This is the exact opposite of every “grow your list” article

There are SO MANY articles about list building and growing your email list, and really, they just spew the same tired crap about “more subscribers = more profit” and using “All The Popups”.

These subscribers at all costs articles are horribly short-sighted, and worse, require a tremendous amount of growth because there’s inevitably so much churn (in the form of unsubscribes).

What happened to the good old days of building your list? Before growth-hackers and content marketers got their grubby little hands on newsletters?

I’ve tried basically everything with email marketing—both as a consultant working with other people’s lists and as a person who needed to grow his own list audience and build product revenue.

Modals, free email courses, on-exit intents, sticky-bars, slide-ups, content-upgrades, home gates, landing pages, takeovers, freebies, I’ve done it all. (Even a few things I shouldn’t have, in the name of science and experiments, of course.)

What I’ve learned is that what folks fail to write about email marketing and how to build an email list is:

  1. Why you want to have a mailing list (i.e. your purpose) in the first place matters. It matters a lot.
  2. How you feel about your marketing efforts matters. A lot too.
  3. How other people feel (and specifically, the type of people you want in your audience) about your marketing efforts also matters. You guessed it, it matters a lot.

But Paul, you might say, feelings and purpose have no place in analyzing data, metrics or growth! YOU HIPPIE BASTARD. This is business, not a spiritual retreat in the woods with some guy who calls himself Spirit Wolf.


Your purpose for list building

Even if you’re a pragmatist at heart, your purpose should be a guiding factor in how you approach newsletters. Why? Because it’s basically the lens through which you filter all your list decisions, from tiny to massive.

If your purpose is simply to make money or make a living from your list, it’s good to know this from the start. Or, if the reason you need a list is to build awareness of your brand, that’s important to know too. While money or fame seem like great motivators, most people aren’t solely motivated by those things. A purpose is typically a bit (or a lot) deeper.

Figuring out your purpose determines what you’ll be willing to do (or not do) to achieve your goals. And your purpose isn’t always some quick-and-easy decision either. It can require actual reflection or business strategy. But once you figure it out, it becomes your guide in everything you do and how to build your email list.

There isn’t a single way to dig up what your purpose for your list might be. But here are some helpful questions you can start asking yourself:

  • What do you find the most satisfying about serving your specific audience? What lights you up in the work that you do?
  • What does your audience continually ask you for or ask you about?
  • What makes what you do different from others in your industry?
  • What are you doing for your audience when you’re at your best and most helpful?
  • What do you do for your audience that leaves them better than before they found you?

Defining your purpose has more to do with your personal values, morals and ethics than business plans or marketing strategies. You can’t fake your purpose. Your gut simply won’t let you. And really, why would you want to? You’ll get so much more enjoyment and satisfaction from running your business in alignment with your purpose.


Your marketing style

With your purpose in mind, you can start to think about the scary act of actually promoting your mailing list to the people you’d like to have on it.

In order for anyone to sign up for your list, you have to ask them. Most people will say no (i.e. they won’t sign up). That’s ok. This is actually a good thing, since most people aren’t a good fit for your list anyway (i.e. they’d never buy anything from you, support your business or even get what you’re saying).

This is where most folks go wrong, start to feel icky, then abandon ship like it just hit an iceberg.

You tried pop-ups, freebies, take-overs, all of the things some expert online said to do! And maybe some worked a little. But those list building strategies didn’t feel like you. That’s because a strategy that doesn’t align with your real purpose never feels good. And most people give up on promotion because things don’t align. You’re not a jerk, so why is your email marketing acting like a jerk?

You can’t just blindly apply advice on growing your list or you’ll end up with this. Which would be more hilarious if it wasn’t the sad state of email marketing currently. You can’t just add a ton of sign-up forms to your site and hope for the best.

There has to be an intermediate step: does this marketing tactic actually feel like me? Does it match my brand/personality? Do I feel good doing it? Will my audience feel good seeing it?

To back up slightly, being afraid of something is a shitty reason not to do something. We all feel like impostors or like no one will like what we’re promoting sometimes. That’s not the same as “this feels wrong” or “this doesn’t feel like how I want to show up in the world”.

Your marketing style is both difficult and easy to find. It’s easy, because it’s just you. The real you. You market by being a human being (congrats, you’ve achieved/unlocked this goal)! People sign-up and then buy from you because they know you’re a person, just like they are, not some marketing robot or super-profesh internet-superstar. We’re all just humans, separated by screens.

It’s difficult in that it’s sometimes hard to express who you are. In writing, that can take work, mostly involving writing a lot, seeing what sounds like your real, authentic voice and scrapping the rest.

