Growing an Organic Email List

How to Grow Your Email List Organically for Better Deliverability

Certified organic. You're probably thinking about food. Thyme to turnip the beet. 

But, we’re thinking about building organic email lists. 

And just like organic foods can be part of a healthier lifestyle because they’re free from potentially harmful additives, pesticides, and other artificial modifications, growing organic email lists is “healthier”, too. 

Though shortcuts like buying an email list might seem like an easy solution, you’ll end up with a lot of junk — spam traps, fake addresses, etc. — that can make your food, err… email list, seriously unhealthy and kill your ROI. 

Side note: If you didn’t take the organic route and now you’re having trouble with email deliverability, Mailgun Optimize can help you clean things up. 

Why growing your email list is important 

Your list of email subscribers is one of the most valuable assets your brand owns. The list represents both customers and prospects (aka future customers). And the inbox provides a direct line of communication with them.

Assuming you grow your list the right way, your subscribers represent people who actually want to hear from you. You’re not pushing yourself on them with interruptive ads. They raised their hands and said, “This company seems pretty cool. So it’s okay if they want to send me stuff.”

That’s what Seth Godin called “Permission Marketing” back in 1999, and it’s just as powerful as ever. When you grow your email list, chances are you’re also growing your revenue.

Just because building an email list isn’t always easy, doesn’t mean it can be ignored. The digital marketing landscape is changing, and first-party data is more important than ever. Plus, you can’t always rely on marketing channels like social media, paid ads, and even organic search traffic to deliver the same kind of results and ROI. 

Email provides a way for you to own data that is the key to reaching a target audience regardless of Google algorithm updates or unexpected changes to the technological landscape. 

Email list churn is natural, and you’re never going to keep every subscriber until the end of time. So, if you aren’t actively building your email list, it’s probably shrinking. And that’s a serious problem. 

But before you hit the panic button – or worse, swim towards the siren call of the “easy button” — email marketers can grow their list in healthy, sustainable ways that meet short-term growth goals and contribute to a healthy long-term ROI (and career). 

There’s a right and wrong way to build an email list. 

The wrong way to build an email list 

It’s tempting to reach for the Ding Dongs, hot dogs, or craveable fast food options to satisfy hunger. Likewise, there are plenty of tasty-looking, but bad-for-you options for adding numbers to your email list. 

Usually, these lead to a brief euphoria followed by lots of email deliverability issues and an unbalanced, disappointing ROI. Here are some of the wrong ways to build email lists: 

Buying an email list 

Turn around! Go back! Just don’t do it.  Buying and using an email list could even get you into legal trouble in certain countries. 

Plus, it will probably get you few results while seriously damaging your deliverability, email metrics, and brand as a whole. Why?

Because you don’t know what kind of data those lists have. They could be old, incorrect, and/or full of spam traps. Sending to bad email addresses can get you flagged as spam or even blocklisted, which will hurt your deliverability. Your email metrics are also going to suffer as open and engagement rates plummet, and unsubscribes and complaints skyrocket.

Honestly, it’s a waste of time and money to send emails to people that don’t want them. It makes your brand look unprofessional, invasive, and out-of-touch. And you won’t get the ROI from your email marketing program that you’re after.

Renting an email list

This is when you use someone else’s list for a one-time email blast. While your domain and branding may be listed as the sender, the company you rent from actually controls the process so that you’re never able to see or verify the list yourself. 

This isn’t any good, either. First of all, you’re totally missing one of the advantages of email marketing: Owning permission-based, first-party data that allows you to speak one-to-one with contacts and cultivate meaningful relationships. 

You don’t ever get to see the contacts yourself, and you don’t really stand a chance of parlaying the blast into a significant return. It’s like an unknown company running a single television commercial. Even to a well-targeted audience, the response rate will likely be pretty dismal. It’s an absolute waste of effort. 

Beyond that, using someone else’s list presents the same dangers as buying one. First, you may be sending to addresses that were acquired without permission and you could find yourself in violation of the CAN-SPAM act or other applicable anti-spam legislation from around the world. The result could be tens of thousands in fines. Plus, the list is probably poor quality. This means lots of fake addresses and bounced messages — resulting in damage to your deliverability. 

Finally, these lists could be riddled with spam traps. 

What’s a spam trap?

Anti-spam companies (like those who create blocklists) and internet service providers intentionally plant fake email addresses around the web in an attempt to catch spammers. Even legitimate senders can find themselves sending to one of these addresses if they don’t follow best practices and take proactive measures like using an email verification service

If your organization is caught in a spam trap, you could suffer from serious deliverability issues and even wind up on a blocklist. 

Scraping for email addresses

You can send out the bots to scour sites for email addresses. But have you ever received a random email from a sender you’d never heard of about a product you’d never buy? 

That’s how these recipients will look at your email: annoyed, uninterested, and with eyes towards the spam button. 

And that’s the best case. A lot of the addresses you “find” won’t even work. 

The worst case? You send emails to spam traps and you end up on blocklists everywhere. 

That’s a serious penalty. Scraping the web to collect email contacts is a surefire way to end up with spam traps on your list. Remember, spam trap email addresses are planted for the purpose of catching shady senders who try this trick.

