The 14 Exact Steps Foundr Took To Grow An Email List to 250,000 Subscribers in 2 Years
With the explosion of social media marketing in recent years, you might make the mistake of assuming email has become obsolete. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, email marketing is more powerful than ever before—if, that is, you can stand out from other marketers in your subscribers’ inboxes. (Don’t worry, we’ll cover that later in this article.)
This principle is pretty much gospel around here at Foundr, where a one-two punch of content and email, with secret sauce added in the form of social media, has been key to all of our sales success to date.
But don’t just take our word for it. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, leads gathered from email are three times more valuable than those gathered from social media. And Campaign Monitor estimates that for every $1 spent, email marketers can expect a $38 ROI. That’s a 3800% return. If you’re not currently using email marketing as part of your business’s overall strategy, there’s a powerful source of sales that you’re missing out on.
Email isn’t just gold for small online startups, either. There’s a reason Amazon sends sales emails to its users on a daily basis. They’re currently one of the biggest companies in the world. Can you imagine how many sales their Black Friday promotion pulls in every year? It’s got to add up to billions of dollars in a single day.
And while your list isn’t likely to be as big as Amazon’s anytime soon, even a relatively small list can be life-changing for an entrepreneur struggling to get a small business established. Remember, these are REAL people, not robots, giving you their details because they want to hear from you or your company. Groupon is another company that used smart email marketing to expand from a small startup to a major business in the course of just a few years.
Here at Foundr, we’ve made our email list the cornerstone of our marketing efforts. In fact, we’ve managed to build a huge email list in a very short period, about 1/4 million people in less than two years. (And that’s just counting our active members, not inactive and unsubscribed users.)
Building a list of that size may seem impossible when you’re just starting out. But it’s really not as challenging as you might think, and the payoff is well worth the investment of time and effort. That’s why, in this post, I’m going to share 14 of the exact strategies we’ve used to grow an email list to 250,000 subscribers in just two years, and show you how you can do the same. Whether you end up using all 14 or just a few, there’s something here for any business. And stay tuned for the special bonus feature at the end!
Let’s get started.
Tip #1: Your Homepage Is Your Most Valuable Digital Real Estate—Use It!
The first step to building a strong base of email subscribers is simple: You need somewhere for visitors to your blog to sign up. Your website’s homepage is the first place you should use to gain traction.
For most, the homepage will be your most visited page. It’s your front door. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t really using that space effectively. Instead of a list of recent blog posts or a page full of your products, you can use this page to introduce visitors to who you are and what your brand is about – and then, you can give them the opportunity to sign up for your list.
Mark Manson’s site is a great example of how to do this right. His homepage clearly explains who he is and what he’s about. By inviting visitors to “read and decide” for themselves, he’s positioned himself with a strong call to action (CTA, or an invitation for your audience to do something, such as sign up to get a free resource). He’s also treating visitors like real people interested in the content he provides, not just a collection of clicks on a page.
We’ve used a similar approach on the Foundr homepage. We have a clear CTA above the fold, offering a free issue of the magazine to everyone who lands on the page. (We’ve also gone a little further, including the same CTA in the menu bar at the top of every page.)
But we even go a bit further than that. We’ve also set up the page to segment our mailing list based on visitors’ potential interests, so we can target them with more effective emails that they’re actually excited to open. This way we’re able to attract a much broader base of subscribers than if we only focused on one aspect of building a business, while still tailoring our outreach to individuals’ interests.
Each of these signup links leads to a different email funnel, specifically targeted to the needs and concerns of its subscribers.
Tip #2: Instantly Grab The Attention Of Your Website Visitors: Highlight Your CTAs Using Feature Boxes
If you’ve visited a blog recently, you’ve probably seen these scattered around the page: feature boxes. Typically they stand out somehow, and include a brief headline, sign-up form, and call to action to encourage visitors to join the blog owner’s mailing list.
Here’s an example of how ConversionXL uses feature boxes.
