E-Commerce List Building: The Definitive Guide

(Incl. New Strategies for 2020)
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If you’re running and growing an online store, you’re likely building an email list. And if you are, you might have noticed something marketers rarely mention…

Not all list building strategies are relevant to online retailers.

Sure, writing guest posts and creating lead magnets are excellent list building strategies (to name a few). But how many busy e-tailers have the time to invest in them?

In truth, you don’t need 100+ ways to grow your email list. Rather, you need a few strategies that you can master and continually optimize over time…

And that’s what you’ll learn today.

In our new list building guide, we’ll share everything you need to grow, manage, and, more importantly, monetize a growing email list.

Let’s get started. 

Chapter 1

List Building Basics

In this chapter, you will learn what an email list is and why you need to build one even if you’re new to online marketing.

But first things first.

What Is an Email List?

An email list is a collection of individual email addresses that you have permission to send email marketing campaigns to, generally stored within an email service provider.

Users may choose to opt into an e-commerce email list for several reasons, including but not limited to:

  • Learning more about a company;
  • Receiving relevant offers;
  • Getting updates about product launches;
  • Claiming a discount code;
  • Getting access to a lead magnet;
  • And more.

While users have their reasons to sign up for an email list, you may be thinking: “What’s in it for me as an e-commerce marketer?”

Why Build an Email List?

Is it because everybody’s doing it?

The answer is both yes and no—for at least two reasons:

  1. Not everybody is doing it right.
  2. If everybody’s doing the same thing, you need to do something else to stand out.

But there’s a more important reason why you should be building an email list: Not everyone who visits your site is ready to buy from you.

Different prospects are at various stages of the buyer’s journey. Some already know a lot about your products, whereas others only heard about you today.

With a well-segmented email list full of high-quality leads, you can persuade every prospect at each stage of your sales funnel.

Further, you can create space to convert subscribers into buyers and buyers into repeat customers.

While there are many ways to do this wrong, there is a handful to make it right. And that’s what we’re covering in the next chapter.

Chapter 2

How to Build an Email List from Scratch

There are countless ways to build an email list.

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from analyzing 1+ billion popup sessions, it’s that there are a few that work better than others.

So, with that in mind, here are 15 list building strategies that top e-commerce brands are using today. 

1. Offer a Discount 

Giving visitors a discount in exchange for their email is a fine line. 

Offer something for free too often, and visitors will come to expect it. But avoid it altogether, and they’ll likely lose interest in your brand, or worse, move on to a competitor. 

One way to strike a balance, without discounting for everyone, is to offer discounts to certain user segments such as new visitors.

That’s what Danish ceramics manufacturer Kähler does when offering discounts:

Kähler knows that new visitors are unlikely to buy on their first visit. So, to nurture them further, they capture their email and market to them later through email.

2. Offer a Page-Specific Discount 

Another user segment to consider targeting, aside from new visitors, is visitors viewing a specific page—like your checkout.

With an average of seven out of every ten visitors abandoning their cart, it makes sense to offer abandoning visitors a personalized, checkout-specific incentive to complete their order.

Milledeux, a children’s retailer, offers a 15% discount to visitors exiting their checkout:

The best part?

Milledeux reduces cart abandonment and captures more leads to market to later with email.

3. Offer a Page-Specific Discount Based on Basket Size 

Increasing a prospect’s average order value without coming off as “salesy” isn’t always easy.

But it’s a LOT easier when offering a page-specific discount based on basket size.

Here’s how it works:

When a website visitor adds a product to their basket—say, a pair of socks—you invite them to add more to get a discount using a page-specific popup.

Targeting visitors based on their basket size increases your average order value and creates a better, more personalized browsing experience for visitors.

Editor’s Note

When it comes to using your data layer to trigger website popups, the possibilities are endless. To learn more, watch the video below:

Sam Thomas Davies
Head of Content

4. Offer an Incentive 

You’ve likely read not to offer a newsletter to new website visitors.

But it’s important to understand that rarely is the newsletter itself the cause for low conversion rates. Rather, it’s about the newsletter’s positioning. 

