A Small Business Guide to Building Your First Email List

Creating a beautiful email newsletter is useless if you don’t have an audience to send it to. This article explains how to build an email list to help you promote your business.

Updated July 29, 2020

A few years ago, marketers were convinced that email marketing was on its way out. Many still are. Just this morning, I read an article on LinkedIn that heralded the end of this medium, arguing that nobody reads emails and text messages and social media is the future.

The stats say otherwise:

  • 99% of us check our email every day, with some checking it as much as 20 times a day (guilty as charged)
  • More than half of us even check our email before doing anything else online

Email is still a viable marketing channel, especially when used to complement your other channels as part of an integrated marketing strategy. But it only works if you’re sending relevant content to people who are interested in what you do and likely to buy your product or service at some point.

That’s why having a well-pruned email list of interested readers is so important. This article explains how you can create an email list that will engage your audience and nurture them down the marketing funnel.

Here are our top 4 strategies to build your email list:

  • Create popups and webforms
  • Reach out to your network
  • Use other channels
  • Optimize your list

How to build an email list for your small business

Some companies decide to buy email lists instead of building them manually. Don’t do that.

You could be violating the CAN-SPAM Act in the U.S., which sets national standards for the sending of commercial email, and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU, which is a data protection law that governs how you can use your customers’ personal data.

You’ll also annoy potential customers by sending them emails they never asked for.

Always build your email list yourself. It takes longer and more effort, but it’s better for your business.

1. Create popups and web forms

Popups and webforms are an extremely effective way to capture email addresses to build your email list.

The difference between these two mediums is that a webform is a static, permanent part of a page on your website where customers can enter their details, whereas a popup temporarily appears at certain times on certain pages.

But don’t just stick your popups and web forms anywhere. Make sure that they don’t disrupt the customer’s flow through your buying process and that they aren’t intrusive or annoying. It’s also important that they are simple and require minimal effort on the part of the customer.

If you ask your website visitors to fill out 20 fields and provide highly personal information, then they will likely run for the hills. It’s also a good idea to incentivize the popup or webform so that the customer gets something in return for handing over their details.

British retailer New Look offers 25% off for anyone signing up for their email newsletter, and all you need to do is provide your email address. The popup also only appears once on the homepage and you can easily close it without giving any details.

Example of email signup pop up

British retailer New Look uses popups to gain newsletter sign-ups.

Beauty marketplace Cult Beauty’s website has a good example of a web form that can help with email list building. It’s highly visible but not invasive, you only have to provide your email address to get access to the newsletter, the copy is clear, and you get the incentive of free shipping on all orders.

Cult Beauty's homepage

Beauty marketplace Cult Beauty uses web forms to build their email list.

If you need help creating a form, you can always turn to email marketing software. ConvertKit, for example, provides basic capabilities that let you customize the color, font, and text size of your form.

ConvertKit lets you choose different actions when a customer fills out the form, such as sending them an email or adding them to a list. There are also built-in forms and landing page reports where you can track visitors, subscribers, and the subsequent conversion rate.

2. Reach out to your network

You probably have a few people in your network that would be interesting in receiving your email newsletters. Send a quick email or text message telling them what you’re up to and ask if they’re interested.

You could also post on LinkedIn asking the same question as you reach a wider audience in a quicker time frame. Other ways you can encourage more sign-ups from your network include:

  • Add a subscribe link to your email signature
  • Ask people at events to sign up
  • Run a competition and specify that entrants will be added to your email list

Don’t add them (or anyone) to your mailing list without getting their consent. It’s also good to adhere to newsletter best practices and get their permission in writing, so you don’t get in trouble for breaching privacy.

An alternative is to use email marketing software that employs double opt-in when people sign up for your newsletter. This means that once someone has given you their address, you send them an email with a link confirming they want to sign up to your newsletter.

3. Use other channels

An important email marketing tip is to use other channels to help drive sign-ups to your email database.

Let’s take social media as an example. You can use this channel either directly or indirectly to gain sign-ups. For example, you can post on social media announcing you have started an email newsletter and invite people to sign up. It’s important to tell people why they should sign up and what they can expect.

The Instagram post below from food blogger Ellie Edwards is a great example of email marketing combined with social media marketing. The post announces that she has started an email newsletter, that people will receive it on a weekly basis, and explaining what kind of content they will receive.

Instagram page

You can use social media to get subscribers to your email list.

Another option is to share content that requires customers to enter their email address and sign up to your newsletter to receive the content. This includes:

  • Downloading an ebook
  • Entering a competition
  • Accessing templates and tutorials
  • Attending virtual events or webinars

4. Optimize your list

Gaining subscribers is only one part of building your email list. It’s also important to make sure you are optimizing and managing your email list. Yes, this means removing recipients when they aren’t engaging with your business and opening your newsletters.

Think quality over quantity. Yes, it’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason — it’s true. This will also improve your open rates and conversions.

Here are some ways you can optimize your list:

  • Create winback campaigns to reengage inactive subscribers
  • Remove all recipients who haven’t opened emails within a set period of time
  • Build a preference center so recipients can view and change their subscriptions themselves
  • Make the unsubscribe option on your email very clear

Be relevant, engaging, and useful

If you want to build a list, you don’t just need to collect email addresses; you need to provide relevant, engaging, and useful content so your subscribers stick around instead of hitting the unsubscribe button at the first opportunity. If you’re not sure what your recipients want, ask them.

And be sure to keep an eye on email performance, noting if you have a high level of people unsubscribing each time you create an email, which indicates you have a problem you need to fix.

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The Motley Fool has a Disclosure Policy. The Author and/or The Motley Fool may have an interest in companies mentioned.