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How to Build an Email List for No (or Very Little) Cost

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

Use these 28 tips for getting your first subscribers — for free

If you’re a writer, blogger, speaker, leader, or biz owner, you want to know how to build an email list. Email is a linchpin in promotion.

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How to Build an Email List: 28 Tips for Adding Subscribers for FREE

You’ve repeatedly heard the mantra, “The money is in the list.”

Yet if you’re like me, you may cringe every time you hear about list-building. Can’t you just spend time writing? All that talk about money and addresses is awkward. You’d rather leave it to the ad folks, copywriters and marketing wizards.

Even after you’ve had an email list for a while, you find your subscriber rate is one new address every two months. You don’t want to drop bucks for ads, either. There must be some deep, dark secret about building an email list.


I know it can be done because I’ve done it myself. I’ve built 3 of my own email lists to thousands of subscribers using the techniques I’m going to present here.  Get your copy of How to Build an Email List here.

But before we get to the practical stuff you can put into practice, let me share one big mistake that I made at first — one you can avoid from the get-go.

How to Build an Email List with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter #WritingTips #EmailMarketing

Avoid This Email List-Building Mistake

The big mistake most of us make is in how we use our email list. We think of it primarily as a promotional tool — but pretend that you’re a subscriber. Do you want to continually “be sold”?

Me neither. I opt out of those kinds of mailings, and I bet you do too. If you view your email list as merely a way to make money, readers know it.

Instead, look at your email list as a large group of people who want and need good information about your particular niche, cause, or topic. You have that information. You share it with them by email.

This mind shift makes it easier to recruit subscribers. They want what you have to offer! Along the way, they buy your products and services and affiliate offers. And for creatives and business owners, building an email list now becomes fun. You get to share all that passion and excitement you’ve got about your products and services with people who are interested in the same things.

Top tip for building your list: Your emails are for your readers, not for you. Now, you simply need to find those folks.

Put 3 Fundamentals In Place

With that mind shift out of the way, let’s talk about the basics.

People go online for information. When you provide good information, readers find you. When readers find you, you have the chance to capture their contact information and continue to stay in touch with them. So the quest for building an email list begins with providing information to readers who care about your topic, your niche, or your cause.

To provide readers with information, you need three things.

  1. First, you need an online home for your information.
  2. Then, you need a way to capture readers’ addresses once they visit your home.
  3. And you need an email service provider (ESP) who will maintain all those addresses and provide a mechanism to send emails to them.

These three things are your first tips for building your list. If you do nothing else, put these three tips into practice.

1. Create an online hub

Your hub can be a website, blog, or social media page. The main attraction for this hub is quality content about your niche or cause. You will continue to add regular content to your hub week after week. Visitors love coming to your hub because they get information they need. They have engaging discussions with other visitors or the opportunity to vent in the comments section about a topic that interests them. 

Your hub can be whichever channel you choose– your website, blog, social media page. I recommend all three with the website as the center of the wheel, but choose whatever channels work for you.

The main point is to use your hub to publish high-quality information. Get visitors to your hub and then you have the chance to capture their email address because you …

2. Offer a valuable download 

Create a checklist, tip sheet, buying guide, eBook, PDF, video, podcast, sample chapter, infographic, cheat sheet  – whatever you think would appeal to your target readers. (If you don’t know who your target readers are, use this simple exercise to figure it out.

Once you create this valuable download, you will give it away for free. You will entice your readers to give you their email address in exchange for the freebie. That’s why it’s sometimes called a “lead magnet.” Your download pulls in leads or prospects, much the way a magnet attracts metals. (Here are tips for creating your lead magnet.)

“But why should I give away my valuable content for free?” It’s a good question. This answer is this: you want subscribers, right? Once they see that you produce useful, high-quality information, they want more. So they’ll begin to trust you by handing over their email address to get your download.

3. Choose an email service provider

You’ve got an online home to attract visitors. And you’ve got a way to convert visitors to subscribers with your free download. Now, how will you collect their email addresses and then stay in touch with these readers by sending them email campaigns?

You need an email service provider (ESP) – a platform that allows you to create and send email marketing messages, collect addresses for your email list, and manage bounces.  I use and love Constant Contact (which offers a free trial). Mail Chimp Is another popular one (it offers a free plan). 

Your three essentials are in place. Now you’re ready to add names to your email list, even it means building your email list from scratch. Here are different ways to build your email list for free. You needn’t implement them all at once. Get started one by one and soon you’ll be nabbing new subscribers every day.

How to build an email list: use your hub

4. Create a dedicated landing page for your download

A landing page is a page on your hub that is 100% dedicated to converting visitors to subscribers or customers. (Here’s an example of a landing page.) You convert visitors by offering them your free download on this page. 

A good landing page is targeted. It focuses on one product or offer only. And in order for visitors to receive that product or offer, they need to give you their email address. 

5. Use an exit pop-up form on your website

Your lead magnet isn’t the only way you’ll capture email addresses. But don’t let visitors leave your hub before giving them the chance to get your freebie. Think about it: visitors may find you after a search online using a long-tail keyword that returned one of your pages in the search results. That visitor may never visit your site again ... unless you capture their email address. 

Use your ESP and website software to add an exit pop-up form. Say, “Before you leave …” or “Don’t forget to get your …” Mailchimp users report that their email list grows an average of 51% after adding a pop-up form to their site. 

6. Create a sign up box on your homepage

A large number of site views begin at your homepage, even for mature websites with plenty of deep links. Treat your homepage as a valuable piece of online real estate. Create an opt in box on your homepage that directly addresses the reason visitors sought you out: they want your download or they want the kind of information you offer. And place your opt in box above the fold – on the area of the page that viewers first see – rather than forcing them to scroll down. 

