How to build and grow an email list

Table of Contents


So you’re starting (or growing) a business. Your mind is pulled in a dozen different directions between sales, marketing, and operations. Building and growing an email list might not be a priority. 

Spoiler alert: it should be.

Growing and maintaining an email list is a hugely important asset for any entrepreneur. It gives a huge boost to your marketing, sales, and personal brand. It helps you keep tabs on your customers’ shifting needs, provides a ready customer base for when you launch new products, and establishes your credibility when you do something exciting like publish a book

Ok, but what if my business isn’t in a field that generates lots of interesting topics to send in an email newsletter? Time to get creative. No matter what your niche is, you can build an email audience around it. If you sell a product or service that is primarily marketed online, your email list will be the primary point of contact between you and your past, present, and future customers. Furthermore, an email list turns those customers into fans who will help you grow your business for years to come. Those fans will be waiting excitedly to embrace the opportunity to learn from you, buy from you, or just hear what you’re up to. 

Getting from 0 subscribers to a loyal group of friends might sound like a tall order. That’s why we are here to walk you through it. Today’s piece will go over: 

  • How to start your email list from scratch. 
  • Maintaining growth of your email list over time
  • And how building an email list contributes to growing a speaking business (after all, that’s our specialty)!

Building an email list opens up a lot of possibilities for your business, so let’s dive in!

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How to start your email list

The first step to starting an email list is quite simple–ask for people’s emails. We say “ask,” because you should never buy an email list. While buying a list isn’t strictly illegal, sending marketing emails to the people on that list might be. Always make sure your subscribers have actually opted into your email newsletter and provide an easy way to unsubscribe. If someone contacts you complaining that they did not sign up for your email list–even if there’s no way they didn’t consent to the opt-in form–remove them. 

So where do you ask for people’s emails? Everywhere! On your website, in your email signature, on all your social media profiles. For your email signature and social media posts, link to a simple, sleek landing page that lets people know exactly what they’re getting into. Differentiate this landing page from your inquiry forms for products/services, which should elicit a far more specified response from you. Your email list subscribers should expect to receive regular emails full of interesting content from you. Don’t feel intimidated by the prospect of writing “interesting” content–we’ll cover what that means shortly. 

Tip: Don’t make your email newsletter landing page too business-y. Your email list is an important tool not just for your current endeavors, but your long-term personal brand. Your business could evolve in a thousand different ways and your subscribers can remain confident they are still receiving what they signed up for–your content.  

Visitors to your website will be the most powerful source of email subscriptions, so they deserve a bit more attention. Your marketing channels, such as ads, social media, and even handing out your business card, will regularly direct people to your website. If they aren’t interested in buying from you immediately, how do you get them to stick around and sign up for your email list?

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, popup forms one of the most effective means to getting new subscribers. Furthermore, visitors should have an opportunity to sign up for your email on every page of your site. Yes, even your “about” page should provide the opportunity to sign up for your email newsletter with an accessible, easy-to-close popup. If you do nothing else to start growing your email list, we cannot recommend this enough. In the next section, we’ll talk about how to create a sustainable cycle of content creation and calls-to-action that will grow your email list even further. 

With these tips, we’ve made more than a few assumptions about your business. We assume you already have a website and other digital assets in place. If you’re a speaker and you’re struggling to set up those assets, we can help! 

Growing and leveraging your email list

Once you have the basics set up, it’s time to start creating content. If you want more email subscribers, you have to create content. What kind of content? The kind of content that leads to intentional thought leadership. We have a whole piece on thought leadership to help you get started here. Read that first if you’re not sure how to get started. While there are several avenues of content creation you can pursue, we’ll use blogging as our example here because it’s easy to demonstrate the relationship to email list building. 

Every time you publish a new blog, you should include a call-to-action that incentivizes people to sign up for your email list. To incentivize the reader, the CTA should offer some benefit beyond the content they already consume. That’s where “lead magnets” come in.  A lead magnet is free content that can only be accessed if they enter an email address. Deciding what freebie to offer is a fun way to get creative and test what resonates with your audience, but here are some ideas:

  • A short resource or guide.
  • A longer resource, like an e-book.
  • A longer reflection on a popular topic people have been asking you about.
  • A Q&A session or webinar.
  • A chance to win a 15 minute call with you.

To really maximize the lead magnet strategy, you will eventually want to create a variety of “freebies.” 

Here’s a scenario to explain why.

Let’s say you recently quit your day job to become a small business marketing consultant. A lot of your early clients are local restaurants and B&Bs. You regularly blog about social media for small brick-and-mortar businesses. To grow your email list, you create a free resource: a guide to Facebook ads for the hospitality industry. You use this lead magnet as a CTA on all your posts and get your first big wave of subscribers. Things are going great! You start blogging about other topics related to social media marketing for small businesses and using the same CTA, since it has such a good track record.

Suddenly, you notice your new email subscribers dwindling. What went wrong? 

