Growing an email list is a lot like raising a child.
I can say that with certainty because I’m currently doing both.
There are highs and lows, celebrations and disappointments, and periods of growth and plateaus.
Some days are smooth because you have a semblance of control.
Other days make you want to pull your hair out.
And just like raising a kid, growing an email list requires constant attention. There is always something to improve.
Unlike raising children, however, email lists decay. About 23% every year. So even modest growth isn’t acceptable.
Our job as email list builders is to find and exploit the methods that get as many high quality opt-ins as possible.
So in this article, I’m going to give you a big list of tips to improve the opt-in rate of your lead generation website.
Use this advice to refine your content marketing.
(Grab something to drink because this is a long one...)
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1. Write a Killer Introduction
This may not seem related, but I assure you it is.
Most blog post introductions are a complete waste of time because they fail to hook the reader.
Here’s a beautiful quote from William Zinsser in On Writing Well:
“The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until … safely hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit: the lead.”
Your lead magnets could be perfect. Your content could be packed with relevant value. Your calls to action could convert at 100%.
But if the visitor abandons your site because the first lines were boring, none of that matters.
That’s why we spend a considerable amount of time crafting our introductions - more than any other section of an article.
Here’s a bad introduction:
That first sentence is rough. Even though it’s true, no one finds that compelling.
Here’s a much better introduction:
That first sentence really wakes you up! In seven words, the writer has made a deep connection. The second paragraph deepens the connection and the third paragraph pivots toward the article’s topic.
For more on introductions, check out this excellent CoSchedule post.
2. Stop Asking People to Subscribe for Updates
Ever seen a form like this?
These forms are almost always a waste of time.
Peep Laja of ConversionXL sums up these forms well: “[There’s] nothing magnetic about it. No reason whatsoever given for joining. Probably a good indicator that they don’t take email marketing seriously.”
Think of an email address like currency. Your reader isn’t going to give you their address for free. You have to trade something, which is why most forms on your blog should offer a lead magnet.
3. Limit the Information a Form Requires
It would be great to have a complete data profile on every subscriber. But asking for too much information too quickly can hamstring your list building efforts.
Any time you place a barrier between your user and the desired outcome, you reduce the number of people who follow all the steps. It doesn’t seem like much, but a form with four fields is twice the work as a form with two fields.
Most people groan when they see a form like this:
A visitor might say “I don’t want their eBook enough to fill out that whole form” or “Why do they need my phone number? Maybe I’ll pass…”
Neil Patel saw this firsthand when he removed a single field on a form (from four to three) and increased his opt-in rate by 26%. One company dropped a form from 11 to four fields and saw a 120% conversion increase.
Email marketing pro Bryan Harris uses a homepage opt-in form with just a single field, and his list building results are well known.
Digital marketing expert Noah Kagen does the same.
Make the form as lean and casual as possible. Stick to first name and email address. If you don’t intend to personalize your emails (recommended, but some people don’t), only ask for their email address.
You can always ask for additional information later on by directing your list to new landing pages. For example, here is a HubSpot form for a Facebook event that asks for quite a bit of information.
The fields marked by arrows aren’t necessary to capture a lead, but this landing form was only sent to existing subscribers. The subscribers are already invested in the brand and the offer’s value (the event) is substantial, so it’s safe for HubSpot to ask for more data.
4. Include a Relevant Content Upgrade
There’s no shortage of information about the importance of knowing your customer, so I won’t bore you.
But what do we really know about the people viewing our content?
Well, we know that if they don’t bounce away in the first few seconds, they must like the content at least a little bit. They wouldn’t be reading if they hated it.
So to get them to opt into our list, it’s smart to make the lead magnet support the content as much as possible. We call this a content upgrade and it can boost your conversions by 185%.
For example, in an article we recently wrote on image copyright law, we included a form to download a special lead magnet that’s super specific to the content.
The article was about using images without violating copyrights and content upgrade was a list of sources to find safe images. The upgrade is an extension of the content.
