How To Start An Email List From Scratch: A Complete Guide To Email Marketing

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Starting an email list from scratch can seem overwhelming. There are so many things to consider, like what to offer, how to build trust with your audience, and how to create a lead magnet that converts.

But don’t worry! In this post, I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know about building your email list from scratch.

What We Will Cover

Why Have an Email List?

Email is one of the oldest forms of communication on the internet. In fact, the first email message was sent on October 29th, 1969 (take that, AOL!). As the web evolved and became mainstream, email still remains incredibly personal.

1. Email is the best way to reach your target audience.

On social media, complex algorithms filter what content we see. No two users experience the same Newsfeed on Facebook or Instagram. Even Twitter and Tiktok automatically adjust what we see. With the exception of spam filters, email is a direct connection. No algorithms, just a direct shot between the recipient and the sender.

2. Email marketing is a great way to grow your business.

When done properly, email marketing is the result of the client or consumer raising their hand to accept messages from the sender. In terms of your business, a human has said, “Yes, communicate with me about your message.” They do so because they are expecting value – it is your job to deliver that value and build trust. We know that trust and value are the cornerstones of building a successful coaching or consulting business.

3. Email is the most cost-effective marketing channel.

It costs zero stamps to send an email message. For better or worse (thanks, spammers), email is basically free to use. Compare that to ever-changing Pay-Per-Click advertising or postage for snail mail, email beats out all other forms of advertising when it comes to price per send.

4. Email is the most personal form of marketing.

Nod your head if you still have access to one of your earliest email accounts. Email addresses became part of our online identity, and we have spent years subscribing, unsubscribing, filtering, and sorting our incoming emails. It is deeply personal. When customers or clients choose to receive email from you, it is a sign of trust. They are welcoming you into their private portion of the internet. Not everyone has access. Act accordingly.

Starting an Email List from Zero

I’ve been pretty open that not having an email list earlier was one of my biggest business regrets. I am confident saying that not having an email list probably cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue and set my company back more than a decade.

This isn’t a pity party. Instead, I am proud to say that not having an email list early has made me appreciate that value so much more. In fact, it is one of the first steps I recommend for every client and prospect.

Also – and this is frequently overlooked – everyone’s list started at zero. No one is born with a following or email list. Everyone had to start fresh. You’re in good company.

Let’s jump in.

How to Build an Email List for Free

In this post, I’ll cover simple steps to create an email list from scratch. Many of the steps are entirely free – or free to start. As you grow (which you will), you can budget funds into your email marketing campaign. But, for now, let’s assume you’re looking to build your email list for free.

Can I Build an Email List Without a Website?

When starting your business, you may struggle with the chicken-and-egg dilemma. You may be testing the waters, not ready to entirely commit to a business plan or strategy. You may be starting with zero dollars in the bank. Or, perhaps starting a website would delay the entire launch process from 6 months to a year (or, if we’re being honest, maybe 4 years).

Regardless of why you don’t have one: Yes! You can start building an email list without a website.

However, I strongly encourage you to have a landing page – think of it as a 1-page place on the internet where you can direct visitors. Here, on your landing page, you will have your email signup, perhaps a little blurb about you, and – ideally – a lead generation magnet.

Side note: sometimes lead generation magnets are called incentives, bribes, gifts, offers, opt-ins, lead magnets

The landing page is where visitors and prospective clients will go to actually sign up for your mailing list – it is the place on the internet where the signup form lives. We can argue whether a landing page is the same as a website – in some ways it is, in some ways it is not – but you need a place for people to subscribe to your email list.