If your copy intrigues and informs the reader of the benefits they’ll get from joining, offering a newsletter is often enough to build a good email list.

Many brands nail their newsletter’s positioning, but one of my favorites is Poo~Pourri:

With witty copy and a creative popup design, Poo~Pourri pulls readers in with the allure of new products, super-secret sales, and more.

Bottom line: If your newsletter is that darn good, then tell your readers. That’s often enough.

5. Offer a Content-Specific Incentive 

We’ve all heard about content upgrades.

Yes, they’re useful and can increase conversions by as much as 28.83%… 

But can they work for online retailers, too?

Absolutely.

While browsing Italian holidays on Hideaways, an online travel agency, I noticed they offered an Italian phrasebook on certain pages.

Pretty clever, right?

Hideaways can market Italian-focused offers to subscribers via email, and subscribers can get personalized offers based on their browsing preferences. Win. Win.

To leverage content upgrades for your business, you need to tag new subscribers and segment them in your email service provider (ESP).

6. Exclude Existing Subscribers from Email Popups

Let’s be honest: No one wants a brand to ask them to join a newsletter they’re already on.

Yet, many online retailers retarget returning visitors—even though they already have their email.

That’s not a good place to start a new relationship.

Be the exception by excluding existing email subscribers from seeing any newsletter popups. Then, create a campaign that invites them to browse a popular product page, join a giveaway or another action that moves them down your funnel.

For example, if you’re an apparel retailer, you might welcome returning subscribers with a popup asking them to browse your newest arrivals.

It’s a small change, but as we’ve seen with many customers, it makes a big difference, both to the user’s experience and your bottom line.

7. Model This Black Friday Marketing Strategy for Your Next Holiday Campaign

It’s no secret that Black Friday is one of the busiest times of the year for retailers…

And most profitable.

According to one recent report, the average adult drops $483.18 on Black Friday, alone.

That’s a lot of dough to capitalize on during the holiday season.

Unsurprisingly, many online retailers build as much anticipation before the big day. 

And it makes sense: 

Building anticipation by informing prospects of what to expect—like how much they will save—increases the likelihood they’ll splurge on the big day.

Leather goods-maker, Bellroy, runs a unique Black Friday campaign every November…

And it’s a great way to get more subscribers.

Here’s how it works:

First, they create a Facebook lead ad, teasing a subscriber-exclusive offer for Black Friday.

When you click the link in the ad, Bellroy redirects you to a dedicated landing page telling you to, “Put yourself on the list.”

In their copy, above the optin form, they open a curiosity gap by teasing a one-day-only promotion. Here’s an excerpt:

The best part of this strategy is you can use it for ANY holiday—Cyber Monday, Fourth of July, Christmas Eve, to name a few.

Just remember to deliver on the big day. No one wants to feel short-changed when it comes to getting a bargain.  

8. A Simple Change You Can Make to Your Order Confirmation Page to Double Your Optins

Your order confirmation page has the potential to be one of the best lead generating pages.

I mean, think about it.

A customer has just said yes to buying from you, so making another request—like asking them to join your list—is a no-brainer.

Offering a discount is best avoided, given that the customer just bought from you. So asking them if they would like deals on similar offers is a great way to increase signups. 

Here’s an example of what a campaign like that might look like:

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Another powerful incentive is to offer points to redeem for future purchases if you have a loyalty program. Not only is it a great way to get more emails, but it’s a perfect chance to boost customer retention.

9. The Best List Building Tactic You’ve Never Heard Of

You’re likely familiar with upselling as a way to increase a buyer’s average order value.

But what you might not know is that you can also upsell items that are out of stock AND grow your list.

Too good to be true?

Think again.

Before moving its inventory to Amazon, FiftyThree had an online store. 

Here’s an example of the product page for their digital stylus. 

Like many online retailers, they promoted related items below the fold, which, for the above product, included replacement tips and erasers.

But here’s the kicker:

The replacement tips and erasers were often out of stock.

