Email List-Building From the Experts: How to Grow a Massive Email List

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Copy of Anatomy of a Perfect Blog Post (4)Where do email subscribers fall on your list of priorities?

We’ve recently pushed email toward the top of our most valued sources, and it doesn’t seem like we’re alone in that. While social media might be the hot place to push your marketing efforts, there are many who choose to rely instead on building a valuable email list. And they couldn’t be happier.

Here’s Michael Hyatt, speaking about his email list of 115,000:

I have literally built a multi-million dollar business on the strength of my email list. Ninety percent of my income comes from it. Even today, my email list is still my number one business priority—and asset.

Douglas Karr, writing on the Marketing Tech Blog, about his list of over 100,000:

Without a doubt, our email list is the best investment we’ve ever made.

Michael Stelzner, Social Media Examiner:

Email is the most important channel for you to cultivate.

We recently passed the 20,000 mark for subscribers on the Buffer blog, and it’s safe to say we have a lot to learn to grow a successful list. We’re inspired to learn from some of the smart and well regarded sites who have made email an emphasis. For example:

The Help Scout blog has over 60,000 subscribers.

James Clear has more than 70,000.

Michael Hyatt has 115,000.

Social Media Examiner has 250,000.

Combined, that’s nearly 500,000 email subscribers. How do they do it? I took a close look at each of these heavyweights of email (plus several other amazing sites) to see what methods they use to gain new subscribers. Here’s what I learned.

The simple formula for growing a massive email list

In analyzing the websites and techniques of some of these awesome email list builders, a certain formula started to emerge. If I could boil down the process of building a massive email list to just the most basic parts, I think it would look like this:

Amazing blog content + crystal clear calls-to-action = massive email list

 

Ultimate email list formulaCan it really be that simple? I think so.

Basically, everything begins with content. People will find your site because of your amazing content. They will keep coming back for amazing content. Your amazing content will be the foundation of what you email to them, which will be the reason they stay subscribed (or not.) It all starts with amazing content.

Once you have the amazing content, the next step is to ask for emails. People who adore your content will be primed to receive that content as often as you can create it, delivered straight to their inbox. It’s up to you to make sure they find your call-to-action (or, in this case, a call-to-subscribe). Make it obvious. Make it crystal clear.

With this in mind …

6 key strategies on how to grow your subscription list

Examining these top blogs (plus some bonus research, too) shows that there are many different ways to go about growing your list and creating those crystal clear calls-to-action that drive subscribers. Here are a few of my favorite ideas.

1. Treat your blog home page like an email capture form

Every month when we pull our list of the top ten best-performing blog posts on the Buffer blog, we end up grabbing 11 because always, without fail, one of the top ten results is the root domain for our blog—the home page at blog.bufferapp.com.

Last month the root domain was our third-most-popular page on the blog, and it is consistently among the top five month-after-month. Here’s our report from Google Analytics, with the root domain represented by a backslash (/). Does this report look familiar to you?

Analytics report

That’s 35,000 visits per month that land on the same page. Seems like an ideal opportunity for a clear call-to-action.

For those who focus on building and growing an email subscriber list, their home pages reflect how vital email is to their content strategy. Big, bold signup forms dominate the home pages of many email-savvy blogs.

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 7.05.34 AM

2. Include a can’t-miss call-to-action: Popups, slideups, menus, and popovers

It’s rare to read an article on growing an email list without coming across a recommendation for installing a popup. The reason: It’s sound advice, backed by good numbers.

How I Increased Email Subscribers 532% in One Month

A Popup Quadrupled Our Daily Subscribers

How Social Media Examiner Grew Its List 234% (Spoiler: It had to do with popups)

These are all cases of sites installing a popup (or variation of a popup), followed by immediate boosts to email signups. Why the big boost? Well, popups are a can’t-miss call-to-action. Literally. It doesn’t get more can’t-miss than a window appearing over the content you’re trying to read.

