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How to Grow Your Email List to 5 Digits and Beyond

Email is a proven method for reaching prospects and cultivating long-term relationships with customers.

You probably know it has one of the highest ROIs across online marketing channels, especially when used in tandem with social and search. Plus, email provides greater visibility compared with fleeting tweets and the fractured attention spans on Facebook.

The big question is: How can you capitalize on email’s best features to grow your audience and generate more leads and sales?

Here are 7 ways to do exactly that:

1. You need to make your opt-in form prominent

Many sites downplay email signups in favor of social media icons. Sure, those fans, followers, and likes are valuable, but not more valuable than your email list.

Besides, how do those buttons grow the one list you actually own? Facebook decides when your fans see your content. Twitter is a constant stream, where your messages easily can get lost in the flood. (Or worse, if you run a burger joint.)

But you own your email list, so put those sign-up forms where visitors will see them and be compelled to use them.

Example: positions its email opt-in forms all around the primary content window: across the top in the header, in the right-hand sidebar, and below every blog post. email opt in

Some marketers might think that’s overkill. Tell that to Derek Halpern, the site’s owner, who credits the abundance of options as a key factor in tripling his email list in a matter of months.

2. Better yet, make the opt-in form impossible to miss

Let’s talk about popovers and popups. Lightboxes, really.

Every time I present, I ask who hates popovers, and 2/3 of the crowd nods and groans. The other 1/3? They’re usually okay with popovers because they’re getting good results from them!

Results are why I strongly encourage marketers to at least test a lightbox opt-in form, usually with a delay of between 15-45 seconds, and set to appear only once per session. Let’s look at how those have performed on some very prominent sites: pop up email opt in

Results: Between January 2011 and January 2013, the site’s email list grew 375% to over 190,000 readers. And while high-quality content is the true driver of those growth rates, Mike Stelzner attributes nearly 70% of signups to the site’s popover opt-in form.

Chris Penn Pop Up

Results: Looking at popovers in the opposite context, when renowned blogger and author Chris Penn took his popover down, his subscriptions “fell off a cliff.” Within weeks, he replaced it and started running a new series of popover timing and display tests.

3. Make the “What’s in it for me?” crystal clear

Speaking of impossible to miss, the value proposition of your email should hit visitors over the head almost immediately. Show them the answers to “What’s in it for me?” and they’re much more likely to sign up.

There are a few ways to do this, but making sure your blog posts deliver awesome content regularly is a big factor. That’s like a free sample of the email content. If the posts are average, why should blog visitors come back, much less give up their email?

Along these same lines, playing up social proof and third-party credibility indicators also give you an edge with those initial impressions. If 30,000 people subscribe to your email, chances are you’re doing something right. Many visitors will want to sign up and find out what it is themselves.

make sign up clear

Don’t have a five-figure list yet? Don’t sweat it. There are other ways to use the same principle.

For example, test a long-copy form and pepper in positive feedback from real subscribers and customers. That gives your visitors social proof and clear “What’s in it for me?” at the same time.

long form

Results: Last year when we tested it, we got a 321% increase in signups. So we’re big proponents of testing that format.

4. Create and offer a high-value white paper

Look at building your email list as an exchange. Your customer, or prospect, gives you their email address and you deliver value to them in return. While this value can take a seemingly infinite number of forms, a favorite among marketers is the white paper.

A white paper, using Wikipedia’s definition, “is an authoritative report or guide helping readers to understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.” White papers are particularly effective in B2B marketing where decision makers have a specific business problem to solve.

To prepare your white paper, you could start by looking at your analytics, especially your most popular pages, using pageviews as a metric. Let’s say you run an online marketing blog and your most popular posts are on keyword research. Your white paper then might be entitled “5 Secrets to Finding Profitable Long Tail Keywords.” And your content, of course, would present techniques to find long tail keywords.

After you outline, write, and graphically design your white paper, or hire someone to do so, upload it to an email marketing software provider, like AWeber.

When you upload it, you can transmit the information in either a single email or several segments over time using an autoresponder. The advantage of sending a single email is that you deliver the information when your prospect is most eager for it. On the other hand, sending your white paper in installments over a few days allows you to engage your reader across multiple touch points, helping you create a deeper relationship.

Below is an example of a white paper offered, entitled “Six Advantages of a Cloud-Based IT Help Desk.”

white paper

While there are aspects of this page I’d change, such as the image and benefits listed, it can serve as a model for your white paper marketing page: central image relating to the guide, text on what the reader will learn/discover after download, a form used to help you create a 1-to-1 relationship with the reader (including email capture), and a call to action button (in this case, “Download now”).

