6 Inbound Marketing Experts Reveal the 6 Enduring Keys to List Building

Every marketing blog has a post on list building so when I started this post I knew it would have to be extraordinary to stand out.

So, I contacted a “dream team” of inbound marketing experts and companies known for their innovative list building:

I asked these experts to reveal their latest and greatest list building and opt-in conversion strategies, and provide the data.

The topic was “List Building: What’s Working Right Now.” The focus was on revealing the list-building tactics and opt-in optimizations that are working best at this exact moment, in January 2016.

That’s still what this post is, but not really.

The direction of this post changed when I saw what these experts had to say…

As responses started to trickle in, first from Brian Dean and Neil Patel, and then from Noah Kagan and Kevan Lee, I noticed that what’s working best right now is actually what has always worked.

The specific tactics that are working best have evolved, there are some especially effective new ways to display forms and improve your opt-in rate, and we’ll cover those strategies in depth, but the underlying principles that increase your opt-in rate have stayed the same.

The revelation for me was: there isn’t actually anything “new”— the strategies that work best today are variations on unchanging themes that have worked best for years, and aren’t going to change any time soon.

I’ve listed them as the “6 immutable laws of list building.” Given the amount of data backing them up, these are probably the closest thing we have to laws in inbound marketing.

In fact, understanding these unchanging list building principles is the key to creating new opt-in offers and forms that work even better than what we are using today. If you are interested in getting ahead of the game, you’ll find some way to innovate based on, and within, the “rules” outlined here.

Why is list building still important in 2016 (and beyond)?

Your opt-in forms are the crux of your inbound marketing.

Everything else is simply setting up the moment you present your lead gen form to visitors.

All the ads you’ve bought, all the content you’ve poured yourself into, all the SEO research and tweaking, is just so you can show your lead those simple input fields, in hopes they’ll raise their hand and say, “I want to hear more from you.”

It’s here that the resources you’ve invested into traffic generation pay off or get wasted. If your forms suck or your offer is off, your time and money spent on traffic generation is wasted in proportion.

If your opt-in rate is 20% lower than it could be, 20% of your ad budget and time spent creating content is being wasted. You’ll have 20% less resources to reinvest back into marketing, advertising, and sales, you’ll have 20% less word-of-mouth referrals, 20% less repeat sales, leading to a vicious cycle of limited resources, missed opportunity, and hobbled growth.

The thing is a 20% improvement is extremely conservative. Unless you have a highly optimized offer and form, you could feasibly 2x or even 3x your current opt-in rate.

It’s not a perfect relationship, but that’s similar to getting 2-3 times as much traffic to your website at no additional expense.

The top of your funnel is needlessly narrowed…

Ads may be expensive, SEO is engineered to be a crapshoot, and content is time-consuming to produce but, improving your opt-in rate?

That fruit is hanging so low, you’d have to reach down to pick it.

Simple changes in form placement, design, color, and verbiage, can dramatically widen the top of your funnel so you squeeze more opportunity out of your existing traffic, and convert more visitors into paying customers, thus maximizing the ROI of all the resources you invest into your inbound marketing.

The 6 Enduring Principles of List Building

There are six foundational rules for generating as many opt-ins as possible. These aren’t theories you’ll have to test. The experiments have been run, the data is in, and this is what has proven to work time and time again.

These are as close to “laws” as you’ll get in inbound marketing:

1. The More Forms You Display,
the More Opt-ins You’ll Get

The more opportunities you give people to opt-in, the more they will.

Brian Dean recommended at least three forms per page with one appearing above the fold.

Buffer famously doubled their opt-in rate by going from one opt- in form on their blog to five and adding four more opt-in forms to their social media accounts.

Just by pasting code into eight more pages, they went from getting 2,500 new email contacts each week to getting more than 5,400. That’s over twice as many incoming leads!

Chris Davis of LeadPages suggested placing high-value offers at:

  1. The end of all blog posts
  2. Top of the blog (HelloBar)
  3. Your blog’s sidebar
  4. Top of your blog (under navigation)

Takeaway: Put your forms everywhere and use different display formats.

2. The More Desirable the Incentive,
the More Opt-ins You’ll Get

An opt-in is a trade. The subscriber gives you a portion of their inbox and attention while putting themselves at risk of annoyance, wasted time, and possibly spam.

It’s not an insignificant risk and, what’s more, you’ve got to pull them away from what they are doing, overcoming the momentum of their original intent. No one is surfing the interwebs hunting for opt-in boxes to fill their empty inbox.

They are on your website for some other purpose, so their decision to opt-in is a departure from their reason for being there. You’ve got to interrupt their attention and motivate them to do something they did not plan on doing.

