A Beginner's Guide to Email List Building

This post was originally published in January 2018.

Have you read about building an email list, but not sure why it is so important? Do you want to build an email list but feel too overwhelmed to know where to start and what to do? In this blog post, I'll show you why email list building is a must if you want your business to succeed, and what you need to get started.

Table of Contents

Part 1: What Is an Email List and Why Is It So Important
Part 2: How to Get Started With Email List Building
Part 3: The 5 Characteristics of a Compelling Lead Magnet
Part 4: 10 Ways to Get More Email Subscribers
Part 5: 12 Things You Can Send to Your Email List

Let's begin...

Part 1 - What Is an Email List and Why Is It So Important

An email list is a list of email addresses of people who are interested in your products/services and who have given you permission to communicate with them via email.

An email list allows you to build trust and relationship with your target audience

Very few people are going to buy from or work with you the first time they come across you. They need to trust you first. Are you really as amazing as you say you are? Are you going to deliver what you promise? Are your products/services worth the money? That trust cannot be built in one day. It's a gradual process.

With an email list, you can build that trust over time by sending valuable information and sharing free resources with your subscribers.

Your email list is one of the very few online assets you have 100% control over

Social media platforms are great for building a solid online presence for business growth, but you'll always be at the mercy of ever-changing algorithms and policies. I've heard of Facebook pages with huge following being shut down due to errors in Facebook's algorithm or when someone unfairly reports a post or an image. So don't rely solely on social media for your leads, or your following (and your entire business) could be gone in a flash.

Or perhaps you have great SEO and rank well on Google searches. But again, Google constantly changes their algorithm and you could incur a penalty without even knowing what you've done wrong.

Your email list, however, is yours to keep. Nobody can take that away from you.

You have direct communication with your fans

When you post something on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, your message will quickly be pushed down someone's newsfeed, and will only be seen by a small percent of your audience. That's just how social media works. And the algorithm they use to determine who sees your posts is forever changing. To put it another way, you are relying on Facebook or Twitter to allow you to talk to your customers!

In contrast, a high percentage of your email subscribers will see your emails in their inbox. Your recipient will decide whether to read your emails. Of course you'll have to make sure you are sending valuable and compelling content so that your emails do get opened and read, but you are not relying on some external force to decide who reads your messages.

People prefer emails for promotional messages

In a study by ExactTarget, online consumers were asked how they prefer to get permission-based marketing messages. More than three quarters (77%) responsed that email is the preferred method. Direct mail was second at 9%. Only 4% prefer Facebook and for Twitter it was just 1%.

Your subscribers have given you permission to talk to them

The people on your list have given you permission to email them. They have shown an interest in your content, your products and services and they want to hear from you again. This is typically not the case with social media.

Email marketing works

In the past few months, from the emails that I've received as a subscriber, I have:

- had dinner at a restaurant that I had never heard of
- attended 7 local events
- visited my hairdresser with a £10 off voucher
- signed our 12-year-old son up for some scouts activities
- purchased a copywriting e-course
- booked two calls with two people I potentially wanted to hire
- purchased a skincare product
- bought two books I wouldn't have otherwise known about
- signed up for a puppy training class
- found out more about the work of someone who's been on my radar
- found out about a yoga retreat that I'm considering joining
- restarted membership on something that I had cancelled

There's no doubt about it. Email marketing plain works!

Part 2 - How to Get Started With Email List Building

Now that you've seen why it's important to have an email list, you'll want to know how to build one.

Answer: You collect email addresses from your target audience, one by one.

List building requires patience and perseverance and the sooner you start the better. One of the most common comments about list building is: "I wish I had started building my email list right from the start." If you don't start now, you'll still not have an email list a year, two years from now.

Don't be tempted to buy an email list. Yes, you can buy email lists. But don't do it. The idea of having a huge list without having to build it first is tempting but think about it... successful email marketing relies on building relationship and trust with your subscribers. Sending emails to people who have not given you permission to do so violates that trust immediately. They will get annoyed (and that's a mild word!) and delete your emails without reading them. You could also get flagged as a spammer and banned from most email marketing services. So, stay away from bought lists and save yourself some money and headache.

