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Nineteen (19!) Ideas for Growing Your Email List

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What would you rather have, a big list with dismal conversion rates or a smaller list targeting a highly engaged audience? Thought so.

For a healthy opt-in email list, quality always trumps quantity, and here are 19 budget-friendly ways to get the list you want. What you'll find here are a few new twists to familiar tactics, along with real results and examples, to help you implement these ideas more effectively yourself.

1. Clarify your unique value proposition (UVP)

Who could possibly be excited about signing up for more email? To turn visitors into subscribers, you must show them what sets you apart from the crowd. Use your value proposition to answer visitors' "What's in it for me?" question—namely, getting something they value, something they can't get anywhere else. (See more on creating stronger UVPs, including a free PDF worksheet.)


2. Start a swipe file

See ideas you want to steal draw inspiration from? Combine the bookmarks, downloads, emails, and screen captures that you're intrigued by into a digital swipe file. Use it to get your creative juices flowing before brainstorming a new campaign or test. Try a free Web- and mobile-based utility like Evernote for storing ideas on the go.

3. Listen to your readers

Long surveys can be a drag, so try shorter, more focused formats. Add a quick question to your welcome email, asking readers to share what's keeping them up at night. Or with webinars, take full advantage of the questions field for pre-event questions, poll the audience during the webinar, and send out brief post-event feedback surveys. All those tactics can yield feedback gold.

4. Test, test, test—with a calendar

Like eating eight servings of vegetables a day, we know we should be testing regularly, but it's tough to maintain the routine. Here's a trick: Add testing to your content production calendar so it's rolled into the process earlier. Add dates for analysis and review to close the loop, too.

And while you're at it, have a carrot.

5. Measure engagement, not just opens and clicks

If you want a clearer snapshot of your audience engagement rate, combine your key performance indicators—opens, clicks, conversions, bounces, unsubscribes, pages visited, etc.—with a weighted ranking system to create an "Engagement Scorecard" like this one from David Daniels. (See this great example.)

6. Pitch your list in videos

Using annotations in YouTube videos is a well-known tactic for promoting email sign-ups. But have you tried encouraging sign-ups in your video, with a real, live, human-delivered call to action? Tim Carter of AsktheBuilder.com did—and he got 38% more sign-ups than he did with his annotated videos. (Read the case study.)

7. Test a lightbox form (1/3)

Many marketers find lightboxes annoying and are reluctant to test them on their sites. Michael Stelzner is not among them. According to him, the lightbox form accounts for 70% of SocialMediaExaminer.com's list, which grew 234% in one year, thanks in large part to this tactic. (See the case study.)


8. Test a lightbox form (2/3)

When we tested a lightbox with the AWeber blog, we saw similar results, with a 64.7% gain in average weekly signups. We also tested timing and found the 45-second delay to be the sweet spot—it's not as off-putting as a pop-up that's triggered immediately upon visiting a site.


9. Did we mention testing a lightbox? (3/3)

Still not convinced, eh? How about this: When Christopher Penn removed his pop-up form, his daily email sign-up numbers "fell off a cliff" (see chart). So, if you're not testing this method yet, think of all the potential subscribers you could be missing out on right now. (Read more.)

9. Put opt-in forms around your best content

A lot of marketers think one email opt-in form is enough, two on the same page might be pushing it, and three or more is overkill. Derek Halpern disagrees. To complement the header and sidebar opt-in forms on his blog site, SocialTriggers.com, he added another form to the end of each blog post and to the site footer. Results: In five months, he tripled the site's list.

11. Offer a free e-book to drive sign-ups

First, make sure your e-book is relevant and high-quality; it should also have a UVP of its own (see No. 1). Share it with a trusted circle, get frank feedback on it (and blurbs for the cover), and tighten it up. Then, at launch, ask your circle of reviewers to share it with their circles for more visibility. Bob Serling says his e-book of brief interviews with business leaders (pictured) has produced 5,000 new subscribers a year since it launched. (Read more.)

12. Host (or cohost) free webinars

Yes, everybody's doing webinars these days. That's because webinars grow lists if they're well executed and promoted. Cohosting webinars is a tactic Danny Iny of Firepole Marketing used to grow his email audience 200% so far in 2012. Be clear in your requests to use registrants' email, and consider using our next tip in conjunction with these events.

13. Create an autoresponder series

With an automated series of emails, you can run countless tests, from drip and lead-nurturing campaigns to a training series. Think about where this tactic might help your pipeline the most. Try creating a short series—3-7 emails long—as a follow-up for webinar registrants (consider two separate series, one for attendees and one no-shows) or for people who downloaded a certain product.

