This post was updated on June 13th, 2022
Email marketing is an indispensable part of almost any business. This is why a large, engaged list of email contacts is 1 of your greatest marketing and sales assets. But if you want to build your email list (whether you have a small list or are starting from scratch), the most important question is how to get email addresses in the first place.
Moreover, how do you collect the right email addresses? Because which contacts you have on your email list is just as important as how many you have. You need potential customers, not just anyone with a Gmail account.
When you’re building an email list, you need to make sure 3 things are true:
- You have a way to reach people
- You have a way to collect their emails
- They’re the right people
This article will give you 15 proven ways to build an email list that continually grows and converts with these concepts in mind. We’ll cover some incredibly low-lift ways to collect emails and some more sophisticated marketing strategies.
Table of Contents
- Should you buy email lists?
- 15 ways to collect email addresses and build an email list that grows your business
- What is the best way to get emails?
Should you buy email lists?
It’s not a secret that you can purchase email lists, and while this might sound like a good way to get started, it will ultimately make it harder to build a robust, thriving email audience.
The first reason you shouldn’t buy email lists is pretty simple—spammy lists for sales don’t work for legitimate sales and marketing. The contacts you get probably won’t be quality leads. They’re unlikely to engage. You’ll spend valuable time and money trying to market to these contacts (who may or may not be real people) when you could be engaging with real potential customers.
The second big reason not to buy email lists is that they will only damage your reputation. When people receive unsolicited emails from brands they’ve never engaged with, they feel used and manipulated, which probably isn’t the image you’re going for.
Moreover, purchased contacts who didn’t opt into communications are more likely to mark you as spam, which can destroy your email deliverability with Gmail and other email providers.
Finally, sending unsolicited emails to purchased contacts may even be illegal, depending on where your audience is. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for instance, can levy huge fines against businesses that misuse personal data.
In short, buying email lists is ineffective, damages your reputation, may ruin your email deliverability, and potentially illegal. Just don’t do it.
15 ways to collect email addresses and build an email list
Here are 15 ways to collect email addresses and build an email list that will grow your business:
- Offer a captivating lead magnet
- Add a signup button on your Facebook business page
- Collect email addresses with Facebook Ads
- Use pop-ups to make your forms more prominent
- Reach out to people individually
- Share your link on social media with compelling visuals and snippets
- Ask for email addresses
- Create incredible email content
- Ask people to share your emails
- Add a link to your signup form in your email signature
- Host live events and bring your forms
- Offer content on a platform like YouTube or Pinterest, then link to your site
- Optimize your form design and opt-in copy
- Add a subscription bar to your website
- Partner with other people in your industry
(If you’re just getting started, 1, 5, 9, and 15 are great. If you’ve been around a bit, look at 3, 8, 13, and 15. Yes, 15 is always good).
Already an ActiveCampaign user but need a few pointers? Lock down the essentials with our Getting Started Guide.
1. Offer a captivating lead magnet
“I need that now! Please give it to me, wow!”
That’s the response you’re going for when creating a lead magnet.
A lead magnet, also called an opt-in offer or “carrot,” is anything you give your audience in exchange for their email address. It’s 1 of the most tried-and-true list-building tactics out there.
You’ll notice that several other ways to collect email addresses require having a lead magnet.
We put together a huge post on how to create great lead magnets, including examples of all different kinds of lead magnets, like:
And so on.
Nowadays, everyone has a “CAN’T MISS ULTIMATE GUIDE TO 725843x YOUR RESULTS.” Because lead magnets got so popular, your lead magnet needs to be better than those published in 2009.
When you make a lead magnet, here are the things that make it great:
- It solves a heavy, emotional problem (not the most important problem, just a heavy and emotional one)
- It solves that problem fast (choose a problem with a short-term solution, even if it’s not what people need long-term)
- It solves that problem relatably (people need to see themselves in the problem you’re solving)
It’s easier said than done, but those are the foundation. A lead magnet that gets people to sign up for your email newsletter is 1 that people think will give them a quick win.
Here’s an example from Peter Nguyen of The Essential Man.
Lead magnets help address one crucial thing: If you want to collect email addresses, you need to solve problems.A great lead magnet promises to solve a medium-sized problem quickly (10 minutes to 2 days). That's what gets email opt-ins. Tweet this!