Should everyone have an email list?

No. If you only ever want to use your website to express yourself and you never want to make it a business and earn money from it, you don't have to worry about building a list. But, even if you think you may want to turn it into a business one day, you should have an email list.

The list building process

At its simplest, this is how to build your email list...

  1. You create a valuable free resource that your target audience would love to receive.
  2. You make this free resource available to your target audience in exchange for their email address.
  3. Your potential subscribers enter their email address in a sign up form to receive your free resource.
  4. Their email address goes on your email list.
  5. The free resource is sent to your new subscriber automatically.

Is this process automatic?

Yes. That's the beauty of it. Once you've created your free resource and set everything up, the process is automatic. You won't have to send out the free resource manually.

What do I need to get started?

1. You need to create a free resource

Gone are the days when people will sign up to just receive a weekly newsletter from you. These days most people will only part with their email addresses in return for something that's of value to them. So, the first thing you need is to create a free resource to offer to your target audience. This free resource is often referred to as:

  • lead magnet
  • opt-in
  • opt-in incentive
  • freebie

... or other similar terms.

Now, being of value can mean different things depending on your audience. It could be something that's entertaining, educational, inspiring or a resource that will help them solve a problem or get more insight into their current situation.

Example: If your target audience are busy women who want to eat healthily but have no time to cook elaborate meals, your lead magnet could be "15 healthy meals you can cook in 30 minutes that your family will love." (I know I'd definitely sign up for that!)

Your lead magnet can take one of many formats, depending on your niche and your audience. For example,

  • eBook
  • Checklist
  • Cheat sheet
  • Report
  • Resource kit
  • Audio training
  • Video training
  • Tutorial
  • Sample chapters of a book
  • Free trial of your service
  • Discount
  • Quiz
  • Survey
  • Swipe files
  • Assessment
  • Free consultation

If you're not sure which format works with your audience, ask them.

Note: Some people are going to sign up for your lead magnet, get the freebie and then immediately unsubscribe. That's OK. Don't lose sleep over it. People like that are not a good match for your business and are not the kind of subscribers you want on your list any way. Accept that as part of life and move on.

2. You need an email service provider (ESP)

An email service provider (ESP) is a dedicated service that helps you manage and grow your email list.

You may be thinking: Why do I need an ESP? Why can't I just send out emails from my Gmail account? Or use Outlook?

The reason is because you need to adhere to marketing and anti-spam laws in your country. At a minimum, you have to allow your subscribers to unsubscribe (opt out) from your list. Using an ESP makes this super easy. All the emails you send via your ESP will automatically include an unsubscribe link.

Sending out bulk emails without using an ESP will likely mark you out as a spammer. And we don't want that!

Also, with an ESP, you'll be able to:

Being able to track behaviour and monitor results will allow you to fine-tune your email marketing efforts in the future.

3. You DON'T need a website

You may be surprised to know that you don't need a website to start list building. You can create a sign-up form with most ESPs, and then point people directly to the sign-up form to start collecting emails. Having said that, if you do have a website, I recommend that you integrate the sign-up form onto a web page, so that it looks blended in as part of your site.

Which email service provider should I use?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Which ESP you should use depends very much on your needs.

There are many ESPs out there. Reviewing and comparing all of them is beyond the scope of this post. But here are a few ESPs you can consider, and I'll go over the pros and cons briefly.


[UPDATED in September 2020] When this blog post was created in January 2018, I was happy to recommend the MailChimp Free Plan for those who are just starting out. But now, I'd honestly advise you to stay away from it.

MailChimp has evolved a lot in the past few years, unfortunately not in a good way. It seems to me everything is more complicated than it needs to be. It's a shame because I started out with MailChimp and there's a sense of nostalgia about it. But the way they've implemented tagging and groups is incredibly clunky in my opinion. And the automation features are very limited even for the paid Essential Plan, which is actually slightly more expensive than the ActiveCampaign Lite Plan!

