Build an Email Marketing List From Scratch: What You Need to Know

Updated on June 15, 2020
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Heidi Thorne is an author and business speaker specializing in sales and marketing topics for coaches, consultants, and solopreneurs.

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Build an Email List Fast? Forget About It!

In spite of the popularity of social media, apps and every other new connection technology or technique, email marketing still is popular and effective. The biggest challenge when trying to build an email marketing list from scratch is getting subscribers to opt-in to your list.

Many small business marketers auto-add paying customers to their email lists. But in these days of increased privacy issues and CAN-SPAM emailing rules, getting permission from even buyers is highly recommended. In my experience, even when I've offered the opportunity to join my list to actual and happy customers, not all of them accept.

So taking the high road and getting subscribers to purposefully and intentionally opt-in to your email list is the way to go, even though it can be excruciatingly slow. Here are some of the challenges you'll face with popular subscriber recruitment techniques.

Email List Opt-In Freebies

Giving away an eBook, discount, or other perk for subscribing to an email marketing list is popular. But regardless of your perceived quality of the freebie you offer for opting in, it may not be a magic bullet for increased subscriber numbers. Here are some reasons for this:

  • They've opted-in to lots of lists already. Almost every blog or eCommerce site offers some incentive for joining their email list. It's expected and is not a unique offering. So unless your freebie is super fantastic, there's little reason to sign up for yet another email.
  • They get a lot of emails. Even if a freebie is of interest, potential subscribers may resist joining a list simply because they get so much email already and can't imagine adding to that load.
  • They opt-in and opt-out. Potential subscribers who are intrigued by your freebie subscription offer may opt-in, get the freebie, and immediately opt-out. This is not uncommon. Don't worry about these folks! They weren't really interested in anything other than the freebie.
  • Your freebie could be set free on social media and elsewhere. Especially for PDF eBooks and other downloads, subscribers may share links to your freebie or the actual downloaded item with friends or on social media. So why should their friends or social media followers join your list? They already got the goods. Lesson: Make sure your freebie is something of value, but not so valuable that it dramatically reduces your return on investment and potential sales.

Does Guest Blogging Work?

A popular tip for getting new email subscribers is guest blogging. In theory, here's how it works: People see your guest post on someone else's blog. They'll be so impressed with your content that they'll bounce on over to your site and (magically and immediately) join your email list. In essence, you use the authority and audience of the site hosting your guest post to increase your following. I've listened to or read some tips that suggest thousands of new email subscribers can be gained in this manner.

But here's what I've found using this strategy . . .

I did a lot of guest blogging in the past. What my traffic analytics showed was that very few people—could count them on one hand at times—actually made the leap from the host site to mine. Could it have been that they really didn't like my guest post? Maybe. But I think there's another explanation.

I watch my behavior when visiting blogs or websites that accept guest posts. If I really like the guest post, I may share or retweet it. But I rarely jump on over to the guest blogger's site. Why bother taking the time to visit yet another site? Other times I don't readily realize that the post is material from a guest blogger and I assume that it's done by the host site's writers. Again, no reason to investigate further.

If your goal in guest blogging is to gain email subscribers, set realistic expectations. The best result you can hope for is that your guest blog posts may increase your recognition with your target audience.

Getting visitors to subscribe to your email list is the first "sale" you'll make with them.

— Heidi Thorne

How to Get New Email Subscribers

  • Always have an opt-in form on your website or blog. I can't tell you how many sites I visit where it is not obvious how to sign up for their newsletter or email updates. On some sites, it's completely missing! Don't expect visitors to dig around looking for how to join your email fan base. Make it a top item on your site! Getting visitors to subscribe to your email list is the first "sale" you'll make with them.
  • Don't turn off your website or blog visitors—and your Google mobile search results!—with pop-ups and other annoying ploys. Ever visit a site and immediately the content you want to view is covered by a form or grayed-out screen that either requires you to subscribe or close it? These types of forms are often referred to as pop-ups, pop-unders, interstitials, or hover forms. Annoying as they can be, they can increase email subscribers. However, as of January 10, 2017, Google will be penalizing sites in mobile search results who use these methods except in certain cases. Why? Because it diminishes the user experience.
  • Use freebies or incentives judiciously. Watching my own behavior, if I really want to be on an email list, I'll often opt-in and never download any freebie that might be offered. That being said, a relevant and desirable incentive or perk for subscribing can be just the lure needed to get more valuable email subscribers.
  • Don't give away the store . . . but do give value. Realize that what you offer as an email subscription incentive may be shared without hesitation. Offer something of value, but not so much that you diminish opportunities to expand your sales and subscriber base. For example, some authors offer a free book chapter as an email subscription incentive. That is something of value. And even if new subscribers share the chapter with every contact on their email lists or on social media, their contacts will still have to buy the book to get the rest of it.
  • Tell them what to expect. Tell your prospective subscribers how often they might expect to hear from you. Daily? Weekly? When you feel like sending something? This helps build your reputation by doing what you say you'll do. As well, a desirable contact frequency could get some visitors to subscribe. Except for "daily deals" type emails, weekly is typically a comfortable frequency for most subscribers.
  • Be aware of privacy and legal issues. Consult a business attorney on developing a privacy policy for your blog, website, and email marketing list. Getting legal advice on how you collect, store, use, and share personally identifiable data is strongly recommended as privacy issues become more and more of a concern. Make your privacy policy available for viewing by potential subscribers before they join. Not only could this help keep you out of privacy troubles, but it can also reassure potential subscribers who may have these concerns.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2017 Heidi Thorne


