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How to build an email marketing list—and 24 winning strategies

By Luke Strauss · February 1, 2023
A hero image with an email icon in a white square on an orange background

Back in November, I was doing some Christmas shopping and ordered a pack of t-shirts online. A week later, I started receiving newsletters from the brand advertising its latest collection of winter wear. I didn't intentionally join any marketing lists, so I felt a little violated. And here lies the challenge of building an email marketing list: collecting emails to contact without annoying your recipients.

If you don't yet have a solid strategy for collecting email addresses to execute an email marketing strategy, you're in the right place. Below, I unpack how to build a list that people want to be a part of.

What is an email list? And what makes a great email list?

An email list is, in a word, a gold mine. It's a list of email addresses from users that want to receive brand information and marketing content. You can use this list to promote offerings, offer discounts, and provide updates or other information to interested customers.

The best email lists are filled with users who truly want to be on it—the ones who enjoy your brand's content and who will become repeat customers.

But it's also one that contains a lot of contacts. The exact number will look different depending on your industry, but it should contain a robust audience and always be growing.

What are the benefits of building an email list?

Just because social media marketing boomed in recent years doesn't mean email marketing is now a tactic for dinosaurs. Nearly everyone has an email address, and email marketing is one of the easiest ways to reach your customers. Here's why it benefits you to build an email list:

  • It's inexpensive. While you should allocate enough resources to make your newsletters and other targeted email content shine, email marketing is a relatively inexpensive way to reach your audience.

  • It reaches parties who are already interested. Unless you collected their emails without their knowledge (not recommended—or legal), you can feel confident that everyone on your list wants to learn more about your offerings, or at least thinks it's worth it for whatever you're offering in return.

  • It can help build loyalty. By integrating drip marketing tactics into your email marketing strategy, you can target customer segments with customized campaigns designed to make them repeat customers.

  • It's an owned channel. You own your email list—no social media algorithm or keyword bidding will change who you can target, when you can contact them, or what kind of content you can send them.

Should you buy an email list?

You may be tempted to buy a list with names and emails of members of your target demographic. Please don't. Here's why:

  • It's usually a waste of money. Many for-sale email lists are filled with email addresses of people who won't actually bring in any revenue. You're much better off attracting people you know are interested in your offerings and willingly provide their emails.

  • It's more likely to annoy your recipients. How would you feel if some company you never heard of started emailing you out of the blue? Personally, I'd wonder how they got my email address and would unsubscribe before giving the email any attention.

  • It violates the GDPR's consent rules. If your company offers services to people living in Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)'s requirements apply. Its consent rules prohibit companies from reaching out to individuals without their expressed consent. Buying and using email lists is a violation of these rules and can result in legal penalties.

24 winning ways to build an email list

Below, I unpack tips for directly collecting email addresses and what to include in your marketing emails to expand your network and make your campaigns succeed.

1. Create a dedicated sign-up landing page

A landing page dedicated to your email sign-up gives you the breathing room to add all the content you want without congesting the screen. It's a great way to shine a light on why your emails are so valuable.

The anatomy of a good landing page should be simple. Best practices include:

  • Placing the form field call to action (CTA) front and center

  • Including all the reasons to sign up, such as exclusives or giveaways

  • Extra encouragement, like testimonials or examples of what they'll get in a newsletter, that you can't fit on your main pages

Don't use a landing page as an excuse not to incorporate CTAs into your main pages, as they serve totally different purposes. 

2. Create engaging sign-up CTAs

A CTA doesn't have to be a dull button or an unmemorable link at the end of a long paragraph. Get creative by choosing designs and copy that grab readers' attention. Be mindful of your website's use of color as you make these decisions, keeping CTA banners and buttons consistent with your branding.

3. Test your CTAs' designs and copy

Some of your CTAs might miss the mark, and that's ok. Consider A/B testing different designs and copy, which tracks metrics like impressions and clicks, until you create a CTA that lands. Focus on phrases that would likely appeal to your readers and warrant as little effort and thought from them as possible.

4. Master the placement of your CTAs

CTA placement is just as important as appearance and wording. If email sign-ups are your top business priority, put these CTAs in the most prominent areas of the screen, like the center of your home page or in the upper-right corner of your top menu bar.

Get into the habit of placing CTAs on an "island," or separated from surrounding copy on the page with spaces, as this draws attention to them. You can also use them to split up sections on long-scrolling pages.

5. Include an opt-in link in email signatures

Professional email signatures often include links to a company website or other resources, but any CTA can go here. It's a non-invasive and accessible way to prompt users to take a certain action, like joining an email list. If it's appropriate in your industry to do so, consider asking your employees to include an email list opt-in link in their email signatures. You could also add it to the bottom of transactional emails like order confirmations.

6. Add sign-up forms to social media bios

When I'm curious about the new promotions my favorite companies are offering, I turn to social media first. It's where I expect them to post the most up-to-date, time-sensitive information. When building your email list, your company's social media bio is a great place to plug an opt-in link.

7. Attend a trade show

A trade show is your company's opportunity to show itself off in an immersive and memorable way. When you provide prospective and current customers with a positive experience, they'll be far more likely to appreciate your promotional content. Be kind and professional, give them a take-home goodie bag, and hand them a tablet with the opt-in form.

8. Host an in-person event

If you're worried about getting drowned out by other businesses at a trade show, you can host your own event to increase brand recognition and build your email list. Brainstorm what type of event would align with your brand image and promote it on your advertising channels. If it's a hit, you can expect your guests to sign up for marketing emails on the spot.