Of course, this method of email capture can be hotly debated for just this reason. I really enjoy the way that Hunter Boyle of Aweber puts it:

Every time I present, I ask who hates popovers, and 2/3 of the crowd nods and groans. The other 1/3? They’re usually okay with popovers because they’re getting good results from them!

Fortunately, there are options for popups, as the strategy covers a wide variety of different implementations. I’m throwing all these under the umbrella of “popup.” Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any favorites you’ve used or seen.

There’s the ubiquitous “popover” style, which displays a popup over a slightly grayed-out background. Here’s an example from Duct Tape Marketing. (A popular plugin for this popover form is SumoMe.)

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 6.58.23 AM

There’s the top-bar method that draws attention to the email signup form pinned to the top of every page. Here’s an example from Kaiser the Sage, using the popup plugin from Many Contacts.

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 7.03.28 AM

And there’s the email-on-scroll, which pops up once a user scrolls down a certain distance on a page. This is a demo of how a “slideup” popup looks.

widget-90440f72f97b2efd439ef9ed3db0c632

3. Multiple CTAs: Give readers infinity+1 opportunities to subscribe

Seems like those who build lists best make email an unmistakeable part of their blog design and calls-to-action. You cannot escape the calls to signup.

There might be a signup in a popover, a signup at the top of a blog post, another one at the bottom. Basically, the design assumes that people will view the site differently and that in order to maximize the chances that a potential subscriber sees a signup form you’d best put sign up forms everywhere.

We’ve got several spots for CTAs here on the Buffer blog. They’re currently set to send visitors to sign up for Buffer, and we may adjust them to focus on email in the near future. If you scroll down just right on the Buffer blog, you can see all of our CTAs at once.

Buffer CTAs

Think you’re going overboard with the email signup requests? Listen to your audience, who will likely let you know when you’ve crossed the line. You can also adhere to the old colloquialism, “You’ll know it when you see it.” Go with your gut.

Here are some top places to try placing an email signup form (or two or three) on your blog:

  • Top menu bar
  • Header of your site
  • In your byline
  • Sidebar
  • Inside the blog content
  • Footer of the content
  • Popup/popover
  • Your bio

4. Got something valuable? Give it away

Your potential subscribers—even if they differ across demographics and industries and target audience—are still human. They’ll like free stuff.

Attaching something valuable to your email signup form is a surefire way to pique interest. Basically, give something away for free, for the price of an email address (which we all know is worth way more than free to the site that gets it). Here are a few suggestions.

  • Ebook
  • Cheat sheet
  • Email series
  • Video
  • Private blog content
  • Early access to new features

HubSpot is one of the industry leaders in giveaways (so it’s probably no surprise they’re industry leaders, period). In an article about email list growth, Ginny Soskey shared HubSpot’s two-part view of giving something of value to potential subscribers:

We suggest starting with two types of free offers. One top-of-the-funnel, educational piece of content like an ebook, and one middle-of-the-funnel offer to let someone speak with your sales team to get a demo or a quote or a free consultation or whatever works for your specific business. By having these two types of offers on your website, you can capture potential leads and convert customers that are in different stages of the buying process.

5. Keep the subscription link handy

I so often forget that people can sign up to an email list in places other than an email capture form on my site. Depending on your email software, there is likely a landing page devoted to acquiring email signups. You can get the link and share it in a huge number of different places like email signatures, social media messages, and guest blog bios.

Here’s how to grab it from MailChimp:

Go to Lists, then choose the list you want, click on Signup Forms, click on General Forms, and the signup link should be right there for you.

Mailchimp signup form link

Once you have the link, keep it handy. You never know when you might have a chance to use it.

Ryan Hoover has a neat trick for gaining more email signups with this link. He replies to each and every mention on Twitter, often starting a conversation with folks who have shared his content. As part of this conversation, he’ll drop in an offer to sign up for his email list, sending over the direct link to do so.

twitter-email-card

The results: 60 to 80 percent of people convert.

6. Test your messages: Start with social proof

Would you be more apt to join an email list if you knew 8,000 other people were already signed up?

