Email List Building Basics: How to Start from Scratch (In a Way That Feels Good)

Email marketing is my biggest business asset, and I’m OK with the fact that I keep repeating that, because it’s been such a key part of my online success. And it’s not about building a large email list either – you simply need a responsive one.

While it may seem daunting to ever get enough subscribers to make a living from them, everyone starts at zero. It can be tempting to overcomplicate the entire process and wait until you know all there is to know or have everything in order, but the best time to start your email list is now, even if it’s as simple as it can get.

Want more detailed instructions and some accountability to just get it done? I have a free, 3-day challenge you can join to hit the ground running (suitable for anyone starting from scratch, or to kickstart an existing email list)…

Before we get started, please know that I don’t like to say that you “should” do anything in your business, truly. As much as I love email marketing, there are many people out there doing amazingly without a mailing list. But I do believe that for most people – and as long as it feels “right” to you – collecting email addresses can only do good things for your business.

If you need a little more convincing about why you need to build that list, click here to read my whole separate post on the subject. For now, though, I’m hoping you’ll take my word for it and take some action today, however simple, however small.

Here are some facts about my email list:

  • I didn’t start building my list right away because of the cost (but I wish I did, because there are free solutions available)
  • When I did start paying for it, my subscribers paid for themselves
  • I sold both services (like freelance content creation) and digital products (eBooks and a course) via email
  • I built my first list using digital freebies and posting helpful replies in forums
  • After some initial work setting up freebies, I soon started getting subscribers on autopilot every day
  • I started making money with under 100 subscribers (and not much of a blog/ social presence at all)
  • I was making a healthy income on under 1000 subscribers
  • I reached the six-figure+ mark (I feel a bit icky talking numbers but I feel like it’s relevant here to get the point across) with just a few thousand subscribers – really!

So here’s how to get started – and the good news is you don’t even need to do all of these steps, especially if you already have customers/ a presence on social media/ some useful content out there already. And even if you don’t, it needn’t be loads of work.

STEP 1: Be Intentional from the Start

When I first drafted this post, I didn’t include this step. But as I thought about my own business journey, I realised there was something missing – and that was to think about why you’re doing what you’re doing, and how you want to go about it.

There’s a lot of “noise” out there when it comes to anything “online business”. Email marketing in particular can seem to be based on lots of hard and fast “rules”. Like having a lead magnet, on a landing page, using certain words in your subject lines for maximum open rates, emailing x times per day on x days of the week, tracking and tweaking and re-sending and getting rid of “freebie seekers”… don’t worry if you didn’t understand any of that, you don’t need to!

The only thing you really need to understand is why you want an email list, and how you want to use it.

For example, I want an email list to build an engaged community of people I can help through my words. I want to use it to share valuable business advice, and also to sell my products and services to from time to time.

However, I am totally at peace with people reading my emails for free, as it’s part of my wider business value of helping women with their businesses. Because I’m OK with that, and with writing emails sometimes purely for the enjoyment of doing so, I don’t need to constantly worry about the rules. Instead, I worry about what feels good to me, and I urge you to do the same.

STEP 2: Choose Your Email Marketing Software

Now, onto the practical stuff. You’ll need to sign up to an email marketing service to start building your list. You could build your list completely manually and send emails from your regular email address, but I don’t recommend this for several reasons: it’s not automated, you may not comply with spam laws, and it’s just a lot more time consuming.

There are lots of email marketing software providers out there, but I’ll focus on the two I’ve tried:

  • MailChimp*: I’ve used this to get my husband set up while he’s building his business because it’s free.
  • ConvertKit*: This is my provider of choice thanks to some brilliant features, like really great segmentation and automation rules (which you might not use to begin with but will be really powerful as your business grows), and a very simple user interface. To be honest, I also really appreciate the company ethics.

Tip: If the cost is putting you off starting your list then I get it, but try not to let it. Firstly, remember what I said above about email subscribers paying for themselves. And, if you really can’t afford it, thankfully there are plenty of email list providers with free plans (including MailChimp). Click here to read my separate blog post all about how to build your email list for free (it also has ideas for gaining subscribers for free, too)

STEP 3: Create Your First Opt-In Form

Once you’ve got the software sorted, you’ll need a way for people to actually sign up to your mailing list. There are several options here, but if you have a website then the simplest thing to do is add an opt in-form to your homepage and, ideally, every other page of your website, such as at the end of blog posts. To do this, you get a code from your email marketing provider and add it to your website. They usually have tutorials to help you do this, and there are also plugins and tools to make this easier (like Leadpages*)

When you ask people to opt-in, try to change the default wording (which is usually something like “join my mailing list!”) Take a moment to describe why people would want to be on your mailing list, and tweak the working a little. Some examples (which would be tweaked to reflect your specific business):

  • “Sign up to be the first to find out about new products and for exclusive customer discounts”
  • “Sign up for my exclusive behind-the-scenes weekly newsletter”
  • “Sign up for daily doses of inspiration that you won’t find on the blog”

A Note On Your First Few Subscribers: I talk a bit more about getting people to actually sign up below. But, once you have your opt-in form up on your wesite, the easiest thing to do is ask your existing audience to sign up. That means past customers, it means social media followers, it means people who email you asking questions and who might like to keep in touch via a newsletter. You must get permission from them (either by asking, or by them signing up themselves through the form.)

