By Aaron Orendorff published September 21, 2015

Ultimate Guide: 11 Sign-Up Strategies for Building Your Email List


Editor’s note: Because building your audience continues to be the cornerstone of content marketing, we’ve updated this post.

Next to Buy Now, what is the most profitable click your business can target?


As CMI’s Joe Pulizzi explains:

While larger enterprises are fighting silo battles, politics, and tearing each other apart focusing on (sometimes) meaningless metrics, small players with patience and passion are building audiences and winning.

Once you build an audience (of email subscribers), anything is possible.

The truth is that building an engaged and sizable email list is hands-down the most long-term, profit-generating investment you can make.

In fact, a McKinsey study reveals that email is a whopping 40 times more powerful at acquiring new customers than Facebook and Twitter combined. On top of that, the average email-based order’s dollar value is 17% higher than social media channels.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is … getting your visitors to sign up is a struggle – one that many online marketers never overcome.

That’s why I’m going to share 11 proven strategies you can start today to build your email list like crazy.

Eleven strategies might sound like a lot to implement, but Buffer’s success in doubling its email sign-ups in 30 days required at least eight strategies.

email-signup-sources-image 1

Image source: Buffer

Because these strategies work best together, this post is lengthy. Don’t be intimidated. There are tons of actionable content and real-world examples all along the way.

Here’s what’s covered:

1. Carrot content

Most of this checklist focuses on the details: What types of forms, where to use them, and how to optimize each one.  But all the forms in the world won’t do you a bit of good if your content isn’t compelling.

That’s where “carrot content” comes in.

Carrot content – also known as lead magnets or bribe-to-subscribe offers – provide immediate value to your subscriber. This free content could be how-to guides, reports, webinars, white papers, e-courses, or even discounts and coupons. The goal of your opt-in content is to improve your subscriber’s life by solving a problem.

In other words, focus on the payoff for your subscriber.

Of course, testing the click-worthiness of your content is the only way to find out if your carrot is enticing. That’s why using Google Analytics’ goals to set up easy-to-understand funnels is a necessity.

Another fantastic tool that goes one step beyond Google Analytic’s on-site data is Cyfe, an all-in-one analytics dashboard that measures everything from marketing efforts to web analytics to offsite sales and more. When it comes to building your email list, Cyfe can help in two ways:

  • It identifies the highest converting traffic sources for each piece of content.
  • It also tracks conversions over time to learn about their continued engagement and if they buy.

cyfe-screenshot-image 2

Image source: Cyfe

2. Landing pages

No post about building an email list would be complete without exploring the fundamental importance of landing pages. To keep this short, here are some landing-page best practices from the pros:

  • Make your call to action big and post above the fold.
  • Use A/B testing.
  • Try videos, which have shown to notably improve conversion.
  • Keep it clear, simple, and focused.
  • Use only one CTA.
  • Craft compelling copy to tell a story instead of stating facts or just selling.

Lastly, be sure to optimize your landing pages for mobile viewing. This example from GetResponse illustrates mobile optimization perfectly.

getresponse-screenshot-image 3

Image source: GetResponse

3. ‘Happy’ buttons

Now that we’ve looked at the big picture, let’s get into the details, starting with your button.

What makes a seductive, click-worthy button? One thing: Happiness.

Get rid of any and all “Submit” or “Sign up” buttons. Instead, you should:

  • Use first-person language – at the very least try “Sign me up” or “Send me updates.”
  • Use active language: “Give me access” or “Start discovering today.”
  • Give concrete previews of what the subscriber will receive.
  • Detail the ultimate payoff such as, “Make me a better marketer.”
  • Tell the people exactly what signing up will really give them. Hint: It’s not a weekly email.

All this means creating button copy that shows the value of your offer.

My favorite formula for button copy comes from Joanna Wiebe. She calls it the “I-want” strategy:

“Write button/CTA copy that completes this phrase: I want to ________________. The underlined part becomes the button copy.”

Compare these two buttons:

cta-copy-button-image 4

Image source: Copyblogger

Notice how the second button completes the “I-want-to” phrase with “end my scheduling hassles.” It identifies a problem and offers a specific, desire-based solution.

4. Two-step opt-ins

Single opt-ins are easy to find. Here’s one directly from the Content Marketing Institute:

cmi-optin-image 5

The two-step or double opt-in, however, is a decisively craftier creature.

Just like the name implies, a double opt-in requires a user to take two actions to subscribe. For example, instead of asking for the email address first, a double opt-in starts with a single click. Take Smart Insights’ email marketing strategy template sign-up, for instance. Here’s what its sidebar CTA looks like:

smartinsights-double-optin-image 6

Image source: Smart Insights

Once someone clicks, she is directed to the second step:

smartinsights-second-step-image 7

Image source: Smart Insights

If you’d like to see a few live examples, Clay Collins of LeadPages recently did three experiments with two-step opt-ins that increased his sign-up rate by almost 60%.