Adding contacts without permission 

Just because someone bought something from your website, sent you a private email once, or gave you their business card at a conference, does not give you permission to start blasting them with promotional emails. 

And laws around the world that make it illegal to add contacts to a list because of a pre-checked box or some other sly workaround are taking effect. One of the most prominent examples of this is the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. Take the time to learn how GDPR impacts email marketing

In summary, contacts must explicitly opt-in to your email list. Otherwise, adding them violates laws like GDPR and CCPA, among others. 

You’re going to get deleted, sent to spam folders, and reported. Not to mention, you could face fines and legal trouble

Bad. Bad. Bad. So, what should you do? 

How to build your email list the right way 

Organic is the way to go. And this just means that you demonstrate value in such a way that people choose to provide their email addresses and actually want to hear from you. 

You can try to sneak into the party and get quickly booted by the bouncer, or you can be invited to the party and welcomed with open arms. You want the second. 

Here are some ways to build your email list in a healthy, organic way: 

1. Use killer content

This will be different based on your organization and the audience you're trying to attract, but free guides, access to exclusive events like webinars, and downloadable media (a special podcast episode or sneak-peak video), are all good places to start. 

B2B contacts are typically looking for information and tools that help them do their jobs better, like whitepapers, guides, infographics, and webinars.

In some cases, you may leave this content open for everyone to view. At the end of your post, video, or podcast episode — or even partway through — you can encourage newsletter subscriptions. Be sure to explain the benefits of signing up and sweeten the deal by offering to send them a free, instant download link for other exclusive content as soon as they subscribe. 

Other times, however, you may want to gate your content. This works best when you’ve demonstrated the value of the gated content through other, more easily accessible blog posts, videos, etc. On your most popular blog posts, where you know readers are getting tons of great insights, you might not instantly ask for a newsletter subscription, but instead promote a piece of even more valuable, gated content. 

Then, to get access, people will just need to fill out a quick form to subscribe to your email list and provide a few key details about themselves. 

It’s best to keep these short, but by asking a few extra questions, you can segment subscribers so they receive more relevant messages. This will not only improve the response rates on your emails, but provide a more valuable experience for subscribers and likely lead to a higher conversion rate. 

If you have a sales team, this information can also go right into your CRM so that they have more to work with when they reach out to prospects. 

2. Give them promotional incentives 

Similar to using your content, you can offer coupon codes, giveaways, or free gifts in exchange for subscribing. For example: “Subscribe to our email list and get 10% off your first purchase.”

The more tangible you make it, the better. So instead of offering a “free gift,” offer a “free 5 oz. sample of our newest lotion with your first purchase.” Offering free shipping is another great option here. 

This works great for free trials as well. In addition to giving them a taste of the value you can provide, you’ll also gain their permission to educate them through email and convert them into a paying subscriber. 

Of course, any time you offer promotional incentives, be aware that you’ll have a certain percentage of subscribers who only stick around long enough to claim the benefit. 

3. Optimize your forms

Don’t use vague messaging in your opt-in forms or try to convert every visitor. Be specific about the value of the content you're providing.

For example “Want to learn how to transform your business with a free digital course?” or “Improve shipping efficiency by up to 30% with the tips in this five-step guide.” 

You’ll also want to do more than just create an attention-grabbing form. While you may have to stick within certain brand guidelines, if the form looks like every other part of your site, it may not have the impact you’re looking for. How can you push the boundaries of your brand to stand out? 

But instead of guessing what works best, you should be testing what works best. Most tools have the ability to run A/B tests so that you can see which form or landing page performs better. You can do this with pretty much every aspect. Does using an image of a dolphin instead of a sea turtle lead to more engagement? Does pink work better than green? You should always be experimenting to maximize engagement. 

 4. Try an exit intent pop-up 

An alternate approach to a traditional pop-up is one based on exit intent. There are a number of tools you can use that can identify common traits of someone who’s about to leave your site. Before they do, it will display a pop-up with a special offer or a message encouraging them to subscribe.

This can be a great option because, if done correctly, it allows visitors to proceed with their original purpose and not be bothered by a pop-up unless they start to leave. 

An exit-intent pop-up is all about engaging more people who would be just one-time visitors. 

So how does it work? 

Say you have a number of popular blog posts that tend to attract your target audience. Unfortunately, a lot of those people read the post or gather the stat they’re looking for, and then move on forever. 

With an exit-intent tool, the program analyzes the visitor’s behavior and, before they click the back button or close the tab, presents them with the opportunity to engage a bit more. In this case, it’s an email subscription. Or, perhaps you mix this with the promotional incentives or killer content strategies listed above to increase the chance that they act. 

Remember: pop-ups can be highly effective, but they can also prevent visitors from getting to know your brand and the value you offer. Pop-ups can completely take away from your messaging and content on mobile devices in particular, where they often cover up 100% of the screen and are difficult to exit out of.

Instead, consider alternatives like slide-ins, in-line forms inside of blog posts, forms in your footer or sidebar, or floating bars in your header or footer.