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Where Can You Promote Your Email List

  • Your own email signature box
    This email list-growing strategy is super simple to implement. Just add a link to your landing page to your outgoing email signature
  • Guest blog posts
    Find websites with similar audiences and ask if they are accepting guest blog posts. Many will allow a link or two in the author / bio section
  • Partner with similar professionals to host a giveaway
    Allow visitors to register for your giveaway with their email address
  • Q&A Sites
    Use question and answer sites to answer your ideal audience questions (and link to your landing page in your bio or in the answer itself)
  • Social Media
    Include your landing page link on your social media profiles
  • Private Groups
    Create closed/exclusive groups with content available only to subscribers
  • Social Media Posts
    Share your landing page or lead generation offers directly to your social media profiles as a status update
  • Existing Library
    Repurpose your older content on new platforms (old blog posts shared to Medium, for example) with a CTA to your offer or email list subscription form embedded
  • Paid Ads
    Use Pay Per Click ads (like on Facebook or Instagram) to send targetted traffic to your offer landing page
  • Webinars
    Run a free webinar (you can even interview someone and take the pressure off having to create the entire presentation)

10 Ways You Can Build an Email List From Scratch

1. Create strong call to actions (CTAs) across your website or social media profiles

According to HubSpot, personalized calls-to-action results in a 42% higher view-to-submission rate.

What do I mean by “personalized call to action”?

I mean contextually relevant to your content. We can talk about more invasive personalization later, for now, let’s say you have a page or blog post on your website about raising miniature horses. Your CTA should be related to miniature horses, not a generic “Sign Up” or “Join My List”. Give your visitors a compelling reason to sign up, relate to the content they are currently viewing on your site.

2. Include a CTA on every page

A call-to-action (CTA) may include a popup, slide-in, or exit intent. Exit-intent is a bit of code that tracks the visitor’s cursor and generates a popup form just before the visitor closes the browser tab or clicks ‘Back’.

3. Pitch your newsletter and/or exclusive content

Exclusive content via newsletters is trending right now – and for good reason. A community of like-minded individuals is more valuable than a disconnected network on social media filled with varying topics.

4. Run a referral campaign

Referrals are too often overlooked. They are network boosters! Ask your current network for one or two others who may be interested in your offer or email list – then ask new subscribers for one or two referrals.

5. Run a promotion or giveaway

Promotions and giveaways attract new subscribers like a moth to a flame. Try something like SumoKing to run a referral-based giveaway and leverage the power of social media.

6. Tell your network

I’m still amazed at how shy (or silent) professionals are about promoting themselves to their network. I am not advocating for blatant spam, but relatable, human-based messaging that lets your personal and professional networks know what you’re up to. Tell them about your newsletter or exclusive community, offer them insider access, or just ask their advice on your content.

7. Create a Community

Create a private Facebook Group or Tribe community accessible to those who signup to your email list.

8. Keep Your Promise

As your mailing list starts to grow, it is important to keep your promise to your subscribers. If they signed up for a weekly newsletter, published weekly. Deliver on your promise to them. If you can’t meet that expectation, change the expectation. Only commit to what you can consistently produce.

9. Commit to High-Quality Content

Since we already know email subscriptions are highly personal and difficult to get, let’s agree to bring our best when publishing.

10. Promote Upcoming Products

“Notify Me” are two powerful words when building an email list. If you are toying with a new product or service, consider adding a wait-list or notification CTA on the page. Collecting email addresses is not only a way to gauge interest, but also pre-loads a pool of customers for your launch.

Once visitors click the “Notify me” button they’re presented with a popup optin:

10 Steps to Building an Email List From Scratch

There are a few simple steps to building your email list from scratch. I’ve outlined 10 of them here:

  1. Choose your email marketing provider
  2. Setup your email marketing account
  3. Create a sign up for your email list
  4. Write your welcome message
  5. Write your first content pieces
  6. Create your landing page
  7. Create your offer
  8. Create your content plan
  9. Promote your landing page and offer
  10. Test, Analyse, and Test again

Let’s dig into each:

1. Choose your email marketing provider

Your email marketing provider is the service you will use to send and manage your email marketing campaigns and messages. This service uses their own servers to send email on your behalf.

Don’t use your own @gmail or @yahoo email account, not only is this not scalable, but it cannot be automated* to fit your needs. It also lacks the professionalism you’re looking for as you grow your business.

