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How to Build Your Email List: The (Better Than) Ultimate Guide


It’s not “like” or follow. And it’s not even add to cart, buy now, or confirm purchase.

The most profitable online click is subscribe.



The most profitable online click is subscribe says @iconicontent. Click To Tweet


Because, as McKinsey & Company’s much-cited study revealed, email is a staggering 40 times more effective at acquiring customers than Facebook and Twitter combined:

91% of all U.S. consumers still use e-mail daily, and the rate at which e-mails prompt purchases is … at least three times that of social media … (and) the average order value is also 17% higher.

But that was in 2014. Certainly the landscape has changed?

Nope. As marketing automation platform GetResponse’s 2016 State of Email points out:

For every $1 invested, email marketing generates an average return of $38.

For every $1 invested, #email marketing generates an average return of $38 via @getresponse. Click To Tweet

That’s a 3,700% ROI, which explains why — according to the same report — 57% of marketers planned to increase their email marketing budget in 2016.

Of course … you knew all that already. What you probably don’t know as well is how to build your email list.

Good news, that’s exactly what this post (as well as this handy downloadable checklist) contains. To do that, we’ll break this down into three main categories:


  • Content offers
  • Non-content offers
  • Pleasure buttons
  • Painful buttons
  • Short forms
  • Long forms
  • Multi-step forms

On site

  • Landing pages
  • Entry pop-ups
  • Exit pop-ups
  • Scroll boxes
  • Sidebar sign-ups
  • In-line sign-ups
  • Header sign-ups
  • End-of-post sign-ups
  • Contact sign-ups

Off site

  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn and Medium
  • Facebook

Options to build your email list

Most of this checklist focuses on the details: the 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 offer isn’t compelling.

1. Content offers

Content offers — also known as lead magnets, carrot content, or bribe-to-subscribe offers — provide immediate, tangible, and concrete value to your subscriber. This free content could be how-to guides, reports, webinars, white papers, e-courses, or even discounts and coupons.

The ultimate goal of your opt-in content is to improve your subscriber’s life by solving a problem. To drive this principle home, I like to frame my content offers in theological terms:

“What hell does this content saved from? What heaven does it delivered unto?”

What hell does this #content saved from? What heaven does it delivered unto says @iconicontent. Click To Tweet

Creating click-worthy content can be overwhelming. That’s why you should go small. SmartBlogger’s The Quick and Dirty Guide to Creating Your “Bribe to Subscribe” in Record Time offers a fantastic overview of how to create content offers fast:

Instead of trying to tackle all of your audience’s problems, you’ll narrow them down to just one specific problem.

“And to make it super easy, we’ll only consider problems that fit the following template:

“‘I want (goal), but (obstacle).’”

2. Non-content offers

The need to create content offers is passed around online like gospel. It’s one of those principles where repetition equals truth. Except that … it doesn’t. Test for yourself. Some products and industries simply do not require gated content to get visitors to sign up.

Rebel Growth host Borja Obeso recently told me about his own shocking discovery on this front:

“I’ve been preaching for years that people should provide something in exchange of asking for a sign-up, and they should.

“But in some of the industries we target with Creativiu (a site that offers on-demand online creative classes), it works better to mention the overall benefits people will get from being a part of our community. We tested countless “bribe-to-subscribe” offers, mostly offering people entire courses for free. Then we made this offer:


To my surprise, the ‘plain’ test absolutely destroyed all the others.”


While the opt-in box says “get exclusive content and tools,” notice that no specific content tactic is being offered: no e-book, no checklist, no webinar, no white paper, no report. Just a generic “we’ll send you information in the future.” That’s why it fits the no-content offer template. The lesson? The only way to find out if your audience will respond to content versus non-content offers is to test them.

3. Pleasure buttons

What makes a seductive, click-worthy button? Two things: happiness and fear. Let’s look at happiness first.

Even though I opened this article by stating that subscribe was the most profitable button online, using the word “subscribe” is notoriously lame. “Submit” and “sign up” also suck. Instead, you should:

  • Use first-person language – at least try “sign me up” or “send me updates.”
  • Use active language – “give me access” or “start discovering today.”
  • Detail the payoff – “Make me a better marketer.”

Create button copy that shows the value of your offer. My favorite formula is Joanna Wiebe’s “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:


Image source: Copyblogger

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

Pleasure buttons are also a stellar place to get playful and clever like Unbounce did on its presidential marketing teardown post:


Image source: Unbounce

4. Pain buttons

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is fearthe most dominant human emotion. The key is to create an opt-out button (basically a close-the-pop-up button) that hurts.

Again, 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 pain button eliminates the passivity of opting out by giving the viewer a clear choice. Here’s a fabulous example from Joanna herself that catapulted her site from daily double-digit sign-ups to triple-digit subscriptions:


One of my favorites comes from KlientBoost:


5. Short Forms

Sign-up forms with as few fields as possible are the low-hanging fruit of building your email list. Content Marketing Institute’s most prominent email opt-in is a single field:


So are the vast majority of email sign-up forms, like these from Shopify and Salesforce:



Naturally, statistics abound on why less is more:


Image Source: HubSpot

The oft-cited Imaginary Landscapes saw a 120% increase in conversions by reducing the number of fields from 11 to four.