Submit a Comment
  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Thanks, Ashley, for the kind words! Glad to see you stopping by here, too. Cheers!

  • profile image

    Ashley @ The Naked Food Life 

    3 years ago

    Great advice Heidi!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Lawrence! I also follow those bloggers that I feel represent the best, not only in terms of content, but how they connect, too. I tend to either unsubscribe or ignore those that get way too sales oriented. I've also met some great writers and connectors here on HP that also understand these best practice principles. Glad to see that you're taking a conscious approach to your marketing. Go you! Happy Weekend!

  • profile image

    Lawrence Hebb 

    3 years ago


    Thank you for the information here, it was very helpful in that it's helped me decide whether I want to use this tool.

    I enjoy following people's blog posts, and there are a couple of really superb ones I do follow, if anything, those are the ones I want to emulate.

    I've also been on sites that promised 'so much' but all they wanted to do was sell me stuff I wasn't looking for!

    One of the best sites I've found is actually HP as there I can read the article, and if I like it I can read more, I also find many of the writers also take note of what others write in the comments.

    I'm still working on my marketing, but it'll be a 'modified' form of the email list I use, and not the 'standard' I see so often.



  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hello Blond Logic! When I saw the news on the pop-up issue, I made changes to my own site. Felt it was important to share here. It's not unusual to abandon email list efforts, especially when they can be so slow in gaining subscribers. Hope your renewed efforts will bring results. Glad you found it helpful. Thanks for stopping by and have a great day!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hello Bill! Glad you got some value out of it. Appreciate you stopping by and commenting. Have a great day!

  • Blond Logic profile image

    Mary Wickison 

    3 years ago from Brazil

    I didn't realize about the changes to the pop up sign in form, that is good to know.

    Getting an email list together is something I started, did nothing with it and now need to pull things together.

    Your advice will come in very useful, thanks.

  • profile image


    3 years ago

    Most of the time, what you write about I already know, but this time you helped...I know about email lists but never knew, or took the time to learn, about thank you my friend.

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Flourish! In the nonprofit where I'm on the board, the email list is also critical.

    It sounds like you might be having issues with the verification process where your system sends them an email to confirm their addresses and desire to receive your messages. I know that's a pain! People may not open the verification email because it might go to their Spam or Junk folder (you have no control over that unfortunately). Or they just decide they don't want it after they receive that confirmation request. Either way, they're half in, half out, and definitely not getting your important email broadcasts. But with today's anti-spam laws and sentiment, you're doing the right thing by going through that multi-step process. Sometimes systems have a reminder email that can be sent to remind them to confirm which might help. Check your email system's documentation for options.

    But I'm curious about "unacceptable terms." Is it your privacy policy that is causing objection? Or is it just the fact that they have to confirm they want to get your emails that bothers them? Depends on the user. Some people get freaked out by privacy policies. But you need to have those policies! Others are annoyed by seeing multiple emails to confirm what they think they've already done by providing their email address.

    We're working and marketing in a much more complex world. Those that really want to hear from you--even though that number might not be as large as you want--are the ones who will be willing to opt in and open your emails. Don't be discouraged!

    Thanks for opening up a good discussion. Have a wonderful weekend!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    3 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi and Happy New Year Purl3agony! I think marketers sometimes believe their potential subscribers will behave differently than they personally do. :) If they're smart, they'll plan for how real people behave. Indeed, giving them an idea of what to expect can help smooth the path to signing on. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing. Have a beautiful weekend!

  • FlourishAnyway profile image


    3 years ago from USA

    I lead a nonprofit and we live by our email list. Keeping it current, however, is another thing. People have multiple accounts, inboxes are full, and some even provide you their email but electronically you must go through a one time verification process that involves unacceptable terms. Any helpful hints?

  • purl3agony profile image

    Donna Herron 

    3 years ago from USA

    Hi Heidi - Thanks for these wonderful tips! I don't have a lot of experience building an email list, but a lot of the behavior you mention here reflects how I respond to requests to join business, organization, or blogger's lists. I love your suggestions for being honest and upfront to gain and encourage readers or visitors to sign up for your email list. Pinning to share with others!


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