2. Add a signup button on your Facebook business page
This one’s quick. Add a newsletter signup form to your Facebook page.
Here’s what we have on our page at ActiveCampaign.
I’ll be frank: you aren’t going to get a ton of signups from your Facebook page.
But it’s still worth doing. As far as simple ways to collect email addresses go, this is 1 of the easiest. And if someone is actively seeking a way to subscribe to you, you should make it easy.Fast win you might have missed – add a sign up button to your business Facebook page Tweet this!
3. Collect email addresses with Facebook Ads
Before we get into this one, it’s important to note: Only do this if you already have a way to turn subscribers into buyers (products, sales funnel, etc.). Otherwise, you could waste a lot of money.
Why are Facebook Ads such a common email collection tool for small businesses?
- They are relatively inexpensive.
- You can see results fast.
- You can reliably reach people who are ready to buy from you.
The biggest challenge for a lot of small businesses is reaching people. When you can’t spend a ton of money and need to generate sales quickly, there aren’t many advertising options out there.
Facebook Ads offer a fast, simple, effective way to target people who might be interested in your product. It’s a really common way to get leads and collect email addresses.
Here’s the play-by-play:
- Create a piece of valuable content that solves a problem for your target audience
- Use a Facebook Ad to send people to a landing page, where they give you their email
- Send new subscribers their content (with email templates like this), along with a welcome series that tries to sell them your product/service
For some products, you can send people directly to your store (this is especially common for ecommerce businesses).
Here’s an example of an ecommerce Facebook Ad with a CTA sending people straight to the product listing:
In this example, Ten Thousand sends anyone who clicks the ad straight to the store page for their shorts.
Here’s another example from the same Facebook News Feed, driving people who click to download a case study.
You get taken to a landing page designed to collect email addresses when you click on this ad.
We could quibble about the form design here, but the point is this:
- Facebook Ads are a way to collect email addresses when you need leads on-demand.
- Facebook Ads are trackable, so you can see what you make based on what you spend.
- Facebook Ads push people to sign up or buy right away or enter people into nurture sequences.
Note, Part 2: Facebook Ads will get less efficient over time because you’ll reach your most interested leads with your first few campaigns.
4. Use pop-ups to make your opt-in forms more prominent
Do you have a signup form on your site? How easy is it to find?
If the idea of adding a pop-up makes you uncomfortable, don’t worry—you can add pop-ups that aren’t scammy or excessively annoying.The average pop-up form converts at 3.1% – a great way to collect email addresses Tweet this!
We put together a full post on how pop-ups affect your conversion rate. If you don’t want to be annoying, you can try:
- Triggering pop-ups after 30 seconds instead of immediately
- Triggering pop-ups after 50% scroll (so people only see them after reading some)
- Triggering pop-ups based on exit intent
If you don’t use a pop-up, you’re missing 1 of the best ways to collect email addresses.
5. Reach out to people individually
What do you do if you don’t already have an email list or other audience? Many people take to online forums or start focusing on SEO/paid ads right away. Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz and Sparktoro, argues that this is a mistake because you should focus on the people who are easiest to reach.
It’s easier to reach people who already know you. So when you’re first starting, don’t be afraid to ask people one-on-one.Before you go down the rabbit hole of paid marketing – have you talked to people you know? Tweet this!
You can reach out via email or some kind of messenger. Include a link to your signup form or landing page. Collect email addresses 1 at a time—until you reach a critical mass and can move on to bigger tactics.
To learn more about how to write a landing page that converts, check out this guide.
You don’t want to pester your friends or family, but asking once isn’t much of an imposition—and it’s how a lot of email lists get started.
6. Share your link on social media with compelling visuals and snippets
When thinking about how to promote your content, it’s often best to pretend that social media doesn’t exist.
Social media obviously does exist. So what’s the point?
It’s too easy to get trapped in the idea that blindly promoting content on social media does something. Because it “feels” like you’re doing something worthwhile, it makes it harder to develop other promotion ideas that could be more useful.
Social media can send traffic to your website and email newsletter. You can collect email addresses (sort of). And yes, some things go viral through social sharing.