7. Place a smart bar at the top of your page

Whether you use a SmartBar extension or a simple banner, place a one- or two- sentence offer at the top of your website and link it to your opt in landing page. The banner will appear on every page as your site loads in any browser.  

8. Create unique downloads for other pages

Create unique downloads like tip sheets or one-page checklists for individual pages on your site, especially the high-trafficked pages. This page is a good example. Plenty of readers who are anxious to learn how to build an email list will be willing to download this checklist of 28 tips. (You can get your copy here!)

9. Place your offer in contextual links

Contextual links are clickable text in your online content. They’re presented “in context.” Good contextual links flow naturally as part of your website content, in a blog post, or in your social media content.

When you present a download opt-in offer as part of the text – and with text that’s highly relevant to the content on that page – then you can link your readers to your landing page to encourage them to opt in, like this contextual link right here

How to build an email list: use social media

10. Create social media posts that link your landing pages

Write engaging social media posts that present your download as the answer to a reader’s problem. Link your posts to your landing page. Then use a tool like Hootsuite to schedule posts en masse on social media platforms.

11. Post your call to action in your social media bios

Include a simple call to action for your offer in your social media bios. Link it to your opt in landing page.

12. Create a profile cover image with your call to action

Create cover images for your social media sites that feature a call to action for your free download. Use a graphics tool like PicMonkey to create cover images. PicMonkey has properly-sized templates for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest cover images - and you can get an introductory account for free.

13. Start or join a group Pinterest board

A group Pinterest board is made up of members with a shared interest, like wedding photography, preschool learning ideas, or small engine repair. Start or join a Pinterest board in your niche and use it to drive users to your hub and your landing page.

How to build an email list: use other platforms

14. Create a free email course or online course

Create a free email course that teaches one simple but valuable skill. Promote the course on social media. In order to register, users need to give you their (ta-da!) email address.

15. Become a podcast guest

Find podcast hosts in your niche who interview guests regularly. Offer your expertise in a specific area. Present your download offer to the audience.

16. Host a podcast

Start your own podcast. Find a podcast host provider and upload your files to drive users and subscribers to your website or landing page.

17. Repurpose your content

Adapt your content – for instance, your free download or other pages on your hub – and reformat it to fit different delivery platforms and formats. You can stream it in a series of blog posts. Use sound bites in social media posts. Create a YouTube video. Always include a link to your landing page and a call to action in each one. 

Or restructure the content of your download as an article and publish it on Medium or other online publication with a link back to your landing page.

18. Write guest posts

Bloggers, online publishers, and online magazines are always looking for guest writers to provide content for their readers. This is particularly true in specialty niches. Create a list of online publications in your area of expertise. Check their submission guidelines and reach out to them to pitch a story. Write a 2-3 line bio that offers your opt in and that links back to your hub. 

19. Launch an online community

Create a private Facebook group or an online forum for people who share your interest. Your group will generate discussion about your content, products, and services. 

I started the Writing For Ministries Facebook community as a way to connect with other faith-based writers. As members post comments and questions, I find I’m able to answer them by directing them to a page on my website. Once they’re there, of course, they are invited to get my free download, which drops them into my email list. 

20. Post on blogs, forums, and social media groups

Join online groups in your niche. But don’t simply lurk. Be an active participant. This way, when a question comes up that you can answer, you can write, “Here’s a post that may help” and then link back to your hub. Visitors click on your link and visit your site. Your exit pop-up will capture many of them.

21. Ask for shares

Add the option to forward or share your newsletter, welcome email, or lead magnet with others. You can also use an app like Tweet This! that lets visitors highlight text on your page and tweet it. 

How to build an email list: use other offers

22. Offer a free trial or complimentary consult

People are skeptical of new products, new vendors, and new providers. (That’s one reason why testimonials are so powerful.) When you hear positive feedback about a product or service, you’re more likely to buy it. 

By all means, include testimonials on your online hub. But offer a free trial or a complimentary consultation, too. This is especially useful if you’re selling your services online. When I started out as a content writer, I offered a free consult to anyone who inquired about my services. It’s win-win. I needed to find out what the prospect needed. And the prospect needed to find out if I was a good fit and if I could write what they needed. By offering a free consultation – requested by email – you capture a prospects email address.

23. Pre-sell your book or product

It’s tempting to wait until your product, book, course, or coaching program is ready to go and then jump into promotion. But if you offer a discount for early adopters, you can capture their email address. Then you can send them exclusive previews, videos, and special notifications leading up to the release.

24. Offer deals or discounts

This is a particularly helpful technique if you sell products, books, or services. Offer coupons and exclusive sales for subscribers only.

25. Lead an online event

Offer a special webinar, event, or live broadcast. Then use Eventbrite to collect email addresses and communicate about the event. After the event, follow up with a quick “thank-you-for-attending” email and transition participants to your email list.

26. Create a contest or quiz

Post your quiz on social media and invite participants to share their address to get results. For instance, if you’re launching the second book in a series, you could invite readers to predict which two characters will develop a romantic attachment. Those who participate and add their email address will be eligible for a drawing for a free book giveaway.

27. Put your offer in your email signature

Use a tagline and a live link to your download’s landing page in your email signature. Or place your call to action in a P.S. with every email.

28. Collect email addresses offline

Yes, the old-fashioned sign-up sheet still works. Have one on hand in your storefront, at events, and when you speak. Then take the time to upload those addresses to your ESP. 

You can grow your email list at no cost or very little cost. Start by putting your first three essentials into place. Then try the rest of these steps one at a time. Soon, you’ll be adding new subscribers to your list every day. Get your copy of this list of tips here.

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