Quality white paper preparation takes a lot of skill and practice. But they really can help you attract new readers and build your list. For example, 93% of IT buyers share up to 50% of the white papers they receive. (Information Week 2009 Tech Marketing Series “White Papers” p. 15)

5. Run a contest that engages your readers

Contests, when well constructed, create a fun and engaging experience for your readers. While there are many forms a contest can take – trivia, content submission, user voting – the key is to ask entrants to register for participation with their email address.

As with a white paper, you need to offer value to your reader in exchange for their email address. With contests, this value often takes one of two forms. If it’s a content contest where users submit a photo or article, the value is recognition or the opportunity to share their creation with a community.

But the more common value exchange comes in the form of a prize. While prizes can take infinite forms, try to choose one that your community will value. If you have a technology community, for instance, an iPad is usually a safe prize.

An example of a contest that built email into its DNA was 37signals’s Basecamp Tell a Friend Contest. Basecamp is a popular online project management software solution. What it did was ask users to sign up for an account at Basecamp and then share a referral code via email or social with friends.

Friends received a $10 discount on Basecamp, and entrants earned the chance to win an iPad and MacBook Air as well as a grand prize of $5,000. Why the contest worked? The hardware prizes appealed to one of Basecamp’s core demos, online project managers, and the prizes were tied to sharing, as, according to Basecamp, “Every person you sign up counts as a chance to win one of our prizes.”

37 signals contest

A final note on using contests to build your list – try to relate the contest to your product or industry. For example, if you are marketing accounting software, you might ask users to submit tips on taxes. That way, the majority of the people who give you their email address most likely will have at least some interest in your product and content.

(If you’d like to learn more about contests, see How to Use Contests and Giveaways to Get User-Generated Content).

6. Publish a newsletter with niche-specific information

Newsletters are the workhorses of email marketing as they allow you to deliver value to your readers on an ongoing basis.

There’s a lot involved in creating well-read newsletters. In fact, many companies have full-time staff completely dedicated to their creation. However, even if you have limited resources, there are a variety of strategies you can employ to produce a high-value newsletter.

Begin your content newsletter with your readers’ needs in mind. Offer useful information, not just veiled sales material. For example, over the past year, with the Shoeboxed newsletter, we found that subject lines that offered new features, free products, and ways to save money had a 500% higher click-to-open rate than the average.

In addition, offer at least three to four stories in your newsletter across varied, relevant industry topics. Essentially, cast a wide net so that you can interest as much of your audience as possible. If you are running a tax blog, for example, you might include pieces on tax write-offs, choosing an accountant, business expenses, and tax software.

7. Monitor the right metrics – and put them to the test

Perhaps the most important aspect of your newsletter, and for that matter, all of your email efforts, is your analytics panel. While there are a seemingly infinite number of items you can monitor, pay close attention to your delivery, open, click-to-open, share/forward, spam complaint, and unsubscribe rates.

Once you baseline these rates, start testing! Try different subject lines, article content ideas, and images. You might even test HTML vs. text emails. The end goal is to create a system of consistent and persistent improvement in order to build 1-to-1 relationships with your customers.

So there you have it: 7 proven ways to make your email marketing a lot more effective.

Compared with all of the hype around social media and SEO, email might not seem like the sexiest digital channel these days. But think about the digital real estate that you own – your email list – and why it consistently ranks among the highest ROI channels. It’s clear that, unless you’re growing your list and testing regularly, you’re leaving a ton of money on the table. And there’s nothing sexy about that, right?

About the Authors:

Hunter Boyle leads business development for email powerhouse AWeber. A veteran content marketer and optimization strategist, he has helped organizations improve their digital ROI since the dot-com days. Connect with Hunter on Twitter, Google+, or LinkedIn.

Corey Post is the VP of Marketing for, the industry leader in online receipt scanning and organization. With over a decade of experience, he has helped startups and public companies increase revenue through content marketing and media buys. Connect with Corey on Twitter, and LinkedIn.

