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Since the dawn of email marketing, one question has hounded agencies and businesses alike more than any other: How do you grow an email list?

Even the best content in the world won’t matter much if no one reads it. On the other hand, the more aggressively you push people to sign up, the more likely they are to see you as someone they don’t look forward to hearing from.

For Digital Impulse’s Andrew Kolidas and Chapin Bennett, solving this riddle would lead to hitting an open rate of nearly 80%—but to get there, they had to throw out the conventional wisdom. That made some of their clients a little uncomfortable.

“Clients like certainty,” Kolidas says. “And the most guaranteed way to get more names on your email list is to buy them.”

The practice of purchasing email lists is not uncommon (although it is prohibited by MailChimp). Sometimes these lists are purchased from third parties, but more often they’re acquired through co-branding campaigns between partners. If you’ve ever signed up for a political organization’s newsletter, you may have noticed an uptick in emails from similarly aligned groups in your inbox.

Did you read those emails? Probably not—in which case you can likely guess the downside of this approach.

“It brings down your whole conversion rate,” Kolidas says. “The people who didn’t ask to hear from you are a lot less likely to read what you’ve got to say. And the result can be bad data that leads you to abandon a successful campaign.”

What Kolidas and Bennett needed was a way to grow email lists with engaged, interested users. That’s when they turned to social media.

A convert of social media

When Kolidas and Bennett first began running social media campaigns, their concern wasn’t growing mailing lists. It was all about the sales—which, frankly, didn’t look so hot.

“Clients sometimes look at the conversion rates from social media and see them as catastrophically low compared to other sources,” Kolidas says. “So they’re hesitant to make the investment.”

“The struggle has always been to turn social traffic into sales,” Bennett says. “When we were first thinking through this problem, we thought, like a lot of people—if social media traffic to a site didn’t lead to a sale, that was a failure to us.”

The disconnect between traffic and sales led them to investigate further—what stopped people from making a purchase?

“Most social is done through apps,” Kolidas says. “It’s very mobile-centric traffic. And when people are on their phones, they’re a lot less likely to go through all the steps of making a purchase.”

This insight made them wonder if their approach to social media was all wrong. Maybe it was less useful for making sales than it was for growing email lists. After all, social media offers a great deal of demographic data—information that can be especially helpful when searching for lookalike audiences of a business’s existing customer base. Adding to the advantages of the approach was MailChimp’s list segmentation, which further allowed demographic data to drive automated email campaigns.

These capabilities made it clear to Kolidas and Bennett that social media could net a lot of mailing list signups. Provided, of course, that they could find the right incentive.

“If you don’t have the right list to power your automation program, it’s not going to go well.”

Everyone’s a winner

“We didn’t invent sweepstakes,” Bennett says. “But what we have done is come up with a very efficient way to run them using MailChimp.”

The idea was straightforward—users would be entered into a contest to win prize packages in exchange for their email addresses. But to make it worthwhile, the agency had to target the right audience.

“We decided who we wanted on our list and used those demographic attributes to create our Facebook ad campaigns promoting the sweepstakes,” Kolidas says. “As people signed up, we put that demographic data into MailChimp to create segmented lists. So these sweepstakes programs allowed us to build lists for automated email campaigns.”

“When we stopped worrying as much about making sales through social media, it allowed us to think about how we could use it for these automated campaigns,” Bennett says. “We started looking at the automated emails as one touchpoint of many that nurtured subscribers into making a purchase.”

Changing the focus from sales to email signups was also an effective way to get around the fact that so much social media activity occurs on mobile devices.

“The conversion from click to sale isn’t great, but people on mobile are a lot more willing to fill out a single field with their email address,” Kolidas says. “They’re also more motivated to act. You’re not selling something—you’re offering a chance to win.”

Using data from the sweeps to create highly targeted lists has been the first step of an effective automated email campaign, Kolidas says. As signups come in, they’re added to unique lists that can be used for all automated campaigns going forward.

At the end of the sweepstakes campaigns, winners are announced in emails that have earned open rates as high as 77%. This is also an opportunity to reach out to those who didn’t win.

“We automatically follow up with special coupons or other trackable promotions,” Kolidas says. “That way, we can see the entire journey from signing up through social media to how or when they convert.”

Through their sweepstakes programs, Kolidas and Bennett have found a powerful and effective way to create and track a list of targeted subscribers—the key ingredient in a successful automation campaign.

“If you don’t have the right list to power your automation program, it’s not going to go well,” Kolidas says. “The key takeaway with automation is that before you even start a campaign, you must strategize how you develop your list. We’ve found a way to do that.”

Digital Impulse headquarters in Watertown, Massachusetts.

4 ways to get more from automation

Building a solid list of subscribers is a critical step toward making your next automated campaign more effective. Here are a few other ways to make the most of automation.

  1. Retarget and re-engage. So your campaign got someone to your site, and they didn’t buy. Is that a wasted visit? Bennett doesn’t think so. “It’s an opportunity to retarget the visitor based on what they viewed,” he says. “Product retargeting emails are an extremely valuable feature of MailChimp, allowing you to run automated campaigns based on user behavior.” Automation isn’t always about instant conversion. Sometimes it’s about nurturing a potential customer over time by sending emails specific to their browsing habits. Learn more about how these emails work and how you can create them.
  2. Figure out what your subscribers are worth. It’s a lot harder to see the value of an automated campaign if you don’t know the value of new subscribers. “Clients have very sophisticated ways to track revenue,” Kolidas says, “but they don’t often know what the ideal cost for email is. They’re not tracking the revenue effectively from the program. But once they do, it changes the metrics of everything they do.” Better data means better decisions.
  3. Track the full path of conversion. Not all “organic sales” are what they appear. “Sometimes what looks organic is actually the result of being touched by an automated campaign,” Bennett says. “To really understand what drives a sale, we want to track the conversion path as far back as possible.” If your tracking is too shallow, you may be underestimating the effectiveness of your automated campaigns.
  4. Take advantage of flexibility. “The great thing about MailChimp is that it doesn’t dictate what your mix of tools should be,” Kolidas says. “You can do anything you want with it.” Don’t let your tools determine the shape of your campaign. Instead, figure out what you want the campaign to accomplish, then assemble the right combination of tools to get it done.

Illustrations by TRZØWN, an illustration studio of northeast-located, cartoon-watching, skateboarding illustrator/animator/printer Kirk Wallace.