14. Test a "Free Updates" call to action

Remember the "Free Updates" tab that was in vogue years ago but fell out of fashion? Well, we all know fashion is cyclical, and this tab might be ready for a comeback. On SocialTriggers.com, the tab (pictured) gets only 2% of site traffic, but with a 20% conversion rate, it's pulling in an average of 1,000 new subscribers per quarter.

15. Play up your social proof

If "90,000 smart people" are reading a particular email (see picture), wouldn't you want to join them? You're smart too, right? Of course—and that's social proof in action. Social proof can come in many flavors: a high number of subscribers, fans, or followers; a quote from a prominent expert or celebrity; a review from a noteworthy publication. So if you've got it, flaunt it—right above or below your email sign-up form, if at all possible.

16. Aim higher with guest-blogging

A smart tip from Jeff Ente, author of the WhosBloggingWhat.com weekly email round-up: When you're searching for guest-blogging opportunities, look for blogs that feature contributors' bio and site or social profile links above the post, not just at the end. Getting this info above the fold can result in an extra boost to traffic and new subscribers.

17. Now and then, "go rogue"

We're all desensitized to the steady stream of marketing content. Take a page from MarketingProfs' own "Don Draper" email campaign for the MarketingProfs B2B Forum (pictured), and try some radical changes with tone, angle, design, or all of the above. It can really grab attention—as this campaign did, with 30% higher open rates and more social buzz than the rest of the series.

18. Segment your lists

If you're not segmenting your lists, do it already. Here's a test idea: Segment your lists by activity level—e.g., actives (opens/clicks within three months) vs. inactives (no opens/no clicks in the same period)—and test a re-engagement series with inactives. Use a discount or incentive, ask them what they expected at sign-up that they aren't getting, and use those answers to rekindle relationships.

19. Don't leave new subscribers hanging

Too many email opt-in confirmation pages lead to a dead-end. Do more with that page, whether it's asking for additional info or feedback (see picture and No. 3), presenting bonuses (No. 11) or other subscription options, or simply redirecting site visitors to your blog or social feeds. Bonus: Send them the most recent issue of your email if there's a long lag time between sends, and sample issues aren't prominent on your site.


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Hunter Boyle leads business development for email powerhouse AWeber. A veteran content marketer and conversion optimization strategist, he's helped organizations improve their digital ROI since the dot-com days.

Twitter: @hunterboyle

LinkedIn: Hunter Boyle

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  • by Hunter Boyle Tue Oct 2, 2012 via web

    Question for readers: Did this post encourage you to test an email opt-in form lightbox?

    I've heard from a few folks on Twitter that they're going to give it a shot. How about you? Thoughts? (Bueller?)

  • by Amy Sutherland Tue Oct 2, 2012 via mobile

    Yes, it has! Great ideas put to paper!

  • by Hunter Boyle Wed Oct 3, 2012 via web

    Thanks for the feedback, Amy. Glad to hear you've got some new ideas for testing. I'd love to hear any results and feature them in future posts. Cheers!

  • by Angela Wed Oct 3, 2012 via web

    Does it count if it encouraged my boss to have ME test a lightbox? :-)

  • by Hunter Boyle Thu Oct 4, 2012 via web

    Hi Angela. Thanks for the feedback. Yes, I'm pretty sure that still counts. And I hope the test goes well ... so maybe you'll forgive me, ha!

  • by Lynn Dalsing Mon Oct 8, 2012 via web

    Thanks for a great post, Hunter! We shared it in our roundup of email marketing news: http://blog.ividence.com/en/archives/news-of-note-on-the-inbox-october-8-20...

    Another option that we would add is email advertising. When done right, you can use it to add to your prospects or acquire new customers.

  • by Hunter Boyle Mon Oct 15, 2012 via web

    Hi Lynn,

    Thanks very much for the comment and sharing this post. I agree 100% with email advertising as a list-building idea, although those costs can run much higher than the ideas outlined above. Advertising is an area that's rich enough for a post (or several) on its own. Hmmmm .... Cheers!

  • by Lynn Dalsing Mon Oct 15, 2012 via web

    Good point, but I mean, you ONLY gave us 19 ideas in this post. :)

  • by Hunter Boyle Mon Oct 15, 2012 via web

    Ha ha, that's true. Funny thing is, we actually cut this down from 25. ;)

    Thanks again for the feedback (and the laugh)!

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