6. Long forms

Shopify and Salesforce both have single-field forms as the leading edge of their sign-up strategies. But neither stops there.

With Shopify, as soon as you go to Shopify Plus, the company’s enterprise-level platform, the fields increase from one to six:



Salesforce adds more fields for its industry report sign-ups:

What explains the radical difference in the same company’s website forms? Value and qualification.

With the long forms, the visitor seeks something with more value. The bar for access is raised for that greater value.

Long forms also are a preliminary step toward customer qualification (i.e., identifying high-quality leads). The forms also allow the company to know more about their subscribers to better tailor its communication.

7. Multi-step forms

Multi- or two-step forms are tricky even in just understanding the terminology.

“Double opt-in” often refers to the two-step process required by most email providers for someone who signs up for your list. In addition to the original sign-up, the subscriber must confirm from a subsequent email.

Although the names are used interchangeably elsewhere, what I’m talking about here is different. Multi-step forms require a user to take two or more actions to subscribe before the confirmation email arrives. As a simple example, take Leadpages’ subscription process:

  1. It starts with a single button that doesn’t ask for information.Multi-Step-Forms
  2. A pop-up appears with the email submission field:


Why require two or more steps?

As Daphne Sidor explains in Everything You Need to Know About Capturing Leads With Opt-in Forms:

With a two-step opt-in form, you make the first request in the form of a call to action on your page, whether it’s a text link, an image, or a button. Once someone clicks, they can easily fall under the sway of behavioral inertia: the principle that once you start down a certain pathway, you’re likely to continue. One ‘yes’ leads to another, until visitors have completed the process you’ve set up.

Breaking up forms also allows you to more easily integrate long forms into your process. Investor Carrot, which builds and maintains real estate investor websites, recently released data on its adoption of the multi-step process. First, it broke the standard lead-generation form into two forms. Second, it included a whopping 12 fields for the second form.


What happened? “The two-step opt-in process improved conversions by 46% … with dramatically improved lead quality.”

Build your email list on site

8. Landing pages

These standalone web pages should do one thing and one thing only — drive action. Some best landing-page practices from the pros include:

  • Match the headline of your ad to the headline of your landing page.
  • Make your call to action big and post above the fold.
  • Keep it clear, simple, and focused.
  • Use one call to action. You can have multiple buttons but only one goal for each page.
  • Use videos, which have been shown to notably improve conversion.
  • Craft compelling copy to tell a story instead of stating facts or just selling.

The best practice ignored by the clients I see is the number of CTAs. If the page’s goal is to collect email addresses, visitors shouldn’t be able to do anything else on the page — no header navigation, no links for further reading, no social icons, no products — nothing!

If you have multiple buttons on the landing page, every single one of those buttons should drive your visitor to the same action. One of my favorite examples of a single-goal-focused landing page comes from curation and clipping tool memit. While the page contains numerous buttons with varying CTA copy, each and every one drives readers to the next step in memit’s process: downloading the app.


Image source: memit

9. Entry pop-ups

This pop-up form activates when a visitor enters your site. This type of form often blocks 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. Sumo’s (formerly SumoMe) Noah Kagan demonstrates the sweet spot for email gathering based on time on page:


Image source: AppSumo

To increase the success of pop-up forms, have them appear five seconds after the visitor arrives on page.

To increase the success of pop-up forms, have them appear 5 seconds after visitor arrives says @iconicontent. Click To Tweet

Also, do not be afraid to show the same pop-up to the same person multiple times. A one-display-per-day rule is optimal. After all, if a person reads more pages on your blog without being bombarded with pop-ups and comes back the next day, she is more likely to subscribe.

Finally, with all pop-ups, be sure you have both a happy button and a pain button.

10. Exit pop-ups

These opt-ins 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 the loss of a good lead.

This example from Picreel, which is in the business of building exit-intent pop-ups, is spot on. Since I was on the site Picreel knew I was interested in exit pop-ups. But instead of going for the feature, Picreel goes for the benefit:


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. Here are some good examples based on Picreel’s own optimization advice:

  • Keep it simple: Don’t load the pop-up with images and text. Stick to one driving goal and get rid of everything else.
  • Ask questions: “Going so soon? Here’s the guide that keeps 15,000 visitors coming back each day” or “Love dressing up? Join our emails to get the latest fashion news.”
  • Be unexpected: Use words, questions, and offers that visitors don’t expect from an exit pop-up: “You probably hate pop-ups … and this one sucks. But my mom and your financial adviser just called … ”
Don’t load pop-ups w/ images & text. Stick to 1 driving goal & get rid of everything else via @Picreel_ Click To Tweet

11. Scroll boxes

Scroll boxes are the polite form of pop-ups. Instead of consuming the screen they appear unobtrusively.

