How to build an effective email list

Many firms are already convinced of the benefits of email marketing but they struggle to get the programme off the ground due to lack of email data.

The aim should be to build a database of clients, contacts and prospects that genuinely welcome hearing from us. With anyone else we are wasting time and money, and risking our reputation by sending unwelcome emails – known as “spam”.

Whilst not writing this as a lawyer, in simple terms you may and may not email the following groups.

You may email

  • Anyone who has given your firm permission to email them – people who have actively opted in to join your mailing list (businesses and individuals).
  • Any company even if there is no prior relationship – This is any organisation with its own legal entity separate from the individual owners, such as a PLC, Limited Company, public sector or charity.
  • Any individual with whom you have an existing relationship (the “soft opt in”), and:
    • you have gathered their email via a commercial relationship – eg they have met you, asked for information or attended a seminar;
    • the information that you are sending relates to a similar product or service;
    • all emails include a clear facility to opt-out of receiving future emails.
  • Anyone on a “bought in” mailing list who has opted in to receive this type of information.

In all cases, the recipient must always have a clear opportunity to opt out, which is why it is important to select a system which manages opt-outs automatically.

You may not email

  • Anyone who has unsubscribed – and again a good system will protect you in this regard by suppressing the data rather than deleting it.
  • Private individuals where you do not have permission or an existing commercial relationship and this includes sole traders and partnerships.
  • Any individual employees within a company who request you to stop using that address for marketing. Where they have personal email addresses – eg – they have a right under the Data Protection Act 1988 to require you to stop.

Building your list

As with any new business development project, it will require clear leadership. If the managing partner is not prepared to contribute his or her email contacts, why will anyone else? So, here is our practical guide to building a high quality email list.

Start with current live contacts of the firm

Explain to all staff that the firm is launching an E-news and that it is important to capture email addresses and opt-ins when meeting new clients, prospects and intermediaries – particularly for private clients.

Remind all the fee earners and their secretaries, to save email addresses into MS Outlook and set a date in, say, two weeks when they know their contacts will be exported.

On the agreed date, sit down with each fee earner or their secretary and export the contacts into an Excel spreadsheet. Save this in a central directory, and ask the fee earner to remove all personal/inappropriate contacts and email addresses within 24 hours. If they don’t do it straight away, they never will!

You will then need to combine all the separate spreadsheets into a single one, from which you will need to remove any duplicates.

As these will all be people that you have had some form of business contact with, then it is permissible to email them on the “soft opt-in” basis, providing they have a clear facility to opt-out. Your first email should make this very clear.

Capture new clients’ details

To capture details from new clients, enclose a simple subscription form with your new client pack and ask them to return this with the signed Terms and Conditions of Business, or ask them to complete this during an initial meeting.

Capture past clients’ details

It is a good idea to tackle this partner by partner or department by department. You will need to obtain a list of past clients for an agreed period – say the last two years (it is probably not worth going back further than that). These past clients could be contacted in a number of ways to ask if they are interested in receiving your firm’s e-news:

Some partners will recognise that this is a good opportunity to pick up the phone and make contact.

Some partners may ask their secretary to make the calls.

Some partners may prefer to write to these clients enclosing a subscription form.

Provide opportunities to subscribe

Produce a sign up form or post-card to leave in your reception area(s) and issue at events. If you currently send out hard copy mailings to clients and prospects, then enclose a form which offers them the opportunity to receive the information by email in the future. Make sure it is easy to subscribe to your e-news from every page on your web site.

Add contacts consistently

Make sure someone is responsible for capturing new client details each month. Be systematic about capturing the details of people that you meet at networking events and add them to the list. Finally you might wish to think about paying to use data from a third party.

Buying in data from third parties

Once you have gathered emails from within the firm and your email programme is up and running then you may wish to supplement the list by paying to use fresh data. Email data that you buy in may contain details of some of your clients but a good email marketing system should ensure that the same person cannot be emailed twice.

There are a number of companies selling email data and the quality of lists is improving in terms of detail and quantity. Examples of B2B list providers are LBM and Marketing File. For public sector contacts we recommend Ingenium. Costs vary according to the quantity of data that you purchase, the level of detail required, whether it is B2B or B2C and whether you are purchasing single or multiple use. It is worth subscribing to the e-bulletins for these companies as they often run good price promotions.

When purchasing data, you should ask the list owner or broker to provide:

Details of the opt-in statement and purpose that was agreed to (there may be several for the list that you acquire)

Written assurance from the list provider that this consent has been obtained.

If a recipient should complain, then liability will rest with you – the sender – unless you have such a guarantee from the list provider.

Renting data

Certain list owners will rent out their mailing lists and you can obtain a database of contacts, usually in a spreadsheet. They will have obtained an opt-in which is in accordance with the particular type of product or service. You may email these people as long as your service is “related” and we would advise ensuring that the list provider is a member of the Direct Marketing Association.

You should be able to rent data relating to companies on a single use or multiple use basis and we generally recommend acquiring the licence for multiple use and ensuring that you use the data several times during the year to build brand awareness. This data will be “seeded” with bogus addresses which return to the list supplier to ensure that you do not use the data outside the licence terms.

Pay for send

This is where the list owner does not provide you with a copy of their data, but agrees to send out your emailer to their list on your behalf. This will typically be where there is a list of private individuals where the list owner wishes to retain maximum control. The Law Society operates a mailing list on this basis. You need to ensure that your emailer has a very powerful response mechanism in order to drive enquiries to you, where they can opt-in to receive information in future.

Keep it clean

Another real benefit of email marketing is almost instantaneous feedback, including information on which email addresses have bounced. A quick phone call to check if there is a typo in the address or if that person has moved on will ensure that the database is kept in prime condition.

Treat opt-outs with respect and make sure these are recorded carefully if your system does not manage this automatically. Encourage your recipients to forward the emailer to appropriate colleagues who may in turn sign up for their own copy.


If you do not already have an effective database for clients and contacts, then this can seem a mammoth task at the outset. However, you only need around 200 email addresses to start seeing a return on investment in print and postage savings, so it is as well to start small and manageable and build it up gradually in a phased approach.

Fort further information, visit the Information Commissioner’s Office where there are helpful guides and “Good Practice Notes”.

In the next issue

So far, I have covered the way you can get the information for your email list – but now, what do you want to do with it?

In the next issue I will look at how to plan your email campaigns, how to choose a provider (or what software you can use yourself), typical costs of different types of solution, how to generate a response and key measurements of success.

Sue Bramall is Director of Berners Marketing which works exclusively with the legal profession, providing email marketing software, support and services.