Developing an effective mailing list

Photo credit: AJC via / CC BY-SA

In December’s Useful Tools post, we looked at options for email list providers, and why it’s a good idea to use a service such as MailChimp. But once you’ve got your list set up, how can you best use it to reach your audience?

Once you’ve decided to set up a mailing list, you need to encourage people to join. The first thing to do is create a sign-up form, embed it on your website and link it to your social media accounts. You may choose to put it as a pop-up on your website (although it’s important to note that Google now penalises mobile sites that use pop-ups) or just have it as a simple link or button. Make sure the design of your sign-up form adheres to your branding in terms of logos, colours and fonts. If you’re hosting an event, you can also have an area where people can sign up directly. MailChimp, for example, has an app that lets you display your sign-up form on a tablet.


In general, the best way to build a mailing list is by providing some sort of incentive—something subscribers can’t receive anywhere else. Although it used to be enough to offer ‘regular news and updates,’ these days some sort of free content or other material incentive tends to work best. Many authors, for example, use a free ebook as an incentive to attract new subscribers. The amateur theatre group above could offer a voucher for one complementary ticket to its next show, valid for a certain number of months from the date of the subscription.

Although this may seem counterintuitive, it’s what is known as a ‘loss leader’ in marketing and economics, where something is sold below its market value in order to drive sales of other related products .  For example, in the case of an amateur theatre group, the cost of one complimentary ticket will probably be offset by future ticket purchases from that subscriber, especially since people generally prefer to go to the theatre with others, so that subscriber may actually bring along new audience members who would not otherwise have come to the show.

Whatever incentive you offer, you need to make good on it. Don’t make an offer and then hamstring it with arduous conditions or otherwise make it difficult for the subscriber to claim. By giving you their contact details, your subscribers are placing trust in your organisation, and they are also giving you a very valuable marketing tool. Don’t take it for granted.

Sending emails

There are a couple of different ways to manage your mailing list. You could decide to send out a regular newsletter—for example, monthly or fortnightly (weekly tends to get a bit spammy)—or you could send out news emails on an ad hoc basis, such as when you have a major event. What works best will depend on your organisation and target audience.

Make sure your template is clean and easy to read, and that your content has been proofread and is properly spaced. Don’t make your email too long—people’s attention spans are short and their time is limited. Put your most important messages up front. The tone of your email should conform to your brand voice.

Embed links in your emails that subscribers can visit for further information, but avoid saying ‘click here’. It should be clear where the link is going to (‘click here’ could go anywhere) and bear in mind that many of your subscribers will be viewing your email on a smartphone or tablet, rather than using a mouse (so not technically ‘clicking’). Make sure all your links are active and unbroken before you send the email.

Send a test version to yourself before you send it to your list, so you can check the layout, design and link functionality, and check for any other errors.

Avoiding spam

You will need to comply with anti-spam legislation and your mailing list provider should have procedures in place to help you do this. Among other things, this means you will need to provide contact details, including a postal address, which will go out on every email you send. You will also need to make sure your subscribers are able to unsubscribe at any time (this is usually done through an automated link).

Remember that most people receive tens or even hundreds of emails per day, so don’t annoy your subscribers by emailing them too often. If your open rates are going down and your sending frequency is high, this could indicate frustration among your subscribers with the number of emails you’re sending them.

Keep your list up to date

This is a huge issue for volunteer organisations, particularly those with a lot of turnover in their membership. Although automatic unsubscribe buttons help, if you’re sending out members-only emails then you need to make sure that your list is kept up to date, that new members are added, and that anyone who is no longer a member is removed. This means the person in charge of your membership needs to go through the mailing list regularly to check that it remains accurate. There’s no point sending emails to people who no longer want or need to receive them, and in the worst case you may have issues with confidentiality if non-members are receiving members-only information.

A well-functioning mailing list is still one of the best outreach tools available as you’re going directly to your audience. Above all, respect their time and the trust they’re placing in your organisation.

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