Much of the challenge of permission-based email marketing is securing permission from potential subscribers in the first place, so when people opt-in to your newsletter, which is tantamount to a personal invitation to enter the sanctum of their private inbox and attempt to engage them with your email content, that’s no small feat considering that they are faced with similar propositions almost every time they visit other websites of interest.

So how do you convince people to subscribe to YOUR newsletter bearing in mind that they are probably predisposed to be super-selective?

Consider their mindset as they are assessing whether or not it's worth their while to sign up and apply tactics designed to leave them “wanting more”.

Here are 11 tips to consider when optimizing your newsletter signup for maximum success:

1. Use a benefit-based call-to-action and test which benefit converts best.

The benefit can be anything from an enthusiastic description of the content to come, to a tangible freebie or reward of some kind, like a discount or a free download. Make the email signup stand out by calling special attention to the benefit to make a potential subscriber sit up and take notice.

Signup example with benefit-based call-to-action (G.H. Bass & Co)

Example of benefit-based call-to-action (G.H.Bass & Co.)

2. Take advantage of social proof (a.k.a. herd mentality) to capture another sheep.

Social proof is a psychological trigger where the actions of others influence our own decisions, so as soon as your mailing list reaches an impressive size, boasting about it in your sign-up area will make the idea of joining your existing ‘herd’ of subscribers more appealing to a potential new subscriber, the thought process being “Wow! If so many people are already subscribing to this newsletter, it must be really good so I want it too”.

Example of newsletter signup applying "social proof" (Lost At E Minor)

Example of newsletter signup applying “social proof” (Lost At E Minor)

If the size of your mailing list isn’t boast-worthy yet, then displaying the number of newsletter subscribers you have will probably be a turnoff rather than an attraction, so you could try displaying flattering testimonials from existing subscribers instead. This still uses the concept of social proof (peer influence) without referring to actual numbers.

Example of newsletter signup applying “social proof” in the form of a testimonial (OpenView)

Example of newsletter signup applying “social proof” in the form of a testimonial (OpenView)

3. Make your subscribers feel super-special by offering exclusive content.

People are always attracted to an offer that is only available to a select few, so use an incentive in your signup call-to-action that offers exclusivity to boost its appeal.

Example of newsletter signup with exclusive offer (Nine West)

Example of newsletter signup with exclusive offer (Nine West)

4. Make your newsletter content highly share-able.

If your content is truly good and you provide social sharing buttons for each piece of content in your newsletter, then it will become super-easy for your subscribers to share the content on social networks, and since good content is viral content, other people who are exposed to it and are impressed by it will also want in on the action, seek you out, and subscribe.

Example of newsletter encouraging social sharing (Co.Design Weekly)

Example of newsletter enabling social sharing of individual content items to boost viral exposure (Co.Design Weekly)

5. Put your potential subscribers’ minds’ at ease.

The sad truth is that most people don’t actually like subscribing to newsletters because the vast majority of their experience with “marketing” emails has involved either pure spam, too many emails even from brands they subscribed to voluntarily, or annoyingly transparent attempts to draw their attention to something they are completely uninterested in. That makes the job of legitimate email marketers all the more difficult when it comes to attracting subscribers.

Sometimes alleviating people’s main concerns about signing up right there in the signup area can be the very thing that convinces them to subscribe, so make sure that you address typical pain points like not knowing how often they can expect to receive emails from you, what type of content they can expect to receive and how committed you are to their privacy.

Example of Newsletter Signup - December 2013

Example of Newsletter Signup with promise to protect personal information (Kate Spade Saturday)

6. Use compelling copy.

Research shows that using direct language and a sense of urgency in your call-to-actions convert better than an overly polite, nonchalant approach. That doesn’t mean that you should be barking orders at your potential subscribers to frighten them into subscribing (which would be a guaranteed turnoff anyway) but you should be specific about the benefits of subscribing so that the value to the subscriber is clear, and repeat the main benefit in the button copy too. A call-to-action such as “Submit” or “Subscribe” is uninspiring, for example, compared with “Sign up now” or “Subscribe to get your free eBook”.

Example of newsletter signup with compelling copy & call-to-action (Lewis Howes)

Example of newsletter signup with compelling copy & call-to-action (Lewis Howes)

7. Don’t ask for too many details.

Cluttering up your sign-up area with a truckload of questions is not only daunting, but the fact that you’re asking for so many details can also look suspicious. While many websites offer signups that require just an email address and maybe also a name, some business legitimately require a few more details in order to deliver relevant messages to their subscribers, and that’s okay, as long the initial request is kept to the bare minimum. Sometimes it also helps to clarify why you are asking for the extra details (as I have done on The Best of Email’s sign up page beside a couple of the requested details). Remember that you can always encourage subscribers to provide more details about themselves later on, once you have established yourself as a trustworthy sender.

