How (not) to use incentives, games, sweepstakes and competitions to grow your e-mail lists

When e-mail marketing emerged as digital alternative for other forms of direct marketing, the emphasis with many e-mail marketers was for a rapid growth of the lists. The use of rented lists, co-registration programs, mass campaigns and competitions to acquire as many possible subscribers, were daily practices. Even e-mail address ‘harvesting’ programs were frequently used, long before there was any legislation on e-mail marketing.

Today practices like renting lists are not recommended and ‘harvesting’ is only used by spammers. Even co-registration programs have many drawbacks and are under fire, and justly. But the use of incentives, freebies and competitions for ‘list growing’ purposes is not without dangers, even if this is still applied eagerly by many companies and marketers.
One of the reasons why it is worthwhile to look at the efficiency of such incentives is the realization that e-mail marketing revolves much more around relationships, dialogue and relevance than many thought. Furthermore the quality of the e-mail lists is more important than quantity, certainly now that ISP’s only look at the interaction with mails from a deliverability viewpoint.

We want active, engaged and “clean” e-mail lists, not collections of inactive addresses and masses of dormant subscribers. And finally we also pay more attention to the “human being behind the e-mail address”. The dimension “mass” makes room for amongst others relevance, segmenting, personalization, dialogue, triggers, scenarios and integration in e-mail marketing.

There are various ways to use incentives, freebies, competitions or games to acquire e-mail subscribers, both in B2B as well as B2C (even though other ways are typically used).

A non-exhaustive list of possible channels and formats to acquire opt-in e-mail addresses via incentives:

  • Using online campaigns where the competition element is central and participants have to register.
  • By using the “time” element via other channels such as social networks. For example: “the first x people that register now, will receive y”.
  • Based on white papers (especially popular in B2B).
  • By campaigns in newsletters of third parties, typically online media.
  • Using send-to-a-friend or recruit-a-friend campaigns where existing subscribers are given something for every new subscriber introduced by them.
  • By offering promotions or competitions on the website where the subscription forms are.
  • Etc.


What are the benefits and dangers of the use of incentives and competitions to grow e-mail lists from this perspective?

The most important benefit is naturally the growth of the e-mail list itself and acquiring e-mail addresses to complete existing lists or to launch new campaigns.

Yet the pure use of campaigns and incentives with the sole purpose of acquiring addresses is not without risk. I will summarize a few and add some tips.

  1. Just because someone participates in a competition or downloads a white paper, it doesn’t mean that he or she is also interested in your company. Naturally you will offer the possibility in the participation or download form to register as an option but even in that case, this is not a guarantee. It would be better to use scenarios making use of follow-up mails during and/or after the incentive for presenting your e-mail program so that you are not aiming for the simple number of e-mail addresses, but the commitment of the people behind these addresses. Naturally you can also use the address and the entire campaign for a separately e-mail program with its own conversion objectives.
  2. When using send-to-a-friend campaigns or campaigns in newsletters of others you run the risk, certainly in B2B and niche B2C activities, of acquiring a large number of subscribers that lie outside your actual target group. A properly developed viral campaign can lead to an enormous effect but you must consider properly in advance the various ways to remain as much as possible within your target group(s). If you go too far outside these target groups, you will have a lower ROI on your campaign, unsubscribes and a higher percentage of inactive subscribers.
  3. If an e-mail address is a type of condition for participation to a campaign or for acquiring a freebie, discount or anything else, you often have registrations with barely used e-mail addresses. Many people create e-mail addresses that are only used for campaigns and never again looked at. New addresses are often created especially for specific campaigns or nonexistent addresses are entered. The last can be avoided by sending the link for the discount, promotion, white paper or whatever per mail, but there isn’t much that can be done against the use of inactive addresses. That is why it is better to use scenarios with more than one phase, filtering the uninterested promotion hunters. The use of triggers is crucial.


In general, certainly when the direct purpose is the growth of e-mail lists, it is best when the theme of the campaign connects seamlessly to the target group and theme of your e-mail marketing programs.

Otherwise it is best to work with e-mail campaigns specially setup for the campaign (especially in B2C) or the lead generation process (especially in B2B) and which can evolve gradually to opt-ins for your regular e-mail programs, make a parallel or temporary e-mail program possible with a specific conversion purpose or fit in a personal interaction scenario (for example lead nurturing).

And finally, don’t forget the cross-channel aspect: you don’t only want e-mail addresses, you want contact points that are relevant for your business and client/prospect. An incentive may also serve perfectly to detect patterns, identify social media accounts, receive attention before proceeding with an actual registration or enriching existing databases.

And don’t forget the value of such campaigns in cross-channel database marketing and enrichment and customer loyalty programs.

But a proper, creative, segmented and thorough list through a firm opt-in incentive is obviously always welcome.

As long as it is relevant to your business and new subscribers!