While researching this post I found some list-building advice from 2002. The author used Franklin Covey as their example of stellar list-building tactics because they prominently offered product updates at the top of their homepage, motivating the author to opt-in.

Using the Wayback machine, I was able to find the offer he referenced:

Franklin Covey of the early 2000’s is almost ambivalent, “Oh, sure, you can opt-in, if you really want to…” I’m not picking on them, this was the norm back then, and they deserved the praise for positioning their offer so prominently on their homepage when so few companies were focused on list-building at that time.

A lot has changed over the last 13 years. The “content marketing arms race” we’ve all been participating in since then has led to an escalation of incentives. No one is offering “product updates” as their primary list building tactic anymore.

I went to Franklin Covey’s website to see how their strategy has evolved. Their homepage opt-in incentive has changed:

After clicking, you are redirected to an entire long-form landing page describing the book in depth, including video chapter overviews, testimonials, and more:

… and finally they display the opt-in form after you’ve clicked “Get the first chapter:”

It’s not just Franklin Covey, we are all working harder than ever to get opt-ins. We’ve become more protective of our inboxes, time, and attention. To make “the trade” we expect something of value upfront.

Throughout this post we’ll cover examples of the specific kind of highly desirable incentives that are working particularly well right now. For now, the point is that the more value your incentive provides, the more appealing you can make it, the more opt-ins you’ll get.

Takeaway: Offer something extraordinarily desirable so visitors are motivated to make “the trade.”

3. The Less You Ask For,
the More Opt-ins You’ll Get

Use Micro-Commitments

This tip comes from Grant Thomas, JustUno, “Micro-commitments are small actions that you ask visitors to perform leading up to a bigger conversion step. In our case of promotions, the higher conversion step would be an email opt-in or purchase.

Simply pose a question like “Want a discount?” Then provide two calls to action: one that is a “Yes” response and another that is a “No” response.

This presents visitors with a decision that they must make. When an individual selects a “Yes” response, they are psychologically inclined to behave consistently with the “Yes” commitment.

By using this technique, you can increase engagement while also influencing people to take the intended action.”

Perhaps the most famous use of micro-commitments is LeadPages two-step conversion process. According to Chris Davis, “It allows the reader to make a small commitment (like clicking a link or a button) before we ask for a bigger commitment (email address). For instance, we provide the option to receive an SMS reminder for our weekly webinars after you register. That landing page has a 2-step opt-in form that is converting between 80%-90% (with over 2,000 views collectively).

When we use these forms in blog posts they can perform between the range of 60-80% conversion rate.”

Takeaway: Rather than displaying the form field first, use a button press of some sort to begin the conversion process with an easy step.

Minimize form fields:

Do you actually need a contact’s first and last name? Sure, it’s nice to personalize with their name but is it worth getting 10% fewer leads?

Neil Patel says, “Collecting an email instead of “name” and “email” usually boosts conversions by 10%.”

Grant Thomas of JustUno made the same point as Neil, “A general rule of thumb: The less fields in a form, the better. This presents less barriers and is much easier for an individual to subscribe to your newsletter. By eliminating unnecessary fields, you can streamline the opt-in process and allow visitors to act on impulse instead of them asking “Wait, Why do they need to know my annual income?”

If you can, just ask your visitors to submit their email address. This will result in the highest amount of new subscribers.

At the same time, form fields can be a valuable tool for gathering visitor info that can later be used for segmented email campaigns and providing relevant content. For example, if I’m selling shoes, I may ask you for your email, shoe size, and favorite shoe type. As a consumer, I can see the purpose for those two additional fields because I want to receive relevant emails. Now, you can send me an email featuring size 10.5 sandals that are currently on sale. That’s an email that is bound to drive sales.

Robeez uses the form below to collect valuable data that makes their email campaigns more successful.

When possible, limit your forms to just one field. If you do want to gather more information, make sure it is relevant to your email campaigns.”

To maximize your lead generation, instead of requesting their name upfront, consider using progressive profiling so that you gather a little more information each time you offer something:

  • Just try to get the opt-in by only asking for the email.
  • Once you have their email you can send them another offer and collect their name. Now you can personalize your messages using their name.
  • Then you can send them additional offers to collect other information you can use to improve your marketing.

But, be sure you need the information you are asking for. If you are collecting data that isn’t being leveraged to produce better marketing, you are constricting the number of leads flowing through your funnel for no reason.

Contact data is potentially very useful, but don’t undermine your lead generation by collecting data you aren’t actually leveraging to be more effective. It’s the inbound marketer’s hoarding complex.

