Email Marketing 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Building an Email List

Updated July 16, 2016

People everywhere are talking about the importance of building an email list. But why exactly? And how does it work? Where should you go to start building your own email list? In this guide, I’ll answer the most common questions I get about list building.

Email marketing 101, a beginner's guid to list building

my story

Let me start with a short story about how I started building my own email list…

I started this particular blog in 2010 after encountering a lot of people who wanted to start blogs or websites but were confused by the vast amounts of tech speak explaining the process.

The online landscape has changed drastically since 2010. These days, digestible information about how to start a blog or website is everywhere, but for years, I faithfully published posts on this blog (you can see them on my Contents page) with the goal of explaining it in plain English.

Then I took a hard right turn in 2013.

I decided to stop writing as much on this blog. Instead I decided to share most of my tips in a regular email and the Useletter® was born. It was my first foray into email marketing and the beginning of my quest to build my own email list.

Now, years later, there are tens of thousands on my email list and my open rate hovers just below 40%. In 2013, the shift from regular blogging to email marketing felt very risky, but now, I’m so glad I took the plunge.

An email list is my most valuable business asset and will likely be yours too. I’ll explain why below.

why email marketing

If you’ve spent any time reading about online marketing or making money online, you’ve probably heard some of the following comments or phrases:

  • “The biggest mistake I made was not building an email list from the beginning.”
  • “The majority of my income comes from my list.”
  • “Are you building a list? If not, don’t wait. Start now.”
  • “The money’s in the list.”

My goal is to explain why you should build an email list and how to get started. Let’s take it from the very top and do it FAQ style.

Please note there are affiliate links in this post for products I pay for myself. This means, at no cost to you, I may get a commission if you make a purchase through one of them. Thank you!

What exactly is an email list?

Your email list is a collection of email addresses of people interested in what you have to say or sell.

Why would I want an email list?

An email list allows you to connect directly with those who are interested in you, your product or what you have to say.

Should everyone have an email list?

No. If your goal online is to simply express yourself, or you have no interest in gaining followers or customers, I think you can safely forgo an email list.

However, if you would like followers or customers, or you might one day, building an email list is highly recommended. Almost everyone I know online falls into this category.

Why email? Why not just connect with people on social media?

There are many reasons, but the most important is, you own your list.

Your Facebook Page is not owned by you.

Your Twitter account is not owned by you.

Your YouTube account is not owned by you.

Your Pinterest followers aren’t owned by you.

Your Instagram followers aren’t owned by you.

You get the point.

Audiences on other social media platforms are not ones you ultimately have control over. The social media networks own those. You are basically renting them. If those networks go out of business or change their terms, you could lose.

For example, remember MySpace? It’s not hard to find stories about people who were making a lot of money on MySpace at its peak. But then they watched it slide into oblivion…along with their customers…and their income.

A less dramatic example is Facebook. Changes in News Feed algorithms and Facebook’s push to make advertising dollars have resulted in losses of organic traffic (and income) for many online business owners who relied on Facebook traffic to fuel their blogs and businesses.

You spend a huge amount of time building relationships, creating content and making connections online. Don’t put them in the hands of someone else.

What about my blog or website? Don’t I have control over that?

Assuming you have a self-hosted blog or website (the best option), well then yes, you do have control.

However, it’s not unheard of for your site to crash. Even for days at a time.

Let’s assume you are regularly backing up your email list (important). Even if your blog or website goes down, or if social media explodes or your feed goes haywire, you’ll still have your email list.

Having an email list means you will never be totally out of contact with your core audience.

Well, unless email disappears I suppose. Possible, but unlikely. 🙂

Why not just send people to my site to see my stuff?

Well, because trying to get people to see your stuff on your site or on social media is no easy feat.

You publish a post, promote it and then you…wait.

You wait for readers to find you. You wait for them to click through your links. You wait for them to visit your site.