Your content upgrades should be the logical next step for the reader. Article give them knowledge; content upgrades give them action.
5. Use a 2-Step Opt-in Process
Wait a second… Didn’t I say a minute ago that more steps = fewer opt-ins?
Yep, but there’s a special effect that comes into play with a 2-step form. Leadpages says it best:
“In contrast to a one-step opt-in (which features the signup form right on the page), the two-step opt-in gives the appearance of giving rather than taking. It also prevents visitors from simply ignoring your signup form — once they click the button, they’re forced to make a decision whether to opt-in or not.”
Step one is simply a call-out box within an article that includes a bit of copy about the lead magnet and a button. The button should imply that they get the offer right away.
Here’s an example of a 2-step opt-in we created recently.
Essentially, we’re doing four things.
6. Lead with Benefits, Not Features
Features over benefits is a common marketing trope, but for good reason:
People don’t care about the features of whatever you’re selling.
People only care about what they get out of it.
Look at this example. Tell me which ebook title makes you want to download.
- 7 Steps to Increase Your Website Traffic
- 7 Steps to Increase Your Traffic so You Can Make More Sales
The second one is more powerful because it talks about the benefit. Increased traffic is nice, but that’s not the end game. People want sales.
You see, your content shouldn’t just offer tactics. It should bridge the gap between the readers’ before state and after state (like we talk about in our post on creating buyer personas). That is, your content should take them all the way to their goal.
Oh, and if you’re using a 2-step opt-in form like I mentioned before, the second step is a great opportunity to list more benefits of the lead magnet.
7. Give Your Blog a Simple Design
It’s tempting to install fonts, widgets, plugins, and other design-y elements. Sometimes these can feel like they’re adding value to your website, but they usually don’t.
If there’s too much going on, your website can feel busy, distracting and unwelcoming. Instead of deciphering your layout, it’s easier for your visitors to just leave.
Worst of all, a busy design makes your calls to action less effective because they don’t stand out. Your reader is distracted by so much that they don’t see where you want them to focus.
Copyblogger has a relaxed design that places the focus on their content.
Helpscout really lets their content breathe so the reader can focus.
Boost your opt-in rate by using a clean website theme that gives your content room to breathe and let’s your calls to action stand out.
8. Work on That Call to Action
Your calls to action should entice the reader to take a particular action. It has to do two things:
Here’s a great call to action from Buffer. The copy is compelling to anyone who posts on social media a lot, but doesn’t have a convenient method. The button makes it clear that you can start right now without paying.
This is a good one from Unbounce. The benefits are absolutely clear in the headline and subheading, and the button is unique with a low commitment.
Klient Boost’s call to action is also clear. The button copy informs the reader that they get something by clicking the button, but they aren’t being asked to make a commitment right now.
Always use a verb in your button copy that implies motion, like start, go, sign up, create, download, register, etc.
9. Include Multiple Calls to Action
I’d like to think my readers reads every word I write, but I know that isn’t the case.
According to the Nielsen Norman Group, 79% of users scan any new page the come across. Only 16% of people read every word.
There’s a good chance your readers are rapidly scrolling your pages, finding the headings that suit their needs, and then bouncing away.
So a single call to action tucked away at the bottom of the post isn’t collect leads because your traffic just isn’t seeing it.
Add a call to action for your lead magnet at least twice, sometimes three times depending on the length of the post.
10. A/B Test Your Calls to Action
Your calls to action are important, so it optimizing them deserves its own tip.
A/B testing is simple: Create variations of a call to action (or the entire form), then send a portion of traffic to each. Whichever converts more is the winner.
Once you have a winner, your work isn’t done. Drill down deeper and change individual elements to fine tune your lead generation.
For instance, you may know that “Get Proposal” is a strong call to action, but what about “Get Your Proposal” or “Get My Proposal”? Does that level of personalization improve your opt-in rate? Find out with a test.
