Creating an email list is one of the first things a beginning blogger should do. Here are some of the reasons it’s so important to create an email list:
- Most visitors to your website will never return unless you stay in touch with them
- On average, a person has to see your message 7 times before making a purchase – email allows you to do that
- Online businesses only succeed when they build a following of loyal readers – email allows you to build that relationship
In this article, I show you everything you need to know to create an email list, including:
- How to choose an ESP
- How to choose a lead generation service
- What kind of opt-in forms to use
- Where to place them
- One-step and two-step opt-ins
- The pros and cons of collecting names
This is a long article, so grab a cup of coffee (or tea) and make yourself comfortable…
Why You Need To Create an Email List
Let’s face it - email is old technology.
Back in 1993 when I was doing my Master’s degree, I can remember seeing my Professor check his email. It was the first time I’d seen anyone using email.
That was 26 years ago!
But email is still the most effective way of building a relationship with your audience. And it’s easily the most powerful marketing tool on the Internet.
According to the Direct Marketing Association, for every $1spent on email marketing, the average ROI is $44.
So why is email marketing so effective?
Email Is Personal And Direct
An email is direct. It’s a one-to-one communication. It’s not like a Facebook post, a Tweet, or a banner ad.
When someone signs up to your list, you’re getting access to their Inbox, the inner sanctum of their daily life.
People Still Use Email
According to OptinMonster, more than half of us check email before checking any other channel:
And it’s not just Americans.
In 2017 the global population of people using email was 3.7 billion. That figure is predicted to grow to 4.3 billion by 2022:
Email Can Be Personalized
Email can be personalized with the subscriber’s first name.
And much more.
You can personalize the content of your emails for different sets of customers, based on factors such as:
- their gender
- their purchase history
- the links they clicked on in your emails
- whether or not they opened your last email
- their country
If you have enough information about your subscriber, you can match the content of your emails to where they are in the customer journey.
Email Is Relatively Inexpensive
Compared to print, TV ads, and direct mail, email is relatively inexpensive.
Even compared to other forms of online marketing, such as paid ads on social media or ads on search engines, email marketing is a bargain.
Email Can Be Targeted To a Customer’s Needs
Email marketing can take advantage of highly advanced segmentation and automation rules. This allows you to match your content to where your subscriber is in the sales funnel or buyer journey.
Email Marketing Can Be Measured
Everything you do in email marketing can be measured, analyzed, tested and optimized, down to the nth degree.
This allows you to continually improve the targeting of your message.
It explains, in part, why email marketing has a higher ROI than any other marketing channel.
People Prefer Email Marketing
According to Marketing Sherpa, 72% of consumers prefer to receive promotional messages through email:
1. Choose an Email Service Provider
To create an email list you’ll need an Email Service Provider.
1.1 What Is an ESP and What Does It Do?
But I already have a Gmail account – isn’t Gmail an Email Service Provider?
Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo are Free Email Providers.
An Email Service Provider (ESP) is a different beast altogether.
ESP’s are providers of email marketing services. Here are some of the core functions they perform:
Maintain Your List
An email service provider maintains your email list for you.
It adds people to your list when they sign up and it removes them when they unsubscribe.
An ESP provides you with opt-in forms that you can embed on your website.
Segment Your Audience
An ESP also allows you to segment your list into different groups, according to interest.
For example, let’s say you write articles on three main topics:
- Writing Tips
- Email Marketing
Some of your readers will only be interested in SEO, others will only be interested in writing tips and others will be interested in all three topics.
An ESP allows you to keep those subscribers in separate buckets.
And that means you can target your articles and your offers to exactly the right audience.
Send Automated Sequences
An ESP also provides you with automated sequences.
These are a series of emails triggered by the actions of your subscriber (e.g. subscribing to an opt-in form, clicking a link in an email).
Typically, these sequences are part of an email funnel that guides your subscriber towards a purchase.
1.2 How To Choose an ESP
To create an email list, you'll need an Email Service Provider (ESP). There are many factors to consider when choosing an ESP.
The first and most basic factor that might influence your choice is whether the ESP is free or paid.
You can start building a list quite adequately with a free ESP.
Most of the major ESPs offer plans that are free until you reach a certain number of subscribers.
