Why Every New Business Needs An Email List (And How to Build One)

In the words of online marketing guru Neil Patel, "Email marketing is here to stay, and it can help you generate more visitors and increase your income."
08/21/2015 12:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

If you're an entrepreneur and your company doesn't already have an email list, start building one yesterday.

In the words of online marketing guru Neil Patel, "Email marketing is here to stay, and it can help you generate more visitors and increase your income." In fact, one study found that the ROI of email is 1,000% higher than social media and two times higher than SEO tactics. And given that up to 91 percent of consumers check their email at least once a day, it's an undeniably powerful tool for engagement.

What's more, an email list is your platform and yours alone--meaning there's no need to compete with the bajillion Facebook and Twitter posts readers are exposed to each day, reach isn't at the mercy of SEO algorithms (although SEO can still be a powerful way to drive traffic to your site), and you control when and how messages get seen. And while social platforms may rise and fall, email provides a means for consistent contact with a set of followers. Here's how to start getting in on the action.

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Step 1: Seek permission
Sure, anyone can buy email lists from shady companies or make unpaid interns compile a list of random email addresses--but that's a quick way to destroy an email list's impact before it even gets started. Given that many people receive upwards of 200 emails a day, no one takes kindly to unsolicited emails popping up in their inbox (plus, spamming people is just plain sleazy).

Instead, try Seth Godin's approach of permission marketing, which recognizes that having a presence in consumers' inboxes is a privilege and that respect is the best way to retain it. It relies on consumers to opt-in to receiving emails as a result of a commitment you make to them (more on that below). And it relies on your company to keep its word--to provide what was promised, and not to assume that permission to do one thing with customers' data means permission to do anything else. Maintaining this pact is critical to developing committed, trustworthy customers.

Step 2: Create an incentive
Also known as "lead magnets," incentives provide customers with a reason to entrust a company with their precious email addresses. There are a variety of ways to entice customers to opt in, including offering a newsletter or product updates, a discount on products, a webinar recording, an ebook, a PDF cheat sheet, social media contests--the list goes on. Understanding your target audience will help clarify what offer makes the most sense.

Step 3: Make clear commitments
In addition to giving people a reason to sign up for emails, it's important to clarify what else users will get once they opt in (One email a day? One email a month? What value will the emails provide?). Also be sure to stipulate what users won't get (i.e. spam or personal data sold to the highest bidder).

Step 4: Nail the follow-up
So you've promised a giveaway to people who opt in and established clear expectations for joining the list. Now it's time to follow through. When crafting the first follow-up email(s), keep these tips in mind:

  • Most email service providers allow for the creation of auto-responder emails, so have one ready to send to every new subscriber. Even better? Create a sequence of auto-responders that gradually develop a relationship with readers and follow through on promises. Make sure the first email introduces the brand and follows closely on the heels of the opt-in so readers haven't forgotten that they signed up by the time they receive the first email.
  • Passive income guru Pat Flynn emphasizes that a giveaway is often the first substantive interaction people have with a brand--so don't half-ass it. The giveaway needs to impress in order to retain the respect of new followers.
  • Be sure to make good on the commitments you laid out in step 3. If you promised one weekly email but start sending them daily or monthly, that will automatically lose the trust of subscribers.

Step 5: Share specialized, high-quality content
It's not enough to send subscribers a generic email once a month or regurgitate blog posts in their inboxes. Instead, prioritize creating unique, useful content that readers can't necessarily find anywhere else. Focus on providing value, not just eking out sales. In the words of Pat Flynn, "I use my email list... [as] a place to interact (gasp!) and inform--not a place to promote and sell." Instead, Flynn recommends creating high-quality content that sometimes drives traffic back to the site, where harder selling can take place (of course, YMMV depending on the company's product and goals).

Furthermore, take heed of social media strategist Amy Porterfield's emphasis on the importance of creating specified content. Since the audience will have self-selected itself as being interested in a particular topic (i.e. the one you sold them on), try to differentiate the company by sharing a unique perspective on the subject. Infuse emails with personality, and offer readers a variety of goods, from webinars to short PDFs or in-depth ebooks. These practices will help content remain fresh and interesting even while dialing in on a specific niche.

Step 6: Track analytics
Email marketing is an incredibly useful tool--so learn from it. Take advantage of tracking analytics like open rates, click-through rates, and unsubscribes. Neil Patel also recommends testing out the effectiveness of different positions for the opt-in form on your site, whether it's above the fold, in the sidebar, in the site's footer, or on the "about" page.

Another essential analytics tool? Split-testing. Patel is a huge advocate of split-testing because of its ability to boost conversion rates. Work to understand the different segments within the emails' audience and target them in specialized ways. The more you split-test, the more you gain valuable information about what makes readers tick--and the better you can appeal to them moving forward.

Step 7: Reward loyal followers
If all goes according to plan, following the first six steps in this list will earn loyal followers who are willing to help spread the word about the value of your business. Take care of the customers who helped grow the brand by offering gifts--e.g. holding a private webinar for the first 500 people to purchase a new ebook, or giving away the chance to win a stellar vacation a la Ramit Sethi. In the end, it all comes down to good karma: Be kind to your followers, and they will love you back.