Currently, we’re testing a sidebar widget on our site for our Convert with Content email course. You probably see one of these options.
The imagery, design, button, copy and even the opt-in process (1-step vs 2-step) are radically different between the two. Once we have a winner, we’ll test small details to optimize every element.
We’re running this test in Thrive because it’s super simple. You just create a new form of the same style and make them compete with a button. Thrive will show each form to half your traffic.
You can let the app automatically select a winner at a certain date or return after some period and do it yourself.
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11. Optimize Your Forms for Mobile
I’m sure you know that your website should be responsive. It’s good for SEO and the user experience.
And since 80% of web users have a smartphone, you’ve probably noticed that a substantial portion of your traffic (in some cases, the majority) come from mobile devices.
But many content creators neglect to optimize their forms for mobile devices. I’ve done it myself. We craft beautiful forms in a list building tool, but forget to confirm their look and function on a mobile device.
In our case, 75% of our traffic comes from mobile phones and tablets, so we can’t ignore those people.
Even if only 5-10% of your visitors use mobile devices, you’ve got to make your forms accessible.
Here's how to make sure your forms look good on phones and tablets:
12. Experiment with Opt-In Form Styles
Where you display your forms has little to do with design and a lot to do with conversions.
There are several styles of forms you can display:
One of the reasons we like Thrive so much is because they make it easy to choose form styles and test them against each other. (The PHP insert form style involves editing your website’s template files, so don’t worry about that type unless you’re an advanced user.)
Beyond those eight, you can also vary the number of steps in the sequence (like I mentioned earlier). You might embed the form fields in each call out or link to a landing page.
Don’t be overwhelmed by all of those options. Options are good for marketers because they gives us things to test.
Furthermore, don’t assume you are your target audience. What you like isn’t relevant.
I personally don’t like lightbox popups that spontaneously block me from content until I close them. To me, they don’t support my experience - they just feel interruptive.
But I have seen lightbox popups outperform everything else because that website’s audience doesn’t mind them.
13. Interlink Between Posts
We know that interlinks improves a website’s SEO value. It’s a key way to signal to search engines that you’re building a healthy user experience.
It’s one of the reasons Wikipedia is at the top of every search results page. Look at all those links to other Wikipedia pages!
But interlinks also improve your opt-in rates because they add value to your users.
You see, the page a visitor arrives on may not be just right to convert them into an email subscriber. They might like the content, but not enough to give their contact information.
This isn’t necessarily our fault. They might already know the information or not need it.
By creating opportunities to explore more of our content through links, we increase the chance that our visitors will navigate to something that does convert them into a lead.
By matching lead magnets to the pages’ topics, we can expose the same visitors to several different offers as they explore the site. If the first lead magnet didn’t catch their fancy, the second or third might.
14. Promote Your Content
Let me ask you: What do you do after you’ve published a piece of content?
Most people post their article to Facebook or Twitter and call it a day.
It would be amazing if we could publish an article and jump into the next, but that isn’t enough to maximize our opt-in rate. We have to promote.
1. Schedule multiple social media posts
2. Email influencers in your industry
Don’t outright ask for a share until you’ve built a relationship. Just ask for their opinion at first.
Find influencers with BuzzSumo’s content search feature. Search your article’s keyword for a list of content similar to yours, then click the “View Sharers” button.
3. Post to topical communities
There are online communities for everything.
Want to share photos of airport carpeting? There’s a community for that.
Want to watch other people sing karaoke? There’s a community for that.
Just want to count? Hard to believe, but that community exists.
Find people who care about your article’s subject and interact with them naturally. Make yourself a fixture that in part of the web. Over time, you’ll become more than opportunistic promoter. You’ll be a valuable contributor and people will look for your links.
4. Re-purpose your content in a new way
When we create a piece of content, a majority of the work takes place in the research and organization stages. The writing, image editing, or video recording are the easy parts.
So leverage that legwork by re-purposing your content into new formats.
