person working on email strategy on laptop

5 Ways to Grow Your Email List on the Cheap


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

I recommend five free techniques to grow your email list. These techniques tap into your current website traffic and social media follower community.

illustration of a man trying to inflate a balloon with an "@" sign on it

1. Optimize the Email Sign-up Offer on Your Website Home Page

Your home page is usually the page that receives the most visitor traffic on your website, so it's critically important to optimize its email sign-up offer. Optimizing means that you determine the best location for your email sign-up widget and use the most effective language to drive sign-up activity.

The best location for an email sign-up widget is usually in the upper half of the page. It can be either a part of the top navigation or simply above the fold for larger screens.

Consider how people visiting your website with a mobile device such as a phone or smaller tablet will view the widget and fill it out. If your website's mobile traffic is over 25 percent of your total traffic, it's important to consider the mobile user experience. If your website is responsive for mobile devices, it will ideally enlarge the sign-up widget so that the form will not be too small and ineffective.

It's also essential to determine the best language to encourage email sign-ups. Too often, organizations use something bland like "Email sign-up" or "Get our newsletter" without considering how other language options might be more effective. Focusing on an issue or program area or simply using mission-based language may make a bigger impact.

Try "Get our Monday Activist Bulletin" or "Get weekly vegan recipes" or "Get weekly tips to expose police violence." Spend a few months to find the language that accelerates sign-ups.

2. Optimize the Email Sign-up Offer on Your Other Top 10 Pages

Although your website home page is your first priority, don't neglect to optimize how the offer is presented on the other 10 pages that get the most traffic. If your email sign-up offer is built into the navigation at the top of every page, that's excellent. But otherwise, make sure that your email offer is clearly visible, either as part of a sidebar or a callout bar in the middle of the page.

Again, be sure to review how these pages will look on smaller screens. If you have an appetite for more marketing data, you can set up a Google Analytics goal to measure which pages deliver the most email sign-ups. Then you can 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 digital download. A visitor is invited to download the item you're offering in exchange for their email sign-up.

Easy-to-create digital downloads include high-resolution desktop images for larger computer screens or smaller images for mobile phone lock screens. Other options could be exclusive essays or a collection of article reprints as PDF files. Additional popular options include exclusive audio interviews or video compilations. Try testing a series of these digital downloads over several months to assess what works best.

Don't forget to test out these digital downloads with your social media follower community. Use a graphic image to display 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 social media offers.

4. Consider Using a Pop-up Lightbox on Your Website

Once you're comfortable offering a digital download and you've optimized your messaging techniques, consider using a pop-up lightbox on your website to present your message more directly to your audience. While this is a more forceful marketing technique, it's also highly effective and may be something you could use a few times a year.

5. Try a List Exchange or a Chaperone Email to Reach New Audiences

Another free technique to build your email list is to work with a like-minded organization, a publisher, a media property, or a corporate partner. All of these entities can help get your message in front of new audiences.

A list exchange is a reciprocal agreement that two organizations will each send an email message to their list, introducing a project that the other organization is engaged in. This sort of movement-building activity is an effective way to seek out new email subscribers. It's common for two organizations to agree to email the same number of people and sometimes to exclude active donors from that list.

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