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Email Marketing Best Practices Part 1: Three Steps for Building a House List

In the age of hyper-local, psychographic, machine-learning, voice-driven, responsive, add-your-buzzword-here marketing, the most powerful tool you’ve got is …


It’s true. We consistently see the best return per user using email.

That assumes your audience is Gen X or older, of course. For millennials and younger, look to influencer marketing, video, and, once they’re in the workplace, email again.

The Basics

Rented lists get you busted for spam, whether they fit the legal definition or not. Purchased lists are no better. They’re both littered with out-of-date addresses and unwitting subscribers and cross-subscribers.

Don’t try to buy your way in. Your best email marketing asset is a homegrown house list.

Whether you sell products or services, lightbulbs or architecture, you need a house list. The house list is the most reliable marketing tool you’ve got—and it can be incredibly easy to assemble, making it cost- and time-effective as well.

At our last check, client house list subscribers had a measurable dollar value. That means we can look at a house list and say “one email address on this list is worth $x/year.”

That’s significant for three reasons:

  1. That’s not cents. It’s dollars. And those dollars add up quickly.
  2. The value of a single subscriber and of an entire email list are easily measured.
  3. Value per address stays consistent as the list grows. Unlike other channels and lists, the house subscribers keep their value.

No matter how fancy your product or service, no matter how dated email seems, you need a house list.

Here’s how you build it.

1. Be Opportunistic

You need organic growth. That means being creative and nonintrusive. I like to use two techniques to encourage readers to become subscribers of my email list.

Use Confirmation Emails

Confirmation emails are a sleek ad-hoc email list builder. Folks who receive a confirmation email after a favorable experience are a receptive audience.

You can add an invitation to order confirmations, support ticket requests (only if you resolve the problem!), order updates, and other “thank you” messages. Use those positive experiences as an opportunity to invite folks to sign up for your house list, make a donation, or fulfill another business goal.

But don’t start a subscription spiral: If you send someone a subscription confirmation, don’t invite them to subscribe to something else. Use complementary calls to action, not repetitive ones.

Use Form Invites

Add a clean, simple “subscribe” call to action to your review, information request, and blog comment forms. Don’t make a fuss. Use a checkbox and a note like “Would you like to …” with an invite to the house list.

Do not precheck the box. It’s a used car sales tactic, and it leaves a bad taste in your audience’s collective mouth.

2. Always Feed the House List

To me, the house list is the core email tool. Every subscription invitation feeds that list.

My confirmation email and form invites ask users if they’d like to subscribe to the house list. If I announce a new product or offer, I include an invitation to join the house list, so new and old readers get a consistent message and plenty of opportunities to join.

Once they’ve joined, I use the house list to promote products, services, and special offers, and invite participation in other campaigns.

3. Clean the House List Regularly

Your house list should be the highest-engagement marketing list you have. If you can’t get at least 10% of house list subscribers to open your emails, something’s wrong. That means you have to keep it clean—and populated by individuals who actually want to be there.

  • Build a house list by inviting people. Don’t add them by default. Don’t automatically add customers. Don’t automatically add commenters.
  • Invite individuals no more than once a year.
  • Clean it. If someone fails to open an email more than three times in a row, remove them from the list or contact them directly. If an email hard bounces, remove it.
  • If someone sends you a message saying “please remove me,” remove them. Don’t punish the audience because they didn’t click “unsubscribe.”

Regularly cleaning your house list will keep it as effective and profitable as possible. By ensuring that you are only adding and keeping people that actually want to be on your list, you’re cultivating a more engaged and satisfied audience.

Closing Reminders

That’s it. You’re ready to create your own house list. Here’s a simple checklist to help you work through it.

  • Use other interactions to feed the house list. Provide a frictionless path to subscription from transaction confirmations and forms.
  • Don’t trick people into subscribing.
  • Remember that there are two definitions of spam: Legal and emotional. You’re trying to avoid the latter. People who think you’re spamming them will still click the “spam” button, which leads to service provider blacklisting. Be conservative.
  • Keep the house list clean. Remove low-engagement users.

Stick to these rules, and you can build a great marketing asset with little to no effort.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how to use the house list.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is executive vice president of marketing and founder of Portent, a Clearlink Digital Agency. Portent provides paid and organic search, social media, content, and analytics services to B2B and B2C brands including Patagonia, Princess, Linode, and Tumi. He writes about marketing, search, history, and all things nerdy.


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