Email list building strategies: How I increased my signup rate 1,282%

Not all email list building strategies are created equal, and I found that out the hard way. For too long I had relied on strategies that just didn’t produce results.

After a bit of experimentation, I was able to go from an average of 12 new subscribers per month to consistently adding 200+ subscribers per month. I’m going to show you which tactics worked for me, and which didn’t.

I actually started with list that was declining.

The decline in subscribers wasn’t quite fast enough to cause alarm. Since new people continued to subscribe and my unsubscribe rate wasn’t too high, addressing this issue had always moved to the bottom of my to-do list.

Email list building strategies: A case study on how I increased my subscribe rate 1,282%

Of course, losing subscribers is inevitable – marketers should expect about a 20% email churn rate. People can get off of your list for a variety of reasons – they unsubscribe, they change jobs and they no longer have the same email address, they change email addresses, etc. My email churn rate at the time was under 5% – way below average.

Knowing that you’ll lose a certain percentage of your list every year, the key is to add more subscribers than you’re losing if you want to continue to grow your list.

In my case, I was losing about 44 subscribers per month (29 to bounces, 15 to unsubscribes), while only gaining about 12 subscribers per month.

You don’t even need to get a calculator out to realize that this was not good news for my list growth.

And, for the record, even though email is a relatively “old” communication method in the digital world, it is still very effective. Check out these fun facts from a post on email marketing stats and trends for nonprofits:

  • Total online revenue correlates closely with email list size. The more people you can ask, the more money you will raise. But, in terms of growth trends, online fundraising by organizations with smaller lists is growing fastest.
  • On average, 35% of online revenue can be sourced to a direct email appeal, with the rest coming from other sources, like directly pulling up a website or peer referral.

Needless to say, I was starting to freak out that this subscriber list was slowly declining!


This was my situation:

I had inherited a decent-sized list, so up until this year I made minimal changes to how I collected emails. Basically, I very passively asked people to join the list by having a subscribe box on several locations on the website.

Before I started this experiment, I had subscribe boxes on the homepage, at the bottom of every article, and on the sidebar on the website. I averaged 12 new subscribers per month with these in place. Not exactly anything to brag about.


Small, easy changes led to… not much growth

In May of 2014 I made some small design and copy changes to the subscribe boxes in attempt to draw a little more attention to them. I added an arrow next to the subscribe boxes to make them stand out a little more. I changed copy from “Sign up for email updates” to “Sign up to get useful resources sent to your inbox monthly.” I also changed the language of the submit button from “Go” to “Send me resources.” Finally, I added share buttons to the bottom of the emails.

The results:

I gained an extremely modest two subscribers per month, on average, doing these quick fixes. This is likely not even a statistically significant change.

To be honest, even though I knew they wouldn’t be the magic bullet to building my list, I thought these tactics would have helped a little bit more than they did. But everything helps …right?



Email list building strategies that worked …and ones that didn’t

It was time to make some substantial changes in the way I collected emails.

I decided to make 2015 my year to increase the number of subscribers.

About nine months after I started this project, I’ve added a total of 2,675 emails to my list – nearly 300 new subscribers per month. Only 193 came from website sign-ups (my only method of collecting email addresses before this experiment) during this timeframe. Without implementing any new tactics, I would have only gained an average of 21 new subscribers per month. Instead, my list grew over 14x that rate.

Here are the tactics I tried:

  • Paper sign-up forms for in-person events
  • Adding people who sign up for webinars
  • Putting pop-ups on the website
  • Creating squeeze pages for valuable content

You can see for yourself that these tactics made a big difference in the number of subscribers:

Chart that shows how new email list bulding strategies increased the growth rate

(Note that this chart doesn’t include imported emails, but it does give a good sense of the kind of growth I experienced.)


Here is the low-down on the tactics I tried:

Create email sign-up forms and bring them wherever we go

This particular organization hosts events and trainings and attends many conferences throughout the year. I thought, why not make an email sign-up form for us to take wherever we go? That way, if we’re running a workshop or hosting an event we can collect email addresses of people we know are interested in our work.

It didn’t take more than half an hour to make up a nice-looking sign-up sheet. However, there were a few challenges with this tactic:

  • Convincing staff members to bring the sign-up sheets with them to trainings they run or events they attend. They already have a lot of things to think about, and this one just wasn’t on the top of the list for most people.
  • Collecting sign-up sheets after the training or event. If they did bring the sign-up sheets to the training or event, it was sometimes a challenge to locate it amidst the many materials they brought home with them.
  • Barely legible handwriting. I’m going to blame this one on the widespread use of digital media (though I’m sure this has always been an issue). So many of us our out of practice of writing things by hand that many of the names and email addresses we collected were difficult to decipher.
  • Needing time to manually input information into the subscriber database. Once we had the forms in hand, we needed to type up each piece of information to import these new subscribers. For the amount of information we gathered, this wasn’t terribly time-consuming. However, this task could get very overwhelming very quickly.

One solution that would help overcome a couple of these challenges is to use a tablet or laptop versus a pen and paper to subscribe people to the list. However, many times we were in situations where we would leave the sign-up sheet out on a table and run off to do other things, so we didn’t want to leave a tablet or laptop unattended.

The results:

All in all, I collected 59 subscribers from four events, averaging 15 new subscribers per event.

Even though this wasn’t a huge increase in our list by any means, I still think it’s worth implementing this tactic if you have the resources to do so because people who attend your trainings or events are already interested in what you have to offer. This one is definitely more about quality than quantity.


