Building and growing a mailing list is absolutely key to both the short and long term success of your business. While social media can result in some good traffic, there is still nothing that beats good old-fashioned email. And best of all, it’s almost free!

Why do you need a mailing list?

There is a lot of focus on social media these days from people trying to build an audience for their product. This is understandable, Twitter dominates breaking news coverage, and Facebook is a household name these days. People want to put their brand where the people are doing to see it. But does a big social following actually result in sales?

In the run-up to my first campaign I built up large followings on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I had thousands of followers on each, and assumed that when it came to opening orders, these numbers would convert to sales. But they didn’t, or at least not in any significant way. Posting to Facebook groups was worthwhile and moved the needle slightly, but Twitter and Instagram both resulted in single digit sales referrals. A tiny number for the amount of work required to build up those accounts.

By contrast, my mailing list resulted in hundreds of sales. It was the single biggest referral source, even after some really huge blogs (and Kickstarter themselves) featured my campaign.

So why did email work so well? Well firstly, to get on to my email list takes a little effort. Not much, but more than just hitting “follow” in social media. So anyone that was on the list wanted to be there. By contrast, my social media accounts have hundreds of spam follower accounts. That’;s just how social media works.

Email also gets seen. If you post on Facebook, their algorithms decide who gets to see your message. Want everyone to see it? The you have to pay up. The same applies on Twitter and Instagram. Who wants their connection with their customers to be in the hands of some big social entity who are only interested in their own profits? Not me. Email goes to the users inbox. Getting them to read it is a different problem, but as long as you work out decent subjects, you’ve got a great chance of your message being seen. I get around 50% open rates on email campaigns I send, compared to 5-15% of users seeing a social media post if I’m lucky.

How to grow an email list

It’s important that your mailing list be focussed and well targeted, or it’s no use. This means you shouldn’t buy one and you shouldn’t scrape the web for email addresses to manually add. You need to grow it yourself, and that will take time. Start now, long before you plan to launch. It took me 18 months to get mine to the point where I was happy to open sales. I’ve written before on how to know when your email list is big enough. Check that out before you even think about launching!

1. Blogging for subscribers

A good, free place to start growing your list is by blogging. If you’re going to be releasing a product in a market, you probably have some knowledge that others do not. You don’t need to be the world’s premier expert, just write honestly about what you know.

Launching a razor? Start writing about shaving or mens accessories. Launching a watch? Review a load of other watches. Blog on your own site and try to get guest posts on other more popular sites that will link back to yours. I’ve written about blogging to grow an email list in detail, and it’s worth spending the time going through that and following the steps. An audience of people interested in your industry is incredibly valuable.

2. Using lead magnets to gain subscribers

A lead magnet is just a fancy name for something you use to encourage people to sign up for your email list. For example if you were an author you might give away a free ebook version of your first novel to anyone that joins your list.

This can work well, but it’s important to be careful about what you give away. If you pick something that is in a different industry to your product, you’ll get people signing up for the freebie that then won’t want your future emails or products. In the author ebook example this should work well, as if someone is interested in a copy of your first book the chances are they’ll be interested in future books published.

If you find a good lead magnet for your list, make sure you promote your offer well on social media and in forums or groups focussed on your industry. It works better than just asking people to sign up, as they feel they are getting something of value.

3. Exit intents

An exit intent is a popup form that only pops up when it thinks a user is about to leave your website. In general pop-ups are annoying, and laying one over your content when the user is trying to read can be incredibly irritating.

Many email collection services (including drip.com and mailmunch.com, both of which I use) have an option that allows you to trigger a pop-up only when it thinks your visitor is about to close your tab. It does this by noticing that the mouse is moving towards the close button and popping up a message at this time.

If the user is already leaving, hitting them with a pop-up shouldn’t annoy them, and it allows you to have one last chance to capture their details before they go. If you can present them with your lead magnet at this point then all the better. You’ll find they convert well.

Exit intent pop-up example
Exit intent pop-up example from my own blog

4. Should you be using giveaways?

Giveaways are similar to lead magnets, in that they are only worth using if the thing you are giving away is closely linked to the industry that you plan to sell in. However the difference is that usually you only have a few items to give away, and so users are instead entering a draw to win rather than being guaranteed a reward of some kind.