You can promote just about anything using a feature box: a free ebook, a trial of your SaaS product, or any other incentive related to your business.
Here’s another example of how Pat Flynn from Smart Passive Income uses feature boxes.
There are so many different ways to integrate a feature box into your website. You can include it in your blog’s sidebar, at the end of your blog posts, on your About page, etc. Place them in as many different, strategic locations as possible. This way, you’re giving people multiple ways to sign up, wherever it might be convenient for them on your site.
Tip #3: Grow Your Email List By Converting Your Social Media Followers
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that email leads are significantly more valuable than social media followers. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on your social media marketing. It just means you need to have a strong plan in place to convert your followers into email subscribers.
In fact, social media is one of the major sources of Foundr’s leads. Every month, we’re able to drive tens of thousands of leads to our mailing list by showcasing our best content and linking to our landing pages. (Landing pages are standalone sites designed to achieve one purpose, like make a sale, or in this case, collect a subscriber email.)
For example, on Twitter, we take advantage of the pinned tweet on our timeline to showcase a CTA for a free issue of the magazine. We also include a link in the bio and throughout the timeline, so that anyone who comes to the page will have multiple opportunities to click and opt in.
It’s easy to do the same with Facebook. We include CTAs throughout our posts.
It’s important, however, to not only post links to your landing pages. You’ll want to offer posts with a ton of a value as well, to help build trust and give your followers a sense of who you are as a brand. Share awesome blog posts and useful content, but be sure to include offers sprinkled throughout your page. This is commonly referred to as Gary Vee’s Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook theory of online marketing.
We even use Google Plus the same way.
While it may not have the same reputation as a marketing tool as other social networks, it’s important not to overlook this source of potential leads.
Now, I know that when you have a business to run, putting effort into maintaining your social media feeds can be a time-sink. That’s why at Foundr, we automate our posts using a tool called Meet Edgar.
This tool allows you to create a library of content to post on social media, and from there, tell it how often to post various types of content from different “buckets.” We use this to automate which posts go up, and to ensure we are driving a steady stream of traffic to our lead magnets and landing pages.
Tip #4: Easily Convert Your Instagram Followers Into Loyal, Buying Subscribers
You might be wondering why I didn’t just mention Instagram in the last tip about social media marketing. And the reason for that is simple: Instagram is so huge, it really needs a category all to itself!
When it comes to online marketing and growing an email list, Foundr has tried everything under the sun. In many ways, our marketing efforts have been based on trial and error, throwing different approaches at the wall to see what sticks. And Instagram is what’s stuck for us, in a big way. What I’m about to share with you has been the result of a lot of testing to find what works and what doesn’t.
Over the past two years, Instagram has been our biggest and most lucrative social media channel. We’ve managed to build it up to a million followers in just two years, and from there, we’ve generated at least 200,000 email subscribers. It’s pretty crazy when you think about it!
It’s not an exaggeration to say Instagram has been a game-changer for our business and for our ability to build relationships in our niche.
Simply put, what works for us is to post awesome content on a consistent basis. But we also share what we call “product pushers,” which could be links to ebooks, guides, free trials, or any other content that gets people into your funnel.
What we’ll often do is include a CTA in the Instagram post itself, directing people to the link in our bio (Instagram doesn’t allow hyperlinks in posts, just your account bio). You can change the link to whichever landing page you’re currently promoting. This way, you can easily transition your Instagram followers into your funnel. Like any social media channel, you’ll still want to ensure you balance these promotional posts with interesting and useful content to attract new followers and keep your current fans engaged.
Tip #5: Create More Landing Pages To Build Unstoppable Momentum As You Scale To 250,000 Email Subscribers
So if you’ve been following along so far, you’ll see that we’ve mentioned landing pages a few times. I want to use this section to go into a little more detail about how to build your landing pages and why they’re so important for generating email subscribers and also reaching that hundreds of thousands mark. This is a huge part of your subscriber strategy, so we’re going to go a little deep on this tip.
