How to Build Your Subscriber Base Without Paying for an Email List


Everyone keeps telling you, “don’t spend money on an email list – that’s not the way to do email marketing!

And as you might know, there are a lot of reasons you shouldn’t be buying email lists.

But where does that leave you, the email marketer who wants to reach more customers?

It’s all very well for experts to tell you what NOT to do. But what are the alternatives? What can you do instead?

In this post, we’ll look at 5 ways you can expand your email marketing reach without resorting to buying an email list. But first, we’ll recap the reasons why email lists are so tempting – and why they aren’t always a good idea.

The lure of the email list

It’s the immediacy of email lists that make them so tempting.

After all, you’re busy. Email marketing probably isn’t the only responsibility you have at your company. So the idea of being able to build a list of thousands of “customers,” for a one-off sum, can seem to make sense.

You’re faced with the choice between building a list of genuine subscribers through meaningful engagement – which can take months or years – or buying an email list in seconds. And the fast option can sound way more appealing.

The sellers of these lists are often great at making email lists sound like a legit solution, too. They talk about millions of new contacts. Segmentation that fits your needs. Fully cleansed data. All that stuff.

Should you trust them? That’s up to you. But what these selling are offering isn’t really legitimate – and for me, that usually rings alarm bells about how honest their sales pitch is, too.

Why not buy an email list? Here’s why.

So, besides it being a shady business generally, why shouldn’t you just take a punt on an email list and just see what happens? Here are some reminders why.

Because you don’t want to be a spammer

Do you like getting unsolicited emails? The kind that try to sell you something you usually have no interest in? From some company you’ve never heard of?

Of course you don’t. In fact, you probably take an instant dislike to any company that disrespects your privacy by sending you unwanted marketing.

So why would you want to become one of those spammers – and tarnish the reputation of your business in the process?

When you send thousands of messages to a bought email list, you might get a tiny response rate of around 0-2%. But you’ll also make a lot of enemies in the process. That can’t be good business.

Because it’s illegal

The American CAN-SPAM Act states that “a message cannot be sent to a harvested email address” –that means addresses in the lists you buy online.

In the UK, the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 says organisations must only send marketing emails to individuals who have agreed to receive them, except where there’s an existing customer relationship.

In Spain, the Information Society Services and Electronic Commerce Act sets out similar guidelines.

Ok, you probably won’t be prosecuted under these laws for using bought email lists. But is it worth the risk?

The email lists you can buy are of poor quality

The shady people who want to sell you an email list – do you think they’re really interested in helping your campaigns succeed?

Or are they just out to make money for themselves?

These are people who mine email data from individuals who would much rather maintain their privacy. Then they sell that data for their own gain, without the real owners’ consent.

To me, that doesn’t sound like something the seller of a quality product would do.

That’s probably why the email lists you can buy aren’t of good quality. The best email list you can acquire is one you build yourself.

Quality email marketing tools don’t let you use bought lists

If you’re talking about saving time, good email marketing tools like Mailrelay and Mailchimp save you loads of it. The power of these tools make your campaigns more effective, more responsive and easier to analyse.

The also prevent, or discourage, the use of bought email lists.

That’s because they need to protect their own IP reputations and delivery rates. Using a bought email list is a sure-fire way to damage them.

So if you want to use quality email marketing tools, forget about using a bought email list.

Using a bought email list will quickly kill your deliverability rates

Even if you don’t want to use an email sending service like Mailrelay or Mailchimp, buying an email list is still a terrible idea.

The email addresses you buy have already been sold to countless other businesses. Those businesses have already spammed the hell out of them. And anti-spam agencies like Return Path may well have decoy addresses in there.

So the moment you send your campaign out to one of these dubious email lists – your Sender Score could take a hit it’ll take months or years to recover from.

Your campaigns won’t reach their recipients. Even after you learn your lesson and stop using dodgy lists.

Of course, it’s up to you whether you buy one of these lists or not.

But you shouldn’t be too quick to trust sellers’ reassurances. And you shouldn’t be under any illusions about the potential dangers – to your own business’s reputation – of becoming a spammer.

If you’d rather do email marketing the right way – and a cheaper way too, since email lists can often cost thousands – here are the alternatives.

Alternative #1 – Get your signup forms right

If you aren’t going to buy an email list, you’re going to have to grow your subscriber list yourself. That means, obviously, getting people to subscribe to your list.