  1. Sourav Saha @ Blogaholic Mar 19, 2013 at 11:43 am

    Thanks for the awesome post Hunter & Corey,

    Collecting email addresses through popups are not always bad though. Recently Neil Patel revealed one of the secret on user engagements in his blog QuickSprout. In his blog emails account for 13.91% of his overall traffic. But what’s really interesting if those people account for 41% of the overall blog comments and they are 3.9 times more likely to share the content via the social web versus people who came to the site from another traffic source. Neil’s Post for reference :

    Does pop-up works or not, that is debatable . But I think in high authority blogs using pop-up might work because would love to get news about hot events, news or download their latest market research or eBook. As you mentioned in this post Social Media Examiner uses a pop-up to capture email address. Search Engine Land & Marketing Land promote their events like SMX through pop-ups.

    You can trigger pop-ups for the first time visitors not for returning visitors. You might give it a try to see what works or what not.

    • “Does pop-up works or not, that is debatable -” I completely agree and it depends on your success metrics.

      A pop-up may increase your opt-in rate, but you have to consider the impact on other metrics – e.g. sales conversion rate. Not to mention pop-ups may lead to higher bounce rates.

      Opt-in pop-ups can be very effective, but use with care!

  2. Wonderful list! That’s all there is only put into practice!
    Maravilhosa lista! Esta tudo aí é só por em pratica!

  3. Thanks for the great comments. Lightboxes and pop-overs are definitely still an area of controversy, and just like shoes, they’re never one-size-fits-all.

    For me, what’s most important about pop-overs is perceived value and intent on the part of the visitor. If the offer presented has enough value and WIIFM, and the site is producing high-quality content, the pop-over can do very well for opt ins. But if the offer or content hasn’t already proven itself, and/or the timing of the pop-over is an annoyance, it won’t perform very well.

    Forbes and Inc are good examples of sites using lightboxes because they’ve got a reputation for quality content. If the value is there, it’s absolutely worth testing.

    • I agree: the pop-overs/lightbox email sign-ups can definitely be effective (as you’ve referenced here), but they can also be annoying and a hindrance if done improperly.

      I personally hate when the pop-over displays instantly when I navigate to a site, especially if it’s my first time there. I’m definitely not going to sign-up for your email list if you don’t even give me the chance to view what it is I came to view in the first place.

      On a side note, web designers and site owners need to keep in mind mobile experience when contemplating pop-over sign up forms.

    • Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

      Agree with Hunter on this – the effectiveness of pop-overs and lightboxes, like most areas of online marketing, is situation specific.

      If you do decide to test pop-overs and lightboxes, make sure you offer something of “high value” to your audience, such as a well researched, niche specific ebook. By doing so, you’ll earn the opportunity to both build your list and create a relationship with your readers.

  4. As I can see in above comments. People have some real issues when it comes to using Pop ups. I’d like to add that in the past I’ve used popups and discovered one thing. If people are really interested in your content then they will subscribe, if not they will use every possible excuse to leave the site. After all there is no point in running after readers who don’t want to be a part of your community. As mentioned in the post around 1/3rd of the people have no issues with pop ups.If it’s working for 33% then there are pretty good chances it will work for you also. Like any other marketing strategy it just need a little bit of testing and fine tuning.

  5. I’m yet to try email marketing at all. Something I’ve always wanted to get involved with, but I’m hesitant when I don’t know what I’d send out yet!

    Has anyone had any luck with it? How big are your mailing lists?

  6. Felipe Kurpiel Mar 22, 2013 at 5:01 am

    I really think that one point is missing… you need to have a lot of traffic to put all of these things together, one you have traffic you can then start implementing all these suggestions. And, even if pop up box are a little bit annoying, they are really effective.
    Good article, by the way.

  7. You just can’t be an idiot about using pop-ups. If you are popping them up every time someone lands on a page or on the home page instantly its just stupid and you’re not going to have a great conversion rate.

    I use Padiact to test pop up timings, amazing tool that allows you to AB test a range of different rules about when your pop up occurs. Have got some really good conversion results.

    Did you know 58% of Australian SMEs push social channels over their email lists. Crazy.

  8. Hey Hunter,

    Some great nuggets in there. The light boxes argument will never go away but they do work!!!


  9. I don’t know your order have a purpose or not, but if i can i really want to change the number 3 “What’s in it for me” first, then 4 5 6 and then 1 2 7. If we are able to make visitor understand the benefit they will get then placing the pop up is really nice. Beside that this way we may get the traffic by either word of mouth from running contest but also gaining great trust of customer.
    Anyway this is really great article. :)

  10. @ Ian — Thanks my friend. I appreciate the feedback and your sharing this piece. As always, I’m looking forward to your next post!

