How To Grow Your Email List
While social media and search engine optimization continue to change and evolve each year, there has been one effective constant in online marketing. Rising each evening like the North Star.
You've no doubt heard the phrase, "the money is in the list." And it couldn't be more true. The most valuable asset you have as a blogger is your subscriber list.
Whether you've been blogging for 5 weeks or 5 years, growing that list with targeted subscribers should continue to be your top priority.
Your list drives traffic, drives sales, and drives your continued content needs.
Your blog will live or die by your list.
So, naturally, you must utilize various techniques to grow that list.
Before we get into the How's, though, lets cover the How Not's so you don't fall into some of the traps so commonly promoted elsewhere.
How Not To Grow Your List
Unfortunately, while I may be able to offer a few golden nuggets or growth hacks to help increase your list growth rate, there are no true shortcuts. Anyone that tells you such-and-such a method will increase your subscriber counts by 1000% overnight is just selling something.
Here are a few ways that you might have seen:
- Purchase Email Lists - While not every bought list is bad, that's certainly the predominant quality. Paid leads are often cold, uninterested, and unsavory. Meaning, those people signed up on one list and then were unscrupulously sold again and again. Which means they're not worth the pennies you paid for them.
- Export Contacts - Many networks and email services allow you to export all of your contacts as a CSV file, which you can then import into your email service provider, like MailChimp. DON'T! That's 100% pure spam. It doesn't matter what your relationship is with those people, they did not sign up for your mailing list and therefore you will be in violation of federal anti-spam law.
- List Exchange - Another poor idea, and just as spammy as the export option. If someone offers to trade lists with you, politely run away.
- Gated Content - While not unethical in the slightest, the idea that someone will need to register before they can view your content is simply problematic. Most bloggers and businesses will struggle to pull this off since the content source must establish value before the user registers and reads the content. Which means you pretty much have to be an established brand first. Few readers will register to read anything unless they already know it's going to be exceptional.
And now that you've been clever enough to discover what those look like, in the future you can avoid those too.
How To Grow Your Email List
So how does one naturally, ethically... legally... grow their list?
Step One: Invite Subscibers
This one may seem obvious, but the first thing you must do is simply offer to let people sign up to your list. This can be in the form of a simple embedded form or script that accepts their email address and puts them on your mailing list. MailChimp, my recommended email platform for bloggers, offers several options when it comes to embedded forms.
If you have already set up a MailChimp account, you can skip ahead. But if not, now's the time to start creating that email marketing and list building functionality. Even if you're not sure yet what you'll use the list for, start building it.
Create Your Email List
- Go to MailChimp.com and sign up for a free account. In addition to all of the necessary functionality, I love the fact that brand new bloggers and businesses, who don't yet have any subscribers, can start using email marketing right away without costing anything. You don't have to pay for MailChimp until you hit 2,000 subscribers! Click on the Sign Up Free button and enter your email address, username and password.
Create My Free MailChimp Account
- Confirm your email. MailChimp will send a confirmation email to whatever address you entered. Head over there and click the link, and that will bring you back into your new MailChimp account.
- Fill in your information. This should take just a few minutes, as MailChimp needs to know everything about you and your blog in order to ensure your emails comply with legal policy. Be sure to choose the best fit industry so that your campaign performance is accurately compared, and select the right timezone. Your scheduled emails will be going out based on this time, so choose yours!
- Create your list. Once you've submitted your information, you'll see your new dashboard. Here you can send campaigns, invite colleagues, verify your domain, and create your first list. That's what we want to do first, so click on the Create a List button then click on Create List on the Lists page.
- Fill in your list details. here you can specify the name of your list, the from name & email, a reminder to how people got on the list, and how you want to receive list notifications. Note that the "List Name" is visible to subscribers so make it meaningful and appropriate. "The Social Media Hat News & Updates" is better than "Mike's List." (TIP: Select Daily Summary for notifications, as individual emails will soon become overwhelming.)
- Click Save.