Remember that there can be hazards associated with going from a single opt-in method to using double opt-ins. Most notably, adding steps can discourage some people from completing the CTA.

However, the key benefit of double opt-ins is that they create far more qualified and engaged subscribers. As GetResponse estimates, as many as 90% of single opt-in subscribers provide false names and emails. Moreover, the average click-through rate for emails sent to double opt-in subscribers is twice that of their single opt-in counterparts.

5. Entry pop-ups

The entry pop-up is exactly what it sounds like: A pop-up form is activated when a visitor first enters your site. Often these forms block the view of the majority of the screen, forcing engagement.

Just remember, visitors will do one of the following:

  • Comply and supply information
  • Close the pop-up and ignore the CTA
  • Get annoyed and leave

The first lesson here is about timeliness. App Sumo demonstrates the “sweet spot” for email gathering based on time on page:

appsumo-popup-analytics-image 8

Image source: App Sumo

To increase your chances of capturing an email using a pop-up, aim to wait five seconds before the pop-up is shown.

The second lesson, best said by Mauro D’Andrea of Blog Growth, is about page views. It’s obvious: If a person reads more pages on your blog, she is more likely to subscribe. Don’t be afraid to show the same pop-up to the same visitor when she sticks around.

6. Exit pop-ups

The exit pop-up is the exact opposite of the entry pop-up. These opt-ins automatically generate when your visitor’s mouse moves toward the “back” or “close” buttons.

Exit pop-ups are last-ditch efforts to engage a potential subscriber and prevent a good lead lost. The Internet is teeming with Billy Mays memes that personify the exit pop-up:

billy-ray-meme-exit-popup-image 9

This example from ConversionXL is perfect. My interest in conversion optimization was targeted as soon as I moved the mouse to leave. Even better, ConversionXL also employed the “painful” button copy if I declined: “No, I prefer to suck at optimization.”

conversionxl-pain-button-image 10

Image source: ConversionXL

Pop-ups – both entry and exit – can be awkward and sometimes annoying. But they work. CrazyEgg compiled data from four sites and found staggering results:

  • Nikki McGonigal’s pop-up drove 1,375% more sign-ups than her sidebar alternative.
  • Darren Rowse’s light-box earned 400 new subscribers a day.
  • increased its email conversions by 1,000%.
  • Mama’s Lebanese Kitchen saw sign-ups 10 times greater than the pre-pop-up, opt-in rate.

When creating exit pop-ups, be honest and conversational in your copy. Level with your visitor and admit that the exit pop-up is exactly that … an exit pop-up. Here are some good categorical examples:

  • Social triggers: “Going so soon? Here’s why 1,500 visitors stick around each day.”
  • Specific added value: “Before you leave, grab the [free carrot offer].”
  • Damage control: “Didn’t find what you need? Let us help …”
  • Negative option: “Yes, I want help” or “No, I’ll take my chances”

That last example brings us to our next sign-up strategy: Your “painful” button.

7. ‘Painful’ buttons

Now that we’ve covered pop-ups, let’s take a look at what I like to call “painful” button copy. This concept can be implemented for both entry and exit pop-ups.

The key is to create an opt-out button (basically a close-the-pop-up button) that hurts.

Why would you purposefully create painful buttons?

Joanna Weibe explains, “When a visitor is presented with an opt-in form, it’s so often the case that said opt-in form has just one button, and that button is there to be clicked if you choose to opt in. If you choose not to opt in, you do not have to click a button to state your preference; you simply X out, click out, or otherwise ignore the opt-in button.

“Most of our opt-ins are active and opt-outs are passive.”

A painful button eliminates the passivity of opting out by giving the viewer a clear choice.

Here’s a fabulous example from her Copy Hackers site:

copyhackers-pain-buttons-image 11

Image source: Copy Hackers

QuickSprout takes a similar approach:

quicksprout-image 12

Image source: QuickSprout

Lastly, Wishpond shows the potential for witty angles in catchy-but-painful button copy:

wishpond-image 13

Image source: Wishpond

8. End-of-post forms

Unlike pop-up forms, end-of-post forms uniquely cater to your actual readers.

Why? Because by the time visitors have consumed your content in its entirety, they’re invested. Moreover, they should be looking for more.

That’s why, in addition to suggesting social shares, using an end-of-post opt-in to gather email information strikes while the lead is hot. Here’s a general one that can be used at the end of almost any post.

end-of-post-optin-image 13

On my own site, I love using end-of-post opt-ins especially for series.