An article of tips could turn into a downloadable checklist. A step by step guide would make a great video walkthrough. A series of similar posts could be fashioned into a comprehensive eBook.
Notice that all of those methods don’t involve creating something from scratch. You can get fresh content out of the work you’ve already done.
For example, Content Marketing Institute turned this PDF into this SlideShare. Now it appeals to a whole new audience on another platform. Oh, they also turned that same content into a blog post and a video.
5. Buy paid ads
At one time, no one would consider spending money on paid ads that point to content because there’s no clear ROI of a piece of content. If we linked an ad to an ecommerce product, for instance, we could say “That ad created $X in sales.”
Today, however, we know the value of content marketing. There’s no direct relationship between pageviews and revenue, but if we follow our funnel, we can see how content supports our sales goals.
On top of that, social media is evolving. The big platforms are favoring posts promoted by cash. If we want to be successful in those environments, we have to play their game.
Fortunately, we don’t have to spend a lot, especially on Facebook. The targeting is so precise that we can put our ads in front of only the people who matter.
You can either boost one of your Facebook posts for a few bucks…
...or create an ad through Ads Manager for non-fans.
Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat have their own ad networks, but they’re nowhere near as effective as Facebook. We recommend avoiding them.
15. Personalize Your Content
Personalization is such an important part of marketing that by 2018, it’s expected that brands who personalize will out-sell brands who don’t by 20%.
The more personalized your content, the more likely the reader will feel that you’re talking directly to them. This applies to your freely available content as well as your lead magnets. Our client, Stem Cells for Dogs, does a great job of this.
Here’s what it means to personalize your content:
A great way to create hyper-personalized content is to create target buyer personas. Read this post: How to Build Your Target Buyer Persona (with Free Template).
16. Build Rapport with Free Lead Magnets
I get a ton of promotional messages every day. Even though I requested most of it, I’m still inundated with emails, so I’m guarded about giving out my address unless I know a brand can add value to my life.
One way to convince me (and people like me) is to give me a lead magnet for free to show me that your lead magnets are worth my email.
We did this in our article about creating editorial calendars. We made a calendar template and gave it away entirely for free (click here to get it). All you have to do is open the Google Sheet and make a copy for your Google Drive.
It’s a great piece of introductory content because we ask nothing in return, though we do have other calls to action with opt-in opportunities.
People have told us that this free template convinced them to subscribe, so I strongly recommend that you try it.
In our experience, this free lead magnet approach is also a great way to reduce the number of fake emails you get. For instance, if a visitor wants your lead magnet but doesn’t want to give you access to their inbox, they sometimes give a fake email so they can get redirected to the lead magnet’s URL.
17. Emphasize Urgency
We all have problems, but they aren’t all equal. Some of our problems need solutions sooner than others.
For example, consider these problems:
“My dog doesn’t know any tricks.”
“My dog chews on my shoes.”
“My dog keeps biting people.”
Chewing on shoes? Sure, that should stop, but it’s not hurting anyone. No repertoire of tricks? There’s no rush to learn.
But that third problem is a BIG problem.
If your dog is biting people, you need that stop right away before the town takes your pet away. If you have that problem, you’ll jump at the first opportunity to for a solution.
According to behavioral psychology, we’re more likely to suspend deliberate thought when we need an urgent solution. We’re more willing to take action right away.So create content (for your blog and lead magnets) around solutions for urgent problems. Focus on what they need right now as opposed to what would be nice to have.
18. Make Your Headlines Compelling and Specific
Only 20% of people who see a headline will read the article. The headline is often the only chance you have to convince someone to read, so it has to standout.
People are tired of the same “6 tips to…” articles. The web is full of surface-level fluff that’s regurgitated from one site to the next. I’m talking about those articles that don’t make it past your scan test. You scan the subheadings and don’t see anything new, so you bounce off the site.
(Speaking of fluff, if you want to learn how to stop writing thin content and become a real thought leader, check out this article: Publishing Content Doesn’t Make You a Thought Leader - Here’s What Does.)
