You're doing a list swap — what could go wrong?

You're doing a list swap — what could go wrong?

One of the best ways to grow your non-profit or political campaign’s email list is by viral actions. But since not every action can go viral (although here’s some tips to help make your online advocacy more effective), it’s tempting to speed up the process a bit by doing some form of trades with other groups. Note when we use the term “list swap”, we don’t mean handing over your email list to somebody else and vice versa. This is not only unethical, but likely to lead to spam problems and hurt deliverability to the people who want to be on your list. We’re talking about the idea of “list chaperoning”, where you send a message to your list, and your partner sends a message to their list, and you direct folks to affirmatively sign up for the other group’s list via an action or petition etc.

When it works, it can be a great way to work with new partners, and supercharge the growth process (after all it’s easier to have something go viral when you have a bit more of a base to start from.)

So what can go wrong?
Unfortunately, quite a bit. Here’s some experiences from non-profit clients about what can go wrong, even when everyone has the best of intentions.

1) Did you really agree to both take an action? This may seem like a no-brainer, but in our world of online communications it can be easy to misunderstand. “Of course we will both email out the action” you may be thinking, while your potential partner is thinking “fine if they want to, but we have a full calendar/ need to send fundraisers/ aren’t sure about the theory of change/” The best way to avoid this is to get everything in writing up front. Some large organizations may not be able to actually agree to a written document officially (as that would involve Legal) but still good to spell everything out.

2) Did you check for list overlap? There are ways to do this, and they can allow you to do a “list suppression” that will screen out people who are already on your list or at least give you a realistic impression of how many new members you are likely to net.

3) How do people opt-in or out from your list? Because a partner of our client was hosting the action, they put up a checkbox to opt in to the list and then defaulted it to “yes.” This is a similar structure that MoveOn’s uses. But because there was also a checkbox for “do you watch the TV station in question” people were in an unchecking mood and many more people than usual opted out. This can be a good thing, in that you definitely don’t want new people who don’t want to be there, but can drive down your numbers.

4) Who receives the names? Similar to the last pitfall, problems can arise based on who controls the lists. Are you driving people to each other’s list, using an action on one of the group’s websites, or using a third party site like or YouPower? All have their pros and cons, but again the key is clear agreement and timely communication and delivery.

5) What happens if there’s an imbalance? If one group is more successful than the other, then you may develop an imbalance in the number of new signups. Does the group with a smaller output resend it? Make up the balance with another issue?

6) Lastly, but most importantly is it a good action or actions? The best designed agreement in the world won’t help you if don’t have a good action. Just as you would on your own actions, it’s good to test first (I once had a partner with a new email tool send out an action with no URLs) to discover any problems, including an action that the members of one or both lists just aren’t that into. At the end of the day, this is more about relationship building with your new list members than sheer numbers (though numbers are nice too.)

Have more questions or need help arranging a list chaperone project for your non-profit? Contact PowerThru today!

  1. […] There’s also a free option out there, partnering with other like-minded organizations or campa… But you must be very careful with this technique: once your list is substantially shared with another organization, then there may be all kinds of unforeseen effects. Is the other group or groups going to share it further? Will they treat the list with respect? This is a quick growth source but it can open up your supporters to mistreatment if you are not careful. More about the possible negative network effects. […]

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