Through an arrangement with TechSoup, PND is pleased to offer a series of articles about the effective use of technology by nonprofits.

5 Ways to Grow Your Email List on the Cheap

5 Ways to Grow Your Email List on the Cheap

Growing your organization's email list is a critical strategic goal for every nonprofit. Even with average email open rates of around 20 percent, email is consistently the best-performing communications tool for most nonprofits, so growing your list will help you spread your brand, grow your reach, recruit volunteers, and raise money.

The following five techniques are designed to leverage your website traffic and social media followers to grow your list.

1. Optimize the email sign-up call to action on your home page. Your home page is usually the page of your site that receives the most visitor traffic, so it's critically important that you optimize your email sign-up call to action there. By "optimize" I mean determining the best location for your email sign-up widget and crafting language that drives sign-up activity.

The best location for an email sign-up widget is usually anywhere in the upper half of the page, either a part of your site's top navigation menu or, for larger screens, somewhere above the fold.

Also think about how people visiting your website on a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet will experience the widget and registration process. If your site's mobile traffic is more than 25 percent of your overall traffic, you'll definitely want to consider the mobile user experience. Websites designed with mobile devices in mind should automatically resize the sign-up widget so that the form isn't too small and hard to use for mobile users.

It's also important to think about the language you use to encourage people to sign up for your emails. Too often, organizations fall back on bland phrases like "Email sign-up" or "Get our newsletter" without really considering other, more creative options. A focus on an issue or program area, or simply using mission-based language, may have a bigger impact. Active phrases like "Get our Monday Activist Bulletin" or "Get weekly tips on how to expose police violence" can be much more effective than standard boilerplate. Spend a few months experimenting with different options, and don't be afraid to be creative.

2. Optimize the email sign-up offer on your other Top 10 pages. Although the home page should be your first priority, don't neglect to optimize how the sign-up call to action is presented on other high-traffic pages. If it's built into the navigation at the top of every page, that's excellent. But otherwise, make sure your call to action is clearly visible, either as part of a sidebar or a call-out bar in the middle of the page.

Again, be sure to review how these pages look on smaller screens. If you have an appetite for additional marketing data, set up a Google Analytics goal to measure which pages deliver the most email sign-ups. Then focus your ongoing efforts to optimize the placement of the widget and the sign-up language.

3. Test out a digital download to capture email addresses. A proven technique to capture email addresses, either from your website visitors or your social media followers, is to offer a free digital download (i.e., visitors to the site are invited to download an item in exchange for their email address).

Easy-to-create digital downloads include everything from high-resolution desktop images, to a collection of article reprints as a PDF,  to  an exclusive audio interview or video compilation. Try testing a couple of options over several months to determine which works best.

And don't forget to test out the options with your social media followers. Use a graphic image to promote the offer and then create a trackable link to a page on your website where the download activity takes place. Be sure to use a Google Analytics goal to measure the impact of your different social media campaigns.

4. Consider using a lightbox pop-up on your site. Once you're comfortable offering some kind of digital download in exchange for a visitor's email address and you've optimized your messaging, consider using a lightbox pop-up — a pop-up that appears over the visited page while the latter is darkened and inactivated — on your site to present your message more directly to your audience. While this is a more forceful marketing technique, it's also a highly effective one and could be something you only use a few times a year.

5. Try a list exchange or a chaperone email to reach new audiences. Another technique is to work with a publisher, media property, or corporate partner to build your email list. If chosen carefully, any of these can be a great partner in terms of getting your message in front of new audiences.

list exchange is a reciprocal agreement between two organizations to send an email message introducing a partner (or a partner's project) to the other partner's list subscribers. While this sort of reciprocal movement-building activity can be a very effective way to secure new email subscribers, it's not uncommon for the organizations involved to agree to email the same number of people and sometimes to exclude active donors from the target list.

A variant on this technique is the chaperone email, where a publisher, media property, or corporate partner promotes your campaign via an email blast, dedicated website feature, or social media posting as part of a strategic partnership.

So there you have it — five things your organization can do to build its email list(s). As you start to experiment with any or all of them, remember: develop, test, and evaluate. As with most things involving the Web and websites, iteration is your friend and data should be your guide. 

Good luck!

Michael Stein is a writer, techno-observer, and futurist with a passion for nonprofits, consumer rights, digital fundraising, email messaging, and social media.