Techniques for building an email database

Sign Up

We’ll look are a few techniques to help you get started building and managing your own email lists.

  • Sign-up forms
  • Incentives
  • Buying access to email lists
  • Partnering with other list owners
  • List rentals
  • Testing and improving response

The sign-up form

This is such a simple-looking thing that it’s often given little thought. But each element of a sign-up form can have a big impact on the number of people who sign up.

Add a sign-up box to your website

This will be one of the best, and lowest cost, sources for your list. You should place a sign-up box in a prominent position, or in several locations on your website or blog. Have a clear call to action and compelling offer. Some email programs also provide apps that let you add a sign-up box to a Facebook Page.

Less information, better response

You may want to know lots about your subscribers but it’s a mistake to ask too much. Each question will reduce sign-ups. A better strategy is to make it very easy to sign-up (just an email address, or email plus name) and go back later to find out more.

Add a clear privacy policy

Have a privacy policy for your database and add a link to it right next to the sign-up box. You’ll probably improve response even more if you add a brief statement of your policy plus a link to the privacy statement. For instance, ‘We’ll never rent or sell your name’.

Make it double opt-in

It’s a good idea to follow this industry best practice right from the start. Apart from being a good check against malicious sign-ups, it’s also a requirement for many of the reputable list management services.

Incentives: Offer something valuable for free

You can’t beat the power of free and if you offer something valuable, people will give you their email address in exchange.

  • Excerpts and short ebooks. These are great for this because they can be of high perceived value and they cost zero to distribute. The giveaway can be a few chapters of a novel or, for non-fiction, a chapter or short work on a specific, high-interest topic.
  • Ebooks. Consider giving away an entire ebook. As well as capturing an opt-in email address, it can have flow-on sales benefits. If it’s part of a series, this technique leads to sales uplift for the other titles in the series. And, while I wouldn’t suggest this as a long term strategy, you can try giving away the entire ebook to promote sales of the printed edition. Finally, giving away your ebook for a limited period of time can be a great strategy to get early readers and some good reviews — email them after they’ve read your ebook and ask for a quick review.
  • Offer your blog posts by email. There are many ways you can make it easy for people to follow your blog, like Twitter or RSS feeds. But a great one is email because you get a name on your database. You can use a service like Feedburner to automate the process of converting your blog post to a newsletter and emailing it.
  • Newsletters work provided they contain high-value material – have a link next to the sign-up box to samples of previous newsletters.
  • Webinars. These online seminars or presentations are relatively easy and inexpensive to do now. They can be highly effective as a list development tool and people are usually willing to provide quite a bit of information in order to sign up. It’s especially effective in a business market though webinars are beginning to make inroads into consumer markets. And authors are great talent and drawcards for webinars.

Tip: Buy access to someone else’s email list

Several companies have developed large, well-targeted email lists that you can buy access to. The leader in the field is BookBub ( but there are several other players, including Amazon and Goodreads. Examples of other popular list providers are ( and Ignite Your Book (

The best of them turn away far more books than they promote — a sign of just how effective they are — so it can be competitive to get listed. You’ll have to offer a special price to readers since these are “deal of the day” newsletters, but it’s well worth the advertising cost and discount if you’re successful. One common strategy is to start with a less popular list, build up your reviews, ratings and sales rank, then upgrade to a ‘premium’ list.

Note that the way these lists work, they will not in general help you to build up your own email database. Typically, readers interested in your book will buy from Amazon or another online store, and all other dealings will will be with the list service though you’ll get some direct sign-ups from the increased awareness. If you want to partner with list providers in a way that will help you build your own list directly, try some of the techniques below.

Partnering with list owners

There will be others in your market that have a great list or following from a complementary product or service.

Offer a service for a mention and link

Publishers and authors are in a great position to offer something valuable to organisations with good lists. Many of them will be open to good quality, relevant content or giveaways to help them build or retain their own list subscribers.

These can be offered in exchange for mentions and links back to your site or special landing page. Examples are:

  • Guest blog post
  • Newsletter items
  • Webinar presenter


In direct marketing jargon, a premium is a free gift or incentive that’s used to encourage people to buy, or to upsell them. So another approach is to propose a custom mini-ebook on a relevant topic and offer it to the list owner as a free premium in exchange for getting the names of people who responded. (Note that privacy terms in the offer would need to make this arrangement clear to respondents.)

Sponsor emails

This can be done for cash or on a barter basis. Some companies, and lots of media organisations, send out emails on behalf of advertisers or allow companies to sponsor the email. This can be a great way to get an endorsement and a link back to your sign-up page.

Buying and renting lists

While the best lists are the carefully-targeted and qualified lists that you’ve built up over years, you sometimes need a quick start or access to a list in a niche outside your usual field. In this case, you might look at buying or renting access to other mailing lists.

  • Buying lists. Sometimes, you’ll be able to buy a suitable list — that is, you’ll acquire the actual names and contact details which you can add to your own database.  This might be possible if the list has been compiled from public sources such as business or government agency lists. You should be wary of acquiring consumer databases with personal information unless you’re very confident of the list vendor’s credentials.
  • Renting lists. More commonly – and almost certainly with consumer lists containing private contact details – you’ll have to pay a service provider to send an email to the list on your behalf and you’ll never see the names. This is known as list rental. The service provider or list broker holds the names securely and uses them strictly in accordance with the permissions granted by the people on the lists, so the only contacts you can add to your own database are those who have responded directly to your offer (and given you permission to add their names to your marketing database).

Make sure you deal with a reputable list broker and that the lists themselves are permission-based and comply with privacy codes. You’ll have to check out their credentials very carefully. A couple of warning signs: Little or no verifiable information about them on their website; and cheap prices for huge numbers of emails. Ask for customers you can contact. Don’t let an illegal spammer trash your reputation.

Test, test, test

Whatever you do, be prepared to test things, measure the results, make changes, and test again. Successful direct marketing is a process of constant, incremental improvement. When you make changes, take care that you only change one thing at a time – too many changes and you won’t know which one had the impact.

List management services offer tools to track things such as the number of recipients who opened the email, and the links they clicked on. Some also offer A/B split testing you that you can test alternative versions of message headers, offers, etc. You can also connect to Google Analytics and other web tracking services.

Spam Check First!!

Email spam filters are almost universal nowadays and one of the early challenges you’ll face when you send email promotions is actually getting into your recipient’s inbox. Spam filters look out for common words and phrases that appear in sales letters (like ‘free’, or excessive !!) and simply send those emails straight to the Spam folder.

You can test your emails. Here’s a link to a handy, free Email Spam Checker that you can run your email through before you send it. It will generate a Message Quality Score that will help you to isolate potentially troublesome phrases.

Contactology Email Spam Checker



Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.


8 effective email marketing strategies, backed by science


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