List Building for Blogs: The Only Guide You'll Ever Need

Building an email list is the #1 way to grow a blog from a vacant no-man’s land in to a thriving metropolis.

Bottom line.

…but I can’t just say that and not offer up the proof!

Below, I’m going to show you why building your email list/newsletter is far-and-away a better use of your time vs. focusing on your social media profiles, and I’m then going to get into the most in-depth post on building a list from a blog.

Let’s jump in!

Why List Building > Social Media Marketing

Don’t get me wrong, social media is a great traffic source for your blog… when other people are sharing your content.

You however, don’t need a huge social media presence to benefit from it, in the same way Seth Godin gets 1000+ tweets per article, yet he doesn’t even use Twitter.

What you should be focusing on is email, and there are a few reasons why…

1.) More people use email than social networks

According to a 2012 study by Iposos, email use still beats out social media by at least 85% vs. 62%.

Young people still use their email frequently despite this belief that every twenty-something is shooting Facebook and Twitter straight into their brains.

2.) You’re competing with FUN on social networks

People go to places like Facebook to check out pictures and status updates from their friends and family.

Although many professionals will use social media to get pertinent updates, everybody uses their email for personal + business information.

Think of it this way: You post a Facebook update during the summertime… do you think people would rather click on that over BBQ + bikini photos? I think you know the answer to that. 😉

3.) People guard their email, engagement is much stronger

Take a look at this screenshot from my AWeber account for my last couple of broadcasts:


For emphasis, here’s a bigger design-y version…

Open Rates

That means nearly 60% of people opened my email, and over 31% clicked on the link that was included!

Why that’s important: Compared to the average 1.64% click-through rate (as revealed by this study), you can see why social media is a crapshoot for building a thriving audience online… you could never dream in a million years of approaching a 30% CTR on Twitter!

Here’s a relevant example — back when my list for Sparring Mind was only around 3000, I also happened to have around 3500 Twitter followers. Upon sending out my new post, I found that my newsletter had brought in nearly 800 visitors… more than my Twitter profile sent (barely over 30) and all of my other social media profiles combined.

It’s not just me though, so much data has been published that shows email marketing crushes just about every other channel for value on the dollar…

Email Conversions ROI

I’d argue that only organic search can really compare to those numbers, and great search rankings are powered by a newsletter that sends people directly to your new content!

Convinced? Good!

Now let’s get in to how you can build your email list. 🙂

Step 1 — The 5 Best Places for Opt-in Forms

A large majority of your newsletter will be signing up via your blog and your resource downloads (more on those later).

That said, simply placing opt-in forms at the best places on your blog can help you tremendously increase sign-ups and subscribers with little extra effort.

Here are the 5 places you must place opt-in forms on your blog…

1.) Feature Box or Pop-up

I know a lot of people shuddered at the thought of a pop-up, but some case studies show that they are as effective as ever, and probably don’t annoy your readers as much as you think.

That said, you should definitely give the Feature Box a whirl if you are hesitant to use a pop-up, I use one on Sparring Mind and it is the single best place for email sign-ups on my homepage:

Sparring Mind

Essentially, a feature box is a large… well, box that sits above your content either site-wide or just on your homepage (it was largely made popular by sites like SocialTriggers and the DIYThemes blog).

The Feature Box works extremely well for the following reasons…

  • It describes what your site is about: A good feature box will give a 10-second pitch of exactly what your site is about, meaning people won’t have to look at your navigation or even your content to decide if your blog is right for them.
  • It’s eye-catching without being annoying: There’s no pop-over here, since the Feature Box is there when your site loads, it will grab a reader’s attention first thing, and if they don’t like what they see then they can easily scroll down.
  • You can pitch the benefits of your newsletter: Other than having a dedicated newsletter page, few othe places on your blog will give you as much room to “pitch” the benefits of joining your newsletter, and none of those options are available on your blog’s homepage.

Conversions increased big time when finally got aroudn to adding a feature box, so be sure you at least test this option on your blog’s homepage, it is very likely that you will be glad you did.

2.) The Top of the Sidebar

The “classic” place to put a newsletter, but it’s been that way because this position works.

Not only does this piece of real-estate on your site typically sit above the fold (that way it can be seen immediately), but there’s also the issue of browsers being used to seeing opt-in forms here.

Have you ever seen a site with really bad top-level navigation?

