Build Your List Without a Lead Magnet — Here's How

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Enticing people to join your email list with a piece of content, such as a cheatsheet, an ebook, or a free webinar, is a common practice in email marketing.

These “lead magnets,” (I prefer to call them “opt-in incentives” as I don’t think all subscribers are leads, and magnet kind of overstates its power) can be an effective way to grow your audience and give would-be customers a taste of what you have to offer.

And although it’s a simple idea, the actual work of putting together an opt-in incentive can be rather complex and time-consuming, since it involves coming up with a concept, writing, editing, designing, and integrating it into your website and email service provider.

The good news: You can build your list without a “lead magnet.”

In fact, I’ve identified three simple ways to improve your email sign-up process to set the stage for the kind of relationship you want to have with your subscribers.

Let’s start by looking at what a typical “out of the box” opt-in process looks like:

Step 1. Email Sign-up Form

Step 2. Subscription Confirmation

  • In a double opt-in process, the subscriber is sent to a page hosted by the ESP with boilerplate text telling them to expect an email containing a link to confirm their subscription. This email is automatically sent from the ESP.
  • For a single opt-in process, the subscriber may receive an email from the ESP confirming their subscription. Whether they do depends on how things are set up with the ESP.

    Step 3. Thank You page

    • When a subscriber clicks the confirmation link, they are taken to a subscription thank you page hosted by the ESP. Often this page includes a link for the subscriber to return to your website.

      In many cases, not much happens after Step 3 until at some point you decide to send something out to your list, which could be the following week or six months later depending on how often you communicate with your subscribers.

      In an enhanced email sign-up process, you use customized language and a warm welcome to give your readers the impression of personal engagement and give yourself opportunities to gently sell your services, all with little manual involvement on your part. Let’s look at the three ways to do this:

      1. Customize the boilerplate language in the sign-up form and auto-emails.

        Net result: You come across as a human being, not email marketing software.

        The first step is to customize the default language in your opt-in/confirmation sequence. Starting with your email sign-up form, change the boilerplate language, which is often sterile and sparse, to wording that reflects your brand’s personality. Tell would-be subscribers what kind of information they can expect to get from you and perhaps how often they’ll hear from you.

        In a double opt-in process, be sure to customize the language in the automated email the subscriber gets containing the link to confirm their subscription. It’s another chance to give your new subscriber a sense of who you are by how you present the confirmation call-to-action (CTA). Don’t go crazy adding extra information in this email. Some email clients like Gmail offer a “confirm subscription” link in the inbox view. This means your subscriber doesn’t have to actually open the email to complete the confirmation step. So going to great lengths to customize the email beyond a bit of personalized language could be a wasted effort.

        Also, follow the “One Call-to-Action Per Email” Rule. Subscription confirmation emails are not the place to advertise your services, ask questions, or try to get the reader to do something other than complete their opt-in process. Save that for the next step.

        2. Direct subscribers to a self-hosted Thank You page.

          Net result: Keep your subscriber’s experience on brand and promote your offerings.

          The next step is to direct your subscriber to a custom Thank You page that’s part of your website instead of by default sending them to the Thank You page hosted by your ESP.

          A custom self-hosted Thank You page will keep the sign-up process aligned to what subscribers expect of your brand. Use this page to thank your new subscriber for taking the time to sign up for your list and trusting you with their email address. If you are using a double-opt-in process, then also remind them about the email they’ll be getting with a link to confirm their subscription (and be sure to customize the language on this email, see step #1).

          These self-hosted Thank You pages also offer an excellent opportunity to direct your new subscriber to their next step. Perhaps you have some articles from your blog you’d like to highlight. You might advertise an upcoming workshop or webinar, or showcase other resources you want to share with them. This point in the process is a great time to give them another chance to get to know who you are and to experience your work.

          Here are a few examples of simple, yet effective email subscription Thank You pages.

          Tarzan thanks her new subscriber, alerts them to the confirmation email they're going to receive, and offers up some posts from her blog.


          EdSurge shares a number of resources on its Thank You page including recent articles.



          Jennifer Racioppi's Thank You page is casual and brief.


          Most ESPs offer the ability to direct subscribers to your Thank You page instead of the one the ESP provides. For example, here’s how to do this in MailChimp:

          From the Lists menu, select the list you’re working with and click Signup forms. Next choose General forms and in the dropdown menu select “Signup thank you page.” At the top you’ll see a field where you can enter the URL for your custom, self-hosted Thank You page.

          3. Send out a welcome email.

            Net result: Start the relationship and gain insight.

            Your third step in optimizing the email sign-up process is to set up a welcome automation sequence. “Automation sequence” might sound complicated or daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. What you’ll do is create one email that will go out to your new subscriber sometime after they’ve completed the opt-in process. The deployment of this email is triggered by the new subscriber’s activity, in this case, when they submit their sign-up form (for a single opt-in process) or confirm their subscription (for a double opt-in process).

            In this email, you are going to personally welcome your new subscriber to your world. Like the Thank You page, this a great opportunity to share something personal about yourself and your business, offer resources, or promote an upcoming event or service offering. You can also take this time to ask questions that will help you get to know your reader better. A little bit of insight will help you more easily categorize your subscribers (tagging and segmentation) so that you can be sending out mailings that are especially relevant to them.

            MailChimp recently added automation to free accounts which is fantastic if you have less than 2k subscribers and want to take advantage of advanced email marketing features. To set up an automated welcome email in MailChimp:

            Go to Automation and click the Add Automation button. In the next screen choose List Activity from the left-hand menu, then select “Welcome Message” as your Automation template. From there the system will walk you through the steps to create and schedule the welcome email.

            I recommend scheduling the welcome email to go out no sooner than an hour after your subscriber has completed the email sign-up process. If you set it to trigger immediately after they’ve subscribed, the welcome email can be easily overlooked or discarded as part of the basic opt-in process.

            Here are a few examples of great welcome emails:

            Dubsado's welcome email is very graphical with lots of tidbits of info. 


            Whole Whale has a nice team photo and brief welcome message.


            Unsettle's welcome email is decidedly text-heavy but it's an interesting backstory on how the blog came to be. 


            So let me summarize: the enhanced email sign-up process looks like this:

            1. Customize boilerplate language on the form and in the automated emails coming from the ESP.
            2. Direct to a self-hosted Thank You page vs. the boilerplate one offered by the ESP.
            3. Set up a simple, single-email welcome automation.

            (If you'd like to see a side-by-side comparison of the basic and enhanced processes, check it out here.)

            There’s a lot to email marketing and getting someone to join your list is just the start. While opt-in incentives work great to grow your audience, it’s okay if you’re not quite ready to develop one. Enhancing the basic email sign-up process is a critical first step towards stronger engagement from your subscribers and a more rewarding relationship with them.


            Hi, I’m Lisa. I help companies translate their work, which is often full of jargon and complexity, into language and visuals they can use to attract customers and grow their impact. I write about the challenges of a mid-career transition after moving on from a business I had founded to start a new one (and kicked off the Experienced Newbie podcast series). Learn more about me here and get my free Non-writers Writing Guide to Headlines, Subheads, and Email Subject Lines.

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