Giveaways can result in a good number of sign ups, but you need to be aware when it comes to calculating the size of your list that a lot of the people that joined will only have done so for the giveaway. There are huge numbers of people just browsing the web looking to enter any contest they can in the hope of winning something. They don’t care for you or your future products.

That said, even if only 20% of the people that enter are interested in what you’re doing, that’s still some potential customers that you wouldn’t otherwise have had.

Rather than running a simple giveaway yourself, I suggest that you pick a dedicated service to run it for you. The advantage of these services is that they will make it easy for your customers to spread the contest on your behalf, helping it to go viral. Using these services, once a visitor has entered your contest they will be able to refer their friends and follow you on social media. Each of these actions they take increases the number of entries they receive in to the draw, so they are incentivised to spread the word as much as they can to improve their chances of winning.

I use Viral Loops to run my contests and it’s worked incredibly well for me. They have a range of different type of contests to suit your business.

Giveaway example
A giveaway I ran to increase email list signups

5. Using landing pages to grow an email list

I’ve written in a lot of detail about landing pages before, and I still maintain that they are an amazing way to build a targeted list. By linking to a page dedicated solely to collecting email addresses, you remove the distractions that usually prevent people from signing up for more information.

The basic idea is this: You create a page with some basic information about your product and the option to sign up to learn more. There should be nothing else on the page to distract your visitors or take their attention elsewhere. No navigation, no decisions to make. Just basic product details and then a “sign-up for more information” option. Read my article on using landing page to collect email addresses for details and instructions, as well as a list of the best services out there to use to build your pages.

Landingpage example
The landing page I use for The Crowdfundr newsletter

6. Using social media to find subscribers

Social media followers on their own aren’t very valuable. You’ll probably find that some of them will convert to sales, but a large number of people are just using their accounts to boost their ego. So don’t worry about your follower count.

What social media is useful for is building your email list. On Instagram and Twitter make sure that your landing page, rather than your full website, is the site in your profile. You want everyone that visits your profile to be directed to your landing page. Then follow loads of accounts that look like they will be relevant. For example, find another company that sells a product in a similar market and price point to you, then follow everyone that follows that account. Each of those people will receive a notification that you have followed them, some will check you out, and some of those people will follow your link and sign up for your list. It takes some time and effort to do it properly, but it’s a free way of directing people to your account.

Facebook is a slightly different beast. Here, I have found that the best results are achieved by joining groups dedicated to your niche and then sharing details of your product along with a link back to your landing page. You need to be careful doing this, as you don’t want to be considered a spammer. Start off by commenting on other posts and becoming part of the community. Over time, you can start to drop in mentions of your product when it feels appropriate. As long as you aren’t a dick, people will be responsive and you’ll find that you get some quite good signups. Take the time to do it right though. It’s a slow process, but one that is worth the effort.

Nurturing your email list

Once people have started joining your list, you want them to remain engaged. If you’re still a year away from launching, you don’t want to leave it months before you start emailing them. They’ll forget who you are and why they signed up, so when you get to launch time they won’t be excited. Make sure that you have a decent on-boarding process for new users, and then make sure you contact them at least once a month with status updates. You want them to be excited and feel involved in the process.

On-boarding users

On-boarding is the process or series of communications you go through with a new subscribers. Most email systems will allow you to automatically message new subscribers after a customisable number of hours/days with a “thanks for joining” type message, and then again as many times as you like over the subsequent days. This series of emails gives you chance to establish your product or brand in the minds of your subscriber, so that when it comes to selling something they already have some knowledge of you and your product.

My preference is an almost immediate email thanking them for signing up and telling them how they can find me on social media. I then follow that up with another email a couple of days later with product details. Finally I send a message with links to any contests I’m running that might offer them the chance to win a free product or ways of sharing the campaign with their friends. I find that this helps establish my brand in their minds, so they are more responsive to future email campaigns I send.

In summary

Build an email list. Start now! If your time is very limited, this should be the one thing you don’t sacrifice. You could fund a business off an email list alone if you got it right. Make sure that whatever you’re working on, you’re asking yourself “how can this help me grow my email list?” If the answer is that it can not, do you *really* need to do it?