As Digital Market’s Ryan Deiss says, “You simply need to solve a specific problem with a specific solution for a specific segment of your market.” Your headline should reflect that.
Check out the headline for this lead magnet that Digital Marketer once created.
That headline tells you exactly what you’re going to learn. “Get Instant Access” means you get the whole thing right now. There’s no guessing.
Not only does a headline like that convert well, but the lead magnet itself is easy to create because the topic is so narrow. People prefer to opt-in for short, actionable guides rather than long, comprehensive books.
Notice the book cover on that image. The actual title of the book is “Growing Up: The Ins and Outs of Up and Down Gardening.” It’s hard to tell who that’s intended for. That title doesn’t mean much to someone who’s never heard of vertical gardening. No wonder they didn’t use the book title as the headline for their call to action.
Whether you’re writing headlines for pages or lead magnets, get specific. Connect with a specific audience, promise a benefit, and tell them exactly what they’ll learn.
Whatever you do, don’t try to be clever. Clever headlines are only useful to their creators who already understand the whole process. To most people, they’re confusing.
19. Create Something Original
Like I said, the web is full of rehashed “6 tips” articles filled with the same information spun into different language.
I’m talking about those articles that don’t make it past your scan test. You scan the subheadings and don’t see anything new, so you bounce off the site.
Besides the fact that Google can recognize unoriginal content, it makes for a poor user experience.
Your content has to say something unique, otherwise people won’t read it. And if they don’t read it, they’ll never get to your opt-in forms. Even if they come across a form, they’ll have no reason to submit because you didn’t impress them with value.
Instead of asking “How can I make content quickly without much effort?” ask yourself “How can I say something new and add value, even if I don’t create as much content?”
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20. Update Your Content Regularly
This morning I looked for some information about a topic I was researching. I found what seemed like the perfect source, but the content was written back in 2011.
Even though the information sounded good, it wasn’t current, so I couldn’t use it. The website never got a link from me.
Content ages. It becomes less relevant over time as our collective knowledge changes. Plus there’s evidence that Google prefer fresh content, even on older pages.
You should update and old post when…
We wouldn’t write another article on email sequences because that would dilute the value of both posts. Which article would people link to? Which would Google favor? How would a visitor know to read both articles to get the information they need?
If you keep your posts updated, you don’t have to deal with those questions.
21. Support Your Content with Images and Videos
Images (video included) are an enormous part of content marketing. In 2016, more than half of marketers surveyed said creating visual content was a priority.
We only remember 10% of the information we consume on the web. But if there’s an image paired with that information, we retain 65% of it.
Images and videos are excellent tools to illustrate your points. They add weight to your content, and give the impression that you spent time and care crafting it.
In return for that value, you get more views. Blog pages with images and videos get 94% more views than pages without visuals. They also help you get press and improve SEO.
So the logic is simple: If you can make your content more valuable, more readers will gladly opt-in to your offers. They’ll figure your lead magnets must be high quality as well.
That said, you shouldn’t use just any image for your content. If you fill your blog with stock photos, your site will look tacky and cheap.
Include photos that support your content. Charts, diagrams, infographics and screenshots are excellent ways to boost your posts’ value. It’s easy to throw a screenshot into your post, especially with a tool like CloudApp or Canva.
(Oh, before you start filling your posts out with images, you must read this article on avoiding copyright violations: What I Learned About Image Copyright Law from an $800 Violation.)
Never Stop Testing
I’ve given you an enormous list of ways to improve your opt-ins and build a bigger email list, but don’t take any of it as gospel.
At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is what works. If you find that your audience responds to an unusual method, exploit it. If your readers sign up even though you’re violating “best practices,” double down.
As marketers, our biggest strength is our willingness to try new tactics and measure the results. We can’t overlook success because it isn’t conventional.
If you have any questions about growing your email list, catch me on Twitter.