Here are some ESPs that offer free plans:
- Mail Chimp - 2,000 subscribers and 10,000 emails p/month
- Mailer Lite - 1000 subscribers with no monthly email limit
- Sender - 2,500 subscribers, with 15,000 emails per month
These free plans offer varying degrees of automation.
However, the free plans don't give you advanced multi-step automations. And those are the features that turn your list into a sophisticated marketing tool.
With a paid account, ESPs offer:
- advanced automation based on segmentation of your audience and
- sequences triggered by subscriber behavior
These triggers can include things like:
- joined from a specific form
- opens an email
- clicks a link in an email
- shares or forwards an email
- visits a web page from an email
If you’re selling products, this level of automation is where the magic happens.
It’s where you can create advanced email funnels that put your marketing on auto-pilot so that you can get on with the job of creating content.
Here are three ESPs that offer this kind of advanced technology:
These prices are all monthly (as opposed to annual) and refer to broadly similar plans:
- $29 p/month – up to 1000 subscribers
- $49 p/month – 1000 to 3000 subscribers
- $70 per/month – unlimited subscribers
- $49 p/month
Choosing an ESP is not easy. Most bloggers (present author included) try a few different ESP’s until they find the right one.
Here are some things you may want to think about when choosing your ESP:
- How many email addresses do you currently have in your list? Most ESPs charge by the number of subscribers you have.
- How frequently do you email? Some ESPs specify in their plans how many emails you can send per month.
- Does the ESP offer personalization and dynamic content and triggered automations?
- Does the ESP offer segmentation of your subscriber base?
- What is the ESP’s email deliverability? This is a measure of how many sent emails reach their destination. In 2017, the average email deliverability across all US ESPs was 77%
- The workflows involved in setting up email automations can get very complex. So you need to know: how much training is required to get your automations up and running?
- Does the ESP offer segmentation based on behavioral and demographic criteria?
- What kind of support can you expect from your ESP? What are their hours of availability?
Some ESPs are geared towards large enterprises, rather than work-from-home bloggers.
They offer highly advanced triggers and automations. The workflows in these automations can be so complex that you may end up having to pay someone to set them up.
But if you’re a solopreneur, with a blog that you want to monetize, you don’t need that level of sophistication.
A good compromise for bloggers is ConvertKit. It’s the ESP I use, and I highly recommend it.
ConvertKit offers all the tags, triggers, rules, automations, and sequences that you need to run effective marketing campaigns.
It's not so complex that you have to get someone to do it for you. But it's advanced enough to create email funnels that will make you money while you sleep.
(Full disclosure: the above link is an affiliate link and if you purchase ConvertKit I will earn a small commission)
2. How To Generate Leads
Now that you’ve got an Email Service Provider, you need a Lead Generation Service.
What! You mean I need another service provider?
I’m afraid so.
ESPs do provide opt-in forms and other lead capture tools.
But they’re not in the same league as those you get from a dedicated lead generation service like OptinMonster, Lead Pages, or Thrive Leads.
(Thrive Leads is actually not a service: it’s a plugin. I’ll tell you more about that in a minute.)
So why can’t I just put a sign-up form in my sidebar? Why do I need advanced lead generation software?
The answer is that sidebar opt-in forms don’t work anymore.
People don’t even see them. If you want to create an email list fast, you need to be able to get your visitor’s attention.
And the way to do that is to use a special type of opt-in called a ‘modal opt-in’. A modal opt-in gets triggered by visitor behavior.
2.1 Types of Opt-in Forms
Here’s a brief taxonomy of opt-in forms. Some of these are modal and some are static or embedded.
A timed popup is a lightbox that is superimposed on the webpage.
When the lightbox appears, the webpage underneath gets darkened, so that the visitor’s full attention is on the lightbox.
In fact, you can’t even continue reading the web page without either:
- Entering your email address in the lightbox opt-in form, or
- Closing the lightbox by clicking a small ‘X’ in the top right corner.
On some popups, there’s a second button next to the ‘subscribe’ button, that says ‘No’. Click on that and you close the lightbox.
The ‘No’ button often contains negative CTA such as:
- ‘I Already Have Enough Traffic’
- ‘I Don’t Want To Make Money Online’
- ‘I Don’t Want These Tips’
Lightboxes can be small or they may fill the entire screen. In the latter case, they are referred to as screen filler lightboxes or screen filler overlays.