5. Use double opt-in

Yes, double opt-ins reduce email list subscriptions, but that’s part of building a truly organic email list. There’s no need to trick people into subscribing because they likely won’t turn into fruitful prospects anyways.

This added step ensures that the people signing up for your list are, in fact, interested in receiving your content. It also filters out bad emails and spam accounts. Double opt-ins will help ensure that your email list is full of authentic subscribers, which is important for maintaining deliverability. 

Another great way to screen emails for authenticity is to use Mailgun Optimize. It continually checks your email subscriber list so you don’t waste resources — or bet your sender reputation — on fake addresses.

6. Try social media 

Moving social followers to become subscribers gets them a lot closer to becoming customers (assuming they aren’t already).

Use social media to drive your followers to a newsletter signup landing page. Your social followers may be discovering your content and deals through what you share. But… very few of those people will see everything you post.

Use the fear of missing out (FOMO) to encourage your followers to subscribe. If they like what they’re seeing on social media, why not get the goods delivered directly to their inbox? That way they’re less likely to miss your next great article or special promotion.

You can also include a newsletter subscription link in your profile bios or promote a gated webinar so social followers click through and subscribe on the landing page. Plus, you can use paid promotions to collect contact information at a greater scale. 

For example, Facebook has lead-gen ads that work like gated content (they obtain an email address and consent, but also allow you to ask a few extra questions to segment leads). LinkedIn has a similar lead-gen form function. You could also promote your gated content like webinars in YouTube video ads. 

7. Set up a preference center 

A communication preference center allows subscribers to specify how often they would like to hear from you and what kind of content they would like to receive. It also doesn’t hurt to offer an incentive, an option to downgrade their subscription, or the ability to temporarily pause communication. The right strategy for re-engagement will depend on your brand and your subscribers. 

Should you sweat the unsubscribes? 

No. Here’s why:

People are always unsubscribing for a huge variety of reasons. Maybe they only signed up for your list to get your free content. Maybe they’re trying to reduce the number of emails they get. Or maybe they’re just in a different life place than they were when they subscribed. For example, if a parent signed up for your educational tips for preschoolers, they probably wouldn’t want to continue getting emails when their kids are twelve. 

In fact, most industries see unsubscribe rates of around 0.2% or less for every email campaign. 

Plus, if you have bad email addresses on your list or a lot of subscribers who never engage, this can negatively impact your email deliverability. You’d rather someone unsubscribe than report you as spam. 

If irrelevant email subscribers don’t take themselves off the list, there’s one more way to proactively keep your list clean. Mailgun Optimize keeps a continuous eye on the validity of emails on your list (even if they were once good, but have since gone bad). 

So really, unsubscribes can be an okay thing for the health of your email list and the success of your marketing strategy as a whole. 

Instead of sweating the unsubscribes, make the process easier than filing a spam complaint. You can do this by consistently and clearly providing an unsubscribe link in the footer of your email. 

Organic list building and deliverability

One of the biggest benefits of growing your email list organically is that it supports good email deliverability. Here’s why…

For one thing, a clean, organic email list that’s free of spam traps is going to keep you off of blocklists. But just as importantly, subscribers you acquire organically will be more engaged. When mailbox providers see that, you’re going to improve your sender reputation, which increases the likelihood of getting delivered to the inbox.

Contacts you purchase, rent, or add without permission are more likely to mark your messages as spam. And that is only going to hurt your email deliverability.

Get help maintaining a clean email list 

Mailgun Optimize was built specifically to help protect your email list and ensure that you land in the inbox – not the spam folder. 

First, If you haven’t built your list organically in the past, you can still clean your list and protect yourself from further issues. Email validations, from Mailgun Optimize, scours your entire existing list and identifies invalid and disposable emails so you can remove the “weeds” from your new organic garden. And you can continue to run this periodically so that you always have a pristine list.

Then, with Mailgun Optimize’s real-time email validation API, you’ll be able to spot any new invalid addresses before they make it to your list. This keeps your reputation clean so mailbox providers welcome your message with open arms. Prevention really is the best cure. 

Beyond good list hygiene, Mailgun Optimize also has your back in other aspects of email deliverability – like ensuring you’re not showing up on any blocklists. If you’re not confident in deliverability, Mailgun Optimize can run a seed test to identify where in the inbox, like the promotional or social tabs, you’ll land. If there are issues, you can work with Mailgun Optimize’s deliverability experts on a custom plan to improve your reputation so more of your emails make it to subscribers’ inboxes. 

Growing an email list  – the right way  – does take a lot of work. So the last thing you want is for your emails to land in the junk folder of your legitimate subscribers. Mailgun Optimize and Sinch Email on Acid give you the power to land in the inbox with a perfect, effective email — every single time. 

Ready to get started? Talk to a strategist today and set your business up for success with regular list maintenance. 


When was the last time you cleaned up your database of contacts? Sometimes senders forget about conducting email list hygiene, and that can cause serious deliverability problems. Use List Validation from Mailgun Validate to easily verify your entire list before the next big campaign. Lower your bounce rates, improve email engagement, and maximize email ROI.