The concept of social proof says yes, which is why you see many sites advertise the size of their email list on their signup form.

Convince and Convert

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 6.55.02 AM

Farnam Street

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 6.56.01 AM

OK Dork

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 7.00.07 AM

We do the same at the Buffer blog with an email popup calling attention to the number of subscribers we’ve gained.

Like anything, though, this tactic bears testing. In addition to our popover signup form, we’ve also been experimenting with a signup form in our HelloBar (the orange bar at the top of the site). Here are the two different versions, along with the stats so far:

HelloBar email signups

The version without social proof has been outperforming the social proof version. The takeaway here: Test everything. Your headings, buttons, and CTAs could all be opportunities to improve.

Case studies: How the best sites gain signups

Now that you’ve seen the many different ways to grow an email list, I’d love to show you how some of the top sites implement these ideas. Here is what I found when browsing around some of my favorite sources of email inspiration.

James Clear – 70,000 subscribers

James Clear website

The above screengrab is from an article on James Clear’s site. Before you get to any words in the article itself, you’ve been hit with three CTAs for his newsletter. Clearly, email is a priority for him!

  • His homepage is an about section with a call to action to subscribe.
  • His main blog index includes a call to action at the top.
  • There is a call to action at the end of the article and one at the end of the comments (and another in the footer, to boot!).

One thing you won’t notice when you’re browsing on his site: social sharing buttons. He removes choice from the equation. To interact with his posts, the easiest decision is going to be email.

Help Scout – 60,000 subscribers

Help Scout main page

Help Scout is one of the best at putting focus on an email signup at the home page of their blog. The image above is from the blog landing page. When you navigate deeper into the blog, the subscribe form moves to the sidebar.

Help Scout inside page

Also on the main page (and subsequent pages) is an ebook giveaway. The ebook is web-based so you can view the full thing in one click. At the end of the ebook is a call to action to sign up for email updates.

Andrew Chen

Andrew Chen homepage

Andrew Chen was one of leaders in implementing the homepage-as-signup-form. His main page has an additional little trick. When you first land on there, the email form is highlighted automatically, and you can start typing your email address without needing to even click.

You may also notice that Chen takes a different approach to social proof. He does not advertise the number of subscribers to his list but rather mentions recommendations from Wired magazine and 500 Startups.

Michael Hyatt – 115,000 subscribers

One of Michael Hyatt‘s secrets to building an incredible list is with giveaways—and probably a good amount of A/B testing. His calls-to-action for downloading a free ebook are really excellent. Here’s the one that appears at the bottom of his posts.

Michael Hyatt CTA

The text here is entirely focused on benefits to the reader. Who wouldn’t want to get behind a guy who’s looking out for your best interests like that? It’s a great CTA; a little testing and optimization can get you one of the same.

Social Media Examiner – 250,000 subscribers

sme-giveaway

Much like Hubspot, Social Media Examiner is really good at giving things away. Their homepage has a huge call-to-action to sign up for a free ebook. When you’re scrolling down an individual blog post, you see another CTA—a popup offering instant access to a free video. With events and webinars and many different forms of media, Social Media Examiner has lots of opportunity to appeal to subscribers in many different ways.

Which email growth method do you find yourself using?

Which methods do you find yourself using to sign up on blogs? What have you used for your own site to attract email subscribers? I’d love to hear from you.

P.S. If you liked this post, you might enjoy our Buffer Blog newsletter. Receive each new post delivered right to your inbox, plus our can’t-miss weekly email of the Internet’s best reads. Sign up here.

Image source: anitacanita, Ryan Hoover, GetDrip

  • James Houchin

    Techniques such as popups and gating should be used VERY carefully. While these techniques can grow your email list they also can frustrate your audience and leave them with a bad taste in their mouths. Options like hello bar allow you to solicit your users passively instead of jumping in front of them and shouting.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Great point, James! I’m curious how popups make you feel when you’re browsing a site? I’m a bit torn—they’re helpful on sites I think I might like, and they’re a bit overwhelming on sites I haven’t gotten to know yet.