This is exactly the same as a timed popup, with the difference that it gets triggered when your visitor scrolls to a certain percentage of the page.
The idea behind this type of popup is that if someone has been on your page for a certain amount of time, they must be interested in your content. And that means they are more likely to be interested in your offer.
Exit Intent Popup
An exit intent popup is a lightbox that appears when your visitor is about to leave the page.
Exit intents are triggered when a visitor moves their cursor towards the back button in the top left corner of their browser.
The thinking behind exit intents is that you’re about to lose the visitor anyway, so why not present them with one last offer?
From the visitor’s point of view, an exit intent is much less annoying than a standard popup because their visit is over, so they are not being interrupted.
Also known as a Fly-In, this form slides in shyly (almost apologetically) from the bottom right corner of the screen.
It’s far less intrusive than a popup because it doesn’t stop your visitor reading the page.
A Floating Bar, also known as a Ribbon or an Optin Bar, is a narrow band that sits at the top of the screen and stays there as you scroll down the page.
Floating Bars can be triggered to appear:
- Immediately a visitor arrives
- When a visitor has scrolled a certain percentage down the page
- When a visitor has been the page a certain number of seconds or minutes
Floating bars are often two-step opt-ins. You click on a button that says ‘Yes’ or something equivalent, and you then see a second bar with an opt-in field for your email address.
Floating Bars have the advantage over popups that they don’t interrupt your visitor, yet they are always in view.
A scroll mat (also known as a welcome mat, a welcome gate or an opt-in gate) is a large opt-in form that appears as soon as you land on a web page.
It demands your attention because it occupies the entire screen. If your visitor wants to go the page content, they have to scroll down.
In effect, the scroll mat is simply an extension of the web page.
A lot of the major websites are using scroll mats right now. And that can only mean one thing – they work.
An In-Line opt-in form is not modal, as it is not triggered by visitor behavior. Typically it’s an opt-in box embedded in your article.
In-Line opt-ins are often used for content upgrades.
A content upgrade is where you offer your reader the content of your article in another format. It could be:
- a PDF version of the article
- an audio of the article
- a video of the article
- a checklist summarizing the main steps in the article
- a swipe file
- a template
When used for content upgrades, In-Line opt-ins are often two-step: the reader clicks on a text link and an opt-in form appears on top of the page.
A Splash Screen opt-in form appears when someone visits your home page.
It takes the idea of interrupting your visitor and puts it on steroids.
With a splash screen, there’s simply no way your visitor will miss your opt-in form:
This is a type of inline opt-in: it’s embedded in the text of a blog post or article.
Typically, the top third or half of the article is visible, and the rest is obscured. You can only read the rest of the article by subscribing to a list.
Content lockers are more often used for getting social media shares than email sign-ups.
To be honest, I’m not a big fan of content lockers. They seem to violate the basic premise of content marketing – free content in exchange for search engine traffic and subscribers.
Also, content lockers could potentially incur a Google penalty.
Google dislikes anything that prevents visitors from accessing the information on your web page.
And it stands to reason:
Google is sending you traffic on the basis that you have information relevant to a searcher’s query. If you suddenly block access to that information, why should Google keep sending traffic to that page?
2.2 Google’s Intrusive Interstitial Penalty
In January 2017, Google introduced the Google mobile popup penalty, also known as the Intrusive Interstitial Penalty (interstitial is a fancy word for a popup).
As you know, Google is constantly trying to improve user experience for people doing searches on Google. And that’s why Google doesn’t want to send its users to pages that the searcher can’t get to because an intrusive popup is blocking access.
If you have opt-in forms on the mobile version of your site, you need to make sure they don’t do any of the following:
- display a popup that covers the main content, either immediately after the user navigates to a page from the search results, or while they are looking through the page
- display a standalone popup that the user has to dismiss before accessing the main content.
- use a layout where the above-the-fold portion of the page appears similar to a standalone popup, but the original content has been tucked away underneath the fold
Here are some examples of what this means in practice:
- a popup that covers most of the mobile screen at any time after the user navigates to your page from the search results would violate both (1) and (2).
- a scroll mat on a mobile website would violate item (3).
So what would be a safe opt-in to use on mobile?