    @ Loc — Thanks, glad you like the post! About the ordering of these ideas, your point is dead-on. The way Corey and I split this up, we each wrote about steps we agreed were both feasible for most marketers and would have a major impact. That said, a few of the steps are low-hanging fruit and some take more time to execute. And since that #3 WIIFM is a bigger change that cuts across several areas, I wanted to lead with a couple tactics any reader could test within minutes of reading this list. :) You’re absolutely right about using context to make pop-overs work, gain trust from readers, and cultivate the word of mouth and social love that dramatically grows lists. Good stuff, thanks!

  11. At the very least, the design should request the name and email adress of the prospect.
    That’s in the busy world attempting to tell way too many stories. If you create an online business, you should take consideration into optimisation methods, but do you know what list building is.

  12. Everything published was very logical. But, what
    about this? what if you were to create a killer headline?
    I am not saying your information isn’t solid., but suppose you added something to maybe grab people’s attention?
    I mean How to Grow Your Email Marketing List to 5 Digits and Beyond is a little boring.

    You could glance at Yahoo’s home page and watch how they create post titles to grab people interested. You might try adding a video or a related pic or two to get people excited about everything’ve got to say.
    Just my opinion, it would make your blog a little livelier.

  13. They don’t know what a hell they are talking about. Especially that crack head Corey Post. He can’t hold a job in the industry and he is teaching us how to do something? How are these people even getting 15 min of fame.

  14. Great tips. Contests can be especially effective if they go viral. Everyone loves iPads, but it doesn’t exactly speak to the heart of the target market. Do some research and offer a prize or prizes that are truly something that your market can get excited for and do everything that they can to win!

  15. Shital Bhalani Dec 11, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    Wow I had no idea there was an email subscription service that made things like this so easy. I thought I’ve considered having an incentive for my email list, but I thought I would have to manually sort through the emails and pick someone. This is giving me so many ideas about what to do for my websites!

    Thanks Again

  16. Ken Van Nortwick Feb 07, 2014 at 1:14 am

    Greetings, Great insights!

  17. This is very informative – thank you guys. I’m working to build an organic list right now, and it has been frustrating to say the least. My marketing manager had us purchase a list from, which worked well. We also did a list rental with I liked the rental because we got a good ROI and they suggested some things for us like including a link in our email for people to opt in to receive offers solely from us, so that gave us a nice boost to our list. In future, I think we’ll supplement our current list with list rentals since they seem to be the most likely to deliver results so far.

    • Ruthie Donnell Mar 21, 2016 at 11:49 am

      This is very well written – good work guys. I’ve have my fair share of experiences in trying to build an organic list and found out its way too much work for one person alone. I grew increasingly impatient and lost time and money with some of your suggestions. So I did some research on data companies that might help build a list of emails and found They were able to navigate me through their site and show me how to build a list on my own. I found the site very easy to use and packed with accurate data. I think I’ll keep going with LeadFerret for now until I find a better solution.

  18. Johnathan Weberg May 19, 2015 at 8:55 pm

    “Shoving the opt-in form in people’s face is always the best!
    There’s some great tips here, keep up the great work!

  19. Thanks for this post, I feel for me I got better results from my email marketing when I used a popup optin form, added social proof, and made it personable. One thing that really boosted it for me was when I decided to add content upgrades.

    Content upgrades work well for getting more social shares too, use a service such as pay with a tweet.

  20. “Subscribe to our newsletter” forms are so old hat and all but invisible to today’s users. So it’s interesting to see how big players in competitive industries attract subscribers. See how the aviation industry does it here:

  21. Nilantha Jayawardhana Jun 05, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    Great post, (of course). Thank you for sharing.

    All of points you showed is very important for almost every blogger who wants to grow their email lists.

    I don’t use optin pop ups, but I’m using optin feature boxes, slide ins and welcome mat to grow my email lists.

  22. Awesome email tips! We’re obsessed with email at our company. We’ve spent 1000’s of hours editing 100’s of client email accounts, and terms of cutting costs and finding revenue growth opportunities for Fortune 500 companies and startups, here are the questions we believe brands should be asking:

    1. Do you send emails now?
    2. What do they say?
    3. Who do you send to?
    4. How are they segmented?
    5. What time do they send?
    6. How do you vary your message?
    7. Do you send the same message to everyone?
    8. Have you ever done any testing?

    We wrote an extensive post on our blog to help build out that audit. Thought you might find it useful:

    Hope that helps! Keep up the awesome content.


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