How I Organically Grew My E-Mail List as a New Entrepreneur

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Many marketers consider e-mail marketing the holy grail of online marketing.

I became one of these people after coming across Bryan Harris’ website with the slogan: “Want random people on the internet to buy stuff from you?”

Rarely did I come across such a spot-on question describing my exact desire. It was exactly what I wanted! I had just quit my job and started my own company a couple of weeks back and was in the process of figuring out my marketing strategy for the information products I was selling on my website.

According to Bryan Harris, the key to selling your stuff to random people on the internet is to build an email list. And the first step to do so, was, unsurprisingly, to sign up for his webinar in exchange for my email address. Very cheeky. But clearly, he knew a thing or two about getting people to sign up for your email list, so I registered for the free webinar.

In the webinar, I learned that email is, indeed, the holy grail of marketing.

It’s the only channel that literally EVERYONE has. It’s completely free. And, you OWN the channel — meaning: there are no algorithm changes that will screw with people seeing your content. And there is far less noise than on social media. Bottom line: people BUY from email, not from social media.

I was sold. I needed a list!

But may I gently remind you: I had just started my business with barely enough money to sustain myself (I had actually moved back home with my parents to bootstrap myself for a few months), so I couldn’t afford Bryan’s fancy online course, let alone the paid marketing methods he was suggesting.

I had to take it into my own hands!

4 months later I had 600+ subscribers on my list. Without having paid a cent for them.

150 signups per month might not seem like a crazy number, but trust me, it IS — for someone just starting out, doing everything herself and not spending anything.

So if you are still here and want to know how I did it, here it goes:

1. I picked a Specific Niche and Stayed Consistent

When you are just starting out, it can be so tempting to create all sorts of content and products. The more the better, right?

Wrong! Very wrong.

Through a wave of unsubscribes I had to learn the hard way that in the beginning, there is nothing more important than focus and consistency.

People sign up to your list because they are interested in what you have to say about a specific topic — don’t you dare talk about something else!

Once you’ve built your brand and a loyal following, you can start to venture out into other, related areas. This only works, however, because people ALREADY trust you. But for starters, you need to earn this trust first before you can capitalize on it.

The easiest way to set your focus in stone is to complete this phrase: I help ______ do _______. For example in my case: I help entrepreneurs manage themselves and master their mind. Every single newsletter I send out and every single post on my blog is about becoming more productive, organizing yourself and managing your thoughts and emotions as an entrepreneur. I sometimes write about other stuff on Medium, but I don’t push it to my audience or add it to my blog.

2. I Learned from the Best, for FREE

Before I crafted my list-growth strategy, I went on a 1-week immersion to learn everything I could about email marketing. It’s insane how much valuable content you can find on the internet, entirely for free!

Here are the people I learned the most from:

  • Bryan Harris: Bryan was the one who introduced me to the concept of growing an email list. His blog, webinars, and programs are full of hacks to get subscribers fast, easy and cheap. On his free webinar, he also taught me how to sell with simple email series and how much purchases you can expect depending on the size of your email list and price of your product.
  • Amy Porterfield: Amy helps online entrepreneurs, especially those with online courses, to grow their audience. Her podcast, freebies, and webinars are packed with step-by-step advice on how to start and build your email list. From her, I learned how to create the perfect lead magnet aka freebie and grow my list through consistent content creation.
  • Tom Kuegler: Tom Kuegler doesn’t specifically talk about growing an email list, instead his free 5-Day E-Mail Course contains everything you need to grow your audience on Medium (which is a great place to get subscribers for your list).
  • Digital Marketer.com: This is the ULTIMATE resource for all things digital marketing. Founder & CEO Ryan Deiss was the one introducing me to the concept of building a sales funnel aka the machine that gets potential customers all the way to the sale.

In case you were wondering: these are NOT affiliate links. I was cheeky enough to use all of their free content without ever committing to any of their paid products, so I might as well give them some free marketing!

3. I made “E-Mail Signups” my Top KPI

While growing my list, I had very successful weeks with 30+ signups and very slow weeks with less than 10 new signups. The difference? How much I focused on growing my list versus other marketing goals! As a solopreneur, I was notoriously spreading myself out too thin, being the Head of Marketing, Head of Product Development, Head of Legal & Finance and Head of Operations all at once, so it was crucial to have a crystal-clear focus within these areas for real progress to happen.

Of course, I wanted to sell my products and services, but I knew that an engaged email list was the key to doing that and I need to focus on getting subscribers first. So I made “new email signups” my Top Marketing KPI and only focused on activities with a high impact on this single metric.

This allowed me to quickly find out which of my marketing channels were really effective and which ones were a waste of time. Since I didn’t spend any money on growing my list, I invented the metric “Time spend per Sign up” (instead of the classic metric “Cost per Sign up”) to compare channels and tactics.

Here is a snapshot of my KPI dashboard in the early days:

KPI Dashboard for List Growth

4. I Experimented a Lot and Meticulously Tracked Success

In my Google Tracking Sheet, I went beyond comparing the effectiveness of marketing channels like Medium, Quora, and Instagram to compare single tactics within these channels.

This allowed me to apply Pareto’s Law and focus on the 20% of tactics that brought 80% of signups and ditch the rest. After all, my time as a solopreneur was extremely precious.

Every week, I tried out new tactics for different channels and measured their effectiveness. For example, I compared the effectiveness of asking people directly to join my list across channels and with different approaches:

Comparing the Effectiveness of Direct Messaging Techniques (Timeframe: 1 Week)

This was especially important for me because I was new to the game and often thought that the tactics that work for other people work for me too.