9. Host online workshops and webinars

We're in the era of Zoom, meaning nearly everyone has experience with virtual meetings and events. Virtual workshops and webinars allow people from anywhere in the world to personally interact with your company, increasing the likelihood that they'll trust you and submit their email to learn about future virtual events. If you can, invite popular thought leaders within your industry to participate in your webinars to attract more attendees.

10. Run an online giveaway

If a friend has ever tagged you in a comment on an Instagram giveaway post, you understand how far-reaching giveaways can be. They're a great way to spread awareness of your brand to friends of friends and get people excited to hear more from you. Consider making signing up for your newsletter a requirement to enter a giveaway, especially if the prize is too good to resist (like a puppy).

11. Present a lead generation offer 

Who needs money when you could have a new lead's email address? A great way to acquire leads is to offer site visitors something of value, like an eBook or a template, in exchange for their email address. People are far more likely to trade their contact information than their money for a helpful resource.

12. Make a quiz

If it makes sense for your industry, you can encourage readers to take a fun quiz and ask that they enter their email to receive their results. For example, a company in finance could create a "what kind of spender are you?" quiz, or a cybersecurity software company could offer a "what's your risk of password compromise?" quiz (I already know I'd wince at my results from that one).

13. Develop a helpful online tool

What tools could you offer your audience to make their lives easier? Most users will gladly submit their email if it means they get access to a tool that solves a problem. For example, a website-building company could offer a browser extension that analyzes the accessibility and visual appeal of any website. These tools might warrant some help from a developer, but the results can make the investment worthwhile.

14. Offer a free trial

If you offer software or an online service, invite users to take it for a spin before they invest big bucks in the real thing. An email address is a small price to pay to test a solution that usually costs money to use. Plus, when a user starts a free trial, it increases the likelihood that they'll sign up for the real thing. Just make sure to notify users that by submitting their email, they're consenting to receive your company's marketing emails, and that they can unsubscribe at any time.

15. Reassure would-be subscribers that you won't spam them

Most people you come across (myself included) have a moment of pause before opting into a company's email communications out of fear of spam. No matter which methods you use to build your email list, reassure users that you won't fill their inboxes with endless spam using microcopy under the opt-in button. For example, tell users:

  • "We won't share your email."

  • "We only send newsletters once a week."

  • "Unsubscribe anytime."

16. Encourage forwarding emails

Chances are, your subscribers are connected with a network that shares their professional interests. In your promotional emails, include CTAs prompting users to share the email with their network or forward it to a friend. And make it easy for these friends to opt in to your email list, expanding your reach.

17. Offer valuable blog content 

Your blog is a reflection of your industry expertise. The higher the quality of your posts, the more likely people will be to follow you. Including CTAs on your blog for readers to enter their emails to receive updates when new posts go live can help grow your email list.

18. Send out a newsletter

A newsletter is a great way to keep your customers connected to your business. Plus, it doesn't have to be overly time intensive—you can repurpose the same template time and time again. Fill your newsletters with company news and practical information related to your industry that keeps your readers engaged. For example, all Zapier customers get signed up for the Zapier user newsletter, which regularly delivers useful content.

19. Ask customers for reviews

Customer reviews give your brand a personal touch, increase confidence in your offerings, and can even boost your SEO rankings. But have you ever thought of using them to build your email list? Chances are, if a customer takes the time to leave a review, they're (at least somewhat) invested in your brand and would gladly receive promotional emails.

20. Promote your email marketing efforts on social media

Each social media platform poses a unique opportunity to showcase the benefits your email subscribers are reaping. Whether you tease a free course for subscribers on Twitter or gated visual content on Pinterest, flex your social media skills to attract new subscribers.

21. Provide discounts or freebies

Consider offering a direct discount, like 20% off their first purchase, when users first sign up for your email list. And keep the excitement going by rewarding existing subscribers' loyalty with exclusive discounts or freebies in ongoing marketing emails. Word of free stuff travels quickly and is a great way to organically grow your email list. I can already hear a conversation between a subscriber and their friend: "Where'd you get that cool sticker on your water bottle?" "Oh, this great company called [your company] sent it to me for subscribing!" "No way. Sign me up." (Just me?)

22. Offer exclusive or early access to new products or promotions

As an avid concert- and festival-goer, I'm always on the early bird list for my favorite events. If you're preparing to release an exciting new product, give your subscribers access in advance. It'll keep your existing subscribers subscribed and convince those missing out to opt in.

23. Advertise with lead generation forms

Lead generation forms are some of the most popular and effective ways to grow an email list. Whether you're using LinkedIn Lead Gen Forms, Facebook lead ads, or 4, they allow users to join your email list without ever leaving the app they're on.

24. Segment email lists

Once you collect plenty of names and email addresses, prepare for your marketing campaigns through segmentation. Maybe you gave users the option to opt in to certain promotional emails and not others, or maybe you collected some demographic information. People over 50 and teens aren't likely to have many overlapping interests, and should therefore be segmented into separate groups.

How to automate email list building

If you use even a handful of these ideas, you'll be compiling your email list from a lot of different sources. With Zapier, you can connect your email marketing software to the other apps you use—such as online forms, eCommerce platforms, and CRM apps—so all your new leads are automatically added to your email marketing software. Learn more about how to automate your email marketing activities.

Zapier is a no-code automation tool that lets you connect your apps into automated workflows, so that every person and every business can move forward at growth speed. Learn more about how it works.

Related reading:

This article was originally published in August 2019 by Matt Ellis. The most recent update was in February 2023.

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