How do you get people to give you their email address?

Where do your best email subscribers, leads, and customers come from?
Email is one of the oldest online channels, but it’s still crushing it. Smart marketers invest in email marketing.

As everyone hops on the email acquisition train, some parts of email acquisition are getting harder.
It used to be you could slap up a free ebook and rake in those sweet, sweet email addresses.
In a study, ProfitWell reported that “content effectiveness is decreasing, with a typical ebook creating lead velocity for 55% less time than five years ago.”
Across the board, it’s getting harder and harder to reach audiences online. Platforms like Facebook are sending less and less traffic out to websites like yours. According to one study, traffic from organic (non-paid) Facebook posts has declined by 450% since 2015.
(Don’t worry—if you target the right channels, your email list will still grow just fine. Changes to online platforms just mean you have to be smart about it, and we’ll talk about how).
Similarly Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz and SparkToro, has pointed out that virtually all sources of online traffic are sending you fewer visitors than they used to.

Traffic referrals are decreasing from all sourcesSource: SparkToro

This is what makes email acquisition critical.
Because even if no one sends you traffic—you can still send emails.
Let’s talk more about how to increase email subscribers, grow your email list, and build lists that get you more customers.

Not all email lists are created equal

I have a trick question for you.
(Should I have told you that it’s a trick question? Probably not, but let’s see what you think anyway.)
How valuable is an email list with 2,000 people on it?
How much money will that list make you?
Like I said, this is a trick question. There’s no good answer without knowing the details.
Because it all depends who’s on the list.
An email list of 2,000 people could power an entire business. Or it could make no money and just be an expense.
It could outperform an email list of 50,000 people (the biggest email list doesn’t always win). Or it could underperform compared to a list of just 100 people.
Here are three, actual, real-life email lists that I’ve come across in my marketing career.

  • A 2,000-person list that makes no money. It’s essentially a hobby blog that sends out weekly inspirational blog posts.
  • A 2,000-person list that brings in ~$500,000 a year. It sells multi-thousand dollar courses to a niche audience, and makes a handful of sales each month.
  • A 2,000-person list that powers a $7 million business. It reaches executives and director-level professionals who are in need of consulting services.

The lists are roughly the same size. Everyone involved knows how to write a good subject line, and they all have good open rates and response rates.
The difference is who’s on the list.
a picture of an SE OWL

Make like an owl and ask “WHO”

As you build your mailing list, it’s critical to keep this in mind.
A marketing executive isn’t going to Google “how do I get more leads,” download an ebook, and wind up on your email list.
Different audiences hang out in different places. And when you do email acquisition, you don’t just need to know how to grow an email list fast.
You need to find potential customers.
I’m about to walk through the best ways to collect email addresses.
Your idea email acquisition strategies depend on your business. The email acquisition tactics you use will need to be customized.
But there are still general “acquisition marketing” ideas that are important, like…

  • Understanding the target audience of your acquisition campaigns
  • Defining a “qualified lead” for your business (i.e. someone who might actually buy from you)
  • Knowing which traffic channels will help you build your email list

Whether you need to know how to build an email list from scratch or are looking to bring in more qualified leads for an established business—this breakdown of traffic sources and tactics will help you understand how to reach the right audience for your business.
So you can find your best customers.

Not all email acquisition is created equal (here are the top 6 ways to collect email addresses)

What’s the best way to collect email addresses?
How should you choose where to focus your marketing campaigns?
What should your top priorities be when it comes to email marketing list building?
When it comes right down to it, email acquisition is just two steps:

  • Find a way to reach people
  • Get them to give you their email address

This section is about that first step—finding ways to reach people. We’ll talk about conversion rate optimization a little later.
For now—remember that not every channel is created equal. Some channels are better for some topics, and some are better for some audiences.
If you’re purely trying to get the biggest email list, you’re going to want some combination of viral social media list building and search engine optimization. You’ll also need to have a value proposition with mass appeal.
That isn’t always the goal.


Here are the top channels to grow your email list, along with their pros and cons.

1. Search engine optimization (SEO)

If you don’t do SEO, search engine optimization can feel like a confusing minefield. It seems like any step you take can blow up your website by accident.
Search engine optimization is the practice of getting your stuff to show up when someone searches for something. Usually that means Google searches, but SEO can also apply to Amazon, YouTube, Bing, and other searchable platforms.
Remember that table from Rand Fishkin? Google sends more traffic than anything else. By a lot.

Traffic referrals are decreasing from all sourcesEven though referrals are down, Google still sends a lot of traffic

SEO is complicated in some ways—and the Google algorithm is definitely complicated—but there are also simpler versions of SEO that can help.
If you need to learn how to do SEO, there are a variety of resources out there.

I’ve looked at the Google Analytics for dozens of websites, and there’s a consistent trend. If a website has been around for a while, most of its traffic comes from Google.
traffic to my personal blog from Google

A week of traffic to the blog I run on the side. Most traffic comes from organic search (SEO), which is typical for websites that have been around for a while.

If you want a lot of traffic, you will eventually need to think about SEO.
But do you need to do SEO now? What are the cons of SEO?
First, here are the benefits of SEO when it comes to email acquisition:

  • Google refers by far the most traffic. This is the biggest source of traffic available.
  • When someone searches, they’re looking to solve a specific problem. That often means they’re more likely to convert into email newsletter subscribers, or other contacts.
  • Once you rank, you get traffic for a long time. It doesn’t take a ton of work to maintain the traffic you bring in from SEO. You just keep getting more traffic.

SEO has the potential to get you a lot of subscribers. And once you start getting them, you don’t need to do a ton to keep the flow of traffic coming.
SEO also delivers high quality traffic, because people come with a specific problem in mind.

But when is SEO not a good fit for email acquisition?

  • When people aren’t sure what to search. Sometimes people don’t know what to search—even though they have a problem you solve.
  • When the people you want to reach don’t Google things. If you’re trying to reach business-to-business executives, they’re not as likely to turn to Google for answers.
  • When people don’t search for you much. Traffic in Google is limited by how many people search for you. If there aren’t many searches for what you do (because you’re in a new industry, or a niche industry), it will be hard to get traffic.
  • When there’s a more efficient channel for your business. Why go through the trouble of learning and doing SEO if you could go to a networking event and pick up three qualified leads—that give you all the business you need for the next year?

SEO is often a good fit, and it’s often the best option for people who want to build a big email list. If your marketing strategies require reaching a lot of people, SEO can work.
But it’s not the only way.
And it might not be the best way.
guy standing in front of lightsaber looking things

It certainly isn’t the Jedi way

Let’s look at some others.

2. Online groups and forums

What if you serve a really specific audience? Or there are no searches for what you do?