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Short of having customers spend money on your product or service, gaining access to their inboxes is one of the most important things you can do. Building a solid email list of leads is the best way to grow your business online. Of course, the question becomes, "How do I get people to sign up?"

Judging by what most websites do, you might assume merely putting up a sign-up box for "news and updates" is all you have to do. Unfortunately, that is probably the worst option if you want people to actually sign up for your email list.

I have been testing email sign-up forms for several years on my site and my clients' sites and have narrowed down the top five ways to get more people to sign up for your email list.

Robots vs. Humans

If yours is a big company, make sure you put a human face to your email sign-up. And by that I mean literally publish a picture of the person who will be sending out the email. Doing so assures recipients that an actual human being is sending out the email.

(If you are an author, a freelancer, or some other one-person show, using your picture is probably not necessary.)

I run a small company, but the email sign-up looked like it was coming from my company (even though I write every word). I added my picture to the sign-up, and my subscriptions went up 30% or so.

Nobody wants another corporate newsletter. They want to hear real stuff from a real human being, so assure them that is what you will be sending.

"What's in it for me?"

This is one of my favorite cartoons by my client Hugh MacLeod of Gapingvoid:

It's a good reminder that nobody cares about you, your company, or your product—they care about themselves. It's not malicious, it's fact. Their lives are already slammed with plenty of noise and distraction. When did you last hear someone complain about not getting enough email?

You have to offer a compelling reason for people to sign up for your email list.

The easiest way to do that is to offer a free report, e-book, or download that you send upon sign-up. That is a compelling reason for them to offer up their email addresses, and you are giving them a great bit of value for free.

I almost always see an increase of 50% or so in subscriptions when I do this for a client.

Ask the question "What's in it for me?" And make sure you have a compelling answer.

Hit Them Over the Head With It

I contend that your email list is your most important marketing asset, so don't hide the sign-up in the sidebar or bury it in the footer. Make sure the sign-up stands out in the design of your website. Make it hard to miss.

One of the best ways to do that is to use a popover as people are browsing the site. That alone will greatly increase your sign-ups. Darren Rowse covered this technique in a post a couple years ago that clearly outlined the advantages. It apparently netted him an 875% increase in subscriptions with no adverse effect on traffic.

Even if you don't want to use a popover, make sure you have the sign-up form front and center on your website so people can't miss it.

Wow Them With the First Email

We all know about the importance of in-person first impressions. It's the same for your email list.

When people sign up, they should automatically be sent an email that introduces them to your newsletter. This has to be your best email. Offer great content and a preview of the amazing content they can look forward to in future emails.

The last thing you want is for someone to subscribe and immediately unsubscribe because your first email is terrible.

Wow people with your first email to immediately engage them for the long term.

Split-Test to Success

How do you know that the changes to your sign-up form are working? Maybe sign-ups have gone up. But is that because of its new location on your site? Or, is it just because you have gotten an uptick in traffic?

The only way to know for sure what is and isn't working is to split-test. Randomly show two or more different versions of the sign-up form, and then keep track of which one is converting better.

Google offers a free tool to do tests, and there are plenty of tutorials available, so be certain to actually test your changes to make sure they are working.

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You are already putting a ton of work into producing rock-solid email content, so don't let your prospects miss out on it! Implement the ideas in this article, and you will immediately see an increase in email subscriptions.

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Tim Grahl helps authors sell a lot of books. He is the owner of Out:think. You can get more of his advice by signing up for his newsletter at