Is it okay to add people to your email list?

CathyJean Clark
CathyJean Clark, A Different View. Mixed media intaglio, 36 x 30 inches. ©The Artist

There is still confusion as to when it’s okay to add someone to your email list.
A few weeks ago, I made this distinction:
Your contact list is where you store all of the people you know or would like to know. It’s storage. You can safely send postcards and snail mail to anyone on your contact list. You can also send personal emails to individuals on your contact list.
Your email list is for those who have opted in (asked) to receive your bulk email blasts, newsletters, and reminders.

The Rules

So, what are the rules? When is it okay to add people to your email list?
It’s hunky dory to:

  • Send personalized letters & emails to anyone – even if you don’t know them personally. But don’t forget your manners! Address people by name, be kind, say “thank you,” and sign your name.

You’ll gain points if you:

  • ASK people if they want to be on your list to receive regular bulk email. This means that if you suddenly start sending a newsletter, you email your entire list and ask them to “opt in” to receive your missives. 

Don’t add people automatically and put the onus on them to opt out. No one should receive your email if they’re not interested. You don’t want to alienate any recipients.

You’ll have better luck getting subscribers if you:

  • Reveal your privacy policy.
  • TELL people what it means to be on your list (what they’ll receive).
  • Follow through on your promises and deliver good content.
  • ASK people to forward your email to those who might be interested.
  • Add sign-up forms to your website, blog, and Facebook page (keeping in mind all of the above).

You probably shouldn’t:

  • Add galleries, curators, art types, or retailers to your bulk email list. As I say both above and below, you shouldn’t add anyone who hasn’t expressly opted in (requested to be added). But I want to reiterate that just because someone is in the art business doesn’t mean they want to receive your news.

It’s uncool to:

  • Add people who don’t know you – who wouldn’t recognize your name – to a bulk email list (VERY bad idea).
  • Add people to a bulk email list just because you signed up to get their email and you figure turnabout is fair play.
  • Send an email to your professional list about anything other than what they signed up to receive (Don’t forward an email about the budget crisis unless that’s what people signed up for).
  • Add people just because you’re in the same group or organization.

It’s always better to be safe than sorry when adding people to a bulk email list. Treat your connections as you would want to be treated.
Any and all names can go on a contact list (address book), but be judicious when adding names to your email list.
Chime in with thoughts about your email list by leaving a comment below. And please let me know if you have difficulty commenting. This has happened a little more frequently than I’m comfortable with and I’d like to know if it happens to you.

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41 thoughts on “Is it okay to add people to your email list?”

  1. Alyson, thank you for this concise and comprehensive overview of the categories and rules of contacts. I like to think of my Contact List as my “Rolodex”. (I realize that is very “old school”)
    In addition to TELLING you prospects what they may receive by subscribing to your email list, SHOWING them a sample newsletter is also a nice way to encourage sign-ups.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Ah, I, too, had a Rolodex – for my boss.
      I think it’s vital to have a sample newsletter. People don’t sign up for something that they don’t understand.

  2. Alyson,
    Thank you for this email/post, it is a great service to artists – who I find many do not realize these common courtesy guidelines as well as the FCC’s CAN-SPAM Act enacted in 2005. I process well over 300 emails a day, through various strategies, and find myself popped on all kinds of lists without my permission. My to-do list, my calendar, my email filters, my typing fingers… all thank you for spreading the word.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      And remember that other countries have different laws than ours. Canada’s, which goes into effect later this year, is stricter.

  3. I am weary of getting mail I did not sign up for. I have been on the lists of people I like very much such as former teachers and my former students. I just wish I had been asked.
    Maybe this is just not well-known as I have friends who have asked why I did not put them on my list automatically. A little more education is needed.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Amantha: Yep, it happens constantly. And you don’t forget people who spam you. (And it IS spam.)

  4. One of the most common ways I find myself on other artists email list is after I meet them and give them my business card. And my business card does not say “add me to your newsletter list”. I don’t know why everyone think this is OK. It is not considered an opt-in.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Moshe: I love that. “My business card does not say ‘add me to your newsletter list’.” Maybe we’re going to have to start being more specific on our cards: DO NOT ADD ME TO YOUR NEWSLETTER LIST.

  5. I do public relations work for a number of artists, part of which is sending out emails to people whom neither the artists, the galleries, nor I know personally. These emails are always and only invitations to opening receptions. These receptions are also always great parties, because part of the program I insist upon with artists and galleries is that there are always refreshments (food and wine) and live musical entertainment at these events. Very few people expect fine vintage wine at art parties, and the food can be anything from “nibbles” presented attractively. I’ve often gotten very positive response from catering services acting as ‘sponsors’, and there are always musicians and musical groups in any community who are interested in showcasing their music to possible clients. We always give these people who provide their service to us either free or at discount full credit for their participation at our openings by putting their names and contact information in all invitations, press releases, etc.
    Even if these things cost a few dollars, the sale of even a single work of art is more than enough to cover the cost, and if nothing else it helps to build an artist’s (and gallery’s) reputation for throwing great receptions.
    I doubt if anyone has ever taken offense at being invited to one of our receptions, and many have said that they look forward to getting news about them.