On the most basic level, a landing page is a page on your site that has been created specifically to generate email signups. The reason it’s important to have many landing pages is simple: the more opportunities you give visitors to sign up, the larger a list you can build. Each landing page is tailored to a specific subject, with a specific offering, so the more landing pages you have, the larger your net for bringing in subscribers.
After a little bit of work, you’ll find these landing pages start to create something of a snowball effect, gathering more and more leads once they gain momentum.
Think of it this way: if you’re running a blog, the more blog posts you publish, the more traffic your site will get. Landing pages work the same way.
If you don’t trust me on the powerful impact landing pages can have, pay attention to Unbounce. They are masters at building email lists and optimizing landing pages to convert as many visitors as possible. This is how Unbounce describes landing pages and why they’re important:
“The short answer is because they help increase your conversion rates. The main reason for this is that targeted promotion or product-specific landing pages are focused on a single objective that matches the intent of the ad that your visitors clicked on to reach your page.”
So how should you set up your landing page, and what should it look like? We’ve found that the best-performing landing pages are the simplest ones. We tend to keep ours very basic and make sure the purpose of each pages is very obvious.
That means we include an attention-grabbing headline, a powerful promise, and short text outlining clear benefits that new subscribers (future leads) will be able to achieve if they take advantage of our offer. Then we follow up with a strong call to action—clear instructions on exactly what they need to do to receive their free gift.
This opt-in page for one of our free guides uses this format exactly, and it converts at higher than 70%. If you look at this screenshot of the page, you can see just how simple it really is. You only need a few lines of text to pack a powerful punch with your landing pages.
We do something similar in promoting our Influencer’s Guide below. The promise in this page is clear: opting in will give our leads access to a free, step-by-step guide, plus copy-and-paste templates they can use in their own business.
Once they’ve opted in, they enter this particular sales funnel, meaning later we’ll offer them a different product to help them connect with other entrepreneurs. Based on the landing page where they signed up, we can infer that this is a concern that’s important to them, and target them more effectively with offers they’ll actually be interested in. The more landing pages you have, the less you have to rely on “spray and pray” marketing.
Of course, you can use landing pages to give away all types of content, not just free ebooks. Audio, videos, entire courses, or free trials of your software can all drive sign-ups to help you grow an email list. Wistia uses this same format to give away a free account for their SaaS tool. You may only want to give away your service for a limited trial period, but in Wistia’s case they’re using a freemium model that allows users to upgrade to an account with greater capabilities if they need them.
This example gets a little meta, but Unbounce, the company I mentioned earlier that sells tools to create landing pages, gives away a free course showing website owners how to create their first landing pages. This is a great example of how you can give away content related to your product.
In this case, it shows subscribers how to use Unbounce’s tools and how to convert site visitors into leads. While it’s possible to go through their course and implement what it teaches on your own, you might also realize by taking the course that using Unbounce’s services will be a lot easier, and decide to purchase them instead.
Here’s one more type of landing page, this one from Trulia. It uses a very powerful tool, the survey.
We haven’t used this one yet at Foundr, but we’re looking into it, and here’s why. Surveys can be a really effective way to segment your list, allowing you to learn what your leads’ specific interests are so you can send them the most relevant messages possible.
It’s a great way to stand out in your subscribers’ inboxes, especially as they become more and more crowded with other companies’ promotional emails. Surveys also tend to generate leads that are more committed to your product, simply because anyone who fills out a survey is willing to spend a little more time than they would on your average opt-in form.
In summary, here’s what you need to do to make a great landing page:
- Offer a quick win or solution to your audience’s pain
- Use social proof, testimonials, and case studies to build trust
- Have a strong headline that will grab the reader’s attention
- Showcase the benefits using bullets, clearly focusing on what’s in it for them (i.e., a strong value proposition)
- Have a strong call to action
- Use minimal design that isn’t distracting or confusing
- Include awesome, high-quality images that make what you’re offering stand out
As far as how, exactly, to create them, there are many different options, including Leadpages, Unbounce, ClickFunnels, Instapage, or Launchrock. You can even hardcode them yourself using HTML if you have the skills to do so! We personally use a combination of Leadpages and ClickFunnels for our own website.