Takeaway: Use as few fields as possible for the initial opt-in then collect more data later with other offers

4. The More Relevant Your Incentive,
the More Opt-ins You Will Get

“Relevance” is what is working really, really well right now.

If you’ve made it this far into this post, it’s safe to assume that you are interested in list building. You may be interested in marketing automation, you may not be. What’s certain, is that “list building” is top of mind right now.

Psychologists call this “primed.”

Priming is easy to understand and demonstrate. If I say “moo” and then ask you to think of an animal, you’ll probably think of a cow. That’s priming.

The neurons related to marketing automation have fired less recently, burying them somewhere lower in your consciousness while “list building,” and closely related ideas, are at the forefront of your consciousness.

You need to offer something that appeals to the visitor in the exact moment their attention is on the offer so consider the context the offer appears.

Brian Dean says, “a form that targets what that person wants NOW will work best. For example, I recently swapped out a generic popup form with one that was laser-targeted to the page you were on:

… and it boosted conversions by 65%!”

The offer he replaced had mass appeal, it was high-value and tantalizing, but it couldn’t compete with an offer that was perfectly aligned with the content of the page they were viewing.

With an increasing amount of data supporting the case for increased relevance improving opt-in rate, we can safely add it to our laws of list building.

Takeaway: The more relevant your offer is to the content the visitor is viewing, the better it will work.

Content upgrades

When I asked Neil Patel, Brian Dean, and Chris Davis (LeadPages), “What list building technique is working really well right now?” They both said exactly the same thing in the first sentence of their reply: content upgrades.

Neil Patel says he “collect[s] around 20 to 35% of my emails from this method.”

Brian Dean increased his opt-in conversion rate by 785% with content upgrades. He says, “Without a doubt, the Content Upgrade is the #1 list building tactic online right now. In fact, LeadPages (who know a thing or two about building an email list) said that The Content Upgrade is ‘changing blogging.’”

Chris Davis reports that LeadPages never gets less than a 40% conversion with them!

A content upgrade is offering a complimentary resource that matches the topic of the content a visitor is consuming at that moment.

It adds value either by making it easier to apply the content or presenting the content in a different way:

Content upgrades give you an opportunity to present another form (and remember, more forms = more opt-ins) and the hyper-relevance ensures the contact’s interest. Content upgrades check all the right boxes. It’s no wonder they work as well as they do.

I agree with Devesh Khanal that, “The best part is that it’s not annoying (like pop ups), or deceitful (like slimy “make money online” squeeze pages). It actually adds value to your readers.”

Creating your content upgrade incentives

The downside to content upgrades is that you can’t just paste the same offer all over your site. The good news is that you already did the bulk of the work when you created the original content.

The content upgrade is usually just presenting that information in another way or finding related resources. They don’t need to be long or in depth, but the more valuable you make them, the better they will work.

Chris Davis says that at LeadPages, “we will often give away a flow chart or any resources mentioned in the post as a LeadMagnet.”

Some other ideas for content upgrades include:

You may be able to repurpose a related blog post on the topic.

You could interview an expert on that topic.

You could find 10 tools that will help them apply the information.

With a video, you might offer a transcript in PDF and EPUB so they can read it later on their tablet.

With a post covering a process, you might give them a workbook that them apply the process to their situation.

With a post that has informative content, you could give away a two-page list of tools that will help them apply it.

With a post on how to create something, you could give them a template file or example of the end result.

With a long post covering a lot of tips and tricks, you might give them a checklist that pulls out and summarizes the important takeaways.

You could simply present an offer to sign up for your list so that they can get more tips and tricks on the same topic.

Here’s a tip for displaying your content upgrades inline… Devesh Khanal found that displaying the offer twice, including once at the top of the post, improved conversion rate by 315% over just displaying it at the bottom of the post.


5. The More Intrusive Your Offer Display is,
the More Opt-ins You Will Get

We may not like it, but the fact is: the more intrusively you display your offer, the better it will work.

Some people will be annoyed by highly intrusive display and close it without reading it, some won’t opt-in out of principle (they don’t want to encourage intrusive methods), but they will be a minority compared to the people who will opt-in simply because you are forcing more people to notice it.

Banner blindness” is a real phenomenon. Making your offers big, bright, and busy can’t fully counteract it because our brain is unconsciously filtering to focus on what it perceives to be important — and, let’s face it, the majority of information displayed in banners and sidebar offers isn’t usually important, so our visitor’s brains are right to filter it.

Intrusive display ensures it can’t be overlooked or filtered.

According to Grant Thomas, of JustUno, “Email opt-in pop ups have proven time and time again that they are the most effective way of building an email list. In one conversion rate optimization study, an ecommerce brand increased email sign ups by 758% with a simple addition of an email pop up. Other email pop up studies have shown pop ups doubling conversion rates with almost no negative effect on bounce rates.