However, if you clicked “Notify me,” FiftyThree triggered a popup where you could enter your email and get notified when they were back in stock:

The best part was, they also included a checkbox to get permission for promotional mailings. Meaning, even if you never bought the above items, you were likely to buy something eventually.

Collecting emails for out-of-stock items is a great way to grow a list of targeted prospects. And it’s one few online retailers are using to their advantage.

10. What You Can Learn About List Building from a Fashion Brand 

It’s easy to assume that anyone looking to contact you is already a subscriber.

But let’s be honest, that isn’t always the case.

One of my favorite, underutilized list building strategies involves asking for a user’s email on your contact page.

Cotton Bureau is a perfect illustration of what we call “contact page list building.”

When you go on their contact page, there are the usual input fields you would expect from a contact form such as “Name,” “Email,” “Subject,” etc.

But when you scroll down to the submit button, you see the following:

Not everyone will subscribe, of course. After all, that wouldn’t be realistic. But as far as low-hanging list building goes, it’s worth testing.

11. A Clever Way to Validate New Markets with Popups (2 Methods)

Sam found the following list building strategy while researching his post on Harry’s marketing.

Here’s how it works:

Let’s say you’re an online retailer, and you don’t ship internationally, but you’re planning to someday. What do you do if a prospect, living abroad, wants to buy from you?

One strategy is to inform them you don’t ship abroad. Another more practical approach is to ask if you can email the prospect if/when you begin shipping to their country.

There are two ways to approach this. Either through a customer service representative and manually adding the prospect to your list as Harry’s does:

Or, more efficiently, through an email popup. Tuft & Needle have one on their product page that shows ONLY to users outside of the United States.

It’s not for everyone, of course, especially if you’re not looking to grow. But it’s perfect if you’re looking to gauge interest in emerging markets—and build a list of targeted prospects.

12. Run a Giveaway

You’ll likely agree with the following:

  1. Businesses want to collect email addresses; and
  2. Consumers love getting freebies.

That’s why everybody loves giveaways.

While it’s common to run giveaways on social media, it’s more effective to host them on your website.

When you run a giveaway on your e-commerce site, you:

  • Have full control over your giveaway;
  • Own your participants’ contact information; and
  • Have a chance to remarket to them.

Here’s how it works:

First, make sure you pick a relevant prize, such as a selection of your products or a gift card that users can redeem in your online store. Otherwise, you’ll end up with an email list full of freebie-seekers.

Next, create a giveaway popup to grab your visitors’ attention without disturbing their browsing experience. 

Here’s a brilliant example by Jysk Vin:

What makes this giveaway a great example? The following:

  • A value-driven headline (Note how the dollar value makes the prize more attractive)
  • A relevant and worthy prize
  • Clear information about the giveaway
  • Only one input field that is easy to fill out
  • A benefit-driven call-to-action

Running an on-site giveaway helps you grow your email list fast—without spending a fortune on ads.

13. Use Quizzes to Get Targeted Subscribers

There’s one list building strategy we’re seeing more and more online retailers use due to its effectiveness…

And that’s using quizzes and surveys.

Beardbrand is no stranger to this strategy. Since implementing it, they’ve generated 150,000+ leads from this strategy alone. 

Here’s how they’re using it:

When you arrive at Beardbrand’s home page, there’s a call-to-action above the fold, inviting you to take a quiz to learn the type of beardsman you are.

When clicked, Beardbrand asks you a few questions about your beard preference. Then, before revealing the results, Beardbrand asks you to enter your email to join their newsletter.

And it’s clever. Because Beardbrand disguises their request as a question, you think it’s needed to get your results, but it’s not—it’s optional. 

Whether you enter your email or not, Beardbrand gives you your results.

Fabletics are another brand using quizzes to grow their list. 

After completing their survey, they ask you to enter your email in exchange for an “exclusive offer”:

And it’s super-effective for three reasons:

  • They’re creating hyper-targeted user segments. Yes, there are more questions, and Fabletics are likely to collect fewer leads. But the leads they do get are likely to be of a higher quality. Plus, they’re easier to market to, given the information Fabletics already have. (For example, they ask for the user’s size, body type, and more).
  • They personalize the user experience for return visitors. If you’ve ever been asked to join an email list that you’re already on, you know that it’s annoying and hinders the reading experience. Fabletics know that, too. That’s why they only show the final page to returning visitors that have completed the survey but have NOT entered their email. 
  • Their copy is ultra-unique and super-specific. Unlike Fabletics’ competitors that invite visitors to “Subscribe for Exclusive Offers,” Fabletics specify their offer in concrete terms (“2 leggings for $24”), offer free shipping, and even attach a dollar amount value to their offer (“$99 value”). 

If you’re not building your list through compelling quizzes, you’re missing out. If the above brands are anything to go by, they work like gangbusters.

14. The Quickest and Easiest Way to Improve Your Footer Optin

Most online retailers have an optin form on their website footer. 

And if you do, too, you’re in good company.

The problem, though, is few brands take full advantage of it. 

Take ASICS Tiger, for example:

As much as marketers might want to believe, nobody wakes up in the morning, wishing for more newsletters in their inbox. 

But saving money or getting money off a future purchase? Now THAT is something anyone can get behind.

That’s what furniture retailer Chairish does. 

Rather than write generic copy like, “Join Our Newsletter”—a practice you need to avoid at all costs—they invite users to get money off a future purchase.

It’s a simple tweak in your copy. But time and time again has shown that it’s often the littlest changes that make the most significant difference. 

15. What Facebook Know About Engagement That Almost Nobody Else Does

If you have an iPhone, you’re familiar with red notification badges. They’re impossible to ignore, and clicking on them, even to disable them, is unavoidable. 

Yes, they’re annoying. But notifications are surprisingly effective. Research has found they activate our brain’s dopamine pathways, making them super addictive.    

It’s no surprise, then, that many online retailers use similar technology to engage users.

Our old friends at Beardbrand combines a badge notification on their site with a click-activated popup:

Users see a red notification badge, feel compelled to click it, and see a popup asking them to subscribe. 

Granted, it won’t work for everyone, but for those who are curious (or accustomed to it), it might be enough for them to click and subscribe to your brand.

Chapter 3

List Building Best Practices

So far, we’ve discussed the importance of list building and 15 ways you can grow an email list today.

In this chapter, we’ll share five list building practices you need to know to get more subscribers and higher conversions.

1. Segmentation Strategies for E-Commerce

i. Get More Information from Visitors with Multistep Campaigns

It’s a challenge many marketers face…

You want to get more visitor information beyond name and email address… 

But you’re also aware that more input fields mean fewer conversions.

One way to get more visitor information—without seeing a drop off in conversions—is by using what is called a “Multistep Popup”:

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Here’s how it works:

In the first step, you ask for a website visitor’s necessary information like their name and email address, similar to how you would with a regular popup.

Then, after the visitor enters their details, you follow up with questions about their gender, interest(s), age, and more, to enrich that data.

The best part is, even if they exit on the following step(s), your email service provider (ESP) still captures their name and email address.

Pretty clever, eh?

ii. Pre-Segment New Subscribers Based on Website Behavior

Did you know that you can personalize your popups for visitors who view certain product categories?

For example, if you sell clothing for both men and women, you can create two campaigns targeting each gender.

One for men… 

And one for women:

You can even add a hidden field to each campaign to send the gender to your ESP without having to ask visitors for it.

2. Targeting Rules to Capture the Right Visitors With Relevant Information

i. Use Geo-Targeting for Custom On-Site Messages

When collecting emails, you want to target and personalize your popup to each visitor. 

With geo-targeting, for example, you can target visitors from a certain geographical area using a super-specific message:

You can also personalize popups based on geo-targeting AND basket size, as we discussed earlier, to reduce abandoned carts:

The more personalized your popup, the more likely visitors will engage with your call-to-action.

ii. Customize for Mobile Users

Many marketers avoid collecting email addresses on mobile because they’re afraid Google will punish them for hurting the user experience.

But you have nothing to worry about if you know how to use mobile popups the right way.