    1. Joe – no matter how nice your party is, you should still ask permission before sending bulk email to someone.
      There is a difference between being offended and being annoyed. While you might think no one takes offense at your emails – I am sure there are many who annoyed you added them to your email list without asking.
      It’s called permission based marketing and it’s the standard in the US and the law in a few other countries. We can only hope someday it will also be the law here in the US.
      I hope you at least give them a way to opt out from receiving future emails. That is US law.

    2. Alyson Stanfield

      Joe: I’m with Lisa on this. No matter how nice your receptions are, you’re still spamming people. It’s obviously a risk you are willing to take. It’s not one I would take with my business.

  6. This information was very helpful! I have a nice size contact list, but I’ve been very hesiant to send out a email blast. Now, I will send an email addressed to individuals asking permision. In the meantime, my first snail mail is going out this week. Now, that is a lot of work!

  7. Having just sent my first newsletter I’ll comment here for the first time too! I think there’s a continuum from the obnoxiously oblivious(people who add people they’ve never even met) to those who are worried that their brother may report them as a spammer. I tend to fall on the latter end (he hasn’t opened it yet).
    Still, sending an email to ask whether it is okay to send a newsletter strikes me as similar to “Can I ask a question?” It’s just not that hard to hit “unsubscribe” vs putting people in a position of having to decide on something they haven’t seen and having to respond. If I’d only used my sign up list the whole enterprise would not have been worth it.
    BTW, so far my only “unsubscribe” was from one of the few people who had actually signed up to receive it!
    I’m a little confused too, Alyson. If you’re not mailing your contacts a newsletter, what are you doing with them that makes them so valuable?
    P.S. When I previewed my post it was erased–twice! At least the second time I was ready!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Carol: Sorry about the comments. I don’t know why they’re misbehaving so. I’m going to do an update tonight and hope it solves the problem.
      As for the contact list: You do the first thing on this list: email them with a personal email or send a real letter/postcard in the mail. You can also pick up the phone. Remember those days?

    2. Alyson Stanfield

      The commenting part of this blog. Sorry you had trouble posting a comment.

    3. Oh, that’s funny. I just went right to thinking someone had written a negative comment about what I wrote. I am such a lunatic. Yes, the “Leave a Comment” gremlins were at work–hope you chased them away before someone else gets a long winded comment erased.
      So far about half the people I sent the newsletter to (none of whom asked for it) have actually sent me thank yous and congratulations. I guess my list is small–but creme de la creme.

  8. Lisa,
    I forgot to mention that I do always ask “If you no longer want to receive invitations to our parties, please let us know, and we will remove your email address from our guest list”.
    BTW, so far in the past 3 years, I’ve gotten only one “Yes, please remove”, and it was from the executor of a deceased person’s estate who told us he had died.
    Joe D.
    Joe D

  9. I’m curious how people reading this feel this situation I’ve encountered recently. I’m in a show at a small museum, which asked for contact to invite my mailing list to the exhibition opening. I was hesitant, as I felt the museum was trying to build its mailing list on the backs of my laborious networking, but I’m also certain they will not be only using these emails once.
    This also also happened to me as an email recipient. An artist whose mailing list I am on gives their list to a gallery or exhibition space, and I continue to receive their emails well after the artist’s exhibition is closed. Yes, I can opt out of these emails, and most of them are nonprofit spaces that need support, but I am wondering about the etiquette of this.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Michelle: It’s simple. If you have a privacy policy that states you will not share your list, DON’T share your list – even with a museum.
      Did they ask for email or snail mail or both?

    2. Michelle,
      My new gallery asked me for my contact list also and I declined to share it. I told them I would send out an announcement about the opening directly and that worked out fine for everyone – I was able to protect the privacy of my subscribers and the gallery’s information was shared as they desired.

    3. Hi Lisa,
      Did you read my comment up above? Being the owner of a gallery, I think it is important to be flexible with theartist’s contact lists. I’m happy following the artist’s lead. If they don’t want to share their list, no big deal. If they want me to mail, that is good too. The most important thing is for the gallery and the artist to work as a team. Both the gallery and the artist have one goal, to sell art. PS, I’m glad everything worked out for you and your gallery.