Bad Navigation

…the culprit is usually that it is out of place.

The same thing applies to this top of the sidebar opt-in: people expect it to be there!

3.) The Bottom of Articles (Post Footer)

I tend to write really long articles, so I know if you make it to the bottom of one of mine, it’s very likely that you enjoyed it.

Even if your posts aren’t all that long though, you have to understand that if someone makes it to the bottom, they were at least captivated in some way.

That’s why the perfect way to end each and every article on your site is with an opt-in form.

Sure, they don’t get a ton of action when you look at your stats, but it’s a matter of convenience + common sense in allowing people who just read something from you and who want to sign up the ease of doing so right at the end.

Let alone the fact that when we reach the end of text content, our next though is, “What do I do next?”

Give them your most desired option!

4.) Your About Page

A strategy that was definitely popularized by Copyblogger, placing a opt-in form on your about page is one of the smartest things you can do if you include a fully featured look at the man/woman behind the blog.

That’s because if you open up your analytics, you’ll see that your about page is likely one of the most popular places on your site.

The problem is that most people make their about page, well… all about them!

Most people want to know what you can do for them, so you should put that first along with an opt-in form.

Next, you need to justify that you are worthy of being listened too, so this section should include some notable accomplishments and features… followed by another opt-in form!

Last, you should finally get to you, giving your backstory and how you came to start doing what you do.

While this structure may seem aggressive, I promise you that it has been tested by me and plenty others and will turn your about page into a conversion machine.

5.) A Dedicated Newsletter Page

Seems pointless after all of these other opt-in locations, but trust me, you want to have a dedicated page for people to simply sign-up.

The copy on this page can be pretty basic, just include a few simple reasons why your newsletter is worth joining.

What is this page really about then?

This page is useful to have because you can link to it — from guest posts/features, from your own articles, from graphics & visuals… have a simple place to access your newsletter (i.e., is a must if you want to keep things simple when you are referring to where people can directly sign-up.

Here’s an example via my newsletter page.

Step 2 — Create Resource Pages

While pages like your newsletter sign-up page are outright “landing” pages, there is another powerful type of page that must have if you are looking to build your list.

These are called resource pages and while they operate similarly to traditional landing pages (in that they are distraction free/single column) there are a few other requirements to maximize their effectiveness.

1.) The page should address an important topic on your blog

The first requirement of a resource page is that it needs to address an important topic that commonly appears on your blog.

Since Copyblogger does these pages very well, let’s take a look at one of their examples…

Resource Page

Since Copyblogger is all about online marketing, having a resource page dedicated to a very important subject (landing pages) is a very smart thing to do.

It gives people a “starting point” if they are specifically interested on the topic of landing pages, it lets passerbys know that Copyblogger talks regularly about that subject, and it allows the Copyblogger editorial team to bring new life to some of the best content on the site that deals with landing pages.

Speaking of which…

2.) The page should link to 3-10 pieces of your best content (on the subject)

Categories are a crappy way to allow people to find your best content, because they put things in chronological order rather than letting you put your best foot forward (I only use categories in WordPress for my own organization).

Resource pages, however, are going to be prominently featured on your site, will be visited often by people who want more on the topic, and give you the advantage of putting whatever posts fit best on that page.

If you scroll down on that Copyblogger page, you’ll find they give you 9 “getting started” articles that represent the best of what’s available on landing page information:

Previous Content

Now interested readers can really get to the good stuff on your site about a topic that they enjoy (a win for both of you).

But wait a minute, what’s this have to do with list building?

3.) An opt-in box to get more info

Now that you’ve established that this is an important topic on your site, have showcased your best pieces of content on that same topic, and peaked your readers interest, it’s time to leverage the opportunity to build your email list.

This is why the final thing on your resource hub should be an email opt-in form, letting people know they can get updated on this kind of content in the future… for free.

Here’s how Copyblogger closes their resource pages:


Trust me, these pages work wonders and can see extremely high conversions rates for people who hit them!

As an added bonus: Since you can link to these pages aggressively from guest posts and other features, and since they serve as a “content hub” on a popular topic within your industry, these pages often rank very well in search engines.

Copyblogger ranks on the first page of Google for things like “content marketing,” “internet marketing,” “copywriting,” and yes, “landing pages” all from using this exact style of resource page.

Now you can do it to!