Email, on the other hand, is different.

When someone gives you their email address, they give you permission to go to them instead of having to wait for them to come to you.

If you have something you really want them to see, you can send it right to their inbox. On your terms.

When someone willingly gives me their email address, they are essentially saying, “Hey Amy, I believe in what you offer so I give you permission to send me an email about those things.”

But there are other benefits to email.

  • It’s more intimate and personal. It’s like you’re talking to a friend. And a note from a friend landing in your inbox is a much more lovely way of communicating than an update shared across social media, right?
  • It’s more permanent. Someone remains on your list until they decide to get off (or you kick them off which I do regularly). This is unlike social media or search where algorithmic changes often determine whether or not your content is seen.
  • It’s popular. How many people have email addresses? Pretty much anyone who does anything online.
  • It’s highly integrated into our daily lives. How many people go a day without checking their email? Not many. Now, how many people go a day without checking blogs? Lots. For most of us, checking email is just part of daily life.
  • It’s familiar. Email is no longer a difficult concept to explain. Most people have already been introduced. It’s got a low barrier to entry.
  • It’s shareable. It’s a cinch to forward an email to someone you think will benefit.
  • It’s top of mind. Email puts you in front of people so you’re not out of sight, out of mind.
  • It’s trackable. Email service providers provide stats so you can track growth and progress. This is infinitely better than, say, RSS subscribers whom you can’t track at all.

Alright I’m convinced. So how do I get email addresses?

You collect them, one by one.

Isn’t there a faster way to collect them?

Well, you could buy them or steal them, but that’s spammy and in some cases probably illegal. I don’t recommend it. You’ll make people mad, they’ll remove themselves from your list, mark your emails as spam and you’ll be right back where you started with no list, except it’ll be worse because now people won’t like you either.

So how do I get people to want to sign up for my email list?

Provide really valuable information people don’t want to miss. Invite them to give you their email address so you can send that valuable information directly to them.

Do you mean give them valuable content so they sign up (like a freebie)? Or do you mean give them valuable content after they sign up?

Yes and yes.

Alright, so what kind of freebie should I offer?

A freebie, or “lead magnet” as many call it, can be lots of things. I recommend something short but packed with helpful (or entertaining) information. This could be a printable, a worksheet, a tip sheet, a cheat sheet, images or anything that’s a quick win for your subscriber.

Potential subscribers are asking this question: What’s in it for me? Make sure you have an answer.

Make your lead magnet related to the kind of content you’ll provide going forward, otherwise you’ll get people who sign up for your lead magnet and be totally uninterested in the rest of your emails. And that defeats the purpose of having an email list.

In my case, I’ve offer a couple of different lead magnets over the years. For example, I offered new Useletter subscribers a sample of my emails so they know what to look forward to. As another example, on my post How to Make Money Blogging, I offer some bonus material (a.k.a. content upgrade)—a cheat sheet outlining the 5 different ways to make money online.

After I have subscribers, what should I put in my emails?

It depends on what works for you. You basically have 3 choices:

  1. Blog posts. Typically these are automatically sent to your email subscribers whenever you publish something new on your blog. Pros: It’s mostly “set it and forget it.” Also, you don’t have to think about producing content in addition to what you’re already writing on your blog. Lastly, you can get this done for free. Cons: These types of lists often grow stale. I think of it like letting a garden go. You may still get some produce, but you’d get more if you paid attention and tended to it regularly. Still, it’s better than nothing. Also, the free solution isn’t ideal (more below).
  2. Stand-alone content. This type of email content is created outside of your blog posts. They might be newsletters, autoresponders (sometimes called drip campaigns), one-off or broadcast emails. My Useletter is an example of this. In fact, I do not make my blog posts available to my email list at all. Pros: Because you’re (hopefully) paying attention to what your readers are responding to, you can make tweaks and changes to keep them engaged. Also, you have control. You can highlight content or products you might not otherwise in blog posts, and you can decide when and when not to send them. Cons: It’s extra work for you. Subscribers may have to sign up separately for this list which can lead to confusion or frustration (“Am I signing up for your blog posts or something different?”). This option costs money.
  3. Hybrid. You could also send your list a combination of the two listed above. Some people send their blog posts as well as additional content to their list.