This is the main way that you stand out, in any industry. If you’re a yoga teacher, your unique style is what makes you different from other teachers (maybe you swear a lot or relate yoga sutras to 8 types of Harley motorcycles). If you’re a life coach, you teach similar things to other life coaches, but maybe your style is that you used to be a musician, so everything that comes from you holds some punk-rock flare. Style makes people notice you for you.

Your marketing style applies to everything about building your list. How you promote it, what you say to get people to want to sign up, what they see when they do actually sign up. Not to mention, how you keep them engaged for weeks, months, years, once they’re on your list. If you’ve got a pop-up, your style dictates what that pop-up says. If you’ve got a freebie or content upgrade or landing page for your list, those things describe your style.

Your marketing style also lets you break the “marketing rules” if the rule doesn’t align with your purpose. That’s why I don’t have a freebie for my list (the only incentive is “get my writing” because that’s what my list’s purpose is, to share my ideas freely to inspire action or critical thought).

Play with your style to see what fits and what doesn’t, because sometimes the only way to know if something is right or wrong for your list or it’s purpose is to try it and experiment with it.


Your audience (and how they feel)

Most people shouldn’t be on your list. You actually don’t want most people on your list. That’d be bad even if the vanity metric of “X SUBSCRIBERS” looks and feels legit.

But I get it. You want a bigger list. You want to reach more eyeballs than you do now because that unlocks more revenue or more industry standing. All this talk about purpose and style is great, but… GIMME MOOAAAAAR.

More happens in a seemingly counter-intuitive way. That’s because more happens when you focus on the audience you’ve already got. And more specifically, when you focus on how your current audience feels about who you are and what you do.

Your current audience already pays attention to you (regardless of if it’s 1 one person or 100,000 people). If you’re engaged with your list, what you’re sending them is helpful or useful or actionable or entertaining. You want to make sure you’re paying attention to them, what they’re talking about, what they’re asking, what’s resonating (or not resonating) with them. You need to get to know these people in order to find more of them (See? There’s the more!).

More happens when your audience shares what you do with their own audience. This only happens if they feel like what you’re emailing them is awesome. It’s the best way to build your email list.

In order for someone to want to share you with their own people, think about why you would share someone else’s work. Chances are it’s because they said something smart, interesting, entertaining or useful. You feel good about learning from them, you align with their purpose, their style hits home in a unique way, so you want to tell others (and you do). Now you’re helping them grow their audience.

People will do the same for you. But only if you make them feel like they need to share. You can’t just talk to them when you want something from them, i.e. when you have a product to sell. You’ve got to make them feel like you’re constantly giving them valuable and generous information. This can’t be faked (people have great bullshit sensors).

Your audience is a group of individuals who share a common idea, feeling, motivation or pain. Each one is more unique than they are similar. It’s easy to overlook the humanity when staring at numbers on a screen, but there are people on the other end of each of those numbers. People, each with their own lives, struggles and satisfactions.

Solely looking for email list growth is not enough, and frankly, it’s a horrible goal. You can’t just wish it into being. You need to take lots and lots of small steps towards it: test ideas, analyze results and adapt/change as necessary. And all along the way, you’ve got to make sure that what you’re putting out there is making your audience feel like they want to share it with their own audience.


Final “how to build an email list” takeaways

  1. If your list is important to your business, and the purpose of your business, make it the most important thing on your website. A sales page or article may only get one single chance to convert, whereas a list gets a chance every time you send out an email.
  2. Give your list a dedicated page on your site, where the only information on it is why someone should sign up, a bit of social proof and one big-ass sign up form. Like Tobias’ (it helps that his newsletter is awesome too).
  3. Before you interrupt a visitor with pop-ups, sliders, scroll-downs and all the things… make sure it feels like you and provides some sort of value to them. If you’re going to interrupt someone, make sure there’s a good reason to do it.
  4. Your homepage should focus on your mailing list. Make sure it’s one of the first things folks see.
  5. If you’ve got a free incentive, make sure it’s useful to the specific audience you’re trying to build and easy to consume (i.e. not a 1,386 page ebook or 6-hour video).
  6. Test all your ideas. The wording, the placement, the design. Then test again. Then continue to test. Test not just what works or doesn’t, but how each idea or hypothesis makes you feel.
  7. Make sure every road leads back to your list. Your Twitter bio URL. Your Facebook page. Your Google+ profile (just kidding, no one cares about Google+).
  8. Rally your list around a common goal, task or action.
  9. Make sure your unique voice and style come through in everything from the sign-up wording to the first messages folks see if they subscribe.
  10. Writing emails people want to share is a lot different than giving people lots of ways to share (i.e. all the social share buttons).

So, how do you grow your list? One person at a time. One right person at a time using your own style. And then you start communicating with them, like a human being, and hopefully creating something they want to share with the human beings that they know.