This is what happens when your opt-in form has bad copy:

  • People don’t understand what you can give them (so why would they sign up?)
  • Your offer is less interesting than plain white rice that is somehow also beige
  • They never even notice your offer in the first place

Getting people to come to your website is hard. And if you can’t get your website visitors to turn into leads, it’s a massive waste of time.
Let’s do some quick (not scary, I promise) math.

  • Scenario One: Your website gets 1000 visitors a week, with a conversion rate of 0.5%. That’s 5 subscribers per week. If you know you can convert 10% of your subscribers into customers, that’s 1 new customer every two weeks.
  • Scenario Two: Your website gets 1000 visitors a week, with a conversion rate of 2%. That’s 20 subscribers per week. If you know you can convert 10% of your subscribers into customers, that’s 2 new customers every week.

These are fake numbers, of course—the point is that even though these two scenarios have the same number of website visitors, one of the websites gets four times as many customers.
(by the way, improving a conversion rate from 0.5% to 2% is incredibly doable in most cases).
Improving your opt-in copy is the fastest way to grow your email list because it lets you get more leads from the traffic you already have.
This article is about how to improve your opt-in copy. You’ll learn:

  • The first, crucial step to more conversions (if you don’t do this, nothing else matters)
  • Why your writing is driving people away…and a 5-minute technique to fix it
  • How to make your copy clearer than a freshly-cleaned magnifying glass looking at Lake Clarity
  • Why benefits > features, except when features > benefits
  • How to get the best copywriters in the world to write for you (for free)

Wait, first things first. Can people even find your opt-in form?

In 24 hours, my blog post sucked in 42,000 visitors. I had gone viral on Reddit, and I physically shook with excitement.
Until the dust cleared and I saw how many people converted.
How many do you think signed up? 42,000? 4,000? 400?
It was 4.
That’s a conversion rate of 0.009%. I could increase that conversion rate by 1000% and still have an email list under 100 people.
I’d broken the first rule of how to get people to opt in to your online form.
In an article about how to improve email sign-up forms, Andy Crestodina lays out three key factors:

  1. Prominence
  2. Promise
  3. Proof

It’s that first factor that I was missing.
The only sign-up forms on my website were in the sidebar and at the bottom of a 5,000 word article. In other words, they were too hard to find.
Oli Gardner of Unbounce found something similar in his quest to improve the conversion rate of his content.

Click map of sidebar CTA
“Out of 1,481 (desktop) visitors and 3,428 clicks, only 3 people (0.09%) clicked the sidebar CTA. More people clicked on the statement beneath the button than on the button itself.” – Oli Gardner, Unbounce

Is a sidebar opt-in form effective? Mmmm…maybe not. It’s not the worst idea to have one, but don’t expect much.

But remember! Conversion rate optimization is complicated (expert insight from Oli Gardner)
Oli Gardner speaking

“In my research and experimentation at Unbounce – and looking at some of our customer landing page data – I’ve found two really interesting things about lead gen forms and conversion rates.

For years marketers and designers have been trained to think that anything important, such as your call to action (button or form), should be placed above the fold – primarily based on old studies and bygone behavioral analysis that says people don’t scroll. This is often no longer the case, and at Unbounce we’ve seen that placing your CTA below the fold, or even at the bottom of the page, can encourage people to scroll and hunt for the interaction point.

We’ve also seen data that suggests that on lead gen landing pages, forms placed approximately 670px from the top of the page (on average) can have a positive impact on conversion rates.

Another interesting behavioral insight can come from the simple act of changing the email address form field label. Sometimes people pay close attention to what they are being asked to do – whether they are tired, or just like clear instructions. In an experiment I’ve run several times, I’ve seen that by changing the field label to “Work Email Address” or “Business Email Address” you can collect more company branded emails (such as as opposed to

The benefit to this is that when you are doing subsequent email marketing, your communications are going to their work inbox, often during work hours, when they’re making business decisions. A simple, yet powerful hack.”