The most basic way you can do that is through a signup form on your website. But why stop at one – and why be boring about it?

If you want to maximise the number of new subscribers you get per week, you need to maximise the number of signup forms on your site.

(Don’t go overboard, obviously.)

Here are some places you might add a signup form:

– On your home page, inviting visitors to subscribe to your latest news, special offers and so on.

– On a modal dialog box, which could appear after a defined time period on every page (or a set of pages) on your website.

– At the foot of your blog posts, where you can invite readers to subscribe to your latest posts. If they made it to the end of this post, they probably want to read more!

The key point is – you should make it as easy as possible for potential subscribers to find your signup form. They should never have to go looking for it.

Once you have signup forms in all the right places, you need to make sure their design is good. Here are three golden rules:

1. Keep it simple – You need to place as few obstacles as possible between your site visitor and a successful signup. Use clear design and as few fields as possible – name and email should be enough.

2. Make the benefit clear – Nobody’s going to sign up to your email list just for the sake of it. Whether you’re offering indispensable tips, money off coupons, or something else, make sure your signup forms give potential subscribers a clear incentive.

3. Make it stand out – Successful email signups are probably one of the most important goals for your website. So don’t hide your forms on an obscure part of your page, with drab and hard-to-notice colours. Make your forms pop!

Alternative #2 – Use social media to gain subscribers

A signup form on your website is the most obvious way to build your email list – but it’s not the only method available to you.

As you’ve probably noticed, the likes of Facebook and Twitter never stop introducing new ways to advertise with them. And some of those include really nifty features for winning new email marketing subscribers.

On Twitter, you can use Lead Generation Cards to add a call to action button to your tweets. That call to action button could be something like “Subscribe to our newsletter!” and could take your prospect to a signup page on your site.


You can add a really neat call to action button to the banner of your Facebook page, too. Or you could add a tab to the page (just like your About section and so on) with your signup form right there.


If you’re active on Facebook and Twitter, then these are absolutely killer ways to build your subscriber list through genuine engagement. Much better than buying a list!

Alternative #3 – Offer subscribers an incentive

Have you thought about what you’re going to do with the several thousands of dollars you’re saving by not buying a poor quality email list?

Well, how about using some of that money to run a promotion that incentivises subscribers to join your list?

A good incentive – such as a discount code, or a free e-book – is a proven way to grow your list. That’s because you’re giving your subscribers something of real value.

Even more importantly, you’re giving them a very clear reason to sign up.

As an additional bonus, when you give something of value to a potential customer, the value they attach to your brand also grows. That’s the exact opposite effect of what happens when you send spam to someone you don’t know.

Here are some ideas for clear, attractive incentives you can offer new subscribers:

– “Get 20% off Product X when you sign up to our newsletter.” You can then send out coupon codes in autoresponders for new sign-ups, for a limited time.

– “Receive our free e-book when you sign up today.” Make sure your e-book is of good quality and highly relevant to your target customer base.

Alternative #4 – Reserve premium content for subscribers only

Here’s a different kind of incentive.

If you’re offering really useful, high quality content on your site – such as technical guides your customers otherwise might have to pay for – then it’s fair to ask something in return.

You don’t have to charge your readers money to see it. But you could require them to sign up for your email list to read the whole article.

They get something helpful. You get their email address, for as long as they choose to stay subscribed.

This method puts a small hurdle between potential customers and your content. And that can actually be a good thing – because it filters out those people who aren’t interested enough to take two minutes to sign up.

Alternative #5 – Use the power of live events

There’s something very powerful about one-off, live events – even when they’re attended over the web, instead of in person.

We human beings hate the thought of missing out on something interesting. So when we’re invited to a one-off event, such as a webinar, we get excited about attending – much more than we would about reading a web page that will still be there tomorrow.

That means we’re also more likely to share webinars and other events online than we are to share an article.

With Google Hangouts, Skype and all the other video conferencing tools out there, it’s now really easy to host a webinar and share your expertise online.

And when you require your webinar delegates to sign up with their email addresses to attend, you have another really engaging, exciting way to build your email list organically.

Good luck!

Those were my five tips for growing your email subscriber list without resorting to buying a list. What are your own favourites? Let us know in the comments!

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