Ask SUCCESS: What’s the Best Way to Build a Profitable Email List on a Budget?

Ask SUCCESS is your place to get questions answered on how to market more effectively. In each issue, marketing expert Bob Serling is joined by another expert to answer your questions. Have a question you’d like answered? Just email it to [email protected]

Today’s question, submitted by multiple readers: What's the best way to build an email list when you're starting out and on a limited budget?


Bob Serling: First, I want to mention three costly list-building methods to avoid when you’re first starting off.

Pay-per-click, which is usually Google Adwords

Social media advertising such as Facebook and LinkedIn

Banner advertising.

These methods work for businesses with larger budgets, but they can be too expensive to test and fine-tune when you have a limited budget. They’re also much more complex than other methods and the rules tend to change frequently. So you want to avoid these until you have a bigger budget to invest in them.

With that in mind, I’ll turn this over to Hunter Boyle with AWeber, an industry-leading list software and management company with whom I’ve had all of my own lists with for 10 years.

Hunter Boyle: First off, make your email content original and unique, and make it very likable and shareable. You need to have something that your readers can't get elsewhere and to make it easy for them to share it with others.

There must be a real reason to get prospects’ attention, because there are so many competing interests. Use personality and a human approach to have email content that stands out. And of course, balance your own email goals with your readers’ needs. You can't set up email to simply promote, promote, promote. Instead, offer value in every email that you send.

For example, Groupon is huge for deals, but they've also taken a very unique approach to the tone and the language they use in their email. That's an important factor that makes them different from other deal sites.

Bob: They have a very quirky tone that really catches your eye and pulls you into the message. It really engages you.

Hunter: Exactly. That level of entertainment is the kind of approach that sets Groupon apart from a slew of competitors.

Tactically, here are three more quick tips that I recommend to people who are just starting out.

1. Try a light box form, also called a popover form. Even if you hate them, you should try them. We've done case study after case study showing opt-in gains of 50-70% if they’re done well. But don’t just pop it up the second somebody hits your site and keep popping it up on every page they go to. That’s never going to work.

Use a 30-to 45-second delay and do the light box pop-up just once per session. And again, we’ve found this produces very high rates in building lists. In fact, it was one of the biggest factors in a site called It’s one of the key drivers of their list growth and they’re over 180,000 subscribers now in just two years.

2. Offer an incentive for people to join your list. Whether it's an ebook information product or a new subscriber coupon for 15% off for a limited time, make that signup more special and convey a big thank you.

3. For more specialized audiences, you can offer them a multi-part email series with helpful resources. For example, we did an ebook or PDF with Marketing Sherpa about 5 Ways to Keep Your Subscribers Engaged. We built an auto responder series that picked up where the PDF ended and got an enormous response.

That’s a model that’s no secret. A lot of sites use ebook incentives because they perform very well. It can help you build a list, grow your credibility, and get you a lot of visibility through sharing it on social media sites and cross-promotion. Using these ideas in tandem is a powerful way for beginners to start and grow an email list from scratch or take a small one up to that next level.

Bob: What’s the best way to get the word out about this unique content you’ve created and only you can provide?

Hunter: There are a lot of different ways to do this. If you have an existing website, you have to take a look at the SEO value and the organic search value. The content itself is what can help make that grow. If you're producing great content that your customers need, you’re letting them know that you're an authority and they will in turn be more likely to share that with their own networks and their own circles.

That begins to get links back to your site, comments on your blog, your email forwarded, and your social media pages shared. And those things all help feed your site’s SEO value. That SEO value helps you to be found by more people who don't know about you yet and those all snowball and roll together.

It’s not an overnight process. But if you’re focusing on providing that value and you're taking a customer-driven approach, you’re definitely going to see results that will get those customers onboard and help them spread your message. They, in a sense, become part of your marketing force.


Bob Serling helps business owners and entrepreneurs generate more traffic, make more sales, and do both more often. Get his free ebook of interviews with 30 leading experts, including SUCCESS Publisher Darren Hardy, at

Hunter Boyle leads business development for AWeber, which helps businesses grow with email and social media tools. A seasoned speaker, content marketer and former editor of Marketing Experiments Journal and Internet Marketing Report, Hunter has been helping organizations optimize their digital initiatives since the dot-com days. Connect with him on Twitter.


Bob Serling is the founder of Profit Alchemy. He helps business owners and entrepreneurs increase their profits with no cost and no risk. Get his free eBook to discover 42 no-cost, no-risk ways to double your profits at

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