For example, a few months ago I put together a string of posts based on Eugene Schwartz’s Breakthrough Advertising. At the end of the first post, I included a summary of the upcoming The 3 Unbreakable Laws of Breakthrough Copywriting and this simple opt-in:

iconicontent-image 14

Image source: iconiContent

In addition to opt-ins at the end of posts, you’ll often see “for further reading” options. While not explicitly about building your list, this is another great way to keep your leads hot. Think of these as your safety CTA. Creating your own links to similar or popular content is great, but an even better solution is using data to automate your end-of-post next step.

9. In-line forms

In-line opt-ins are the simplest of all opt-in forms. They’re the impulse buy of opt-ins.

Because of this, in-line opt-in forms work best within blog articles or other long-form content of at least 1,000 words as part of the natural flow of the text itself.

inline-forms-example-image 14

They integrate within the page so once you’ve provided value on the page, the in-line opt-in functions as a means to “act now.”

Think of in-line forms like a conversational aside, “Oh, by the way, if you like what you’re reading now … then you’ll love the other stuff we do. And to get our ‘other stuff,’ just sign up here.”

The benefit of in-line opt-ins is that they provide your users with a chance to respond to your content on the spot. As long as you’re providing value, they’ll act.

Sidebar forms are ubiquitous. Often, this form is built into web templates themselves so they’re incredibly easy to implement. Just be sure that your sidebar form collects data and doesn’t distract from more useful forms.

There are basically two kinds of sidebar forms:

  • Anchored sidebar forms are static – they stay in place:

socialmediaexaminer-sidebar-form-image 15

Image source: Social Media Examiner

  • Sticky sidebar forms, also called scrolling sidebar forms, appear once a visitor passes a certain point on your page:

marketingtechblog-sticky-sidebar-image 16

Image source: Marketing Tech Blog

11. Contact forms

Don’t overlook the obvious. Don’t underestimate the converting power of contact pages and in-depth contact forms.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Ask good questions. Instead of simply leaving the “message” field blank, spur the response by crafting engaging questions that relate directly to the kind of product or service you offer.

However, if less is more when it comes to getting sign-ups, how are you supposed to gather information on your subscribers to help with segmentation, especially if you’re in the B2B space?

One solution is to partner with a lead-generation database. Unomy, for example, enables you to not only research your prospect’s parent companies using the individual email address provided, it also allows you to research related companies and their competitors:

unomy-image 17

Image source: Unomy

Putting it all together

It’s like Joe Pulizzi says, “Once you build an audience (of email subscribers), anything is possible.”

Follow the 11 sign-up strategies in this guide.

Test them out for yourself.

And start building today.

Want to learn more about how building a subscriber base can build a business too? Get a copy of Joe Pulizzi’s latest book, Content Inc., which was released in September 2015.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Please note:  All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team.  No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Author: Aaron Orendorff

By night, Aaron Orendorff is busy “saving the world from bad content” over at iconiContent. By day, he teaches communication and philosophy at the local college. Follow him on Twitter.

Other posts by Aaron Orendorff

  • Clement Lim

    Enjoyed the article Aaron. I’ve implemented and exit popup on mysite and it’s currently converting at double the rate of my sidebar box.

    I think exit popups are a good compromise for those of us who want to use popups but are wary of annoying our readers. As they only pop up when visitors are about to leave, they’re not too intrusive.

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Hi Clement.

      That’s so encouraging to hear. It’s funny how “afraid” we can be to interrupt a visitor with a pop-up, but finding the right balance between being proactive and not alienating or overwhelming them with CTAs is essential.

      Awesome to hear it’s working for you!

  • Eric Shanfelt

    Hi Aaron. Excellent article … nicely done! But there is a big difference between a one or two-step opt-in form and the concept of single or double opt-in for an email list … they are not the same.

    A one-step opt-in process is like what CMI has … where the email field and submit button are right there on the page. A two-step opt-in process is what you describe at LeadPages … a button on the page that when clicked opens a form.

    It’s what happens AFTER someone submits the form that determines if the email subscription is a single or double opt-in. In a single opt-in, once the person submits the form they are simply added to the list. In a double opt-in, the person submits the form, but then must click a link in a confirmation email to be added to the list.

    Single or double opt-in can happen using either one or two-step opt-in form.

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Thanks for the encouraging feedback.

      You’re totally right … I was trying to call attention to the form itself rather than the follow-up. Great clarification!

  • Rachel Nislick

    Nice job. I am growing to like the painful buttons more and more. They make me uncomfortable and laugh at the same time. Love the latest I saw on my fantasy football team page the other day. From Draft Kings…”Join now to win $1M” OR “No thanks, I have enough money.” So awesome. I can see this working well on our site tpp(application security) – Secure My Apps OR “No thanks, I’d rather get hacked”

    • Aaron Orendorff


      Love it Rachel. Thanks for sharing real examples painful buttons.