When considering an email marketing provider, we want to evaluate key functionalities, including:

  • High delivery rates (this is the reputation of their service and ability to not be viewed as spam)
  • Ease of integration to your process (does it connect to any tools you’re currently using)
  • Signup forms that you can use on your website or landing page
  • Email templates and/or template builder for your own custom emails
  • Email automation tools
  • Analytics and tracking

*technically it can, but the work is not worth the effort or savings.

2. Setup your email marketing account

Once you have selected your email marketing provider (below, I have an entire breakdown of my recommended email marketing services), signup and create your account. Each service is a little different, but they will all walk you through the necessary setup steps.

3. Create a sign up for your email list

After you’ve created your account, navigate to their forms or signup builder. You may have to create your first list, don’t overthink this part. The key is to get started so you can collect email addresses to build your list. Call your list something like “Followers and Fans” or “All Subscribers” or “From the Beginning”. If you’ve already read ahead to Step 7 “Create Your Offer”, maybe call your list something that aligns with your optin offer. It is not necessary, and most email service providers don’t show the name of the list except when someone unsubscribes. So, name it something you’ll remember, but also keep it clean as some subscribers may see it later.

4. Write your welcome message

I believe you should have three messages written and ready to go when you launch your email marketing list. Again, don’t overthink these, they can always be changed and tweaked. Trust me. 

Your welcome is the place to introduce yourself and set expectations. Let your readers know how often they will hear from you, what will they learn from you, how they can connect with you, and how they can unsubscribe. Yes, I know it is early in the relationship, but letting people know how they can stop getting email is comforting.

5. Write your first content pieces

Message 1: Welcome & Offer
If you’re going to have an opt-in offer, this message is where you both thank the subscriber for subscribing and tell them how to obtain their offer. This may be a link to a .pdf, an attachment, or a file. Whatever it is, fulfill your promise and give them access to what they signed up for.

Message 2: Build Trust

An easy way to build trust is to save someone from trouble. This could be in the form of saving time, offering a recommendation, or helping them avoid a problem. You can debunk a widely accepted myth about your industry or share an “aha” moment. Your goal is to build trust by speaking their language and meeting them where they are.

Message 3: Quick Hack

What common pain points or problems do your readers have? Can you address these? Can you offer a helpful hack or quick tip? Answer a question your ideal client will have and offer a simple solution to fix that problem.

6. Create your landing page

Most likely, the email marketing provider you choose will have a built-in landing page creator. If not, you can use a third-party service like LeadPages, Unbounce, or Instapage. Or, if you have a website, add your mail list signup form to your web pages.

7. Create your offer

Digital book cover example for lead generation or email marketing optin

We’ve been talking about your opt-in offer (remember, these may also be referred to as premium content pieces, bribes, offers, lead magnets, …) now is the time to create it. Agh! I know. More content creation. BUT! You can be creative here. Your offers could be a guide, a calculator (built-in Google Sheets, for example), templates, images, .pdfs, ebooks, case studies, reports, etc. Anything that entices your visitor to exchange their email address for your helpful content.

8. Create your content plan

One of my early fears was not creating the right kind of content for my email list, that held me back for far too long. Now, I follow a simple formula and can draft a one-year content plan for my emails in 10 minutes.

How do I do it?

I make a list of five high-level problems my ideal audience struggles with. From there, I make a list of 10 related topics to each of those problems. For example, if “Email Marketing” were one of the common problems my audience faces, I may list the following 10 topics:

  1. How to start an email list
  2. How to create an email marketing strategy
  3. What is the best email marketing provider
  4. Common terms of email marketing
  5. Things to consider when someone unsubscribes from your email list
  6. How to automate your email marketing efforts
  7. How to use tags and segments to target your email subscribers
  8. Common mistakes to email marketing campaigns
  9. How to write the perfect welcome email squence
  10. How to market your business through email

These can each be turned into a blog post, and that blog post can be summarized into an email (with a link directing your reader to the full post). If you repeat this process for all five high-level problems, you’ll have 50 topics to discuss. Congratulations, you have one year of content.