3 Creative Ways to Increase Newsletter Conversions

It’s good to constantly test your site once you’ve reached a reasonable amount of daily traffic (before this point, you’re wasting your time with conversion tests, go out and get more traffic!).

For those of you that are already bringing at least 500 visitors a day, there are a few ways you can keep your conversion rates from plateauing.

I’ve outlined my 9 favorite techniques below…

1.) Create a “toolbox” for current & future subscribers

We’ve all heard of the “freebie download” to entice people to subscriber, but you can’t get extraordinary results if you do things like everybody else.

Instead, why not create a subscriber toolbox, or a collection of goodies that people know they will get access to as soon as they sign-up for your list.

This seems daunting at first — but you have to realize that you can do this over time, and that you can even turn old posts into brand new e-books by getting a great designer to re-work the content for you.

It’s worth it too: our resources toolbox on Help Scout is the #1 place for new email sign-ups, bar none:


It increases the chances that a reader will see something they like, and it turns your newsletter into the central hub of your site — you paint a clear picture for people that your newsletter is where some of your best content resides.

This is where startups can learn a lot from the “cult of personality” bloggers (those who create a business around their personality and advice).

For instance, Ramit Sethi’s newsletter page is direct, but it gets results:

Ramit Sethi

There’s another interesting thing to note about these toolbox pages…

According to a new study on “truthiness,” researchers found that images helped increase trust, even when the images were nonsensical or had nothing to do with the fact.

This is important for digital downloads, because this study directly shows that adding an image has the sincere potential to increase trust with a potential sign-up by giving a “face” to the digital content.

Make sure your toolbox/kit includes images for e-books and guides so readers can visualize what they are getting.

2.) Use a call-out bar at the top

That pink bar that I have floating at the top of my site is something that I’m currently testing myself!

I’m currently switching between the Hello Bar and a plugin called AttentionGrabber, both are the best on the market and used by many popular platform builders.

Both options allow you to A/B test, and the real question here is where should you be sending people, and wall should the call out say?

Right now, I’m focused exclusively on my newsletter (as I have nothing to sell), so I point my bar to my newsletter page, and simply explain that my best content gets sent out via newsletter.

I don’t have a freebie to offer, so my pitch is based on value alone, but if you have a download to point out, that works extremely well for these two bars and you should definitely split-test some text/button copy.

3.) Opt-in Sliders

I find these really interesting, and plan on testing one out myself soon.

Basically, when a reader scrolls to the end of a post, this “lightbox” will slide in from the right or left side of the screen (out of the way of the text), so you get the eye-catching benefits of a lightbox pop-up without being as annoying.

I really like how James Clear utilizes this with his single-column design:

Opt-in Slider

The key here is to utilize your real estate wisely, you won’t have as much room as a feature box to be persuasive, so keep things short and sweet and as mentioned above, try to include an image if you are including downloadable content.

5 Ways to Increase Newsletter Engagement (with Psychology)

List building is essentially pointless if you aren’t building a responsive newsletter that actually wants to receive what you broadcast.

Engagement can usually best be measure by things like open rates and click-through rates, and I showed you above that mine are some of the highest out there (I’ve only seen much smaller highly specialized lists do better).

How to I maintain engagement like that with such a large list?

My “secret” is nothing more than using proven psychological principles in every single email that I send!

Below, I’m going to go over 5 different studies that can help you improve engagment, even for a 5 and 6-figure email list.

1.) The Information Gap

One research whose work I follow closely is George Lowenstein’s, and it’s for reasons such as this: his studies on the Information Gap Theory are a perfect fit for creating email broadcasts that people will click through from.

His findings show that when we encounter things that make us curious, we have a strong desire to “close the gap” so we can avoid the dissatisfaction of not knowing the outcome.

You’ve definitely encountered this before, as it’s really a scientific take on suspense. Research in this area (such as those studies around the Zeigarnik Effect) show that human beings hate leaving things incomplete if they’ve had a strong start.

According to one study, when subjects were interrupted while doing brain-buster tasks that they were making progress in…

…nearly 90% carried on working on the puzzle anyway.

The takeaway is that creating suspense in your newsletter broadcast will make people want to see it through “to the end,” which means clicking through to wherever you are sending them.

Do not use suspense in the subject line though!

This creates a subject that is too vague, but be sure to create this need to “close the gap” early in your broadcast, I know it has helped me maintain amazing click-through rates for myself and clients!