Not all scroll boxes are created equal. Not by a long shot. Sean Bestor’s article makes the data-driven case that the top 1% of scroll boxes are responsible for 25% of all emails collected. Sean also shares the common denominators from the top performing:

  • Location – bottom right
  • Appearance – 47% scroll depth
  • Design – light with a picture

12. Sidebar sign-ups

Sidebar forms are ubiquitous. Often built into web templates, they’re incredibly easy to implement. Just be sure that your sidebar form collects data and doesn’t distract from more useful forms. They are two kinds of sidebar forms:

  • Anchored and static:


Image source: Social Media Examiner

  • Sticky or scrolling forms appear once a visitor passes a certain point on your page:


Image source: Marketing Tech Blog

13. In-line sign-ups

In-line opt-ins are the equivalent of the impulse buy. They work best as part of the natural flow of the text in articles or other long-form content over 2,000 words.

Once you’ve provided value, 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.”

For instance, in its previously mentioned presidential marketing article Unbounce includes an in-line sign-up after the introduction and another in the middle of the 6,000-word article:


14. Header sign-ups

Header sign-ups are incredibly simple. They can host a variety of CTAs. Problogger uses its headers to collect emails, promote its podcast, and advertise its events.




The big-dog provider is Hello Bar, but there are plenty of alternatives especially on WordPress.


WP Notification Bar offers extensive customization that naturally includes email sign-ups but also countdown clocks and referral messages to welcome visitors from specific sources:

15. End-of-post sign-ups

End-of-post forms cater to your most devoted readers — the visitors who have consumed your content in its entirety. They’re invested. Moreover, they probably are looking for more.

An end-of-post opt-in strikes while the lead is hot. Here’s a general one that can be used at the end of almost any blog post:


16. Contact sign-ups

Do not overlook the obvious. And don’t underestimate the converting power of contact pages, about pages, and in-depth contact forms.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Fewer fields mean greater conversion power. On average, asking visitors to complete three fields results in a 25% conversion rate, compared to six or more fields, which see a 15% conversion rate.
  • Mobile design is paramount. With 81% of smartphone users accessing the internet, if you haven’t tailored your contact form to fit smaller screens, you’re missing out.
  • Ask good questions. Instead of simply leaving the “message” field blank, spur the response with engaging questions that relate to the kind of product or service you offer.
  • Create drop-down options to anticipate email segmentation based on your most important demographics.

Build your email list off site

Just when you thought we’d covered every place to put an email list sign-up form … now it’s time to go off site.

17. Twitter

Twitter lets you collect email addresses with a single click, and it’s free unless you want to connect to your email marketing platform. All you have to do is set up a “Twitter” card through the Twitter Ad page:


Tweet it. Pin the card to the top of your profile.


18. LinkedIn and Medium

Publishing content off site is always risky. On the pro side, your content is in front of a larger audience. On the con side, you’re operating on “borrowed land.” While you might get new LinkedIn or Medium followers from a great post, you can’t convert those off-site readers into profitable email list subscribers without forcing them to leave behind the platform itself.

Now you can. Meet Rabbut. Originally created as a competitor to Hello Bar, Rabbut lets you add sign-up forms to LinkedIn Pulse and Medium. Here’s what the form looks like for an article republished by Sujan Patel on LinkedIn:


With just republished content, Sujan has collected roughly 400 new subscribers with a 4.8% conversion rate overall.

19. Facebook

I saved Facebook for last not because it isn’t valuable, but because advertising on Facebook is fraught with challenges. Unlike Twitter, LinkedIn, and Medium, in order to make Facebook work well as an email collection tool, you’re going to have to pay.

You can do this in one of two ways — lead or traditional Facebook ads. Facebook lead ads let you create a complete sign-up process on its platform so your audience never leaves the native environment. Staying native might be an advantage, but the customization options are incredibly minimal.


Given those limitations, traditional Facebook ads that drive users from Facebook to your landing page are more powerful. Here’s a great example from Foundr Magazine’s Free Instagram Masterclass:


Nathan Chan shared the data behind this sequence with me:


All told, Foundr has been able to cut its cost per lead to less than $1.

Start building your email list

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

Email is hands-down the most profitable marketing channel there is. And building your email list is non-negotiable.

Thankfully, you don’t have to get overwhelmed by all the decisions and methods outlined above. All you really have to do is just get started with a few of them, track your progress, and try alternatives as you go.

Infographic - How to Build Your Email List The (Better Than) Ultimate Guide

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Download or print a handy abbreviated version of the checklist made by Visme.

If you’re already running some of these approaches, then identify a handful of new approaches and get testing.

Of course, the best way to end a post all about email sign-ups … would be to include one:

Want daily tips, insight, and advice on how to improve your content marketing programs? Subscribe (yes, it’s a lame word but you get the point) to CMI’s free newsletter.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute