I've been having lots of conversations with clients and others lately about building email lists. Often these conversations start with them asking me if they should do this one very specific tactical thing or not, which is not the right place to start.

Instead, think a little more big picture first. What is it that you want that person to do, and what is the path that will take them to the place online where they do it?

So, to get people to sign up for your email list on their own (as opposed to you adding their name to it), it's all about getting them to a sign-up or opt-in form. Start by making sure the forms -- and yes there should be multiple forms -- are

  • Easy to use (you don't ask for too much info),
  • Encouraging (you tell me quickly what I get by signing up), and
  • Visible (it's where I am already and I don't have to hunt for it, like in a prime spot in your website template or on your most popular pages).

Now, how do you get people to go to the forms, wherever they may be? What is the path that leads them to a form?

You can

  • Create really great, share-worthy content that you put on social media with a link that comes back to a specific landing page on your website that has a sign-up form on it (i.e., if you like this article, sign up for our newsletter for more!)
  • Offer them something else of value (like an event registration or a special download) and then ask them to opt-in to your newsletter too.
  • Ask them to take another action (like signing a pledge) and then ask them to opt-in to your newsletter too.
  • Send an email asking them to opt-in to a list controlled by someone else (e.g., a partner organization offers to send an email to their list on your behalf, with a link to a special landing page with the form).

This is how organic list building works. You create several places where you can collect names and then you create easy paths to those forms.