Here are three reasons why email pop ups are the most effective way of converting your website visitors into email subscribers.

  • It’s a quick pitch for your business. The best pop ups use copy and content to showcase what the website is all about. In 10 seconds, a visitor should know what your business is about and why they should subscribe to your emails.
  • Pop ups grab attention without interfering with the website experience. If you want to build your email list, you must draw attention to your signup form. A pop up momentarily interrupts a visit and brings attention to your email newsletter offering. Since these “pop ups” are actually modal overlays, a visitor can exit out with a simple click outside of the pop up box.
  • They effectively hook your visitors. Ask a question, use social proof, or showcase the benefits of your newsletter. Pop ups allow you to engage visitors with marketing content. Once your visitors are hooked, they are much more likely to subscribe.”

Of course, no discussion of intrusive display would be complete without a stern disclaimer that you should carefully weigh your visitor’s experience against the benefit of getting more opt-ins. That’s a decision no one can make for you.

A new type of form display that finds middle ground between, “I didn’t even notice it,” and, “you are angering me!,” is the Welcome Mat.

You’ve probably seen a Welcome Mat display if you read a lot of marketing blogs…

When you land, it will appear that a form has filled your screen, forcing you to focus on the offer before scrolling down to find the content you are after:

You can get Welcome Mat functionality from Noah Kagan’s SumoMe. He says, “[they get] around 2-15% overall email conversion and it’s free.”

6. Finding the Right Colors,
Will Increase the Number of Opt-ins You Will Get

Perhaps the easiest change you can make is trying different colors.

But, don’t immediately run to the warmer, brighter spectrum of the color palette.

LeadPages recently reported a split test where a green CTA button got 86.41% more opt-ins than an orange one with 99.9% confidence. That’s a huge upside to changing literally six characters of code!

This case study also illustrates that it is not always the brightest color that wins, challenging the intuitive notion that the brighter your CTA, the better it will perform.

Kevan Lee, one of the marketing masterminds behind Buffer, sent over some pretty impressive data strengthening the case that simple changes in color can have huge impacts on conversion rate:

“The Buffer blog has been orange (technically #eb593c) for quite some time. For particular posts, we’ve changed up the color to attract more attention to the CTA

Orange – 0.4% conversion
Green (#569625) – 1.1% conversion
Blue (#168eea) – 4.5% conversion (also happens to be our Buffer brand color)

We expect the green and blue conversion numbers to normalize a bit more as additional traffic hits the page – the orange one has 10 to 20x more views than the rest so far. :)”

How will you find the color that works best for your offer/form/CTA button?

Split-testing. There just isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, unfortunately.

Takeaway: Continually split-test different colors for the headline text of your offer as well as the button.

Bonus tip: Tag their interest

Relevance doesn’t just apply to getting opt-ins, it applies to all content, messages, offers, and calls to action, including your automated email follow-up.

To keep your contacts opening and reading your emails, you need to deliver content and offers that align with their interests. You need to send information that is interesting, important, and timely.

The context of their opt-in reveals exactly that — it allows you to surmise their interest.

If they were on your site reading an article on a particular topic and then opt-ed in for a content upgrade on the same topic, you can safely assume that this person is highly interested in that topic.

If you can send them more content on that topic they’ll probably happily open and read it which gives you the chance to introduce marketing messages that explain the benefits of your product or service.

In this way, you’ll have a marketing pipeline that utilizes relevance throughout the conversion process.


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  • Love this phrase: “what’s working best right now is actually what has always worked.” Bang-up job on this post, Brian.

  • Awesome summary of ideas. Good to read them again, as most of them are principles like you mentioned. I’m surprised that blue and green performed better than orange, but I’m sure we can find other tests that counteract that.

    On thing I wish LeadPages did better (as I’m a user) is a better exit intent popup than the one they currently have.

    Thanks for the ideas all around!

    • Brian Gladu

      Thanks for the comment, Joe. Yeah, that split test surprised me, too. Really highlights the necessity of testing colors rather than relying on rules of thumb. My suspicion is that this varies depending on the color scheme of the site.

      • Anna Karina Rios

        Hello people! As a graphic designer I’m actually not sorprised that blue an green work better; yes, orange is a really great color to highlight but it’s annoying to the eye so the result on the person would be exactly the same for “Banner Blindness”. Althought the color scheme does have some influence on the way a person reacts to some colors, blue and green will always be in the safe zone :)

        • Brian Gladu

          That makes sense, Anna. Thanks for your input!

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