Here’s the catch: even within a well-defined niche, different people have different needs. If you attract a reader with a blog about, say, Instagram Reels but offer them a relatively unrelated Facebook ad guide, they will assume your expertise is better suited toward somebody else’s needs. As you create more public content, you will also have to create a repertoire of subscriber-only content to address the variety of needs among your consumers. Fortunately, the key to knowing which “freebie” to offer next is built into your email list. All you have to do is look at the data. 

Which brings us to an essential strategy for growing and leveraging your email list–tracking the data. Track metrics like open rates, click rates, and subject line success. Then study the relationship between content and metrics. When you look at your stats, you’ll be able to see which problems + solutions your readers have engaged with the most. Not only will this data help you develop free resources, it will help you decide what campaigns or products to launch long-term. Addressing a need that your subscribers already have is always easier than convincing them to have that need in the first place. And if you already talk regularly about certain topics, a related product launch will seamlessly integrate. 

We’ll wrap up this section with some longer-term advice for managing a bigger, more complex email list. As your email list grows and you accumulate more data, you have to segment and differentiate between different subscribers. If you have thousands of subscribers, that number includes previous customers, potential customers, potential business partners, and people who just enjoy your content. Those groups have very different expectations for what they want to hear from you. If former customers are constantly getting sales-y emails geared toward potential customers, they will unsubscribe. If potential customers only see your thought leadership content and not your new product launches, they will move on. 

Tip: As you build your email list, research which CRMs that can help you achieve your goals based on the different groups within your subscriber base. Everybody has their favorite, so look at what your favorite entrepreneurs and content creators use. We cover some great CRMs and other software systems in this podcast episode if you need more inspiration!

Email lists and your speaking business

We are The Speaker Lab after all, so we’ll wrap up with some email tips especially for speakers. We want you to feel confident about how email can be used to your advantage. While a huge email list isn’t necessary for landing those very first gigs, building one deserves a prominent place on your list of long-term goals

Very few speakers stay where they are when they launch their business for the rest of their lives. Most speakers have a message that is much bigger than the stage–something that can be adapted for books, products, courses, events, intellectual property…the options are limitless. Building an email list is an investment in those future projects that grow out of your speaking business. 

Maybe you are totally confident that you will never add other products onto your speaking business or pivot the way you spread your message in any way. In that situation, an email list is still useful, but not a necessity. But if you have any inkling at all that you might want to launch another product someday…start building your email list now. Seriously, you never know when a global pandemic could occur, wreaking havoc on the speaking industry and forcing you to find ways to make money in new, creative, and virtual ways!

In five years when you decide to finally start creating that online course or writing that book, you won’t have time to start an email list. If you already have a few hundred or thousand people who enjoy what you put into the world, you have saved yourself years of sales and marketing work for your new product. Here are a couple concrete examples of how this works.

  • If you’re creating a course based on your favorite keynote, you normally would have to test the waters of your existing speaking audience to figure out who is yearning to learn more from you. Then you need to find a way to reach them, and finally pitch your course. But wait–you already have an email list of audience members and fans who trust your expertise. You can skip straight to pitching your course without any of the preliminaries, because they already trust you. 
  • If you’re diversifying your income by writing a book, publishers expect to see proof in your proposal that you have a platform. Traditional publishers won’t give the time of day a book deal to authors who can’t pull their own weight when it comes to marketing. They want proof that people actually want to read your work! And if you’re self publishing, you don’t want to end up with a thousand copies stacked in your grandma’s garage, do you? Your email subscribers are both the platform that can get you a book deal and the customers who buy your book. 
  • When you get up on stage to speak at a conference, you only speak to that audience once (in most cases). This poses a real marketing challenge for entrepreneurial speakers who want to build a sustainable community of fans. The audience members with whom your talk really resonates probably wish they could hear from you more, too. Wouldn’t it be great if there was some direct line of communication where you could continue sharing your message with them?  

If you’re wondering how to get your audience members to sign up for your email list, it’s really quite easy to integrate into your talk. You just have to give them the opportunity! A QR code on one of your slides, a number they can text, a link…even collecting business cards are all possibilities here. Using the lead magnet strategy we mentioned above will guarantee you even more subscribers. An easy “freebie” to offer with obvious, relevant value is the slides from your presentation, which the most inspired members of the audience will want to access.

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We won’t deny it–email list growth and maintenance is a lot of work. The time spent creating content, free resources, tracking data…it’s the long game, not a short path to success. 

So maybe you’re not quite sold on the idea of building an email list. Perhaps you planned to invest your time and marketing budget on social media instead. Well, we have some stats for you. While social media is a very important tool, email is a more leverageable platform because the ratio of engagement is so much higher. If you are regularly maintaining 30% open rates, exponentially more people are seeing your content than the Facebook algorithm can promise. Seriously–the average organic reach for a facebook post is only around 5%! And engagement? Less than 1%

That settles it–time to get started. 


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