Back to the basics: How to build an email list

Article originally published in July 2017, updated August 2019

So, you’re new to email marketing. Before you can start experimenting with tools like segmentation, automation, and dynamic content – before you can even send an email – you first need to develop an audience.

 Building a sizable, quality email list is one of the most intimidating challenges you’ll face as an email marketer. But just because it's intimidating doesn't mean it's impossible; in fact, after implementing a few key tactics, you'll be shocked how quickly you can grow your list with the right people. 

 To help, here’s a quick walkthrough of some of the most popular list growth methods and how you can use them to gain new subscribers fast. 

How to build an email list – 3 fundamentals to remember

Growing an email list is certainly not child’s play. To succeed with your email marketing, you need to make sure you attract the right kind of people – readers who will love your content. 

How do you find such people?

1. Create a relevant lead magnet.

Many email marketers make a critical mistake when creating their lead magnets (the offer you give in exchange for an email address). They focus on a lead magnet that will attract the highest possible number of subscribers rather than one that attracts the right kind of subscribers.

Many email marketers make a critical mistake when creating their lead magnets (the offer you give in exchange for an email address).

Source: WordStream

To ensure that your lead magnet reels in your perfect audience, it must:

  • Address your reader’s pain point: For a lead magnet to work, it must promise a solution to a real problem.

  • Be specific: Tell your readers exactly what they will get from your lead magnet

  • Contain valuable takeaways: Create a lead magnet that brings the reader closer to solving their problem.

  • Display your expertise: Your lead magnet must convince them that you’re an expert in your field.

  • Engage your target audience: Create a lead magnet that is fun and engaging.

A lead magnet that ticks these boxes will surely drive the right kind of audience your way.

2. Give your subscribers expectations - and meet them.

A great way to encourage signups is to lay down what your readers should expect from being on your email list. It’s easy to make promises when seeking out subscribers. Keeping them, on the other hand, is another story altogether. Don’t mislead people into signing up, always make sure to promise what you can fulfill.

3. Never (ever) buy an email list.

Tempting as it may be to bypass the hard work involved in building an email list, buying an email list will cost you more than just the money you spend. Here are some of the hidden costs you will have to pay:

  • Loss of reputation. Email marketing is a sensitive business. Promoting your product/services to people you haven’t built a relationship with will lead to many spam reports. 

  • No ROI. As attractive as the offers to sell you an email list may be, it’s next to impossible to get a ROI from a purchased email list. For one thing, you’re not the only one using that list.

  • Legal action. Sending unsolicited emails is illegal in most countries. A good example is the CAN-SPAM Act in the US.

Buying an email list should not even cross your mind. Instead, focus on building a list of engaged subscribers who have agreed to receive communication from you. It’s the only way to win.

Now that we’ve seen the fundamentals of building an email list, let’s quickly look at how to build an email list - effectively.

How to build an email list - 7 effective ways

Ready to build an email list that will give you a good return on your investment?

Here are some strategies to use. 

1. Capture website visitors with an email signup form. 

This one is the most common (and obvious) choice: An email signup form on your website.

This one is the most common (and obvious) choice: An email signup form on your website.

Source: Emma

Consider these things when building your signup form: placement, value proposition, and call to action. Make your form easy to find on your website, encourage signups with a valuable lead magnet, and use an engaging CTA like “Become a VIP” or “Join the movement” over more generic copy like “Sign up” or “Click here.”

Some other tips for a form that performs?

  • Set clear expectations for the type and frequency of emails new subscribers will receive; this will help reduce opt-outs in the future.

  • On your form, only ask for the information you actually need, like first name and email address. According to our friends at Privy, every field you add will reduce signups by 25%.

2. Host a webinar.

I can personally attest to the fact that not every webinar is an hour-long snooze fest. (Don’t believe me? Check out some of ours!)

Whether you plan it alone or with a strategic partner, webinars are a great way for your company’s thought leaders to show off their expertise and generate new leads who are genuinely interested in what your brand has to offer.

3. Create (and gate) a piece of valuable content.

Content marketing is a popular method of lead generation for a reason: It works. And though there’s something to be said for giving out your company’s best tips and tricks for free, when you put a ton of time and effort into a piece – like a guide, whitepaper, or in-depth case study – most people will be willing to part with a little bit of info in order to access it.

4. Give something away.

Just like people are willing to part with their email for valuable content, they’re VERY willing to part with their email for the opportunity to get some free stuff. Whether it’s a week-long trip to the Caribbean or just a t-shirt with your brand’s logo on it, giveaways are a simple and easy way to quickly attract new people to your audience.

5. Take things offline.

If you have a brick-and-mortar location or you’re attending an offline event like a trade conference, be sure to use it as an opportunity to expand your online presence, too! Nowadays, you can keep the on-the-go email signup process seamless (and stylish) by using our handy Guestbook app for iPad.

6. Promote your email list on social.

This one’s super easy to implement: Your social audience has already shown interest in your brand by choosing to follow you. So why not make the simple ask for them to sign up for your email list, too? I particularly loved the email signup experience local Nashville brand Nisolo provides their Instagram followers:

This one’s super easy to implement: Your social audience has already shown interest in your brand by choosing to follow you.


This one’s super easy to implement: Your social audience has already shown interest in your brand by choosing to follow you.


7. Encourage sharing.

Make sharing your email as easy as possible by including share buttons within the body of the campaign. Providing unique and entertaining content certainly helps increase sharing and rewarding those who do with a special coupon or exclusive opportunity can go a long way. That's a built-in loyalty program!

Wrap up

While it may be tempting to buy or rent an email list instead of building one organically, we wouldn't recommend it.  Aside from the potential legal complications, the best email marketing builds a relationship between a consumer and a brand, and it’s difficult to do that effectively if the consumer never asked to hear from you in the first place.

permission-based email list will always get you better results than a large list you purchased. Plus, when you email people who haven’t opted in, you risk damaging your sender reputation and landing in the spam folder for your entire audience – even the people who did sign up.

Before you launch your list building campaign, remember:

  • Create an irresistible lead magnet

  • Never buy a list

  • Building an email list takes work, but if you implement the 7 strategies outlined above, you’ll have a healthy list in no time.

For more tips on how to build an email list, check out our article on how to grow your email list organically.

About the Author

Emma Email

Emma is an email marketing platform that gives you all the tools you need to send campaigns that really connect with your subscribers. With our​​ powerful automation and personalization features, you can create and send email campaigns that reach the right customer at just the right time. It's email marketing that works for you.

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