So, I can no longer see any benefit in using MailChimp. Just go with ActiveCampaign or ConvertKit (see below).


I personally use ActiveCampaign and have worked with many clients who do too, so I know it well.

The feature I love most about ActiveCampaign is its drag-and-drop automation builder. It's very intuitive and you can do almost anything. You can build automations based upon sign-up source, website activity, tags, time, subscribe/unsubscribe, and much more.

ActiveCampaign allows you to tag your subscribers. You can tag a subscriber with the products she's purchased, services she's shown an interest in but not bought, which lead magnets she's signed up for, etc.

Unlike in MailChimp, each subscriber counts only once towards your subscriber limit, irrespective of how many list she belongs to.

ActiveCampaign provides fast and efficient support for its customers. They always answer my questions promptly with a solution.

ActiveCampaign offers a 14-day free trial. After the trial, it's $9 per month for up to 500 contacts and $17 per month for 1000 contacts with their Lite plan.

I honestly don't have anything bad to say about ActiveCampaign, except that editing emails in an automation can sometimes be a little slow.


ConvertKit and ActiveCampaign both offer pretty much the same features. They both have a simple, easy-to-use user interface. Both offer sign-up forms that integrate into your website easily. Both have features that make building automations a breeze.

The one thing ConvertKit has that ActiveCampaign doesn't is the ability to create a landing page to collect email addresses. Mind you, it's a rather simple and basic landing page and there are only 4 landing page templates at the time of writing. But if you don't want to spend additional money on LeadPages or similar, then being able to create simple landing pages is a nice thing to have and may be a deciding factor for you.

ConvertKit starts at $29 per month for up to 1000 subscribers. It doesn't offer a free trial but you can request a refund within 30 days if you're not happy with it.

Two key pieces of advice on list building

Key advice #1: Produce quality content

To grow and email list with quality subscribers, you need to make sure your content is seriously high quality. By content, I mean:

  • The free resource that gets people to sign up to your list. Don't think you can churn out something mediocre or low quality just to get people to sign up. They will look at it, get annoyed, delete it and associate your name with low quality. And that opportunity to build trust and relationship is gone forever.
  • Everything else you put out there, whether it's your website copy, your blog posts, your videos, your email blasts... It's quality content that will engage your subscribers, keep them on your list and eventually convert them into paying clients.

Key advice #2: Be consistent

Your content is what makes or breaks your list building. You need to be consistent with producing quality content. Don't only blog when you feel like it. Create a schedule and stick to it. Don't email your list and then go quiet for 6 months. Don't blog about all topics under the sun. Instead, write about topics your ideal client will love. And provide value in everything you put out there.

Part 3 - The 5 Characteristics of a Compelling Lead Magnet

When it comes to email marketing, one of the first questions I get asked is: "How do I get subscribers?"

Gone are the days when you can just throw up a sign-up form on your website that says "Sign up for my newsletter" and expect to get tons of subscribers. Unless you're already famous and have a massive following, people are unlikely to want to part with their email addresses if they don't know the specifics of what they're getting. Sure, people will subscribe to your newsletter if they already know about you and like your work. But with email marketing, you want to get people who don't yet know about you to go on your list so that you can start to build a relationship with them using emails. Over time, those who are a good match for you and your business will come to know, like and trust you, and eventually buy from you.

In Part 2, we talked about creating a free resource, known as a lead magnet, that will provide value and solve a problem for your target audience.

So what makes a great lead magnet so that your visitors will want it enough to part with their email addresses?

5 characteristics of a compelling lead magnet

1. It needs to provide real value

Your lead magnet is free, but that doesn't mean you can just wing it with mediocre content. If you promise something, make sure you deliver it. If, after downloading your free resource, your subscribers think "Well, that's not as great as she makes it out to be!", you will have lost that credibility and trust that you're trying so hard to build. If you don't deliver the goods, people will simply unsubscribe.