      Let me know if you put one up for yourself. Or don’t … if you already have enough visitors. 😉

  • Julian Sakanee

    Bribe to Subscribe! Haha I like that.
    Great stuff, Aaron.
    The lead magnet is by far the best for me.
    I’ve been thinking about the exit popup though…any suggestions? For tools I mean.

    • Aaron Orendorff

      I’ve used Elegant Themes and AppSumo for my exit pop-up. AppSumo is definitely the easiest.

      Oh, and totally stole “bride to subscribe” … but I’m glad you liked it.

  • Ann Early

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  • Visitlog – Besökssystem

    Very informative strategies to build email-list. Most likely to chart seen of Email signup sources. Some of it identifies that Each piece of content lure more traffic to your website. The 4 types of forms which increase the rate to build your email-list.

  • Benjamin

    Thanks for this article Aaron,

    I like the look of the ‘painful’ buttons. It make you want to sign up because the given the two options, most people don’t want to click them because clicking the ‘painful’ button wouldn’t be the best option, and because of that they sign up.

    And if you pair this with entry or exit popups, then the conversion rates will increase significantly. It’s very likely I’ll to implement this into my blog.

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Be sure to let me know if you implement it.

      I’d love to see the “painful” button you end up creating. 😉

      • Benjamin Carter-Riley

        Hi Aaron, I have updated my blog to include the ‘painful’ buttons that we talked about. Let me know what you think!:- 🙂

  • Teresa Becker

    I would add another to the list: email signature marketing, such as adding a clickable call to action at the bottom of each employee’s email signature that promotes the newsletter. Here’s an article that explains more: or check out

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Great addition, Teresa. And thanks for the articles… I just Buffered it.

  • Andrew Simmons

    Great information on opt-in forms…I’ve never tried the method of putting an opt-in form at the end of a blog posts. I also like the idea of using a “happy” button or a more responsive call to action to get all traffic to sign up to your email newsletters. I’ll definitely be visiting your blog again in the future…

    Good luck with your marketing website!

    Andrew S.

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Thanks, Andrew. Shoot me a comment with your “happy” button copy, I’d love to see it in action.

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  • Joel

    My list has been struggling recently with extremely low opt-in rates, so I’ll give a few of these a shot. Thanks.

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Be sure to let me know how it goes, Joel.

  • UnveiltheWeb

    Hi Aaron,

    Fantastic list of ideas for buttons that are unique, relevant and interesting. Some of the insights are clear reasons why someone ought to join a list instead of just be on a another list where someone is just going to sell me.

    By using a text like “make me a better marketer” as a call-to-action button we are taking the time to give a subconscious reason for someone to be excited about joining the list and it sets up the expectation of what they will get.

    If you’re a business owner or marketer, why wouldn’t I want to be better knowing the results that should follow?

    Fantastic post again Aaron.

    Have a great second half to your week!

    ~ Don Purdum

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Thanks so much, Don.

      I absolutely LOVE button copy that focuses on the end result! The more specific the better.

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  • Aaron Orendorff

    Yeah, using Cyfe at the start can be overwhelming. Kind of like jumping into Google Analytics. Let me know if you set up a favorite dashboard. 🙂

    • Home Business Dad

      What is a favourite dashboard? (“,)

      • Aaron Orendorff

        I created a hodgepodge by starting with the basic Web Analytics and then brining in my email list/newsletter and Twitter stats/feed. Since I don’t actually sell products on my own site, I haven’t played around with the money widgets.

  • Aaron Orendorff

    Ethel … totally agree. Not to toot my own horn, but I really like the phasing as it came out: “happy” buttons versus “painful” buttons.

    And, yes, curiosity is a powerful motivator. I always use words like “Discover” or “Unearth” rather than “Learn” … or even worse “Find out more.”

  • Vinay Koshy

    Awesome list Aaron.

    Another strategy I have seen in a few places works if one uses video. There is the option to include an email sign up form to show at a certain time during a video. Wistia offers such a function.

  • Pauline Gary

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  • Vinay Koshy

    No worries. Your posts are always a great read.

    I don’t believe Leadplayer is still available – I believe the closest product on offer is called LeadDigits.
    I have heard of alternatives like Video Profit Surge but I know little about it.

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  • Manpreet

    Awesome and on point!!

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Thx! Those kind of comments are always SUPER encouraging. 🙂

  • Benjamin Carter-Riley

    Thanks for the reply Aaron. I will look into changing it to increase conversion of email opt ins. 🙂

  • Ayesh Malik

    I’ve learn some excellent stuff here.:)