      • Melissa Breau

        Personally, I hate those that appear too soon. I want to have a chance to read some of your content before it appears. The exact length of time depends on the site, but in general a delayed appearance helps a bit, I think.

    • douglasackerman

      Popups are the good-doing-villains of the web. There’s just no denying their incredible efficiency in capturing subscribers.

      The day another method appears which is as effective – I’ll make the switch straight away!

    • matthewmagellan

      I agree. It kills me that Kevan is singing the praises of popups here. I actively avoid sites that deploy popups. There are lots of aggressive marketing tactics that can work, but that doesn’t mean they should all be used. Treat your visitors with respect and share great content and you won’t need to bully them into turning over an email address.

      • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

        Thanks for the comment, Matthew! I’m curious how the popup (technically, a slideup) on our Buffer blog feels to you? Would love to hear more about which types of popups you like and which you don’t (ha, maybe all of them, which is totally fine)!

        • matthewmagellan

          I think the rest of your points about email signups are totally valid. I get a fair amount of email newsletters and I opt into them by means of overhead bars by the nav, in sidebars, and in footers. The Buffer slideup doesn’t bother me too much because it’s relatively out of the way. When popups restrict access to content, that’s when I (and many others) get especially annoyed.

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      • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

        Have you ever personally run a pop-up and seen the data behind it? I’m not saying you haven’t, but if not, read this: http://www.gregoryciotti.com/blog-pop-ups/

        To quote Ramit: “What would it take for you to acknowledge that lightboxes work, if your goal is growing your subscribers? 2x optins? 5x? 80% retained?”

        At some point you have to decide whether the number of people who don’t like it outweighs the number of people who don’t mind + the results you get.

        I’m not saying “definitely use pop-ups,” but your argument can’t just be “I don’t like them so don’t use them.”

        • matthewmagellan

          As I just said to @kevanlee:disqus, to clarify, the reason I don’t like popups is when they restrict access to content. Email signups in nav bars, sidebars, and footers all make perfect sense to me. I know they work, but that doesn’t negate the need to handle things tactfully and care about user experience.

          Facebook makes money by requiring you to pay them for your posts to reach users who have already Liked your Page, and that works for them, but that doesn’t make it right. (Loose analogy, I know.)

    • Daniel

      Agreed. I tend to rage-close any site that displays a blocking signup form before I even know they’re all about. It feels like receiving a nightclub flyer from a stranger on the street. “Sure… I’ll throw this away for you.”

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    • https://www.freelcorp.com Maurice Kay

      I think it all depends on implementation. Though I find ‘quick’ popups a little creepy, I know they are quite effectively when well implemented. I won’t hesitate to subscribe if I find the content useful and serving my interest!

  • douglasackerman

    Great post Kevan!

    Very interesting to see a number of different approaches working well for different companies – setting up the right tests can be a difficult thing to get your head around at first. If you don’t ask the right questions and set yourself up to measure the right metrics, you’re not going to get useful results!

    I’m interested in your thoughts on what the minimum number of subscribers are to start using them as social proof? 500? 1,000? 10k?

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Thanks for the comment, Douglas! That’s a great question about social proof minimums. I’ve seen sites use numbers starting at 4,000, so my gut is that a four-digit # of subscribers might be the tipping point? What’s your intuition on this? I think personally, a four-digit subscriber number would be more enticing to me than a three digit. If it were lower, I might choose to frame it as “be one of the first 1,000 to join” etc. :)

      • douglasackerman

        Thanks for the reply Kevan!

        I think you’re right that 3 digits could actually be detrimental – but I like your idea for re-framing to use a 4 digit number.

        We’re actually 50 subscribers away from that 4 digit turning point – and I’m tempted to try and run a quick experiment on ‘Be one of the first 1,000 to subscribe!’ vs ‘Join 1000+ …etc’

        • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

          I’d love to hear your results from that experiment. Please share if you go through with it. :) Awesome stuff!