2. It should solve a top-of-mind problem for your ideal client

Your subscribers have problems and they want solutions. If you can help them solve a burning issue with your lead magnet, you will have gained a loyal fan.

But don't be tempted to cover too broad a topic. Instead, target just one specific top-of-mind problem your target audience is facing. I like to think of this as "Share a snack, not a meal."

As an example, I've been thinking about ways to eat more healthily but being a busy mum and business owner, I don't have a lot of time to source ingredients and cook complicated meals. So, "How to eat healthily" is too broad and is unlikely to grab my attention. But if I see "How to cook a healthy meal in 20 minutes after a long day working on your business", I'm listening!

If you don't know what problems your target audience is facing, ask them! Social media is a good place to ask questions. You can also ask your existing subscribers what they need help with the most. A simple "What are you struggling with the most right now when it comes to xxx?" is all you need.

You can also make a list of the problems you faced when you first tried to accomplish what you are trying to help your target audience accomplish. Often, you'll find that your subscribers face the same challenges you encountered when you first started out.

3. It should be easy and quick to consume

The attention span of your average internet user is staggering short. If you offer a 300-page ebook, your subscribers will likely skim through the first few pages, file it away with the intention of looking through it later, often never to return to it again. And when your lead magnet is not consumed, its perceived value will be low because your subscribers have not gained a benefit from it.

So make sure you structure your lead magnet so that it takes a relatively short time for your subscribers to go through and experience some form of benefit or transformation from it.

4. It should build credibility and authority

Whether through sharing your knowledge on a particular topic, or using case studies to demonstrate your expertise, your lead magnet should establish you as an expert in your field.

Why is this important? Your subscribers need to see that you know what you're talking about. When you successfully help them with a small problem, a subtle change occurs in your relationship. You go from being a complete stranger to someone they can trust. And they will be more inclined to engage with you and your business in the future.

5. It should be related to your products and services

A great lead magnet needs to be related to or complement your products and services. Offering an ebook on productivity is unlikely to attract people who want to hire you as a health coach, but offering a weekly healthy eating meal plan might.

A lead magnet that's related to your products and services may also prompt people to identify problems that they do not know they have, and seek out your paid solution.

Your lead magnet is the first step in your potential clients' journey with you. If you can help them solve a problem, they will see you as the person who can help them with the rest of the journey in order for them to achieve their final goal.

Part 4: 10 Ways to Get More Email Subscribers

You should now have a clearer idea of what type of lead magnet to create for your target audience. The natural next question is:

How do I get more sign-ups to my list?

1. Collect email addresses in person

This is a low-tech but effective method, particularly if you have a store front, or interact with potential customers in person on a regular basis (for example, network meetings, community events, trade shows or similar). It is as easy as printing out a simple sign-up sheet and asking people to write down their email addresses.

You can go more high tech if you want to. For example, you can use a tablet showing a sign-up form and get people to enter their emails that way.

If you speak to potential clients regularly on the phone or on Skype, you can ask them personally if they would like to be added to your list.

Don't forget, you have to make it worthwhile for people to part with their email addresses. And it's no different when you're collecting emails in person. Make it clear to them what they would be getting and what values you'd be providing.

2. Be specific with your lead magnet

This is something we've already discussed in Part 3. Your lead magnet should address a specific problem your target audience is facing. So instead of saying something generic like "Get email updates" or "Sign up to our newsletter", create something that will help them solve a specific challenge they're experiencing. And be sure to tell visitors exactly what they'll be getting.

3. Make your sign-up form stand out from its surrounding

A common mistake I see often is where the sign-up form is too blended in with the rest of the page. It's good to adhere to your brand colours and have a consistent visual feel on your site, but if your sign-up form blends in too much with its surrounding, it's difficult for your visitors to even see that there's something to sign up for. Look at your own sign-up forms. As you look around your site, do they pop out to grab attention? If not, you'll need to use a highlight colour or make it slightly different from the surrounding design to make it more visible.