2.) The Less is More Approach

Columbia psychology professor Sheena Iyengar made waves with her research on Why choice is demotivating, later expanded on in her book The Art of Choosing.

Her famous “jam study” was able to show how people react to an abundance of choices, and why the process of action paralysis seems to occur when we have a lot of options in front of us.

Sheena conducted the study by selling jam at an upscale supermarket, testing between 6 types of jam on some days and 24 types of jam on other days.

While she noted an increased interaction from customers with the 24 jam display, only around 3% of customers actually BOUGHT the jam, vs. over 30%for the 6 jam display!

Having more options increased “engagement” (lol), but LESS people actually made a choice and purchased a jar of jam!

I apply this to email marketing for startup blog by following the one email, one goal rule, in that each email should only have one desired outcome (view a blog post, see a new feature, hear about an update, etc.).

If you are asking for multiple things, you are really asking for ZERO things, because multiple choices will cause people to do nothing instead.

I wrote more about this “lean newsletter” strategy over on the Visual Website Optimizer blog.

3.) Use Urgency the Smart Way

This one is dead-simple, and has more to do with being crystal clear with your subscribers over any fancy psychology tricks.

Social psychologist Howard Leventhal conducted a study on urgency by testing how people would respond to packets of information on the tetanus disease. He wanted to see how he could convince more people to get vaccinated.

He tested 2 different types of packets…

  1. One pamphlet just had information about the dangers of tetanus
  2. The other pamphlet had the same information and minimal instructions on where subjects could get vaccinated

Leventhal found that even though the follow-up information was very minimal, around 23% more people got vaccinated when they received the second pamphlet.

He concluded that when urgency is invoked without instructions, we tend to mentally block it out by convincing ourselves, “Well, I don’t need to worry about that anyway.”

With information on what to do next, it is harder to ignore the warning signs.

Use this in your newsletters by being totally clear about what people should do.

I use phrases like “click here to read [blank]…” for my links all of the time, it may seem obvious, but I’ve found that by trying to be less clever with my calls-to-action, and speaking more directly to my subscribers, has really boosted my click-through rates in blog emails.

4.) Invoke Strong Emotions

While I use this information frequently when creating controversial content, it applies to email newsletters as well.

A while back, Wharton professors Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman released a study on What Makes Online Content Go Viral?, and found that while “practically useful content” was king, content had a better chance of going viral if it invoked one of these emotions:

  1. Awe
  2. Anger
  3. Surprise
  4. Anxiety and Fear
  5. Joy
  6. Humor

(Notice ‘Anxiety’ sitting up there, as we mentioned in the Leventhal study!)

Now, I’m not saying that your newsletter broadcasts need to make people laugh, cry, or fall in love, but they should be aiming at one emotional string.

Think, “Woah, I never knew that!” [surprise], or, “Am I making those mistakes?” [anxiety], or, “I cannot stand it when when people do that either!” [anger].

You are not a news site, so don’t go too far with this, but always try to make your broadcasts at least a little bit interesting (especially if you are using plain-text) by crafting copy that gets people somewhat excited.

Boring = no engagement.

5.) Keep Them on Their Toes

Reciprocity is a powerful force.

The thing is, social psychologist Norbert Schwarz revealed that surprise reciprocity is even more powerful!

He found that as little as 10 cents (this was in 1987, but adjusted for inflation the amount is still small) was enough to create good feelings from one person to another.

Remember that this is percieved value, so giving people things that cost you nothing (but time) can still have this same effect, even if you don’t do that sleazy marketing stuff of assigning your e-Books with an arbitrary “$97 dollar value!” (So dumb)

Apply this to your email marketing efforts by surprising people with free stuff.

Blog posts don’t count, because there is no surprise, people EXPECT them to be free.

I’m talking about things like free guides, unpublished videos, or webinars… all will create engagement and surprise your email subscribers.

When you’ve established that something free could always be around the corner, people know you aren’t just pitching them in every email, and I guarantee you’ll see open rates go up (as long as the stuff is good.

Speaking of which… since you made it to the bottom of this long post, I want to give you something for free!

It’s beautifully designed, and if you loved this last section, I guarantee you’ll dig it!

Thanks for reading, please share this post if you enjoyed it.

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is a marketer and (embarrassingly infrequent) writer. Previously, he led content marketing on Shopify’s growth team and was executive editor on the communications team.