        • Melissa Breau

          Do it! :)

  • philhill

    Kevan what do you use for the bottom right pop up on your site. is that a service like hellobar or something you did in house? thanks phil

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      We use Scroll Triggered Box. Here’s the WordPress link: https://wordpress.org/plugins/dreamgrow-scroll-triggered-box/

      It’s a pretty easy plugin to install and use. Would love to hear if it works for you!

      • philhill

        nice. thanks. we’ll try it on the flashissue blog

      • http://www.BluewireMedia.com.au/blog Adam Franklin

        Thats great to know Kevan. I’ve seen Buffer’s list grow from 10k to 30k quite quickly. Aside from 40+ landing pages, I’ve been having success with SumoMe Listbuilder. I’m going to test your Dreamgrow plugin now.
        Thanks as always.

  • http://www.informerly.com Informerly

    This is a great article but is reinforcing the negative behavior of growth for only growth’s sake. There are too many businesses that put this incredible level of effort into getting signups, and then pay zero attention to delivering a quality product.

    I’d be much more impressed if the social proof element advertised how many people actually read the emails vs. nominal list size.

    (That being said, a huge fan of Buffer’s product and the blog!)

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Great point! Really glad you brought this up. Thanks. :) I think you’re exactly right about the value of treating your subscribers well. Would you agree that it’s quality first, quantity second?

      P.S. That would be fascinating social proof to see how many subscribers are really engaged! Might make for a fun experiment. :)

    • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

      The reason that doesn’t work is because most people have no idea what an “open rate” is, they just want to know that they are in good company with thousands of others. You’re assuming the average reader knows marketing metrics.

      That said, it could work on a marketing-focused site. We have high open rates at Help Scout (and I personally touch 40% on Sparring Mind) but who are we supposed to be telling about that? Support people don’t care what our open rates are, only marketing/ops does.

    • Marcelo .L

      the money is in the list. como perder barriga rapido

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  • Lon

    Is any of this relevant if you’re a WP.com user? Can you write a post specifically about how WP.com users can grow their email list?

    • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

      All of it is relevant to WPcom users because it has more to do with the email marketing provider you use, and how you design your site.

      That said, WPorg offers way more options in terms of customization, plus you “own” the content — it’s worth making the switch.

      • Lon

        I guess I just don’t know where to start. Mail chimp only has a solution that seems like a hack for WP.com users. Is there another solution? Am I missing something?

        • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

          Hi Lon! OK, I did some digging into WP.com, and it looks they offer an email signup widget as part of their customization options. I’ve stuck in a screenshot below.

          That should be a great step in the right direction for WP.com users. I think anything greater than that would require a self-hosted solution, like WP.org or another. In the meantime, though, I think a WP.com widget, plus a clean design, plus some text CTAs in the body of your posts would be a great start!

          • Lon

            Thanks for digging, Kevan. But this won’t work. It’s just a sign up form, which I already use. However, it doesn’t generate an email address list to use for campaign purposes. I think the best Mail Chimp can do is provide a link to an offsite sign up form, which seems like an ineffective solution to me. Guess I’ll have to consider WP.org after all.

  • http://wheniwork.com/ William Harris

    Kevan – this is an outstanding article! We are actively working on building up our email list and this will help us out tremendously! Thank you so much!

  • MakeArtBeauty

    Kevin, this is epic. Thanks for the great article. I noticed you guys are using pop-ups. Apparently they get the best conversion rates, but I’ve also heard that Google penalizes against them. Is this just another urban SEO myth?

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      I haven’t heard of any SEO penalties for popups, just more from a user experience perspective. I’ll definitely keep my ear to the ground on this, though!

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  • http://www.beamoneyblogger.com/ Muba Mi

    The entire campaign of email list building should be free from all types of irksome methods which may prove counterproductive. The basic secret to build huge email list lies in the message to each visitor that “submit your email to get more value” but we must prove with our offerings that what we will give them more if they subscribe to your email list.

  • lorenzo

    How do you easily setup a mailing list? Any wordpress or static website solution?