Add people who attend webinars to my list

Webinars are a great way to deliver trainings online, as well as to get the word out about what you offer. The great thing about webinars is that people need to give their name and email address to sign up – the exact same information you need to grow your list.

Adding webinar participants to your list is also a lot easier than the first tactic of having paper sign-up forms at in-person events. It gets rid of some of the middlemen and messy handwriting challenges. You just need to make sure that when people sign up for your webinar that they know they’re also subscribing to your email list.

The results:

During this timeframe, we only hosted two webinars – definitely not as many as I would have liked. However, I was able to add 121 to our list from this tactic – an average of 61 subscribers per webinar.

This is a pretty time-consuming endeavor to create, market, and host webinars. For some, webinars is a key email list building strategy and it’s worth the investment. It wasn’t for me, so I’m going to focus on some other tactics.


Add a pop-up to the website

Pop-ups have a bad reputation, for sure. But when I started asking around, people kept telling me over and over again that they work. So I decided to give them a try.

I used SumoMe to install pop-ups on the website. This tool has many great free features – pop-ups being just one of them. I used the free version of SumoMe, but if you subscribe to the pro version of their list builder for $20/month you’ll get access to advanced features like more options to customize your designs as well as A/B testing. Next time I’m looking for ways to increase the number of subscribers yet again, I will definitely sign up for those advanced options.

The key to not being annoying with your pop-ups is to configure your settings so they don’t show up too often. I choose the “smart” mode to let the program choose when it’s appropriate to display the pop-up. This means that it doesn’t show up for every user, and it only shows up when certain things happen like when they interact with the content (they’re definitely interested!) or when it looks like they’re about to leave (they’re leaving anyway, why not try to collect their email?). I also set it so it doesn’t show up again until four months after their first visit so they’re not bothered every time they come to the website.

If you (or your boss) are still wary of using pop-ups, try them out on your top exit pages first. That’s the place where you really have nothing to lose – people are leaving your site at a high rate anyway.

The results:

In the seven months or so that I’ve been using pop-ups, I collected 700 email addresses. This averages out to 100 new subscribers per month (I implemented pop-ups a few months into my experiment so they weren’t running for the full nine months). This is by far the best method of all the strategies listed so far!


Add resources with squeeze pages

Membership is a great way to increase your email list. This organization’s previous website had a membership feature, and this was the main way they grew their list. When they moved to a new design, they got rid of that feature for a variety of reasons I won’t get into in this post. This also meant they got rid of the main source for getting new subscribers.

I didn’t want to add the membership feature to the website again, but I did need something else to add value for our audience.

Asking people to subscribe on the promise that we’ll send useful articles and resources in the future was working out pretty well by using the pop-ups. But knowing human nature and our desire for instant gratification, I thought we could do better. If we could offer something that was useful to our audience that they could download right now in exchange for their email, I figured we would be able to grow our list even more.

For this organization, I released two resources that I made available to people if they subscribed to our newsletter. One was a set of templates and the other was a list of research we had pulled together that would be particularly useful for our audience.

To do this, I created a squeeze page to give website visitors information about the resource and to hopefully convince them to enter their information to sign up for it. I also set up an automated email so once they confirmed their email address, they would immediately receive another email with a link to download the resource.

The results:

Over the last nine months I collected an astounding 1,602 email addresses using this method. This averages 178 new subscribers per month.

One reason this method was so successful was that this particular list belongs to a nonprofit that has a Google AdWords Grant. This allowed me to send a significant amount of traffic directly to the resource, for free, with minimal effort, in a short amount of time. If you work for a nonprofit and have a Google AdWords Grant, this is a great tactic to use to get more subscribers.

If you’re not part of a nonprofit, you may want to consider spending some money for ads on Google and social media that send people to a sign-up page for your free resource. If you know how much each of your email subscribes is worth, it’s fairly easy to justify the money spent on ads as long as you get quality leads. If there’s no room in your budget for ads of any kind, you can still promote your resource the “old-fashioned” way with blog posts, social media, and enewsletters.


Final thoughts

The list growth was much higher than I ever expected – I grew this list by 56% in just nine months!

Here’s the breakdown of the sources that contributed to my list growth during this 9-month period:

Sources of new enewsletter subscribers after implementing new email list building strategies

The rapid increase in subscribers and website visits (via the Google ads) didn’t come without consequences. My email churn rate went from under 5% to a little over 11% – still not bad considering the average churn rate across the board is about 20%.

This experiment may have had a negative impact on the website as well. During this time period, bounce rates increased and the average time on the website decreased. My initial thought was that this was caused by all of the traffic I was sending to my squeeze pages. Turns out, people actually spend more time than average on the squeeze pages for the new resources I created. So the source of those two problems may lie elsewhere in the site and may not actually be caused by the increase in traffic to those pages.

The open rates for the monthly newsletter dropped slightly – a little less than one percentage point. I did see an increase in the total number of opens and clicks: there was a 6.7% increase in the average number of opens per newsletter sent, and a 3.3% increase in the average number of clicks per newsletter sent. While this is still a step in the right direction, the increase in opens and clicks did not keep up with list growth.

Now that I feel like I have a handle on growing my subscriber list, I’m going to tackle open and click rates next (one method I’m using is email segmentation).

I’ll keep you posted on my progress. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about email list building strategies that have worked for you. Post your results in the comments!