The Definitive Guide to Building an Email List From Scratch

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

If you haven’t yet started building an email list (but know you need to), this article is for you. You may have heard that a strong email list is one of the most valuable assets you can have, but when you’re starting from scratch, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. This is partly because many business owners have a hard time envisioning the long-term payoff for the hard work they need to do now.

If you’re serious about growing your business, building a healthy email list should be one of your top priorities. When it comes down to it, your list is one of the only online assets that you have 100% control over. Having a solid social media presence is absolutely essential, but you’ll always be at the mercy of new and changing algorithms (think Facebook’s Edgerank). And achieving high search engine rankings is great too, but again, you’re at the mercy of changing algorithms and updates.

Your email list, on the other hand, is yours, free and clear. Using your website and social media to attract visitors and followers, and then encouraging them to sign up for your email list gives you the opportunity to contact your prospects at any point in the future, with any kind of messaging you want; and you’re not bound by search engine rankings or social media algorithms.

Getting Started: The Basics

1. Sign up with an email marketing service.

Since we’re starting at the beginning, I’m going to assume you haven’t yet chosen an email service provider (ESP). An ESP will provide you with all the tools, templates and services you need to get subscribers, test your campaigns, and manage the day-to-day requirements of your list.

Different email services will use different pricing models, so be sure to choose the one that best suits your list size and expectations for growth. Some ESP’s will charge a flat monthly fee based on list size, while others will charge per number of emails sent.

A good, basic (free) service if you’re just starting out is MailChimp. Other popular options include AWeber, GetResponse, and ConstantContact.

2. Create a compelling offer.

Before people hand over their email address, you’re going to have to offer them something enticing in exchange. This could be a free eBook, access to a Webinar, or the promise of discounts or deals exclusively for your subscribers. You could even repurpose some of your existing blog content and turn it into a guide or resource list. Whatever you decide to offer, just make sure it’s something people will recognize as holding true value!

3. Create an opt-in form.

Every ESP will give you tools to create an opt-in form for your site. Generally speaking, the less information you ask for (at this initial stage, at least), the better. The more information you ask for, the less likely your prospect is to complete the process.

You’ll obviously need to ask for an email address, and I also highly recommended that you ask for a first name so you can personalize your emails. However, asking for any information beyond these two fields can decrease conversion rates significantly without adding much valuable data.

4. Put the opt-in form on your site.

Placing your form on your site is usually as easy as copying and pasting a snippet of code provided by your email marketing service. Most website owners put their form in their right sidebar, which has been shown as one of the highest-converting locations. However, this certainly isn’t the only option.

According to Derek Halpern of Social Triggers, there are 7 high-converting places you should consider putting it:

1. In a feature box (see Social Triggers feature box above)

2. At the top of your sidebar

3. After each blog post

4. In your site’s footer

5. On your About page

6. In a little bar across the top of your page (If you’re using Wordpress, you can download the Attention Grabber plugin for free).

7. In a popup box

Each placement will perform differently depending on your site, niche and audience, so be sure to test out various locations as you go along.

You’ll also want to make sure you’re giving your new subscribers easy access to that compelling offer you created in #2 above. Typically, this is done by including a download link on the page that subscribers are directed to after confirming their email.

The Fun Part: Getting Subscribers

Now that you’re all set up to starting collecting emails, the fun part begins (when I say ‘fun’, I actually mean ‘hard’). If your site receives a good amount of traffic and you have a truly compelling offer, this shouldn’t be too difficult. However, if you’re like most business owners, you’ll need to look outside your own audience to start building your list.

Following are ways to get targeted subscribers for your new list.

5. Leverage other people’s lists.

Email marketing strategist Ben Settle suggests offering your services in exchange for a plug on someone else’s list. In his case, he arranged a strategic ‘swap’ with a well-know marketer who had a big list: he wrote 6 press releases in exchange for a few mentions in the marketer’s popular newsletter.

Another way you can leverage someone else’s list is to propose a joint venture. Of course, you won’t be able to offer a plug in your newsletter. However if you already receive some decent website traffic, or have built a presence on social media, you can offer some promotion on these channels.

6. Incorporate opt-ins into existing forms.

Chances are you already have forms on your site: contact forms, registration forms, quote request forms, contest entry forms, etc. Including an opt-in checkbox on all existing forms can be a great way to collect emails from visitors who are obviously already interested in what you have to offer.

7. Hold a giveaway.

When done right, contests and giveaways can be a great source of new, targeted leads. This strategy works best if you already have an existing audience on social media, but there are other ways you can attract entrants.

Your best bet will be to give away something that’s valuable to your target market; for instance, a high-value digital asset on a niche topic. You can give away products (we’ve all seen contests where the prize is a free iPad or gift certificates), however this strategy often leads to entrants who are more interested in the money than in what you have to offer.

AppSumo regularly holds giveaways as a way of building their list, and estimates that each one generates an average of $.083 gross profit per subscriber. And their best giveaway results? $6.90 gross profit per new subscriber.

8. Seek out guest blogging opportunities.

Guest blogging is a great strategy for getting high-quality inbound links to your site, increasing your visibility, and of course getting new subscribers for your list. A properly executed guest blogging strategy can yield a strong ROI, and supports your SEO, social media and email marketing efforts simultaneously.

There are a number of strategies you can pursue for your guest blogging including:

· Getting a regular column on a well known website.

· One-off contributions to a niche website (which can potentially lead to a regular column).

· Syndicating your content. Searching for “industry term + syndication” or “industry term + content/blog syndication” may reveal services which you can apply to be a part of.

Most sites that encourage guest posts allow you to link back to your site, either from within your article or in your author bio. Including a link to your offer in your author bio or at the end of your post is a great way to capitalize on the visibility you’re getting through your guest post.

For guidance on running a guest blogging campaign, see my posts The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide to Building Your Business by Guest Blogging and How to Get the Most Value Out of Your Guest Blogging Campaigns.

Final Thoughts

The effort you put into building your email list is one of the best investments you can make online. Having access to the inboxes of targeted prospects means you can continue to build and nurture relationships over time, and become a trusted source of valuable industry knowledge. Then, when it’s time for your prospects to buy, you’ll be the first one who comes to mind.



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Jayson DeMers

CEO of EmailAnalytics (, a productivity tool that visualizes team email activity, and measures email response time. Check out the free trial!