How to start with building your email list

Contributor: Weronika Paszewska

There has already been so much said about email lists. Certainly, many organisations use this as a main channel of communication. Yet we still see advocacy CSOs, NGOs and Nonprofits that rely only on Facebook pages and other social platforms and do not gather contact data of their supporters or - perhaps just as bad - treat their supporters as a giant container for throwing one-way information.

We’re not talking about every mailing list here. More specifically, about mailing lists that aim to engage and involve your supporters in your work and for your cause. For this purpose, a general newsletter that consists of updates and information about your organisation or area within which you work doesn’t usually serve much purpose.

Email is a unique way to reach out to your supporters because it is independent - in a sense that, at scale, you can control to whom you communicate and what. With an email list you own your supporter data. It is not dependent on social media platforms algorithms that change very often and can cut reach day by day and favour big spendings on social media ads. Experts long-time ago predicted the death of email. It didn’t happen and doesn’t look like it will in the near future. So let's discuss how to build a mailing list that’s going to move you in the direction of mobilisation and organising.


Where to start?

The very basic thing that you need to set up is a signup form on your website. You need to collect at least a name and an email address. It is great to also ask for a phone number to allow for both the possibility of one-to-one contact and SMS blasts. The data from this form should automatically update contacts in your CRM (Client Relationship Management system). This is a big topic - which CRM to choose. If you are at the beginning of this journey we recommend ActionNetwork, NationBuilder or EveryAction. ActionNetwork is a low-cost one - good for getting started, whereas NationBuilder and EveryAction are slightly more robust systems. They allow you to manage your contacts and also have an email broadcaster - a system that sends blasts to thousands of people, allows you to design them and track metrics. CRM can also give you the possibility of offering various CTAs to your supporters either through a website, landing pages or embedded in other places where you might drive new supporter traffic.


How to do it?

There are a few things that you should keep in mind. 

It is good to keep frequent communication with your supporters. It is like being friends. If you do not call them or receive calls for some time, it is easy to think that we are not important or close to them anymore. Frequent communication helps people to get a sense that you are an active organisation and there are lots of things happening and that maybe they should be a part of them. It is not like monthly email is enough to convince them to take action. Your frequent communication allows them to get you a bit more and this is crucial for building trust between supporters and organisation. Some say at least once a week, so send e-mails 4-5 times a week. It depends on the character of your organisation and your relation to your supporters. There are no easy answers here. 

Do not write without a good reason. Keep people engaged with important activities. They will feel it when it is not sincere and honest. 

Petitions are the easiest tool for CSO to have fast and low effort growth for the mailing list. We recommend delivering to decision-makers your petitions every time you launch them. It is a bit like a promise that you gather voices and take them to decision-makers. So even if you use petitions mostly for growth, and do not have an impact very much in mind, be decent and respect people’s effort and deliver your petition and signatures behind it. So set up an appointment with the recipient of the petition or at least send it with signatures electronically. And one more important thing: Petitions work best for growth when there is a moment for them when people feel urgency or outrage about a topic or issue. Planning them ahead of time for the upcoming year is not really an approach that will bring you easy and fast growth. 

Keep both ways of communication. Do not throw messages at people and then ignore their responses. It is the easiest way for diminishing trust and having a big mailing list with little responsiveness. For example, you can ask for feedback from supporters at the website through a form or send them a survey asking for opinions. It takes some time, so plan it ahead of time before you send your blast. If you are understaffed, no worries! It is also a great opportunity to engage volunteers and organise a gathering and do this job together, while also socialising and having some fun together.


Understand your list. Understand your people.

A mailing list used in a smart way, can be a source of great knowledge about your supporters and also an amazing asset to increase your impact. There are a couple of things that allow you to understand people better:

  • Basic metrics like open rates, click rates, conversation rates from the blast and conversion rates on the landing page. The click rates tell us the most about the content of our blast and the CTA (call to action) that we included in the email.
  • Testing. You can test various things. Your imagination is only limited by the tools you use. Most of the organisations do test the subject lines of their emails. But this doesn’t tell you much about your audience. Testing the content of your blast would do the job. You find out which angles and narratives speak the best to your audience, what kind of topics and CTAs are ones that are suitable for this moment.
  • Analysis and Optimisation - no matter if you have 10k, 50k or 500k on your mailing lists, these are not the same people. It is worth analysing their behaviour and optimising your approach based on this. You can use for example cohort analysis and see if a group that came a long time ago has any patterns of interests or behaviour. Maybe it would make sense to treat them differently and even to other activities than newcomers? So analytics are inextricably connected to the segmentation of your mailing lists.Of course, it requires some time. But it is going to be worth it.