But social media only works if you do it well. And even when it works, the opportunity to capture emails is usually much smaller than other channels (like organic search, online communities, or landing your content in someone else’s newsletter).
Here’s what social media is great at:
- Connecting with people you wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to connect with
- Asking questions to a diverse audience
- Participating in interesting conversations (which can also lead to connections)
Here’s what definitely does not work on social media: sharing tons of links to your content without including any reason for someone to click on it (or sharing other people’s stuff).If you want opt-ins from social media, you need to have conversations that people WANT to be part of Tweet this!
Unfortunately, this is also how most content creators use social media.
If you think about the most popular accounts you follow, you’ll probably find that they don’t post many links or use many hashtags—and if they do post links, they usually do a pretty good job of introducing the links with good copy.
Here’s how you can use social media to build an email list:
- Share content from relevant people in your space
- Participate in relevant conversations
- Post your perspective on recent events
- Occasionally share links to your stuff. Write well.
Ramit Sethi, founder of GrowthLab and IWT, does this well.
Ramit gives details, and the details are intriguing. Teasing the content of his emails makes people want to sign up.
7. Ask for email addresses
You have to ask for email addresses.
You need to have prominent forms. Your blog posts should include a call-to-action (CTA). Heck, your business cards could have a short URL for your best blog post (or your newsletter).
This seems so obvious that it’s almost not worth mentioning. But so many people are so uncomfortable asking for anything that they don’t!
And if you never ask people for their email addresses, you won’t collect email addresses.If you aren't getting opt-ins – are you asking people to sign up in the right places? Tweet this!
If you’re nervous about asking for email addresses because it feels “spammy,” remember:
- You don’t force anyone to sign up, and they can always unsubscribe.
- It’s not spammy to give people things that will help them.
Your content is good. The stuff you offer is good. You’re doing people a tremendous service by giving it to them.
8. Create incredible email content
“Create good content.” Enough said, right? (And yeah, this is the most common piece of advice out there).
It’s not enough.
Your content needs to be knock-your-socks-off good. Everyone and their third cousin twice removed have an email list nowadays—you need your list to be the 1 that people open, click, and read week after week.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, for you), most content isn’t incredible.
Most emails go on for too long, are uninteresting, or don’t really solve the problems they say they’re going to.
Your emails serve as the first product your contacts receive, the thing they get before ever deciding to purchase. That’s why you need to think of your emails as assets and products in themselves.
Think about it. If you were walking down the street and a restaurant gave free samples, you might stop to try it. But if what you taste isn’t good, you’ll probably never go inside and become a customer.Underrated email list growth tactic – make your emails easy for people to share with their friends (who then opt in) Tweet this!
So how can you make incredible content?
- Start with a deep understanding of your audience’s problems. You don’t need to be a supergenius writer to solve their problems.
- Use a compelling angle and an interesting hook that connects 2 seemingly unrelated things to make your point.
Content marketing expert Jimmy Daly calls this kind of content “movement-first.”
If you want your emails to connect, they need to pack a punch. Daly has other advice on what makes content “good” here.
Don’t forget: creating incredible email content also means sending emails that look good to the user on any device and with any email service provider. Gmail is the biggest, but considering other email providers may make sense for large email lists.
Anyone can dash off a quick email to a list. Laboring over incredible content gives you the right to use the next tactic…
9. Ask people to share your emails
When you have incredible content, you earn the right to ask people to share it. Also, they’re more likely to actually share it when you ask.
Asking people to “smash that like button and subscribe” is a meme because so many YouTube personalities do it in such a teasable way. But when your content is incredible, you earn the right to say things like, “If you’ve been enjoying this content, I’d really appreciate it if you could forward this email to someone you think it might help.”
Heck, go ahead and take those exact words.
Josh Garofalo, an excellent copywriter who writes for tech businesses, does precisely this in his copywriting newsletter.
Josh doesn’t promote his email list all that much because he doesn’t have to.The fastest way to get referrals to your email list – ask for them Tweet this!
People share the content because it’s amazing.
How will you know when your content is amazing? People will tell you by replying to your emails and sharing your content.
10. Add a link to your signup form in your email signature
This takes almost no work. It probably won’t get you hundreds of email subscribers overnight, but it’s so easy there’s no reason not to do it.