The goal, with mobile users, is to create device-specific email popups, including:

  • Fewer input fields;
  • Removing images;
  • Reducing font size; and
  • Creating a compelling teaser. (More on that shortly.)

With limited screen space, you need to ensure that each line of copy earns its place on the form.

Here’s an example:

3. Split Test for Higher Conversion Rates

You know the importance of testing your advertising efforts.

So it should come as no surprise that you need to test your popups too.

But what should you test?

Well, besides testing colors, incentives, and headlines (like most marketers do), you should also test timing.

Let me give you an example.

We recently ran an experiment to see if we could increase the conversation rate for our blog’s email popup.

The first popup (the control), had a time-based trigger, meaning it showed seven seconds after a user visited a blog post.

The experimental popup, however, had a scroll-based trigger, meaning it showed after a reader scrolled 35 percent down the page.

The result was surprising.  

The experimental, scroll-based popup, outperformed the control by 62 percent.

The popup itself was the same, but the timing made a huge difference.

My point?

Always test your popups beyond the basics.

You might be surprised by what works and what doesn’t.

4. Designing a Stunning, High-Converting Popup

i. Match Your Popup with Your Site’s Design

When using popups to collect emails on your site, you want them to match your site’s design.

One way to find great colors for your popup is to use a color palette like Adobe Color

To discover a color scheme, upload a screengrab of your website—or the page you will show the popup on—to learn which colors appear in the screenshot. With this information, you can quickly identify colors that go well with your site’s design and use them in your popup.

A great example of a brand using their website’s design in its popup is Platinum Trading Academy:

Their popup uses the same color palette as the website but with a lighter background color to make it stand out. 

When your popups match the design of your site, they’ll come off as less intrusive, which, in turn, will improve your site’s conversion rate.

ii. Experiment with New Shapes to Capture Attention

Did you know a popup’s content doesn’t have to stay inside the box?

You can experiment with different shapes to make your popups more unique and eye-catching. The more distinctive popups are, the more likely they will stand out.

Fortunately, they’re just as easy to create as square popups. You create images in different shapes and then add them as floating images to your popup.

Here’s a unique example I created recently:

By having the images in different shapes around the popup’s edges, you can showcase more product images without covering any of the copy in your popup.

To learn more about how to create images in different shapes using Photoshop, read this in-depth guide.

5. Let the Words in Your Popup Do the Work for You

Writing persuasive copy doesn’t always come easy.

But it’s an essential aspect of creating a high-converting popup.

Below, I’ve put together a few best practices and copywriting tips to help your fingers move across the keyboard more easily.

i. Headline

There are many ways to write a good headline. But above all, you need to communicate value. Specifically, the value the reader will get if they take action.

One of my favorite copywriting techniques is taking the value you’re offering and turning it into a headline.

If you want to offer visitors a chance to win a pair of sneakers if they sign up for your newsletter, your headline might ask:

It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

Sure, there are many types of headlines that work just as well, but if you’re unsure how to start, this is the way to go.

ii. Body Copy

The body copy of your popup has to build on the headline and convince visitors to sign up.

Here, you need to focus on what’s in it for the reader.

You can use different incentives, such as discounts, competitions, freebies, and more.

Let’s continue with the sneaker competition example:

Remember to mention to your participants that you will also add them to your newsletter (if that’s the case).

iii. Call-to-Action Copy

Your call-to-action copy needs to be perfect.

It’s your final chance to convince visitors that taking action is the right thing to do.

Again, you need to include value in your CTA. And make it actionable.

If your visitors sign up for a chance to win something, that should be the focus of your CTA:

Try to get visitors to agree with your CTA, and you’ll get tons of new signups.

Here are all of the above put together in a popup:

If you position your offer correctly and add value to it, your visitors will be lining up to join your newsletter.

Chapter 4

Conclusion

So, there you have it: the definitive guide to e-commerce list building. 

We learned a lot from writing this guide, and we hope you got a lot out of it, too.

Now we want to turn it over to you:

Which e-commerce list building strategy are you going to try now? Are you going to use content upgrades on product pages? Or, are you going to use personalized popups? Leave a comment below.

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