4. Change the button text

Your button copy matters a lot when it comes to subscription rate. Keep it simple, but don't be boring. So if you're using "Sign Up" or "Subscribe" on your buttons, you'd want to consider changing it to something more clickable. Research has shown that a particularly effective strategy is to write button copy in the first person. For example,

- Start my free trial
- Download my free ebook
- Get my bonus

5. Make it as easiest as possible for people to sign up

Most users will abandon the sign-up process if it takes too long or is too complicated. So think about whether it's really necessary to ask for a first name, last name, email, location, occupation, and other information that doesn't really matter. Many marketers only ask for the email address these days, which is really all you need. If you want to be able to personalise your emails, you can ask for a first name.

6. Leverage your social media channels

(a) Add a link to your sign-up page in your social media profiles. People usually check out your profile before they decide whether to follow you. Even if they decide not to, they may still check out your lead magnet.

(b) Create a post for your sign-up page and pin it to the top of your Facebook page or your Twitter timeline. A pinned post always stays at the top so it'll be the first post people see when they check out your profile.

(c) Ask your followers on Facebook and Twitter to sign up. Don't ask, don't get, right?

(d) Add a "Sign Up" button to your Facebook page. To do this, go to your Facebook page, then click on "Add a button" below your cover image. At the time of writing, you need to select "Contact Me" and then "Sign Up". From here you can add the link to your sign up page.

7. Add a link to your sign-up in your email signature

How many emails do you send on a typical day? If you're like most people, the answer is... a lot! Each of those emails you send out is an opportunity to gain a new subscriber. Remember to keep it short and clear.

How to add an email signature depends on your email provider. In GMail, click on the gear wheel icon at top right, then click on Settings. You will find the Signature section in there.

8. Add a pop-up

Opinions are divided about popups as to their effectiveness and level of annoyance to visitors. My advice is to always test and see if it works with your target audience.

There are two types of pop-ups you can try:

(a) A timed pop-up appears when a visitor has been on your site for a certain period of time. For example, you can set one to appear after 20 seconds.

(b) An exit-intent pop-up appears when a visitor is about to leave your site. The theory is that they're about to leave your site anyway, so it's worth a final attempt to entice them with your lead magnet. Again, test and see if it works with your target audience.

9. Offer a content upgrade

If you haven't heard of content upgrades yet, let me explain. A content upgrade is bonus content created specifically for a particular blog post. For example, if you're a graphic designer and you have a blog post that talks about how to create an eye-catching Facebook page cover image, you can offer a Photoshop template file that will help your readers create a cover image easily for themselves.

Content upgrades work because you're adding substantial value to a topic that your visitors are interested in and want to learn more about.

Content upgrades don't need to be complicated to create. For example, if you have a long and in-depth post on a topic, you can simply create a PDF version of the post and offer that as an upgrade so that your readers can download and keep as a reference.

10. Add your sign-up forms to multiple places

You've done the hard work of creating your lead magnet, so don't just put it in one place and leave it as that. There are many places on your website where you can strategically place your sign-up form to increase sign-ups. I have a free guide where I go through these strategic locations. You can download it here.

Building an email list takes time and patience. Sometimes it takes a little creativity too! Applying some of these strategies will help you get more subscribers and build an engaged audience.

ps: By the way, did you spot my content upgrade? 🙂

Part 5: 12 Things You Can Send to Your Email List

Don't let your subscribers just sit on your list. The whole point of building your list is so that you can communicate with them to build trust and relationship.

If you blog, then emailing your list every time you have a new post is a good starting point. Even if you don't blog regularly, you should make a habit of emailing your list consistently. It can be a few times a week, once a week or once a month, as long as it's consistent. Why? Because if you don't, your subscribers will forget about you.

Here are 12 things you can send to your subscribers to keep them excited about hearing from you:

1. Behind-the-scene news and photos

It's always great to show your fans what's happening behind the scene. People are curious and love to see this side of your business. If you are a service provider, you may have to be a bit more creative than a product company. For example, if you're a graphic designer you can show your design process and take pictures of your sketches. If you're a branding professional, you can show how a client's logo is evolving from your initial concepts.