For mobile, I use a floating bar at the top of the screen. It’s completely safe (in terms of the Google penalty) because it doesn’t block content in any way, and it doesn’t meet any of the three conditions set out above.
2.3 Choosing a Lead Generation Service
As I said earlier, to create an email list, you need lead generation tools. So how do you choose a lead generation service?
Your lead generation service should provide you, at a minimum, with:
- a library of opt-in form templates
- analytics so that you can see your conversion rate
- A/B Testing, so that you can continually improve the messaging/design of your opt-in
Most lead generation services integrate seamlessly with the major Email Service Providers.
Here are three popular Lead Generation Services:
- Optin Monster starts at $9 p/month and goes up to $49 per/month with several price points in between.
- Lead Pages starts at $25 p/month and goes up to $199 p/month
- Thrive Leads is a WordPress plugin (not a service) with a one-time fee of $67
I’ve used all three of them. The one I use now is Thrive Leads.
What do I like about it?
Firstly, it’s a one-time payment (I’m not keen on recurring fees).
Secondly, the settings and the analytics are part of my WordPress dashboard.
This means I see it every time I log in my WP dashboard.
And that makes it much easier to check on the performance of my opt-in forms, run A/B tests, and make minor adjustments. I find that when your lead generation is on a third-party website, you tend to forget about it.
3. One-Step vs Two-Step Opt-ins
Opt-in forms are the interface between you and your visitors as you create an email list.
Opt-in forms can either be one-step or two-step.
Wondering what that means?
A one-step opt-in is where the opt-in form has a field for an email address and a subscribe button.
On a two-step opt-in, there are two stages.
Stage 1 shows a button that asks the visitor a question. The question might be: “Want To 3x Your List in 30 Days?”
When the visitor clicks the button, they get taken to Stage 2. This is a standard opt-in form with a field for an email address and a subscribe button.
Web marketers have reported much higher conversion rates from two-step opt-ins. The reason they work so well is that two-step opt-ins take advantage of a basic principle of human psychology.
It’s called the theory of micro commitments.
This theory was popularized by psychologist Robert Cialdini in his book: ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’.
According to the theory of micro commitments, we are more likely to take a big step if we have first taken a much smaller step. The smaller step creates momentum that makes it easier for us to take the big step.
It’s also known as the Zeigarnik Effect. Put simply, we are more likely to finish something that we’ve already started.
In our case, the big step is entering an email address on an opt-in form. We all have a resistance to doing that.
But clicking on a button that says, ‘Tell me More’ or ‘Yes, I’m Interested’ involves no risk.
You're then much more likely to take the next step and enter your email address on the opt-in form.
I haven’t been able to find any hard statistics showing that two-steps work better than one-steps.
But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence:
- Clay Collins (co-founder of Lead Pages) reports a 60% increase in opt-in rate when he started using a two-step.
- The US Student Loans Center increased opt-ins by 10% when they switched to two-step.
- And Jeffalytics reports conversion rates as high as 57% using two-step opt-ins.
The takeaway? The fastest way to create an email list is to use a two-step opt-in form.
4. Names: To Collect or Not To Collect?
This is a difficult decision for anyone wanting to create an email list.
What’s at stake?
You’ll grow your list much faster by not collecting names.
- Campaign Monitor found that using the recipient’s first name in the subject line can increase open rates by 26%.
- Get Response also got much higher open rates with personalized subject lines. They also noticed a 130% increase in CTRs compared to emails without personalized subject lines.
On the other hand, once you start collecting names, you can expect to see your opt-in rate drop by 10% to 20%.
On balance, the reasons against collecting names seem to outweigh the reasons for.
I did a quick survey for this article on some well-known blogs and this is what I found:
Don’t Collect Names:
- Blog Tyrant
- Blogging Wizard
- Single Grain
- Jeff Bullas
- Jeff Goins
- Successful Blogging
- Yaro Starak
- Seth Godin
- Search Engine Land
- Making Sense of Cents
Do Collect Names:
- Social Triggers
- Smart Passive Income
- Marie Forleo
- Content Marketing Institute
- Social Media Examiner
- John Chow
- Life Hacker
- Michael Hyatt
NOTE: For this survey, I only considered opt-ins for basic subscriber lists, not opt-ins for webinars.