To learn more, I cover this content creation process in-depth in Coaching Bootcamp.

9. Promote your landing page and offer

Scroll back up to Where To Promote Your Email List to see a list of places and ways you can share your landing page. Remember, the entire purpose of the landing page is to convert visitors to subscribers. Don’t do all this work and forget to promote yourself.

10. Test, Analyse, and Test again

Most email marketing services include some sort of analytics and tracking ability. Some things to consider when testing:

  • Time and day of delivery (specifically if you are running any sort of automation)
  • Subject lines experimentation
  • A/B testing for personalization (do you include things like the subscribers’ name?)
  • Do you change your tone of voice in your messages? Does this affect open rates? Are you serious? Playful? Do you use humor? Do shorter or longer messages convert better? What happens when you include photos? Links to your related blog post?
  • What types of devices are your subscribers using? Mobile? Desktop? Do your emails look good on those devices?

There is a valid, pro-privacy (anti-email tracking) movement headed by the creators of Hey, it is worth the read and thoughtful consideration.

Above, I covered key functionalities to consider when evaluating an email marketing provider. Your particular needs may be different, these are all solid choices for starting your email list or managing an existing email list of clients for coaches or consultants.

Many of these providers have a free tier, which is easy on a start-up budget, but they are premium services. There are some business marketing tools worth paying for and your email marketing list is one that should rank in the Top 5.

1. Mailchimp (Best Free Plan)

MailChimp for email marketing services

MailChimp is a top email marketing service because it offers one of the most generous free plans in the industry. Moreover, every one of its plans gives you access to multiple marketing channels, including postcards, landing pages, social media, and of course email.

Using Mailchimp, you can have up to 2,000 contacts in your list for free, and you get to send up to 10,000 emails. In our experience, that’s more than enough for new websites, and it enables you to get started with email marketing without spending any money.

With that tier, you get access to marketing Customer Relationship Management (CRM) features, segmentation, tags, surveys, campaign analytics, email automation, and more. Mailchimp also provides you with a drag-and-drop email builder, alongside a broad collection of templates to help you design campaigns.

2. AWeber (Best Email Platform for Integrations)

AWeber integrates with just about every platform you can imagine. It connects easily with WordPress, Facebook, PayPal, and multiple CRM platforms.

Beyond that, AWeber offers all the features you’d expect from an industry-leading email marketing service. There’s a free plan that supports up to 500 contacts, and enables you to send 3,000 emails per month.

However, AWeber also only offers one premium plan, which starts at $19 if you opt for monthly billing. That Pro plan supports unlimited contacts, email automation, dynamic content, A/B testing, and behavioral automation.

3. ConvertKit (Great for Content Creators)

The ConvertKit home page for email marketing services.

A lot of email marketing services also provide you with tools to “capture” users throughout the rest of the customer journey. ConvertKit, for example, gives you the tools you need to create custom landing pages.

Although that’s not a feature that’s unique to ConvertKit, this is the email service that does it best. With ConvertKit, you can create landing pages, sell digital products, and sign up users to your email list.

The service provides you with stylish templates for your emails and a powerful editor to customize them. You can also segment your audience and send automated emails.

One of ConvertKit’s best features is that it enables you to design incredibly intricate automation workflows. Where other services simply give you lists of options, ConvertKit lets you use flowcharts.

Although ConvertKit offers a free tier, you won’t get the most out of the service unless you opt for the Creator plan or higher. That option starts at $29 per month for up to 1,000 subscribers.

The main downside of using ConvertKit is that the service has very low email subscriber limits. For example, if you’re using the Creator plan, you’re limited to 1,000 subscribers for its base price. As your list grows, so do your monthly payments.

