The 3:2 strategy for building an unbeatable email list from scratch

Email lists still give among the best return on investment of any marketing — here’s how to grow yours.

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If it feels like email is an old-hat way of generating leads and building loyalty, that’s entirely in your head. Or, more likely, because social media platforms are so vocal about their services, it can make email seem less impressive. But while a really effective Google Ads campaign will get you around £3 for every £1 you spend, a good email list can generate you £44 for every £1.

Do not overlook your email list.

If you don’t yet have an email list, or if you’re not making much use of it, this 3:2 strategy will help you get up, running and making money with it in no time.

PART ONE: 3 steps to set up your email funnel

Before you start driving traffic, you want to be sure that the mechanics of your email list are in place. Setting up your email service is very straight forward (I use MailChimp due to its generous free tier and user friendly automation options), but the next step is the vital one: making sure that people will actually sign up.

1: Create a zero-friction sign-up offer

It’s not enough to just bung a newsletter sign-up banner on the bottom of your web page. In fact, avoid the word ‘newsletter’ entirely. People have had poor experiences of endless spammy sales emails from newsletters over the past two decades, so you need to promote your email list more creatively.

Visitors will be thinking 'what’s in it for me?' so try out this formula to write a compelling blurb that gets people wanting to join up:

Benefits — social proof — features — free offer

Benefits: Why will their life be better after joining up? Don’t list what you’ll do (those are features) but talk about what you’ll make easier though the knowledge you’ll impart.

Social proof: People like to know that other people are already interested and benefitting, so mention that other people like them (marketers, agencies, whoever your target audience is) are already signed up. Mention your subscription numbers once they sound impressive.

Features: This is where you briefly say how you’ll help. ‘Get tips, tricks and resources’, for example.

Free offer: This is what will make all the difference. By advertising the sign up as getting a free ebook, guide or resource rather than a newsletter, people will be much more willing to exchange their information. Consider showing some cover art for your PDF and ending your blurb with ‘and get a free copy of my XYZ Guide for Marketers’.

Never try to sell anything at this stage, or in your first few emails. No more than 1 in 5 emails should be trying to drive sales directly.

2: Be smart with your sign-up forms

Add the usual banner (with your well written blurb and offer) to the top of the footer on your site. That way it’ll show on every page. But also think about where it might be most effective. Putting a sign up form at the bottom of each blog or article is a good idea, as people finishing reading your content are likely to want to sign up for more. You can also try putting the form as a half-way break in the article (as long as it doesn’t disrupt reading too much). And of course the sidebar of your site, if it has one, is a great place to add your sign-up banner as it won’t get in the way of what your visitor is trying to do, but remains prominent on the page.

Be careful with pop-up forms. While they can be very effective in the right circumstances, they annoy visitors if they disrupt what they’re trying to do. Don’t add a banner that takes over the screen 30 seconds after the page loads — your visitors are in the middle of trying to read or find something. An on-exit pop-upworks better: these pop up when the visitor’s mouse leaves the window, just as they’re about to move on to do something else.

3: What to offer as your free download

I find that the idea of creating a product just to offer for free sometimes concerns people, but it’s hugely effective and doesn’t have to be a huge burden on your time. A 4-5 page PDF is all it needs to be, talking about survey results from your industry, changes in trends, guides or quick tutorials.

It’s better to create something useful for a very specific thing than to be over-long and waffling, so keep it short. Use Canva to create an attractive cover page if you’re not a designer — the visual will make it even more tempting to visitors.

PART TWO: Drive traffic to your list

Now you’ve got an effective sign-up process in place, it’s time to start pushing people towards it.

1: Write guest posts where your audience are already reading

However specific your niche, there will be websites out there that already cater to the audience you're after. That's no bad thing, and it can give you a great boost for your email list if you play it right. Offering to write some guest articles is a perfect way to get your name and expertise in front of the people you're trying to reach.

A bunch of online marketing guides seem to think that giving you a copy-and-paste email template to spam to all of the sites you're interested in. That's not a way to get noticed, nor to start building a good relationship with the site owner. A more genuine approach is to approach them with 3 ideas of articles that are related to one you've read on their site. That shows you've actually researched their site and gives them easy options to pick from for what they'd like you to write.

When you write your guest post, be sure to end with a call to action that drives people to your own content. Using the freebie that you created above is a great way to get started. Ending with a message like 'if you're interested in [TOPIC], then get my free guide' and including a link to your sign up page is a good balance of providing useful content and also promoting yourself.

Most sites will allow guest bloggers a short bio too, so make sure to include a catchy one-liner about what you do and include a link to your site (somewhere that has your email signup, of course).

2: Host an online interview

Bringing an established expert in and asking them questions your audience wants answers to it a very cunning way to promote your list. And even better, if you find an expert who has a good list of their own, they're very likely to promote your interview themselves, multiplying your reach.

You can do the interview as an article: just email the questions over and get the expert to write back, then write it up. This isn't bad, but doesn't have the publicity gravity of the other options.

You can record the interview as a podcast: doesn't need to be a fully developed one that appears on Apple Podcasts of course. You can record your Skype call and  put the audio file on a page on your website for people to listen to.

Most effective of all, you can host a live, online interview: use a webinar service like GoToMeeting or Fuze to set up your event ahead of time and promote it through your existing list and social channels to get sign ups. You'll get, on average, about 35% of people who sign up actually turning up for the event, but don't be disheartened by that — you've still got their permission to email them and you'll get a recording of your interview to send out to them to listen to at a more convenient time.