As you can see, there’s a trend to not collect names.
Here are two good reasons, apart from the statistics, for not collecting names on your opt-in forms:
- People enter fake names on opt-in forms. This means that your personalized email is sometimes going to have a bizarre salutation, such as ‘Hi anyone’, ‘Hi me’, or even ‘Hi god’. And that’s worse than no personalization at all.
- Using people’s names in email subject lines is a marketing device. No one writing to a friend ever does that. So the more you personalize your emails, the more you identify them as ‘marketing’.
5. Where to Put Opt-in Forms on Your Website
In section 2.2 we covered the different kinds of modal opt-ins (timed popups, percentage-scrolled popups, exit-intent popups, slide-ins, floating bars, scroll mats, etc.).
Here are some other high-converting places to put your opt-in forms:
The header is a highly visible place for your opt-in form. In most WordPress themes you should be able to use a widget to place an opt-in form in the header of your site.
5.2 Blog Posts
For maximum conversions, place your opt-in on every blog post on your site.
Place an opt-in at the foot of every article, with a CTA that reads like this:
- “To get more articles like delivered to you every week, join my list…” or
- “Want to get more articles like this?”
Like the header, the footer is another highly visible place to put an opt-in form. In most WordPress themes, you should be able to use a widget to insert your form into the footer.
5.4 About Page
The ‘About Page’ is one of the most visited pages on any website. So it’s a great place to put an opt-in form.
6. Opt-in Form Calls To Action (CTA)
To create an email list fast, you need high-converting copy on your opt-in forms.
There are some Calls To Action (CTAs) that simply won’t cut it. For example, ‘Subscribe!’ or ‘Sign Up Now’.
We all receive way too much email. So any words that remind your visitor they’re about to add more email to their Inbox is something to be avoided.
If you want to grow your list, you have to use button text that (a) uses action words and (b) emphasizes benefits.
Here are some alternatives that will get you more subscribers:
- Join Now
- Count Me In
- Send Me the PDF
- Send Me The Link
- Yes, I Want It!
- Gimme Now
- Send It To Me
Apart from the button text, you also need a headline that focuses on benefits.
Here’s an example. Instead of asking someone to subscribe to your list try this: “Get free tips each week to improve your website traffic and generate more revenue”
Another often-used tactic for getting more opt-ins is social proof.
You’ve probably seen opt-in forms that say ‘Join 27,000 other subscribers’. The idea here is simple – if other people like it, it must be good.
Urgency or scarcity are also effective ways to get people to fill in your opt-in form.
Anytime you see the word ‘Now’ on an opt-in form, that’s the urgency trigger being used. You can also create urgency by placing a countdown timer on your opt-in form.
7. Single Opt-in or Double Opt-in?
This is another big decision you’ll face as you build your email list.
Before we look at the pros and cons, what exactly is double opt-in?
Single opt-in is where you enter your email address and that’s it: you’re now on the list.
With double opt-in, you enter your email address but you’re still not on the list. You’ll receive a confirmation email containing a link. When you click on that link, you confirm that you want to subscribe. And now you are on the list.
So the difference is: double opt-in requires an extra step.
And that extra step is why a lot of marketers and bloggers don’t use double opt-in.
Get Response estimates that 20% to 30% of people will never take that second step and confirm their subscription.
Mail Chimp puts the drop-off rate even higher. According to their data, 61% of people will never take that second step of confirming their subscription.
In a nutshell: your list will grow at least 20% to 30% faster with single opt-in.
But on the other hand, with double opt-in you get:
- fewer unsubscribes
- fewer spam complaints
- higher open rates
- higher click-through rates
In short, with double opt-in, you end up with more quality; with single opt-in you end up with more quantity.
Although your ESP will probably recommend double opt-in, most online marketers now use single opt-in.
8. Create a Lead Magnet
To create an email list, you’ll have to offer an incentive.
It used to be that you could just ask people to subscribe to your list and they would. But those days are long gone.
In 2019, you need to give people a reason to join your list.
And that reason is called a lead magnet. You’ll also see it referred to as an ‘opt-in offer’, an ‘opt-in incentive’, or an ‘opt-in bribe’ (yuck).