And you're done! You now have your first Email list.
Now, within MailChimp, you can set up multiple lists. And within Lists, you can use Groups and Segments to help differentiate and communicate with subscribers. We will be talking more about how to organize Lists, Groups and Segments in another article, but for now, my advice is to try to stick to as few Lists as possible, and use Groups if you want to create different behaviors or experiences for different subscribers.
Create Your Subscription Form
Once you have one or more Lists, you can begin to set up ways for people to subscribe.
- Go to Lists and click on the List you want to set up a subscription form for.
- Click on Signup forms
- Here you'll see various options for setting up your forms and subscription activities.
- General forms - This is where you can edit the emails that are sent out, confirmation pages, and so on.
- Embedded forms - This is where you'll create and edit forms that you can embed on your blog to collect email subscribers.
- Subscriber popup - This is a popup that you can have appear on your site to prompt visitors to sign up. I don't recommend using this as it's a very basic popup that appears immediately on entrance. Instead, we will review an alternative shortly.
- Form integrations - This is where you can create advanced forms that tie with specifically applications like Twitter or Wufuu.
- Facebook form - Later, be sure to come back here and set up a subscription form for your Facebook Page so fans there can sign up.
- Tablet form - If you will have an opportunity to see potential subscribers in person, perhaps at an event, a tablet with form integration might be a good idea.
- Click on the Select button to the right of Embedded Forms.
- Edit your form. Here is where you can specify the style of form you wish and what you want it to say.
- Change the default title to something far more interesting. "Subscribe to our mailing list" is too plain. What will they get? Why should they?
- Change the default Subscribe button text. Make it a strong call to action that speaks to the individual. My favorite is "Awesomify My Inbox!" :)
- Confirm fields. The fewer fields the better, so try to stick with just name and email if you can.
- Grab the code. Simply click inside the field under "Copy/paste onto your site" where you'll find a snippet of HTML code. Hit CTRL-C to put the code in your clipboard.
- Paste the code. Now, where you put that is obviously up to you. An easy place for now is in the sidebar of your blog. Do be sure to paste it into an area that accepts HTML code.
WordPress Users - Add a Text Widget to your Sidebar Region and paste the code in there.
Drupal Users - Create a new Block, paste in the code, and assign the block to your Sidebar Region.
And now you've got a subscriber box! Later you'll want to add custom subscription opportunities in other places, like at the end of key pieces of content. But for now, that's enough to get you started.
Step Two: Create Compelling Content Regularly
The second crucial element to building an email list is to create content. But more than that, it has to be compelling content, as well as targeted.
Compelling means that it's interesting and engaging. You have to make a great impression on a reader if you expect them to be interested in hearing more from you. Creating content that's just meh is a wasted opportunity.
Think of it like dating.
It's seven o'clock on a Friday night, and you're a bit nervous. Your best friend set you up on this date and you've never seen them before. You meet at a nice restaurant and it's OK at first. A little nervousness is understandable. But by the time the entrees arrive, you've already talked about the weather and what you do and what's popular on TV right now... and now comes the awkward silence while you eat and struggle to think of something interesting to say or ask.
First impressions are everything, right? If your first date with someone is awkward and boring, is there likely to be second date?
Your content has to be interesting from the very beginning, each and every post, or those first-time readers won't become second or third-time readers and subscribers.
Does that mean that every blog you write will be awesome? Of course not. It's not my intent to put that kind of pressure on you, as we're all still learning and improving. And even the best of us write complete duds now and then.
Rather, my intent is dissuade you from deliberately publishing content that you know is sub-par, simply for the sake of publishing something. Everything that you write and publish needs to provide value in some way. Stick with that guiding principle, and you'll be well on your way to creating great, compelling content that readers can't wait to sign up to get more of.
Step Three: Create Digital Material & Content Upgrades
Alright! So far, we've covered how to get your email marketing service started, create your first list, set up a form on your site to begin collecting addresses, and how to begin creating the kind of content that people will want to sign up to read more of.
Now it's time to kick things up a notch to really speed up email list growth. And that's in the form of digital material and content upgrades. While the delivery of both is similar technically, there are some differences between the two types of content that I want to point out.
Digital Material refers to complete pieces of content that stand alone, and readers are invited to have emailed to them. Examples include:
- White Papers
- Email Courses
Generally, bloggers will invite readers to have digital materials emailed to them on landing pages and in short blog posts that introduce the material.
For example, I wrote a book entitled, "The Ultimate Guide to Writing Epic Content." I wanted to make it available as a free download for interested readers, so I simply announced it in a blog post "The Epic Post on Epic Posts: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Epic Content."
Content Upgrades refer to pieces of content that are enhancements of an existing piece of content. Examples include:
- Resource Lists
- PDF Versions of the Article
- Swipe Files
Usually, readers will want to have read or be able to reference the original article in conjunction with the emailed material.
As an example, check out "The Content Pyramid, How To Structure A Successful Blog" where I help bloggers understand that there needs to be some structure to their blog - just publishing post after post will not be very effective - and then I provide them with a free worksheet to accomplish it.
In both cases, delivery is simple. I created a new Group within my main List in MailChimp, used MailChimp's automation to create an email delivering the appropriate PDF to new subscribers as soon as they subscribe to the Group, and then set up an embedded form on each blog post.
PRO TIP: MailChimp's embedded signup forms will automatically display all available Groups as a select list for subscribers to choose from, but that makes for a poor user experience. That's the kind of decision you want to make for them depending on the offer.
Instead, using a bit of CSS and editing of the HTML snippet, you can hide that list and make sure the correct one is selected.
First, note that the Group name, "Downloads" and all options are contained within a div called "input-group" which means that, either as an inline style on the page or in your theme's CSS file, you can specify that div to display:none; - this makes sure that it won't be visible to readers.
Second, within the MailChimp form embed code, you'll find one or more listings corresponding with whatever Groups you've set up. Each one says something like input type="checkbox" value="2" and all you have to is find the checkbox for the Group you want checked, and insert checked="checked" into that string just after the value.
In my experience, the Content Upgrades are easier to create, and since they're attached to otherwise complete pieces of content, the posts tend to perform well on their own. This results in a slow but steady flow of new subscribers.
On the other hand, those Digital Materials take longer to create, and tend to do very well during the initial promotion. Which means that new subscribers spike initially and then trail off unless you continue to promote the offer.
Which leads us into the fourth and final step: Compelling Offers.
Step Four: Make Compelling Offers
If you diligently work on the first three steps, you'll be doing well. But oh, the places you'll go, if you follow my lead.
From January 2013 through July 2015, I averaged 1 new subscriber per day to my main list. Once I started offering more Digital Materials & Content Upgrades, my subscriber rate grew to an average of 5.5 per day.
Today, I'm gaining 15+ new subscribers per day, and that number continues to rise.
That's a 300% increase in subscriber rate! And I did it without creating a single new piece of content.
The problem with using blog posts to introduce new materials that readers can sign up for is that, after the initial spike in traffic, those blog posts will tend to be some of your less frequented articles (unless you go back to old articles that are performing well in search and add a content upgrade, which is brilliant).
But for most of us, our normal daily organic traffic gets spread out across a variety of articles and posts. Some of which might be a complete surprise (my #1 article initially was just a quick post talking about an update the Twitter for iOS). So that means we need to find ways to draw those visitors over to the other blog posts, or offer them the downloadable content on the fly.
This is where popup technology comes in, but bear with me. These aren't your old, in-your-face, cannot be dismissed popups that keep coming up every time you click. These are smart, intuitive, seamless parts of your web experience that provide your readers with added value.
- Welcome Mat - This is a gorgeous full-screen offer that slides down above your main content, allowing users to subscribe or continue scrolling to the rest of your site easily.
- Popup Box - Smart popup boxes note user behavior and wait for the optimum moment to present your offer - typically when they're moving their mouse outside the browser indicating they're about to leave (exit intent).
- Scroll Box - Once a reader is nearing the end of your article, that's usually a great opportunity to present them with a really interesting offer. The scroll box actually slides in from the left or right once the reader is a certain percentage of the way down.
- Smart Bar - The smart bar resides at the top of your site and can either be static or scroll down with the reader (recommended).
Using one, a couple, or even all of these techniques, you can make your readers aware of the valuable pieces of content you've offered elsewhere and get them to subscribe accordingly.
Getting started is a piece of cake.
First, sign up for a free account at SumoMe. You may eventually want to upgrade to a paid account to remove the branding or access some of the advanced features, like A/B split testing of offers (which I strongly recommend and am using right now). But that's optional. You'll be able to use all four tactics with a free account.
Once you've entered your site's URL and created your account, SumoMe will provide you with a small snippet of HTML code that you'll need to paste into your site's header. It needs to be present on every page of your site in order for the functionality to work.
WordPress Users: On the Install Code screen, click the Use WordPress button to download and install the SumoMe WordPress plugin.
Drupal Users: Edit your theme's html.tpl.php template file and insert the snippet there.
Once installed, you can manage all of your SumoMe settings right from your own site by clicking on the blue bar in the upper right of your site (there is also a Chrome Extension you can install).
Click on Sumo Store to add your first app.
Once you've installed the Welcome Mat app, you can begin to configure your mat. The free account gives you access to one mat and a limited set of themes, but all of the critical functionality is there.
Under Services you will be able to connect and configure your MailChimp account. If you're going to offer a digital download that corresponds with a specific Group that you've set up within your List, be sure to select it here.
Make adjustments to the mat so that it fits with your site's overall look and feel as much as you can, but spend the most time considering what you want to say on the mat. The copy here is very important! You can edit the heading, the text below the heading, and the button text.
Note the use of the first person from the reader's perspective. "I Want The Free Checklist..." and so on. While this is something you should test (along with colors and specific offers), generally, this style of writing will resonate best with readers.
Once you've set up and saved your mat, you can also edit the Display Rules if you want to control which pages it does or does not appear on, desktop vs. mobile, and so on.
Install List Builder to get your popup installed and running, and it's incredible. SumoMe's popup, unlike MailChimp's default, is a smart piece of technology that intuitively displays when it's most likely that a reader will be receptive to your offer.
Just as with the Welcome Mat, you can design one Popup Box with a very specific, compelling offer, and let the system bring interested subscribers into your list.
Note that I've specifically chosen my website and design's shade of Green for my buttons. That green (Sea Green: #069448), is an accent color for my design and my designated Call To Action color. There has been intense study in the psychology of color and green is typically associated with Growth and Freshness, two qualities that I think apply well to the kinds of offers I make to readers.
If you have a paid account, you can also make use of SumoMe's "Click Triggers" which allow you to add a popup box as a clickable text link, like this.
The Scroll Box is a tactic that I've only recently started to experiment with, and yet am already seeing excellent results. I did want to make it different from the other offers, so initially my focus is on the Content Pyramid worksheet which, technically, is a Content Upgrade.
In the few weeks that it's been active, it's already encouraged more subscribers and downloads than the initial published article did, so that's impressive!
I'm also testing a different design with this offer, one that's not available to free accounts since I've worked a key graphic into the background. But note that I continued to keep my style guide's color palette throughout.
Finally, there's the Smart Bar, which currently I'm using to help readers discover SumoMe. But you can use it for anything you wish. You can:
- Call To Action link to any URL
- Collect Email Addresses
- Encourage Twitter Followers
- Encourage Facebook Fans
You'll see these choices under the "Bar Mode" selector. Personally I recommend options 1 or 2 and would highly recommend testing different kinds of offers. Even testing one kind of offer against another.