But it turned out that many strategies taught by the list growth gurus were too early or unsuitable for me: Website pop-ups brought exactly 0 new sign ups, because my website traffic was non-existent when I started out. Asking my personal network to join my list had its clear limitations as I was focusing on entrepreneurs only. Using social media like Instagram and Facebook was unsuccessful as well because my audience on these platforms was just not big enough to grow my list without paying for ads. And for guest-posting, it was simply too early without positioning myself as an authority in my field first.

But I still found a few extremely effective ways to grow my email list fast and free. Here are my Top 3:

1. Medium CTA’s:

I wrote high-quality content on Medium and added sign-up CTAs (Call-to-Action) and freebie offers at the end of each free post, as well as in my bio:

Link to Freebies in Profile
Sign-Up CTA at the end of Medium Posts

2. Quora Direct Messages:

I wrote high-quality answers on Quora and reached out to people that had upvoted my content through Quora messages. This technique was surprisingly effective because 1) not many people do it and 2) I had already provided value to the person and they showed that they are interested by up-voting my answer. Here is the message I used:

Hi Tom,

Thanks so much for your upvote on my answer about managing your emotions as an Entrepreneur— I really appreciate your support!

I am actually writing a lot about managing yourself — with a focus on upgrading your mindset and getting shit done. I am sending out my content to my email list and I thought you might be interested :) If you are, just send me your email address and I’ll add you! Full disclosure: being on my email list also means getting the occasional marketing email about my online trainings, strategy sessions and other products and services. However, I will only ever send you stuff that I think you could really benefit from and you can unsubscribe at anytime!

Anyway, thanks for your support again! I hope you have an amazing week!

Best,

Liz


3. Specific Content Upgrades:

As you probably know, freebies are an extremely effective way to grow your list. It really pays off to spend some time to create 1 or 2 main freebies that are a fit with most of your content. Since I am mostly focusing on productivity and mindset, I created a freebie for each topic: 1) The Cheatsheet “7 Mindset Shifts to Build your Dream Business” and 2) The Free E-Mail Course “End your Procrastination in 6 Days”. I regularly promote these freebies across all my channels and stick the link to one of them in my bio everywhere.

What I found works even better though, is to create a very specific content upgrade for your blog post. Content upgrades are very similar to freebies, but usually not as extensive. They just add a little extra value to your article like a template, a printable version of something, a swipe file, a checklist etc.

Here are some of the content upgrades I added to my articles:

What is great about these content upgrades is that they are much easier to create than high-value freebies and they continue to drive signups long after the blog post was published. I still get around 5 signups each week from my “Weekly Schedule” article even though it was published in May.

Contrary to freebies, I promote the content upgrades already IN the post. Since it is so closely related to the article itself, it doesn’t disturb or appear inappropriate. When people click on the link, they are lead to a landing page for signing up to my list and getting their content upgrade (due to GDPR I now include the option to opt-in to my newsletter or just get the freebie).

Here is an example:

In-Text Promotion of Content Upgrade
Content Upgrade Landing Page with dedicated GDPR-proof list signup

5. I Designed a Signup Funnel for Every Channel

Early in my list building journey I realized the importance of organizing my marketing strategies in a funnel aka the customer journey framework that is designed to get potential customers/subscribers to know about you (attraction and awareness stage), engage them and convert them to subscribers. From there, you can engage them some more and ultimately ask for the sale.

You can think of the customer journey in the same way as getting someone you don’t know to marry you. Asking her/him to marry you on the first date is the same as shoving product ads in the customer’s face before they even got the chance to know you. Thus, it is important to nurture the relationship with your potential customer at each stage so you can get them to the next one.

To maximize the potential of the marketing channels I was working with, I created a funnel for each one. This meant I was identifying attraction, engagement and signup strategies for every single channel.

This is how my funnel looked like for Medium:

My Funnel Design for Medium

For Quora and Instagram it looked slightly different, especially because I used more direct messaging tactics instead of links, but ultimately I followed this 3-step-strategy:

  1. Attract potential subscribers by creating great content (Quora posts, Medium articles, Instagram content) and using proven strategies to get more followers (e.g. follow people and engage with them).
  2. This leads to engaging them with my content.
  3. After I have gained their trust and interest through my content, I ask them if they want to join my list — either through signup buttons and freebies or by simply asking them directly.

6. I Made it Clear What to Expect

Getting someone to sign-up is one thing but getting them to stay — and ultimately buy — is another. Of course, subscriber engagement has a lot to do with the type of emails you send out (which I won’t go into here) but it certainly starts at the sign-up itself.

To avoid unnecessary unsubscribes, it is absolutely essential to tell people exactly what they sign-up for. This is especially important when they are downloading a freebie and might not know what else you will send them afterward.

Here are the two strategies I used to clarify expectations:

  1. Tell them BEFORE they sign-up through a landing page:

A sign-up landing page is a great way to sell people on joining your list. Make sure to add some list-exclusive advantages like promos, resources or the like. When creating a freebie landing page, make sure subscribers tick-off that they want to be included in your list (and add a line about what that means). This way you are safe with GDPR and avoid unnecessary unsubscribes because people are confused why they are getting your emails.

2. Tell them AFTER they signed up through a welcome email:
Welcome emails are a great way to engage subscribers from the get-go. I included not only a short paragraph about what I will be sending them (so they are not confused and unsubscribe) but also free access links to my most popular freebies. It is one of my automated emails that people reply to most and thus a great way for me to engage with them, build trust and introduce them to my products and services.


Take-Away

Growing your email list from scratch with no money to spend on paid marketing and professional guidance can be extremely challenging. But with crystal-clear focus, consistency, a well-thought-out signup funnel, lots of experimentation and meticulous tracking, it is absolutely possible to get your first 1K without spending a cent!

All my best to anyone growing their list! Don’t hesitate to reach out to me in the comments with additional no-budget strategies or questions!


This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 355,974+ people.

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