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Lorenzo, my favorite way is to grab a WP plugin that integrates nicely with MailChimp. That way, all your signups are automatically merged into a MailChimp list for easy sending. :)

  • http://bestecommercesitesolutions.com/ Sebastian Mealer

    I really liked the advice on this page, and it’s the second time today I saw Help Scout mentioned…the second time convinced me to check them out (particularly the neuromarketing article). I had a good tip about giving something away of value, too many are reluctant to do that. However, I’m surprised that you didn’t mention any of the helpful tools for building email lists like aweber or Mailchimp. People need tools in addition to good advice. That’s why I’m building a resource for mom & pop shops that want to have a web storefront but don’t have much time or money. http://www.bestecommercesitesolutions.com will provide helpful reviews and a list of top ecommerce site recommendations. Maybe in the future you’ll mention tools too.

  • http://trucklicense.net/get-cdl Freedom Jackson

    This is really well written Kevan and contains all the mechanics of how to capture a lead.

    However the biggest concern with gaining email subscribers IS the offer.
    People only respond if something is in it for them that’s worth the risk of getting spammed.

    This is where the right free report or access to my secret course or whatever is needed to get the opt in.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Great point! The offer is key to getting someone to click a CTA. Do you think the offer could be blog content? I know it sounds a bit counterintuitive to think so, I just wonder if an ebook or giveaway might seem just as valuable as blog articles as they’re published. :)

      • http://trucklicense.net/get-cdl Freedom Jackson

        Hey Kevan,

        The ebook or report converts better than blog content because it’s something that the user can consume all at once.

        A PDF report is better than a blog post for opt in because it’s like a candid follow up conversation between you and the visitor. You now finally have their undivided attention and they are reading something you created “just for them”.

        That’s why the ebook or free report is THE BEST PLACE TO SELL FROM can you say “affiliate links”!

        • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

          Makes sense! Thanks for the added detail here. :) I appreciate your coming back to this one to share your thoughts! Cheers.

  • http://kpanastasi.com/ Katya Pavlopoulos

    I’ve seen blogs that make the first half or so of an article visible (usually pillar articles, not necessarily every single one) to get you hooked, and then ask for your email address before you can see the rest. While I think that is a dirty, dirty trick and I hate it with a passion, I always end up giving my email address because I want to read the rest.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Good to know, Katya! We’d been mulling over the idea of “submit your email to unlock even more content.” It’s super helpful to hear your response – both your gut reaction and your followthrough. :) Just curious, do the bad vibes recede after a bit?

      • http://kpanastasi.com/ Katya Pavlopoulos

        It depends on what you mean by bad vibes. I still remember that this particular blogger has great content that I can benefit from, but I don’t think I’ll ever end up buying any of his products (funny enough, I think it’s because deep inside I feel like he already took more from me than I was willing to give with that first impression). But that’s just me :) Other people may be completely cool with it.

        • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

          Interesting! Thanks for sharing your experience, Katya! :) It’s great food for thought.

  • http://www.sutro-research.com Mike Holubowski

    Serious question about cold emailing. I know for a fact that tons of companies, both big and small, employ cold emailing as an effective marketing strategy. Where does one draw the line on finding/buying email lists?

    We send no more than 100 cold emails out at a time, and target them to specific businesses – most recently from limeleads.com. Does this count as spam?

    So far, in the last 6 months, I haven’t gotten a single spam flag. Is this a bonafide way of growing one’s email list? Besides that, excellent post. Thanks!

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi, Mike! That’s a really awesome question. My gut is that buying a list of any sort would be considered quasi-black hat in terms of email strategy. MailChimp does not allow purchased lists, and I totally get the reason why. Those kinds of lists are definitely high-risk for being marked as spam. It’s great that you’ve avoided the spam flag so far. Maybe your volume is keeping things below the radar? Typically when you hear about purchased lists, it’s companies who buy huge lists and email everyone on them all at once. Definitely a recipe for spam flags. My rule of thumb is to always have someone’s permission before emailing. I’m sure there are other schools of thought out there, too. What’s your intuition on this?