Tip #6: Are You Missing Out On Lead Generation Opportunities? Take Advantage Of Your Email Signature
How many people do you email over the course of a day? How many messages do you respond to? You may have dozens of opportunities a day to promote your email list that you aren’t taking advantage of.
I have to be honest; I stole this particular idea from Noah Kagan. He includes a link at the bottom of all of his personal emails to a landing page that allows visitors to sign up for his list.
The reason this is so effective is the simplicity. You can set it up once and forget about it. And the email signature is a piece of digital real estate many people don’t think to use as a tool to build their email lists, so you’ll stand out from the crowd. It’s also quick and easy to implement in just a couple of minutes.
Tip #7: Convert Hordes Of Blog Readers Into Loyal Subscribers With Non-Spammy Popups
Popups have earned a bit of a bad reputation over the years. If you talk to casual internet users, you’ll probably hear them described as annoying or spammy. But there’s a reason internet marketers still use them: despite the annoyance factor, they work, and they work well.
However, there’s a way to implement popups on your site without being spammy. You’ll also need to add them to your pages without attracting unwanted attention from Google. In recent months, the search giant has started penalizing websites that feature invasive and obnoxious popups.
The trick to creating popups that work is to use exit-intent popups that are relevant to your readers. Tailor them to the specific page your visitors are reading, and it won’t come across as spam. Instead, it will be seen as useful and build on a topic you already know they’re interested in exploring.
In the example above, on our blog we have a post about Richard Branson. The popup on that page offers readers a free issue of Foundr Magazine featuring Branson, content that is directly related to the page. We do this on other areas of our site too, so if you’re reading a post about Instagram, you’ll likely see a popup advertising our free Instagram class. These popups work extremely well for us.
In fact, using popups like this has helped us gain an extra 1,400 subscribers each month. Imagine how many people you can drive through your funnels using this same method. If your funnel converts even at 1%, that’s an additional 14 sales, which can make a massive difference if you sell courses or other high-ticket items.
Here is the analytics from our popup software, Picreel. As you can see just through having pop ups on the site we convert over 2,000+ email subscribers every month.
So what tools can you use to display your popups? Personally, I use Picreel for Foundr’s website. But other popular options include SumoMe, OptiMonk, and OptinMonster. Any of these should make it easy for you to set up popups that your visitors will find relevant and interesting.
Tip #8: Supercharge Your Lead Generation By Offering Blog Content Upgrades
Content upgrades are another incredibly powerful way to transform your blog content into email subscriptions. If you’re not familiar with the concept, this is basically where you offer some kind of freebie that connects with the blog post you’re promoting.
A content upgrade can be basically anything that adds value to the post itself—a free checklist, an ebook, a cheat sheet, etc. All you need to do is ensure it has bonus content that isn’t in the blog post itself. This is a very effective way to get people to opt in to your list.
You can embed CTAs for the content upgrade inside the post itself for maximum exposure.
Tip #9: Giveaways And Competitions: A Simple and Easy Way To Generate A Lot Of New Leads
Giveaways are another great way to grow an email list. But too often, I see entrepreneurs taking the wrong approach and offering an item that just isn’t relevant to their business.
If you give away a computer or iPad, for instance, you’re not going to get high-quality leads. People who don’t care about your company or what you do will sign up just to get their hands on some expensive gadget, and the chances of them actually responding to your future marketing efforts are very low.
Instead, think about what it is you do, and what kind of item your ideal target audience would appreciate. For example, if you’re selling a photography course, maybe you could give away a free camera.