STEP 4: Start Emailing Your List From Day One (and Email Them Regularly)

People often get their mailing list set up, slowly start getting the odd subscriber sign up and then… do nothing. Even if you have just one subscriber, I believe that it makes sense to start emailing them right away. Don’t forget that they signed up because they want to hear from you!

I’ve written a whole post about how often you should write to your list, so click over to that if you want more detail. In short, though, it’s about starting as you mean to go on. When you only have a few subscribers, it gives you a good chance to practice writing to your list without feeling too self-conscious. It also establishes a very important habit of consistency, and it helps you figure out how you’d like to use your email list.

You don’t have to email all the time – anything from once or twice a week to once a month is probably a good idea (but remember, there are no set rules!). The key is to make sure you actually do email. People are usually signed up to so many email lists that it’d be easy for them to forget who you are if they don’t see your name popping up in their email inbox at least every now and again.

Want more detailed instructions and some accountability to just get it done? I have a free, 3-day challenge you can join to hit the ground running (suitable for anyone starting from scratch, or to kickstart an existing email list)…

STEP 5: Create Freebies & Content Upgrades

This is one of the steps that is totally optional. And, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with everything you need to do, then I strongly suggest you focus on the first few steps of this guide and ignore the rest for now. However, if you want to boost the number of sign ups to your mailing list then free incentives are the way to go.

This really does depend on your brand, though. For example, I happily sign up to email lists of people I follow regularly and just want to hear from. But sometimes, it’s a free guide or a discount coupon that persuades me to sign up. Sometimes I might follow someone on social media and not bother to take the step over to email without a bit of extra encouragement.

This where it’s a good idea to get in the mindset of a visitor to your website/ social profile and ask what they might want from you. If you follow any similar brands, think about what might get you to sign up to their email list.

You don’t need to overthink this – you could literally just turn a few blog posts into a mini guide. Or it could be a bonus podcast episode. Or a video tutorial. Or even something simple like a list of your favourite books! If you sell products, you could give subscribers 10% off their first order. For service providers, you could give a free, pre-made sample or template of what you do.

STEP 6: Set Up Automated Sequences

Once you’ve got the basics going it’s time to think about automating a big chunk of your list building. I do this because it makes my business easier and increases my potential impact. But again, you don’t have to do this. I do this with automated sequences that are triggered when people sign up to my list. Pretty much all major email marketing software providers offer this (Mailchimp* and ConvertKit* certainly do!).

I like to start with a “Welcome Sequence”. This is the series of emails your subscribers will receive when they first sign up to your list. The main purpose of this sequence is for your subscribers to get to know you, and so that they get used to seeing your name and emails in their inbox. In time, the welcome sequence can help you build a genuine connection with your subscribers, which in my values-based business is very important and fulfilling! And if you have something to sell, this will lay a very solid, human foundation that makes that easier. Even if you don’t have anything to sell yet, it’s a good idea to create a welcome sequence of 2 or 3 emails to build that crucial relationship with your subscribers.

More Advanced Sequences and Automations: In time, your sequences will become more advanced. This probably isn’t something you’ll need or want to worry about when you’re just getting started, but it’s good to bear in mind for future. You can create sequences for different types of subscribers, for example those just getting started, or those who opt in to hear about a specific topic. You could also create a nurturing sequence for people who buy your products.

STEP 7: Grow Your Traffic, and Link Everything to Your Email List

Now that you’ve set up the basics, you’re ready to work on building traffic to your website and free offers. There are so many ways to go about doing it, and I’m going to keep it super simple and brief for the purposes of this post, but the important thing I want you to remember is that everything you do can tie into your email list.

For example, if you’re running a monthly hashtag challenge on Instagram, when you talk about it you can invite people to sign up to your regular newsletter to see the highlights. Or if you’re creating a new product for your store, keep asking people to sign up to the notification list in the run up to its release. If you have a blog, include links for people to sign up (like I have in this post!). Talk about your weekly newsletter on Instagram Stories while you’re writing it.

Want more detailed instructions and some accountability to just get it done? I have a free, 3-day challenge you can join to hit the ground running (suitable for anyone starting from scratch, or to kickstart an existing email list)…

Good luck growing your list. And remember, the best thing you can do is just to start, no matter how simply.

*Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are ‘affiliate links.’ This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission.

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