Related & helpful: What is RSS? What is a feed?

Is a “newsletter” the same as an email list?

Not exactly, however sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. To me, an email list is a broad term and a newsletter is a type of mailing you would send to your email list. I would categorize a “newsletter” as something other than your blog posts.

OK wait, so do I need a newsletter like so many people suggest?

That’s the wrong question.

What you need are email addresses. So, whether people sign up for a newsletter, blog posts or something else, it doesn’t really matter. Once you have an email address, you have an asset.

Think about it like building a savings account. Every time you get another dollar, you put it in your savings account. It doesn’t really matter where you get those dollars or how you get them (assuming you get them legally of course). What matters is that you get them.

It’s the same thing with email marketing. Just like every dollar in your account is precious, every email on your list is precious.

And should be treated as such.

Alright, so what do I need to collect and manage these email addresses?

First, you should definitely not build your email list in your regular email client. In other words, don’t start collecting email addresses in your Gmail or Yahoo or Outlook contacts.

Companies who specialize in this type of thing are called Email Service Providers (ESP). Sign up with an ESP for all your email marketing. Their systems are set up to manage and automate the process of signups, sending, stat taking and more.

Sounds expensive. How much does an ESP cost?

I completely understand what it’s like to be starting out without a budget. That was certainly my story.

FeedBurner is the only free service I might recommend in a pinch, but with lots of hesitation. It will sort of handle your email marketing tasks for you. (Read this post to find out my thoughts on FeedBurner.)

I say “sort of” because they aren’t a true ESP. They will just collect email addresses and send your blog posts to those subscribers. You cannot easily or practically send one-off emails to your list via FeedBurner. In other words, you’re pretty limited with FeedBurner. Plus, they haven’t updated the service in years and that’s never a good sign.

On the other hand, many ESPs allow you to sign up and won’t start charging you until you reach a certain number of subscribers. This is my preference, by about 10 million.

What ESP do you recommend?

The ESP I currently use and pay for is called Mad Mimi. I like Mad Mimi, but if I was starting an email list today, I would choose ConvertKit (a solid choice) or MailerLite if I was on a tight budget.

Mad Mimi is what I started the Useletter with in 2013. While it still suits my needs (and I have a great rate because I’m grandfathered in), ESPs have come a very long way since then. ConvertKit and MailerLite are better choices at this point.

Can I ever switch ESPs? Is it hard to do?

Yes. I have switched ESPs multiple times. It’s a little stressful because you want to make sure it goes smoothly, but it can definitely be done. Doing so mainly involves exporting your list from your old ESP and importing it into your new ESP.

Tip: ESPs want your money and therefore try to make the switch as easy as possible for you. Most at least have tutorials for switching, and many provide email support or have live chat.

What do I need in order to start building my list?

  1. An ESP. Technically this is all you need to build an email list, but there are other things I recommend.
  2. A lead magnet. This is the freebie we talked about earlier. While not absolutely necessary, a lead magnet is often effective because it’s hard to get people to give up their email addresses if they don’t get something in return.
  3. A website or blog. Technically this is optional too. However, your own site is a really great place to put signup forms for your list. Also, you don’t want to inundate your list with all your communication. Save email for the things you really want subscribers to see. Your site, or social media, is a good place to make less urgent or complimentary information available. You can start your own website or blog (the steps are the same) by following these instructions.
  4. A physical address. This is important if you don’t want your personal contact information sent out in every email. Read more about this here.
  5. An idea of the type of content you’ll provide. Blog posts? Stand-alone content? Hybrid? To decide, what is your main goal online? To make money? To raise support? To keep your followers informed? I call this your ONE thing. Have a specific plan for using your email list to lead subscribers to your ONE thing.