  10. Is e-mail ettiquite somehow generational? As a gallery, I have found that younger artists only communicate through e-mail. Even if I call them and leave a message, I usually get an e-mail as a return message.
    Most young artists do not send postcards, all announcements and career updates are doen through e-mail. And they expect to be responded to by e-mail, the assuption being that our gallery has put them on our mailing list.
    Now older artists are completely different. They are not as easy or free with their e-mail information. They want to give permission before we use it. And they are very concerned about identity theft. They are also the ones who more fequently ask to be removed from a list. They are also more prone to send postcards.
    Lately, I’ve noticed a trend in business cards that have only an e-mail address. Of course, when I have met someone new and I am interested in keeping in contact, I always ask for a business card with the addendum, “and I will add you to our list.” That way the person knows what I intend to do with the information.
    Just as an aside. It has been my experience with museum curators, that in order to contact them via e-mail, the person sending has to be whitelisted. If you are not, the e-mail does not go through.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      AB (another AB!) – I find the same to be true! I’m doing my best to bridge the generational divide and educate both.

  11. In Canada today, the laws are already a little stricter than described above. We have privacy legislation that states an organization or business, small or large, cannot collect personal information about individuals without first getting consent to do so. Personal information includes things like name, address, email address and phone number amongst other items. Even with consent, the purpose and intended use of the information must be disclosed at the time of collection. You cannot use the personal information for anything that you have not already disclosed and gained consent for. This applies to any business use artists would have including snail mail or email lists.
    So, in Canada, yes, you can send out snail mail to any individual, but in order to do so, you must have collected personal information (name and address) with consent first.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Elana, thanks for commenting here. I had no idea they were so strict about snail mail up north.
      So, you couldn’t even send a postcard to a gallery without their consent?

    2. Hi Alyson,
      Yes, you can send postcards to galleries since they are considered organizations not individuals. The rules around privacy that I mentioned are to protect the privacy of an individual. Where it gets interesting is when the personal information is used by an individual for their business. For example, the email address that I use for my business as an artist although may be considered personal information in some circumstances, is business information with respect to my art business. Someone from the privacy commissioner’s office would have to give the final ruling on this, but I have been viewing it that if you have chosen to use the information for your business, that it is no longer personal information – especially if the individual is publishing the information on web pages and other places in the internet.

    3. Alyson Stanfield

      Elana: I appreciate this info. It makes sense and is very helpful. I’ll keep an eye out.

  12. Pingback: Are you spamming people? — Art Biz Blog

  13. Christina Laurel

    I so appreciate your sharing – on every level.
    Would add a cautionary note re: bulk emails – as in, please send emails via the “Bcc:” field. So many artists I know do not know how to access this field and how it works, and unintentionally reveal multitudes of email addresses (without prior permission by the recipients).

  14. patrice mitchell

    I read your blog up above and wanted to point this out. Your blog says these words:
    “You probably shouldn’t:
    Add galleries, curators, art types, or retailers to your bulk email list. As I say both above and below, you shouldn’t add anyone who hasn’t expressly opted in (requested to be added). But I want to reiterate that just because someone is in the art business doesn’t mean they want to receive your news.”
    And your second blog says these words:
    “To expand your contacts, add 5 influential people a week to your database. These might be people in your niche market, curators, gallerists, art collectors, or art consultants. Remember, you’re not adding them to a bulk email list. You’re adding them to your database so that you remember who they are. Not sure where to start? Use Google to search for these influential people.”
    I think what you are saying is do not send an meal blindly. Is this right?

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      What I’m saying is that you don’t have permission to add people to a bulk email list, but you can keep their names in your database for future reference.

  15. I have a list of around 7000 from my ebay customers (6 years).
    Just wondering how would it be perceived if I sent them an email saying that we are starting up a newsletter and if you dont wish have any communications from us, please click this opt-out link??
    They did purchase a product from me and thus would only send them relevant emails.
    I would also like to have a weekly or monthly competition that the winner could have anything from the store for free.
    Advice please.
    Thanks. SAM

    1. Sammy: That’s totally fine to do. I prefer having people “opt in” rather than “opt out” but it’s completely fine to do that.

    2. This was MailChimp’s response to the same Q, Please let me know what u think:
      Thanks for reaching out to us today!
      Email addresses go stale really fast. When someone opts in to your list, you?ve probably got 3 months before their permission goes cold and about 6 months before the email address is bad. Wait too long before emailing them, and you?ll not only get tons of bounces – you?re going to get some really nasty spam complaints.
      It?s not that hard for recipients to report you either. They just click a little “this is spam” button, and that sends an automatic email to their ISP (referred to as a feedback loop). If enough of these pile up at the ISP, your emails will be blocked from then on. Read more about feedback loops here.
      So, if you?ve been collecting emails for a few years and are only just now getting around to emailing them, you need to re-invite them to your list. Send a quick email asking people if they still want to be on your list. Ask them to click a link to confirm. If they don?t respond, take them off the list. They obviously don?t want to hear from you. If your lists are small enough (less than 500), you can do this same process using gmail or outlook.
      We have a really great guide that will talk about how to reconfirm your list, check it out:
      How do I reconfirm my list?:
      Please feel free to contact us if you have any additional questions.
      Have a great day!

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