For instance, Bar #1 might invite visitors to an article you've written which has a great content upgrade, while Bar #2 might offer them a digital download immediately upon subscription, and see which kind of offer appeals to your audience the most.
You might find that your particular audience is very receptive to having content emailed to them right away. Or, you might find that they need a little more information first, and therefore the articles with upgrades perform better.
Generally, with all of these tactics, the most effective offers and pieces of content will likely be Digital Assets as opposed to Content Upgrades, but as with everything else, test!
Once you begin to get signups to your list, you can open the SumoMe settings at any time and see how effective each of these tactics has been.
You will also be able to see the new subscribers in MailChimp, of course, but MailChimp will consider them "Imports" rather than "Subscribers." That means that within the list growth statistics, they're noted separately. And do make sure that when you're setting up autoresponders that they're triggered for imported lists as well as normal subscribers.
How To Use Your Email List
We'll go into detail on how to use your email list in another article, but for those of you just getting started, I wanted to leave with you a few basic ideas on how to leverage your list.
- Notification of New Content - Any time you publish a new article, let your list subscribers know. Not only does this help bring readers back to your content, it's also a good motivator for getting people to sign up in the first place.
- Newsletters - You can regularly write to your subscribers and provide them with unique, helpful information, as well as updates on what you're working on or what's new to your business/blog.
- Recommendations - If you're monetizing your blog with affiliate relationships, your list should be receptive to your recommendations as long as the recommendations are appropriate and well-tested. I never, ever recommend a product or service that I haven't personally used and vetted.
Do make sure that you treat your list and subscribers with respect. Don't be afraid to ask them questions and write your emails in very personal, conversational tones. And do them a favor now and then and give them something.
Your subscribers are valuable members of your community and you should get into the habit of rewarding them for having faith in you and supporting you. Most of the time, these 'gifts' will be in the form of unique content that you'll send only to your list. I like to think of them as blog posts that are only published to MailChimp. :)
In March, for instance, I published my Blog Promotionology material to Amazon as a Kindle eBook. It's a complete study on how to promote your blog and blog posts, and it sells for $2.99. On the day it went it up, I sent an email to my list thanking them for their support and letting them know about the book, which I then gave to each and every one of them for free.
While you don't have to give away free product to your subscribers, you definitely need to be mindful of the support they're giving you, and find ways to regularly reciprocate to them. I'll be giving you some specific suggestions in a future article.
And that's it! You are now armed and ready to begin building up your email list. It will take a little time to get everything started, but it's well worth it. Remember:
- Integrate MailChimp into your blog from the start.
- Regularly create compelling content.
- Begin adding Digital Materials and Content Upgrades.
- Integrate SumoMe to add compelling offers throughout your site.
One last thing, be sure to sign up for my list so that in the coming weeks, as I publish the other articles mentions in this one, you can have them delivered to you!
DISCLOSURE: Many of the links in the article above, and throughout this site, are affiliate links. While there's no additional cost to you, any purchases made via those links may earn me a commission. Rest assured, only products and services which have been rigorously tried and tested are reviewed, and those reviews are always thorough and honest. If you benefited from my review and have a genuine interest in the linked product, your use of the affiliate link is appreciated and allows me to continue writing these kinds of helpful articles. Current examples include Agorapulse, Tailwind, Wishpond or SEMrush. Please also note that I am employed by SiteSell as their Chief Marketing Officer and am fully authorized to share product and company information from extensive personal experience.
By Mike Allton, Content Marketing Practitioner
Mike is a Content Marketing Practitioner - a title he invented to represent his holistic approach to content marketing that leverages blogging, social media, email marketing and SEO to drive traffic, generate leads, and convert those leads into sales. He is an award-winning Blogger, Speaker, and Author at The Social Media Hat, and Brand Evangelist at Agorapulse (formerly CMO at SiteSell).
As Brand Evangelist, Mike works directly with other social media educators, influencers, agencies and brands to explore and develop profitable relationships with Agorapulse.Follow @Mike_Allton