3 extra email marketing tips

1. Email marketing is about trust. Don’t start an email list without a solid plan to use it consistently, in a way that benefits your subscribers. They may have given you permission to contact them, but they also have the power to mark your email as spam which hurts your email marketing overall.

2. Always subscribe to your own list(s). There are three main reasons you should do so:

  1. You can see what your sign-up process is like and make sure it’s a smooth one.
  2. If something happens with your emails and they don’t work properly (e.g. it doesn’t work one day or you get duplicate emails), you’ll know right away.
  3. It’s another way to back up your posts. When I get my own blog posts via email, I open them just to make sure everything looks right. Then I simply archive it in Gmail. I do use a back up plugin that automatically backs up my blog daily, but this archived email in Gmail is added protection.

3. Make unsubscribing easy. Why in the world would you want to make unsubscribing easy? Because if someone wants off your list (don’t worry it happens to all of us, every time we send an email), it’s much better if they unsubscribe rather than mark your email as spam. And if they can’t immediately see the unsubscribe option, they often will simply mark it as spam.

Encouraging your readers to unsubscribe instead of marking your emails as spam helps the future deliverability of your emails to others. You see, when you send emails, there are several factors that determine whether your email is going to land in inboxes or spam folders. One indicator email clients (Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, etc.) use to determine where your email lands is how often people in the past have marked your emails as spam.

Test your unsubscribing process. How do you do that? Super easy: simply unsubscribe from your list(s). Of course you can resubscribe right away, but go through the unsubscribe process so you can check to make sure it’s an easy one.

Next steps

I regularly share email marketing tips in the Useletter so subscribe to that if you aren’t already. It’s free.

20 thoughts on “Email Marketing 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Building an Email List”

  1. Great post Amy. I find that using popup-email-subscribing is too forceful to get email subscribers. So, I use a visible and non obtrusive email subscription widget to get people to subscribe. Leaving it up to the viewer is the way to go. I have also subscribed to your newsletter Amy, especially for the awesome name you gave it (use letter).

  2. Awesome post Amy. Email marketing plays an important role in your marketing, many people are not aware of that. Building lists and then sending customized emails to your subscribers so that they love what you do and become your customers. So building an email list can do wonders and there are many ways for that as you have already explained above.

  3. Hi Amy ,

    You explained very well how & why we should have email marketing strategy. I do not know how to increase subscriber in mailing list but I ‘m trying to make list much bigger for getting regular readers for blog.

  4. Hi Amy! Informative, concise writing as always. One thing that really struck me was focusing on my ONE thing. I feel very torn between wanting the largest list possible and wanting the most engaged list possible— so when I evaluate whether or not to delete subscribers that haven’t opened an email for months, it conflicts with these two goals. I write a recipe blog ( so my new posts are sent out via ESP) and I also send out a more personal monthly newsletter. Subscribers can join one list or both. Companies that sponsor my recipes (a.k.a how I earn income online ) seem to care about the size of the list, but as my ESP cost climbs, I’m wondering if switching to engagement is the way to go. Any thoughts on how to evaluate these two conflicting goals? You mentioned deleting subscribers, so I’m really curious what your thoughts are. Thanks so much ( and I know you must get a million questions, so sorry for adding another one to the list! )

  5. Wow this is so amazingly informative! I just signed up for the Useletter and I’ve been working on building up my email list too – great info here!

  6. Amy,

    As always, very impressive and helpful information! My one question (for now — haha) is about providing the physical address to an ESP. I understand the part where it’s required by law but am wondering what, if any, mail would one actually receive at the PO Box? If I go this route and it’s the only thing I rent the box for, how often would it be prudent to check for mail.