Any time you send an email, you have an opportunity to promote your content.
Just add it to your email signature.
Email signatures are great because it’s a space that isn’t used for much else.Your email signature is a missed opportunity. Why not put something interesting there (besides just your name)? Tweet this!
There are even software businesses designed to make it easy for whole teams to change their email signatures at once.
A link to your newsletter (or an especially great piece of content) is an easy way to ensure that everyone you email knows about your content.
11. Host live events and bring your forms
No one said you need to build your email list online.
Offline networking and live events are 2 of the most overlooked methods to collect email addresses. But they make sense—if someone is motivated enough to leave the house, they’re more likely to be an engaged email subscriber.Underrated email tactic – host live events and collect email addresses there. Those people are more likely to follow up with you. Tweet this!
Just ask Leslie Chen, who used Meetup to get her first 1,000 email subscribers.
Platforms like Meetup make it easier to create live events. Other common examples are:
- Teaching an offline class: Organizations often bring in speakers to run small workshops. There’s even a coffee shop by my apartment that does this.
- Networking events: There are many regular meetups out there—anything from a small marketing meetup in a bar to giant industry conferences. Smaller meetups are more intimate and often offer more opportunities to build relationships.
- Speaking: If you do any speaking, include a CTA at the end of your presentation.
Some people use a simple pen and paper to get their offline signups. If you use ActiveCampaign, you can also use our iPad Forms App (which works even without the internet).
As more and more marketing moves online, don’t forget that offline channels can still be powerful.
12. Offer content on a platform like YouTube or Pinterest, then link to your site
Sometimes a blog post isn’t the best way to make your point.
When video or audio are key parts of your content, it can make sense to host it on other platforms (like YouTube or podcast sites).
At the same time, you don’t want to be at the whim of those platforms. If YouTube suddenly decides to change its algorithms, you could wind up missing out on views.
So send people from your content to your email list.
This is exactly what Vanessa, an ActiveCampaign customer, does for her business Speak English with Vanessa.
Vanessa’s videos have millions of views, and she has over 400,000 subscribers on YouTube.If you have a distribution channel that works, you NEED a way to get your viewers' email addresses (to keep the convo going) Tweet this!
YouTube makes a ton of sense for Vanessa as a platform—after all, people want to hear English while learning English. But she wanted to have more on-demand access to her audience (and the ability to sell to them directly), so she built an email list.
How? A simple CTA in her videos.
As Vanessa says, “a simple way to send them things and organize students with tags is so helpful.”
An email list, grown through her lead magnets, is a simple way to send people things. She uses YouTube + lead magnets to collect email addresses.
13. Optimize your form design and opt-in copy
When you’re list building, it’s easy to get caught up in getting more traffic to your website.
But you also need to be able to convert that traffic into actual email subscribers. That’s how you collect email addresses. No conversions = no subscribers.
That’s why opt-in copy and form design are criminally underrated ways to grow your email list. Done well, they let you get more out of the people who are already coming to your website.
We’ve written a bunch of content on how you can improve your conversion rates through copy and form design. Here are some of the best ones:
- Opt-in Copy that Doesn’t Suck: The Criminally Underrated Way to Grow Your Email List
- The Secret to Writing Great Marketing Copy is Market Research
- Do Pop-ups Work? Here’s What They Do to Your Conversion Rate
- How to Make a Good Form (Make Sure Your Forms Don’t Scare People Away)
- 5 Sign-Up Form Design Mistakes That Can Kill Your Conversion Rate (And How to Fix Them)
There’s a ton in those posts, so here are some quick tips:
- Be clear, not clever. People should understand exactly what you offer within 5 seconds.
- Get specific. The more specific a benefit you offer, the better your conversions.
- Use the words your audience uses to describe their own problems.
- Make forms prominent, brief, and easy to understand
- Add emotion. Emotion drives people to take action (especially awe, fear, anger, and envy).
Here’s a great example of opt-in copy from Darya Rose of Summer Tomato.
If you can nail down your opt-in copy, you’ll get more email subscribers—even if you don’t increase your traffic.
14. Add a subscription bar to your website
Ever seen 1 of these guys hangin’ out on a website?