2. Relevant news

One of your goals is to establish yourself as a go-to resource for your subscribers, and posting relevant news in your niche is a great way to do this. Pick a piece of industry news that's relevant to your audience, share your opinion and show how it impacts your subscribers. If you can give them a few tips related to the news, even better.

3. Helpful resources & tools

Being helpful to your target audience is a great way to build trust. You can do this by sharing apps, software, hacks, resources and helpful tools that will help your subscribers. You can even how them how you've set the tool up yourself to save them time.

4. Throwbacks & milestones

If you've been in business for a while you can post throwbacks and milestones about your business. For example... stories about helping your first client, finding your first office space, how your business has evolved, resigning from your 9-to-5, the 3rd anniversary of your business, etc. This shows how far you've come and will be fun for your subscribers to read about too.

5. Exclusive content

You may feel reluctant to do this. After all, when you've done the hard work of creating awesome content, you want to be able to use it elsewhere: your blog, your social media, a video, etc etc. But, providing exclusive content to your subscribers will make them feel super special. If they know that you'll be sending them something that the general public don't have access to, they will look forward to and value your emails much more. And who says you can't re-purpose and expand on the topic later and use it elsewhere?

6. Flash sale

Who doesn't love a sale?! Flash sales are a great way to drive customers to your website on the spot. Test different variables (pricing, timing, offer) and see what works with your audience.

7. Get personal

Since the emails you send out to your list are not on your website for the whole world to see, it's a great place to get more personal and let your subscribers get to know you more. People like to read about you as a human, not just a business owner. How much you want to share is of course up to you. I find that when I send out personal stories to my subscribers, I always get a higher open rate and interaction. Interesting, right?

8. Free downloads

I don't know about you but I'm always creating new free resources to attract new subscribers. Why not send a link to the download to your email list too? Who doesn't like free stuff? Needless to say, make sure it's not just free, but valuable and useful. This will establish yourself as an expert in your field and build trust between you and your subscribers.

9. Recap of recent or popular posts

You can send an email with a collection of some of your recent or popular blog posts. Don't worry about annoying your subscribers as it's unlikely that they've all read every single one of those posts. Sending them a recap is a great way to show them your content AND drive traffic back to your site.

10. Share other people's content

If you're really stuck, spend around 30 minutes or so gathering great posts from other people in your niche and send an expert round-up type of email to your list. Make sure what you're sending is of value to your subscribers and not just a lazy way to send out an email.

11. Ask them a question

If you are not sure about what problems your subscribers are facing and what resources they need from you, send them an email and ask them! Remember, give your audience what they need from you, not what you think they need. Sending an email to ask them is a quick and easy way to do this.

12. Promote your business

Don't forget that you run a business, and that it's okay to promote it once in a while. Whether it's your coaching program, an online course or an ebook, let your subscribers know why you think they'll benefit from it. Invite them to email you if they have any question about what you're promoting. You can also offer your subscribers a special discount.


I know it's a lot to take in but I hope you've found this beginner's guide to email list building helpful. Let me know if you have questions

Building an email list is crucial because it's the best way to build a relationship with potential customers in an intimate way. Here's how...
Find out why email list building is a must if you want your business to succeed, how to create a compelling lead magnet, ways to get more subscribers and what you can send to your email list once you start getting subscribers.
Building a strong email list should be your top priority when it comes to building your business. Here's how to get started...
What Is an Email List and Why Is It So Important? Read this post to find out.
Want to get started with email list building? Click here to learn how.
What makes a great lead magnet your target audience would love to download? Click here to find out.
Learn 10 ways to get more email subscribers and increase conversion rate for your email list.

Don't know what to send to your email list? Check out this list of 12 things you can email your subscribers when you don't know what to say.

A Beginner's Guide to Email List Building

A Beginner's Guide to Email List Building

A Beginner's Guide to Email List Building

A Beginner's Guide to Email List Building

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