to do if the traditional rules are too risky? Over the last several years I’ve done a lot of work with companies that provide acquisition services, as well as with marketers who need to grow their lists. From this work I’ve developed a blueprint that can help marketers grow lists, risk-free and at scale. These are the new rules of email subscriber acquisition.

The New Rules of Email Subscriber Acquisition:

  1. Don’t jeopardize the inbox. In other words, don’t engage in any acquisition tactic that may have a negative impact on your delivery. In practice this means that you should never add anyone to your subscriber list that you don’t know for certain wants to be there. Sounds straightforward, right? But every time you use co-registration to acquire new addresses you are breaking this rule. In fact, if you pre-check a “sign me up for email” box during the purchase confirmation process on your site you are also breaking this rule. Free-will opt-in means exactly what it says. That person willingly gave you his or her email address (or permission to use it) with the express intent of getting promotional emails or newsletters from you.
  2. Quality is in; quantity is out. It’s longer about how many email addresses you add; what counts is how many email subscribers you add to your list. What’s the difference? An email address just sits in your database. You want to add email subscribers who open, click and transact. You know there is a person behind an email address that does those things. You don’t know what may be behind an email address that never engages. If these inactive email addresses were just overhead, that would be one thing. But we know they’re not. ISPs pay close attention to the promotional campaigns marketers send and will throttle campaigns (or worse) if a marketer continues to send campaigns including what the ISPs consider to contain too high a proportion of inactives.
  3. Don’t rely on dumb luck. In the old days of email address strip mining you could rely on dumb luck because it was a game of numbers. You knew you would get some quality addresses as long as you brought in enough total addresses. Today, email subscriber acquisition should be as disciplined as any other type of direct marketing. Which means you should target those sources that provide you with the highest quality of new email subscribers. And you should be continually testing new sources to see how they perform against your best existing sources. To do these things, however, requires that you know exactly where each new subscriber came from, and you also know exactly how well that subscriber performs after being added to your database.   The real winners when it comes to email subscriber acquisition are those marketers who optimize on an ongoing basis the sources of new subscribers. Over time, they are adding more subscribers who engage and transact more often. Luck is not a strategy.

An immediate benefit for email marketers who follow the new rules is that they will find their ESPs to be willing partners in the effort. Because of the New Rules’ relentless focus on free-will opt-in, ESPs that I’ve worked with—most notably Cheetah Digital—have been very willing to work with their email clients and the right vendors to help grow higher performing email subscriber lists. The days of not talking about email subscriber acquisition in polite company can be put behind us! There are still plenty of marketers who aren’t following the new rules, and they will invariably run into the same problems as others have in the past. But I can assure you that if you follow the New Rules of Email Subscriber Acquisition your program results will improve as your list grows. And you won’t find yourself dealing with spamhaus or anyone else keeping you from the inbox.

Title: The New Rules of Email Subscriber Acquisition
About: Email List Acquisition
Audience: Email Marketers
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