Teachable has done a great job with this. Recently they held an “entrepreneur nerd giveaway,” featuring prizes that would appeal to their ideal potential customers. Check out this screenshot to see how they made their giveaway work for them.
Tip #10: Get More Customers By Giving Away Your Best Content For Free
Okay, I know this concept might seem counterintuitive. Maybe even a little crazy. But it’s based on an idea pioneered by Eben Pagan, called “Moving the free line,” that has worked really well for Foundr. Essentially, we take content that we could easily charge people for—information that is helpful, relevant to our leads, and better than a lot of the other paid content out there—and we give it away for free.
Why would we do something like this? Well, for one thing, when people can see your content without an up-front investment, it builds goodwill. It makes them more likely to want to buy from you. It creates trust that your paid content must be even more useful, and assures them that it’s worth the investment. “If this is what I got for free…”
If you use this technique effectively, it can quickly create fans who will be loyal to your brand for life. They’ll know that you’re able to put your money where your mouth is. So many internet marketers out there today are all hype and no substance. This approach makes you the opposite—all substance, no hype. By giving away content that’s genuinely good, you’ll be able to set yourself apart from the crowd and easily establish yourself as an authority in your field.
One great example of this is Femtrepreneur. The site offers a free course that’s actually really useful and unique, not the typical “make money blogging” course you can find on a million other sites in its niche. I encourage everyone to sign up for their course, regardless of gender—it’s a great example of content marketing done right, and you’d do well to study their approach.
This can work no matter what industry you’re working in. Real Strength Matters Magazine, for example, gives away a free print issue to allow leads to preview what they’re all about. This is an approach we’re looking to experiment with as well, now that we’re planning to expand Foundr Magazine into print.
What content should your business give away? That really depends on your industry and product. Keep in mind, this advice doesn’t mean you should give away everything you’ve created. By all means, create great products and charge for them! But it’s important to put the same amount of care and effort into your free content as you would a paid product.
Tip #11: Find New, Enthusiastic Fans By Sharing Your Knowledge With A Weekly Podcast
A weekly podcast is just another channel you can use to share knowledge and find new fans. In a lot of ways, this is more personal than the other methods I’ve shared on this list. When you’re talking into someone’s ear for an hour each week, you really build a more personal relationship with your listeners very quickly.
It’s also a great way to reach people who may be too busy to sit down and read a book, or who prefer to learn by listening. You can repurpose content from other channels for your podcast so that listeners can access the same information in a format they prefer.
As with any promotional channel, the challenge with a podcast is to get your listeners to jump to your mailing list. I like to offer a special guide or some kind of valuable freebie exclusively to listeners. This is another case where you would want to create a dedicated landing page and direct your listeners to the link.
Tip #12: Scale Your Funnels to Profits With Paid Traffic
Paid traffic can be a very powerful source of leads to grow an email list, but it can be tricky to implement without losing money. I recommend only turning to paid traffic once you have a funnel in place. This allows you to scale easily based on the conversion rates your funnel is already reliably hitting.
Here is an example of one of our facebook advertising campaigns.
We’ve really worked our paid traffic down to an art. Because we know how many people are likely to convert every time we promote a landing page, we can easily set limits on our spending and invest in the funnels that bring in the most revenue.
Tip #13: Partner With Other Businesses To Explode Your Reach
What if there was a way to reach out to a brand new audience that’s interested in your niche or products? Joint Venture promotions and partnerships are one way you can do just that, by teaming up with other entrepreneurs in your space to promote one another’s products and expand both of your lists.
Now, keep in mind, a partnership is a relationship of mutually beneficial exchanges in value. That means you aren’t simply buying a list from another business. You’re trading something valuable in exchange for the opportunity to connect with their list. Look for companies that have a similar product or service to your own, because their subscribers are more likely to be interested in what you have to offer.
One great example of this is Foundr’s partnership with Mention. They’re a social media marketing tool, so there’s a lot of crossover with people who might be interested in our Instagram marketing course. We were able to provide value for their audience, delivered by an expert teacher, in exchange for a chance to share to their list.