4. SendFox (Best for Content Creators and People who Like Simplicity)

SendFox email marketing services

I have a love-hate relationship with SendFox. I love the simplicity of their product. They are not like the other email marketing providers mentioned here. In fact, SendFox is not even trying to compete with MailChimp, ConvertKit, Aweber, etc., when it comes to their features. They’ve been pretty upfront that they will not have the same features. Instead, SendFox is embracing what truly matters most: Content and growing your list.

Their email automation is spot on. Simple and powerful. They integrate with Zapier (which is not covered here, but let me know if you’d like an article like this on Zapier). Their landing pages and forms are basic, but effective.

BONUS: Unlike any other email marketing solution mentioned here, SendFox has a lifetime subscription for $49. Yep, one-time payment of $49 gets you a SendFox account and up to 5000 subscribers.

How to Create an Email Marketing Schedule

An email marketing schedule does not need to be overly complicated. If you are just starting, you may only send a single email, once a week. It will likely include a summary of your blog content, perhaps a helpful tip, or a hack. Choosing a fixed time (Sunday, 5pm, for example), may be all you need.

If you are scheduling a product launch, webinar, or event, your email marketing calendar may be more complex. For example, you won’t want to send the same message to all subscribers. You may have some subscribers that took action and signed up for your event; others may have opened the message, but not taken action. Another group may have ignored it altogether. You will market to these groups differently.

When creating your schedule with a team, consider tracking the following:

  • Timing (Day and time)
  • Owner (Who is responsible)
  • Email Type (Newsletter, promotion, etc)
  • Target Audience (Who is receiving the email?)
  • Source or Approval (What is being sent and who approved / reviewed it)

You may need to outline the theme or purpose for the email campaign:

  • Upcoming event such as a webinar
  • New product launch
  • Weekly / regular newsletter
  • Upcoming sale or promotion
  • Holiday events
  • New content or blog post

It is a myth that there is a best time to send email, there is no universal best time that works across all audiences and industries. You are best served to experiment with your own list – get your own results, unique to you. What works for a competitor may not work for you, nor will the best day or time of an unrelated industry always work for you.

How Not to Build an Email List

Don’t make these email marketing mistakes.

1. Spam

Don’t spam people. Ever.

2. “Blast”

These are humans on the other end of your email messages, treat them as such. We don’t “blast” people.

3. Rush

Don’t ask for something immediately after someone signs up for your list.

4. Muddle Your Message

Be clear in what you are seeking. If you are asking for something (see above), then make sure you are clear. One task per message.

5. Be Unprofessional

Check your spelling, grammar, language, etc. Don’t include attachments (you’ll get flagged as spam long before your subscriber sees your message), or dumb stock photos that lack personality

6. It’s not you …

Make your messages about your reader, not you. You are not important. They are.

7. Forget Mobile

There is a 50/50 chance your subscriber will read your message on their mobile device. Make sure your messages are formatted appropriately.

8. Make it about numbers

Too many entrepreneurs run their marketing based on just numbers: How many times should we email, how many emails in the series, etc) Instead, think about the needs of your subscribers and create content around those needs.

9. Forgetting the Signups

Make it easy for your readers, followers, fans, and visitors to sign up. Don’t hide your sign up form, highlight it. Celebrate it. Feature it. Make it simple to sign up.

10. Waiting

Don’t be like me. Don’t wait until you feel like you’re ready. Don’t wait until you have it figured out. Don’t wait years. Take action. Start with one subscriber. Take one step.

Can I Buy an Email List?

First, in the United States, it is not illegal, per se to buy an email list. It is highly unethical and a huge waste of your time, money, and reputation. Instead, invest the effort into building a trusted following for your business. Yes, it is a slower process. But it is more rewarding and profitable when the recipients of your marketing message know and trust you.

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Start Your Email List

Are you ready?

It probably took you longer to read this guide than it will to start building your email list. Follow the step-by-step directions and watch your subscriber list grow. All in, you can get an email list started in under 2 hours.

Leave a comment below 👇 and let me know how you’re doing. I can’t wait to cheer you on!


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