How To Build Your Email List

RIP email marketing? Hardly. Here’s how entrepreneurs can cultivate thriving lists of followers and fans.

How To Build Your Email List
[Photo: Flickr user Kiran Foster]

We all complain about how much email we get. And yet entrepreneurs often hear that they need to grow their own email lists and communicate with subscribers frequently. In an era when email seems like an old technology, is this advice still good?


Dorie Clark, author of the book Stand Out, puts it this way:

“If your only direct connection to your customers is through social media, you’re rolling the dice and putting your fate in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg and Dick Costolo–and their job is to get shareholder returns, not help you grow your business . . . When you build an opt-in email list, the relationship is yours, and you can communicate directly with your customers. That puts you in control and makes a powerful difference.”


Indeed, email is the only direct communication with some scale to it. “If I could go to everyone’s door every day, I would,” says Noah Kagan, founder of SumoMe, which offers tools for growing website traffic. “Email is the next best thing.”


The ultimate argument? It works. “Case in point: I caught myself yesterday opening up an email from Club Monaco about a floaty blouse,” says Brooke Thomas, who markets her Liberated Body programs through her email list. “A floaty blouse. I don’t have time in my life to be thinking about Club Monaco’s floaty blouse options. Yet for some reason I found myself reading this whole email.” Why? Her inbox is “a place where I have invited people in. And for this reason some part of my brain more easily gives emails a green light on the interest-meter.”

Here are ways to grow and cultivate your list.

Start now

“The number-one thing people tell me is, ‘I wish I would have started my email list sooner,’” says Kagan. Lists take time to grow. So while you should think through the objective of your email marketing, even if you’re still working on that, put a box up on your website and get an account with a service (MailChimp and Constant Contact are some other popular options).


Put a sign-up line in your (and your employees’) email signatures

“That’s the easiest way to get more subscribers,” says Kagan. These are people you’re already communicating with. “They want to hear from you, they like chatting with you, why not just continue it?” If you send 50 emails a day and your four employees all do, too, that’s 250 daily opportunities for people to join.

Give to get

“These days you have to give something before asking for an email,” says Fayez Mohamood, CEO of Bluecore, a company that creates email triggers based on customer behavior. One of the most common ways to get addresses is to offer a freebie in exchange: an ebook; a recording etc. But don’t gate everything. If it’s something that can be gleaned from somewhere else, “then we don’t put an email capture in front of it. We didn’t do enough to deserve that email address,” says Mohamood. If it’s unique insights you can’t get anywhere else? “That’s a fair trade.”

A related point: In order to assure people that they’ll get interesting stuff after they subscribe, you should have high-quality content up at your site for anyone. You might then offer subscribers a tool to make more of your offerings. Clark created a 42-page free workbook adapted from her book, and reports that “the response has been incredible–3,000 new email signups in the past month alone.”


Switch up the incentives

Anne Bogel, of the book blog Modern Mrs. Darcy, publishes a highly curated summer reading guide each year. “The guide generates a huge number of new visits to the site, and more often that not, readers who are tempted by the reading guide love the site and stick around,” she says.

“In the past, I’ve tried different methods: In the early years I required a newsletter sign-up to view the guide; last year newsletter subscribers got early access; this year, it’s available to all, no strings. To entice people to hit ‘subscribe,’ I’m offering a new subscriber incentive that’s targeted at my bookish audience: a free printable reading journal.” Not every incentive works for everyone, so it pays to keep things fresh.

Ask in popular places

Ask on social media (just not in an auto DM if people follow you–please!). If you’ve got a “top blog posts” section of your site, make sure the ask is prominent there. Emma Johnson’s blog Wealthy Single Mommy offers a free booklet to subscribers, and she wrote a post about the freebie. “I make sure it is always among the top five or so of the blog posts featured on my homepage. Opt-ins are very high for that post.” Pop-ups remain popular and effective, though tread carefully. A good rule of thumb: If it annoys you at other people’s sites, it will annoy others at yours.


Of course, there’s no point in having a list of addresses if people don’t open your email. Some will unsubscribe officially, but others do an “emotional unsubscribe,” says Mohamood. They just automatically delete anything you send, which is a waste of time and money. Here’s how to avoid that.

Send good stuff

There’s no substituting for this. People want original content that’s relevant to them. You should also communicate with some regularity so people develop a relationship with your brand. Weekly or monthly emails are options that don’t overwhelm: If you always show up on Tuesday, people come to expect it.

Give them your best stuff first

Kagan suggests looking at your open rates for the past few months. Some emails will do much better than others. When people subscribe, auto-send them these “best of” emails first. You don’t have to produce new content, but people will have a much more positive relationship with your list if their first experiences are great.


Build a community

Thomas’s Liberated Body runs 30-day challenges with various physical goals, and despite there being separate groups for people to discuss the programs, she reports seeing a surge of sign-ups for her main list when she runs these challenges. People feel like they have camaraderie with her and other followers. You always open emails from friends and family members; the goal is to become like a friend to your customers.

Ask people to invite others to join the community as well. Johnson says: “At the end of each email I have a PS or other note and ask, ‘Do you know another mom who is also dealing with [XYZ topic of email]? Forward this to her!’”


If you expect people to read your email, you should read (and respond) to people who do so. “I make it a mission to respond to all those that are not crazy,” says Johnson. “It really makes people feel close to you and builds loyalty, and I use it as a way to understand my followers.” Feedback helps her produce better content.  


Play around

“Anyone who tells you they have cracked the mystery of digital marketing is full of crap,” says Johnson. “Different things work for different people on different days. Try new things, find what works, then assume that will stop working tomorrow.” 

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at