    1. Hi Joann,

      It’s hard to say for sure as it depends on your individual situation. For example, if you are someone who posts a lot of product reviews and companies are eager to get their products in front of you, the address in your emails might be used to send you product. Or, if your audience likes to send personal notes, that might be a reason you’d get mail to your box as well.

      In my case, I check my box a few times a month.

  7. Amy any thoughts on Constant Contact? Embarrassed but I am paying them $30/month and do very infrequent newsletters and not utilizing them as I should be. I know i need to get back up to speed- have hundreds of people who have agreed to be on my list and I have not added them yet. The whole thing is overwhelming to me now… Trying to figure out where to begin…

    1. Hi Eileen,

      I’ve never used Constant Contact myself so I’m afraid I don’t have any thoughts on it in particular. There are so many ESPs and I know many of them are good choices depending on your needs.

      My goal is always to find the best option for the best price. I always try to find the tools that give me the biggest bang for my buck. Mad Mimi doesn’t have all the bells & whistles other ESPs do, but considering its low cost (free at first), excellent support and good, basic features, I can recommend it without hesitation.

      I’m sorry I’m not more help!

      Amy

  8. Hi, Amy,

    Great information (and I love your Useletter). I used MadMimi for quite a long time, and finally switched to MailChimp for the reasons you listed, and also because I found MadMimi to be very buggy. They are way, way easier to reach quickly than MailChimp, and less expensive by quite a lot, but as my list grew, so did my issues. That, and over time as your list really grows, not being able to see who isn’t engaging with your content can cost quite a lot of money. With MailChimp, I can clean up my list pretty regularly, and only pay for subscribers who actually engage.

    MailChimp is so incredibly expensive (I pay more for them than I do for my hosting every month, and that’s not cheap on a VPS), but for now at least they’re by far the best option for me.

    Thanks!
    Nicole

    1. Thank you for your feedback, Nicole! I always, always love to hear the experience of others.

      Would you say the main issue for you with MadMimi was not being able to see the stats for individuals? Or the inability to clean up your list regularly?

      I delete subs on a regular basis and wish I could do that easily on my own. As it is, I just shoot support an email, give them the parameters of the people I want to delete (ex. “Can you create a list of those who haven’t opened my emails in 3 months?”) and I go from there. Not ideal, but I really like the simplicity of Mad Mimi otherwise, so for me, it’s alright.

      I’m glad you found MailChimp to work well for you. Of the ones I’ve checked out personally, it’s my second choice for sure.

  9. Amy, thanks so much for your hours of research and dedication, then freely sharing with us! You make our lives easier! 🙂 Much appreciated as a new blogger!

  10. This is a great article for explaining the basics of email marketing. I have read many articles and yours has been the most concise. I love reading all of your content and appreciate what you do for your readers.

  11. I totally agree with your MadMimi review. Love them, the pricing is really good, but there are some features missing.
    I have been trying to set a weekly RSS but no luck. Like you said, stand-alone newsletters are extra work, and I am not sure I am ready for that yet.

    1. Hi Angelica, oh no! That’s frustrating. Have you chatted with them? I’m sure they would do everything they could to help you get it set up properly. They are always so helpful and responsive. I hope you get it figured out!

  12. I know lots of folk don’t leave comments any more, but I like having this chance to tell you how happy I am to have discovered your site and newsletters. I wish I’d found you back in 2009/10 when my blog was thriving, and in the interim years when my lack of tech knowledge created levels of frustration I could only deal with by letting go and logging off. I’ve since lost almost all my subscribers, despite having a couple of ebooks which thousands of folk have downloaded over the years; I never used their email addresses for anything. This is a brilliant site, a legacy you can be very, very proud of. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Janice. I’m so glad you’ve stopped by and I’m confident you can pick up again and reboot! Stepping away sometimes provides some great perspective and motivation. It sounds like you’ve got a lot to work with. I know the effort you’ve put in already will not go to waste!

Comments are closed.