Example of newsletter signup requesting a tasteful amount of personalization details (Billabong Australia)

Example of newsletter signup requesting a tasteful amount of personalization details (Billabong Australia)

8. Place your newsletter signup in a prominent location.

Many websites bury their signups in a footer that you have to scroll down three meters to find. I have personally subscribed to newsletters with this type of deep-diving exploration signups only to discover that some of the newsletters I received as a result weren’t all that bad! And therein lies the conundrum: Why make it so hard to find the signup if you work so hard to deliver great newsletters?

When brands place their signups in hard-to-find places they risk giving the impression that they don’t really care about their newsletters very much, otherwise they’d be promoting them in a much more accessible area in the site. In contrast, signups located in prominent locations above the fold suggest that a brand is proud of their newsletters and anxious to use them as a means of sharing valuable content with you. Your signup placement may therefore imply (whether you intend to or not) how valuable you consider your newsletter to be, and if a lousy location suggests that you don’t care about your own newsletter, why should a potential subscriber care about it?

Example of proud & prominent newsletter signup! (Samovar Tea Lounge)

Example of proud & prominent newsletter signup! (Samovar Tea Lounge)

Example of prominent, site-wide newsletter signup (Red Tricycle)

Example of prominent, site-wide newsletter signup (Red Tricycle)

Example of prominent newsletter signup (Hot Rum Cow)

Another example of a cool, prominent newsletter signup that remains visible as you scroll up and down the site (Hot Rum Cow)

Takeaway: Promote your signup area prominently and make it as accessible as possible throughout your site.

9. Place a signup at the bottom of your blog posts.

If someone enjoys your post so much that they actually read it all the way through, that’s one hell of an accomplishment. You’ve managed to capture their interest to the very end, and it’s exactly at this moment that you should milk this interest for all it’s worth and invite them to enjoy more content “just like it” by subscribing to your emails.

10. Use newsletter signup pop-ups and light boxes with great care.

Signup pop-ups are hugely controversial despite the fact that in most cases they have proven to convert far better than non-pop-up methods.

The controversy is based on two main factors, the first being that they are super annoying because they interrupt the user’s activity on the page, and the second is that although pop-ups tend to collect more email addresses than a passive signup, the theory is that the quality of addresses collected is poorer on the whole, and that subscribers who sign up via pop-ups are not as engaged or long-lasting as those who seek out non-pop-up forms on their own in order to subscribe. There isn’t a lot of evidence to support or discredit this theory either way, which means that if you’re considering using a signup pop-up or light box you should bear a few things in mind (and test, test, test!):

  • Consider how long the user has spent on the page before you display the pop-up. Three seconds after arriving on the page is obnoxious, disruptive and makes no sense since the user hasn’t had a chance to check you out yet (so how would he know if your newsletter is worth subscribing to?) whereas 60 seconds is less intrusive because it implies that the user is in the process of checking you out and may be amenable to learning more about you.
  • Consider the design and content of the entire pop-up from top to bottom, from the headline, to the tone of the copy, the incentive for signing up and the call-to-action in the button.  Remember, the pop-up is almost certainly interrupting whatever they were doing before the signup “popped up”, so make sure you clarify the value of subscribing and make it compelling.
  • Consider the placement of the pop-up. You might want to test what converts better: a pop-up that appears in the middle of the screen, rises from the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, descends from the top of the screen, etc.
  • Consider how often you display the pop-up. If you show it multiple times during a single visit, the user will eventually want to punch his screen (not the best way to make him a fan) rather than reward you for the constant interruptions by signing up to your newsletter. Also, if you show it every time he visits your site, again, that’s WAY annoying.

Takeaway: Add rules to the display of your pop-up so that your website visitors will only see it once per visit per X days (30 days is respectable). And if you can identify the visitor as an existing subscriber, then don’t display it at all (nothing’s more annoying than repeated signup pop-ups if I’ve already subscribed to the newsletter.

Razor Social signup pop-up

Example of a tasteful signup pop-up that incorporates several of the best practices mentioned in this post, including offering a tangible incentive to subscribe, using social proof and compelling copy (RazorSocial)

11. Catch potential subscribers when they’re interacting with your brand offline.

If you have a store or some other type of physical customer-facing opportunities, then collecting email addresses from customers at the height of the interaction (at the checkout counter for example) is a great idea because it catches them at a moment when they are particularly amenable to your offerings. 

Train your staff to ask customers at this ‘peak interaction point’ if they are interested in signing up to receive emails from you and have a printed “signup booklet” ready for customers to fill out, including a check-box that asks them to confirm their permission to send them emails. You might want to consider sending these subscribers a different type of Welcome Email in which you acknowledge their recent patronage at the physical location and offer them something that’s relevant to that store location.

SO TO SUM UP: While it’s true that there’s a lot to consider when developing a newsletter signup for maximum impact, none of it is rocket science. In fact, most of it makes a lot of sense if you put yourself in your website visitors’ shoes. Just ask yourself (honestly) what would convince you to sign up to your own newsletter, and then test whichever tactics you feel are right for your website based on your assessment of your audience and email marketing goals.

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