Most opt-in forms focus entirely on the lead magnet and don’t even mention joining a list. This is because visitors may want the freebie you’re offering, but they’re probably not so keen on joining yet another list.
So what is a lead magnet and how do I create one?
Lead magnets come in many different forms.
Here are some examples:
- Coupon, discount code (e.g. 10% off your course)
- Case studies (e.g. how you increased your opt-in rate from 1% to 7%)
- Plan or planner pages (e.g. how to plan a content strategy)
- Worksheet (e.g. worksheet that sets out the SEO items that need to be done for a new blog post)
- Checklist (e.g. list of SEO items to do before publishing a blog post)
- Printable (e.g. a convenient list of image sizes for social media platforms)
- Resource list (e.g. list of free tools for editing a blog post)
- Calculators (e.g. cooking conversion calculator)
- Toolkit – a list of the tools you use to do something (e.g. SEO tools, blog writing tools, e-Commerce tools)
- Templates (e.g. email templates for doing Influencer Outreach)
- Swipe file (e.g. list of frequently used transitional words and phrase)
- Webinar (e.g. free webinar to promote your premium video course)
- Mind map (e.g. a mind map that sets out the key components in a content strategy)
- Audio (e.g. an audio version of your article)
- Video (e.g. a short video that explains a particular procedure referred to in your article)
A mistake that beginning bloggers make with lead magnets is spending days and days creating them.
You should be able to create a lead magnet in 5 hours, from scratch. If it takes longer than that, you’re probably putting too much emphasis on it.
One of the reasons you need to be able to create lead magnets quickly is that each blog post should, ideally, have its own lead magnet. This is called a content upgrade.
Lead magnets can increase your opt-in rates by 20% to 30%, as Bryan Harris shows in this article.
For more information on how to create lead magnets, see Convert Kit’s Complete Guide to Creating Content Upgrades.
9. Do's and Don'ts of List Building
So now that we’ve covered the A to Z of how to create an email list, here are some do’s and don’ts:
- Don’t stress about unsubscribes – if someone leaves your list it means they weren’t a good match for what you are offering. It’s no loss to you.
- Don’t leave it too long between emails or broadcasts. Maintaining a profitable email list is about building relationships. And it’s hard to do that if you only email your list once every 2 months.
- Don’t buy email lists. This will almost certainly get you into trouble with your ESP.
- Don’t add people without their permission.
- Do check the conversion rates of your opt-ins. The average opt-in rate for a sign-up form is 1.95%. If your conversion rate is lower than that, you need to change something.
- Do run split tests or A/B tests – that way you can continually fine-tune your opt-ins and get high converting opt-in forms.
- Do check that you are not using words that trigger spam filters.
- Do experiment with lead magnets to find one that converts well.
- Do monitor open rates. If someone hasn’t opened your emails for 6 months, it’s probably time you parted ways (this is called ‘cleaning your list’).
- Do limit your opt-in fields – never have more than 2 fields (email and name).
- Do send welcome emails. Let people know immediately that they are now on your list. And tell them how many emails they can expect from you (i.e. once a week, once a month, etc.)
- Do use automated sequences to guide your visitors through the buyer journey. If you are selling products from your website, you should use automations to put your marketing on auto-pilot.
- Do send your subscribers useful content (preferably that you have written or that a guest blogger has written for you)
- Do try to keep to a fixed schedule of emails (weekly, fortnightly, or monthly). Research shows that subscribers who have come to expect an email on a particular day are much more responsive and engaged with your content.
- Don’t stress if you miss a scheduled broadcast. And don’t mention it to your list. Just pick it up on the next cycle and try not to miss it again.
- Do share with your subscribers the best tips you’ve got. Don’t hold back your best advice because you feel it’s too good to share. If you want to run a successful online business, you must add value to people’s lives. And that means sharing the best information you have.
The first thing you need to do when starting an online business is create an email list.
It's the only way you'll build a relationship with your visitors.
An email list lets you share your expertise with your readers.
When you do that consistently, over many months, your subscribers come to trust you as an authority in your niche.
And that, in turn, creates a following of loyal readers who will:
- buy your products
- buy other people’s products based on your recommendations, and
- spread the word about your website
So why not start today?
Get yourself an ESP and put an opt-in form on your website. The sooner you start, the better!
This post was most recently updated on March 21st, 2020