A more effective approach to making your opt-in forms more prominent is to use a “content upgrade.”
Content upgrade is a term coined by Brian Dean of Backlinko. It’s when you offer a lead magnet that’s related to the specific blog post someone is reading.

brian dean content upgradeThis blog post about content upgrades…has a content upgrade

What makes a content upgrade different from a normal lead magnet? It’s unique to the blog post your visitors are currently reading—which means you already know they’re interested.
Content upgrades can be extremely effective. If you decide to use one, make sure you put the call to action or opt-in box relatively early in your blog post (high prominence).
One more option for prominence before we move on to opt-in copy—pop-ups.
You might see pop-ups go by a wide variety of names:

  • Modal
  • Pop-up
  • Popover
  • Flash notice
  • Growl notification
  • Theatres
  • Tooltip
  • Hovercard
  • Widget
  • Lightbox

Technically, not all of these are quite the same. But for our purposes, any opt-in form or field that appears to your website visitors after they land on your website counts as a pop-up.
But wait! Aren’t pop-ups, like, super annoying?
Some are. Some aren’t. The thing is—pop-ups work.
When Sumo analyzed the results of 1.7 billion pop-ups, they found that even average pop-ups have a conversion rate of 3.1%.
Pop-Up Conversion Rates

Pop-ups work. This chart comes from the Sumo research.

If I’d had an average-performing pop-up for my 42,000 visitors, I’d have picked up a cool 1,302 subscribers—instead of, ya know, 4.
If the idea of pop-ups makes you nervous, remember that there are a few ways you can make pop-ups less annoying—without losing their effectiveness:

  • Show pop-ups on scroll. Only show the pop-up after your visitors have scrolled a certain percentage of the way down the page.
  • Show pop-ups after a set amount of time. Only show the pop-up after 10 seconds, 30 seconds, 60 seconds, or a time you specify.
  • Show pop-ups on exit intent. Exit-intent pop-ups only trigger when a visitor goes to leave the page.

Bonus: the Sumo study actually showed that delayed pop-ups tended to convert better.
So: increase the prominence of your forms.
And then work on your opt-in copy.

Expert insight: Andy Crestodina on form prominence

Andy Crestodina
There are a lot of ways to make your signup form prominent. Some:

  • The popup …couldn’t be more prominent. It forces the visitor to deal with it
  • The sticky header or footer …it stays in their field of vision
  • The in-line CTA …injected into the content, it’s in the flow so they can’t miss it
  • Large elements
  • High on the page
  • Contrasting color

There are “Laws of Visual Hierarchy” that determine how visually prominent any element is. Generally, more prominent things are more likely to convert. If they don’t see it, they won’t click it.
The laws of visual hierarchy

You can see this chart (and 27 other web design tips) on Orbit Media’s site

Forget what you know about writing. It’s driving people away (and here’s how to fix it in 5 minutes).

“Most businesses get this horrendously wrong because they don’t consider what readers want to get out of the experience. Instead, they focus on trying to sound professional, experienced or knowledgeable – and it almost always backfires.

They “leverage” this, “synergize” that, and offer “integrated, innovative solutions” for just about everything else. They use words that no one ever says out loud, come across as stiff and wooden in the process, and have a remarkable knack for saying nothing of interest about anything.” – Mish Slade, writing in May I Have Your Attention Please

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to write about yourself?
Even if you’re usually a pretty good writer, stuff gets tricky when you sit down to write…

  • A cover letter
  • A personal statement or *shudder* college application essay
  • A Tinder bio
  • Opt-in copy for your website

What changes?
When you add stakes and specific objectives to your writing, it gets harder to write. You can get so caught up in trying to sound more persuasive that you actually become less persuasive.
Half of good copywriting is forgetting all of the annoying marketing and business-y words that make messages boring.
How can you fix it? I like this advice from Anne Lamott.

“The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.” – Anne Lamott, writing in Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird book cover

One of the classic books about writing (