Adding a bar like this to your website is pretty straightforward. Use an email capture tool like OptinMonster or SumoMe, and you can add the bar to any page you like.
It’s worth noting that the conversion rate on bars like this (and also sidebar CTAs) tend to be relatively low. Here’s a click map from Oli Gardner’s research at Unbounce.
Even though clicks will be low, it’s worth doing because the people who complete this email signup are your most motivated subscribers. They’re the people that subscribe not just because you’re offering some guide but because they’re actively looking for more of your content.Good rule of thumb: if someone is specifically seeking you out, it should be easy for them to subscribe. Tweet this!!
Easy to set up once + more email addresses = simple, worthwhile list-building tactic.
15. Partner with other people in your industry
The fastest way to collect email addresses is to piggyback on someone who already has an audience.
If someone already subscribes to content similar to yours, they’ll probably be interested in your content. Plus, word of mouth is powerful—if someone you trust recommends content, you’re more likely to actually check it out.
Writer Michael Ellsberg called this the Tim Ferriss Effect—because 1 post on Tim Ferriss’ blog sold more of his books than an op-ed in The New York Times.
Writer Ryan Holiday agreed, saying:
“I’ve done a lot of media over the years, but I have never received as many emails from an appearance as I did from Tim’s podcast. And they were all so nice!”
What does it mean to piggyback? It means that someone influential mentions your website, and people sign up through your form. Or it means that they include a link to you on their website or newsletter, and people sign up through your form.
Notice that regardless of what the partnership looks like, you need to make sure people sign up through your form—instead of trading email lists. Opt-in email lists are essential!
If you want to piggyback on another platform, there are a few things you can do:
- Say something incredibly well. Influential people won’t share bad content. This goes back to the point of making something incredible.
- Share the influencer’s content, and tag them.
- Mention and quote the influencer in your content.
- Engage with the influencer on social media without promoting yourself.
After a while, you’ve earned the right to send an email. But you aren’t promoting yourself just yet—your initial email should be a simple “I love your work.” Without asking for anything.
Influencers get dozens of cold pitches a day. But since they’ll recognize your name and you aren’t asking for anything, you’re highly likely to get a response.
Eventually, you can ask for a 10-minute phone call. And then the floodgates open, and you’ll be drowning in opportunities:
- Co-hosted webinars
- Podcast appearances
- Guest posts
- Other co-created or co-promoted content
Of course, all this gets easier once you have an audience of your own. But these partnerships are still powerful.
Conversion XL started as a small conversion optimization blog. As it’s grown, it’s attracted bigger and bigger names.
CXL regularly hosts webinars with marketing influencers. It’s a win-win—the influencer gets to expand their reach, and CXL gets promoted via the influencer’s email list and social media.
Partnerships are great because they let you get access to a relevant audience. With access and a trusted recommendation, you get a fresh source of email subscribers.
“ActiveCampaign is seriously punching above its weight as an all-in-one email marketing, automation, and CRM platform. In terms of features, it competes with the biggest names in the industry, and its pricing is based on features, not the size of your contact list (like most software options).” -Aaron Brooks (Venture Harbor) on why ActiveCampaign is the perfect email tool for large contact lists.
What is the best way to get emails?
These are some of the best options to collect email addresses. At the same time, 15 ways is a lot of ways. Here are a few tips on getting started.
How should you choose what to focus on?
- If you don’t have a great lead magnet yet, do that. It will help you convert more leads from every other channel.
- Optimize form copy and prominence if you have lead magnets and some traffic. Converting more of the people that visit you will help you grow faster.
- If your list of email addresses is small, reach out and ask for shares. It’s easier to grow once you have a bigger list (more people to promote you). Early on, spreading through personal networks is fast.
- You only need to nail small optimizations once. Email signatures, subscription bars, setting up Facebook page signups, and pop-ups are all one-time setups, even though their impact isn’t necessarily huge.
- Only put down money if you can make money. Ads (on Facebook or elsewhere) are only helpful if you already have a funnel that you can use to get sales.
- Where do your leads come from? Check out this post on email acquisition to learn more about getting people to your site (after all, you can’t get subscribers if you don’t have visitors!).
In a sentence: Focus on the biggest opportunities for the stage your business is at.