We’ve seen other companies make similar partnership deals that have worked well for all parties involved. Kissmetrics, for example, cross-promotes Adroll and other companies that their list might be interested in.
I can understand why some of you might be hesitant to do this. After all, isn’t this just giving away your list to the competition? If you’re concerned about this, I encourage you to look at the music industry. Musicians like Jay Z, Beyonce, Ariana Grande, etc., aren’t afraid to collaborate with each other. They’re all friends, and they’re happy to help each other out by promoting each other’s albums and recording tracks for each other. This allows them to share to audiences and reach more people than they could alone. Other businesses aren’t any different, and partnerships like this can be a powerful method for growth.
Here are a few ideas you can use to partner with other businesses in your niche:
- Content swaps (where you write guest posts for another blog)
- Joint webinars (where you share the leads)
- Affiliate promotions
- Collaborative ebooks or free products
- Collaborative free email course
- Interview swaps
We’ve had great success using all of these approaches in the past. One fantastic source of leads for us has been SaaS companies, which often have similar audiences as our own. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box, though, as chances are there are companies in your space with very different products that will still be a good fit for you.
Tip #14: Offer Valuable Webinars And Free Workshops
Most people only think of webinars as a tool to speed up and facilitate the sales process, but the truth is, they can be a valuable method to grow an email list as well.
Don’t write off people who sign up but don’t buy. You now have an opportunity to continue to build a relationship with them over time. Sometimes, webinar subscribers are interested in your offer, but it simply isn’t the right time. It’s also possible that they aren’t interested in the offer from the webinar they signed up for, but that they might have a need for your other, related products in the future. Showing them that you can be trusted and that you’re willing to give away your best content can leverage these subscribers into future customers down the line.
We run a lot of webinars, as do many other influencers, and we’ve found it’s a very powerful way to find new subscribers who are interested in the kind of content Foundr shares. You’ll be able to connect with new subscribers who are motivated to learn more about topics in your niche and who might potentially be interested in other products you offer in the future.
If you’re a little lost when it comes to creating webinars, Kissmetrics has an entire section of their site dedicated to them. Check out a few to see how they’re formatted, and use them for inspiration to create your own!
Bonus Tip: What Email Marketing Software Should You Use?
Now, I know after going through these tips, many of you will have questions about what email marketing platform might be best for your business. So I wanted to spend just a few minutes going over the pros and cons of the various major platforms you’ll see on the market.
In general, if you’re just starting out, I highly recommend MailChimp. If you have fewer than 2,000 subscribers, it’s absolutely free, which is a great advantage if you’re trying to bootstrap your business. It’s easy to use, it has a good selection of templates, and you’ll have access to all of the major features you need to start promoting your products and growing your list right away.
Another great solution for getting started is AWeber, although this particular provider isn’t free. They do offer a free 30-day trial so you can try out their features and decide if it’s right for you.
Drip is useful if you have the need for more advanced automation capabilities. It’s recently been purchased by Leadpages, and it’s still fairly easy to use. Drip also has a free plan, but it only applies to your first 100 subscribers—helpful for getting started out but much smaller than MailChimp’s free list.
ConvertKit is another option that allows more advanced automation, while still being fairly easy to use. It’s specifically designed for bloggers, which is an upside for many of the people who use it.
Finally, there’s Infusionsoft. It’s one of the most powerful email marketing platforms out there, and it’s what we use at Foundr. But it’s very challenging to use, so if you decide to go with this platform, be prepared to hire a consultant to help you figure it out!
Now that you know which email platforms might work best for your business, it’s time to start putting these 14 tips to work. Don’t worry about implementing them all at once. Build a strong funnel, create your first few landing pages, and then you can begin to build up from there as it makes sense for your business. Good luck!
Got any questions for us on how we made any of these tips work? Ask away in the comments!