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Starting from scratch: How to build an email list in 7 easy steps

by Kate Lindemann  |  March 1, 2021

7 min. read
Illustration of a contact from an email list with email imagery coming out of a phone.

Email marketing is a fantastic way for brands to engage with customers. But before you can start crafting fun and creative marketing emails, you’ll need a mailing list to send them to.

Fortunately, building an email list from the ground up is much easier than you might think.

If you want to use email to promote your business, this guide is for you. We’ll walk you through the process of building a mailing list from scratch in seven easy steps.

Step 1: Pick an email marketing tool

First things first: you’ll want to use the right tool for the job. Dedicated email marketing platforms like Mailchimp are relatively inexpensive and automate much of the work of email marketing.

Mailchimp user interface on a laptop.

These services usually start around $10-20 per month, and even offer free options if your mailing list is under a few thousand contacts.

What should you look for in an email marketing tool? Many key features – like A/B testing and customizable templates – are more about email campaigns themselves than building an email list. However, there are a few list-building capabilities you should keep an eye out for too.

Sign-up forms

A sign-up form on your website will be a key part of your list-building efforts. So before buying any email marketing tool, make sure to check its features for adding new subscribers. Most will generate a form and provide a snippet of code to use on your website.

HTML generated by Mailchimp to embed an email sign-up form on a website.

Self-managed subscriptions

Any good email marketing tool will make it easy for people to subscribe, unsubscribe and manage their preferences themselves. You can still add and delete contacts manually, but most of the work managing your list happens in the background.

List segmentation options

If you want to send different emails to different types of subscribers, you’ll need a way to sort and filter your list. This type of bulk customization is called email segmentation. Email marketing platforms with features like tags and filters make it easy to do.

Step 2: Sketch out a strategy

Before building an email marketing list, you’ll need a rough idea of whose emails you’re trying to attract and what you’ll do with them. It doesn’t have to be detailed or set in stone, but there are a few basic questions you should be able to answer.

Figure these things out first, because they will inform how you approach the next steps.

A man and woman plan an email strategy on a whiteboard.

Who are you marketing to?

Are you trying to engage current customers? Show new customers what your brand has to offer? Attract subscribers from a certain industry?

Creating customer personas, imaginary people who represent your “typical” customer, can help you shape a strategy that’ll work best for your audience.

What do you want to get out of your email marketing?

This one seems obvious. You want more sales! But consider how you plan to use email marketing to get there.

Think about short-term goals, like promoting a specific product or reaching a new customer type, but also long-term considerations like brand-building. With every email, you’re beaming your brand into customers’ inboxes. So start with your brand strategy and work backwards as you think about the types of emails you’ll send.

Marketing email from Adobe on a laptop screen.

What value will you provide subscribers?

A successful email marketing strategy is a symbiotic relationship. People won’t subscribe (or stay subscribed) unless you send them content they find useful.

Maybe the value is financial (like discounts and sales). Maybe they’ll get industry insights they can’t get anywhere else. Whatever it is, the value of your emails needs to be clear to you before you can communicate it to subscribers.

Step 3: Write a welcome email

It might seem counterintuitive to write an email before you have anyone to send it to. But when people sign up to an email list, you should greet them right away with a welcome email.

This starts your email relationship off on the right foot, and sets the tone for what’s to follow.

With email automation, you can set a welcome email to go out to all new subscribers, so have one drafted and ready to go before you move on to the next step.

Man with coffee reads welcome email on a smart phone.

Step 4: Put a sign-up form on your website

For most businesses, a prominent email sign-up form on the website is the fastest way to grow a mailing list.

Here are some things to keep in mind to maximize your form’s chance at success.


Your email sign-up form will be hosted somewhere on your website. You’ve got three main options: a dedicated email sign-up page, a field on an existing page or a pop-up window.

If growing your list of email subscribers is a top priority, a pop-up form is the way to go. Pop-ups convert much better than inline forms. They’re impossible to miss, and they force a response: either sign up, or close the window.

Screenshot of sign-up form for Ace and Tate's email list.

Program your pop-up window so it doesn’t accost users as soon as they enter the site, or interfere with key browsing behaviors. You wouldn’t want to interrupt someone just as they’re about to make a purchase!

Exit intent forms, which appear when someone’s mouse movements signal they’re about to close a window or navigate away, are a great way to time things just right.


The second major consideration for an email sign-up form is the text introducing it. Make it clear how your subscribers benefit from joining your email list. Maybe they’ll be the first to know about new products and promotions. Maybe they get exclusive content delivered straight to their inboxes. Maybe they get a discount just for signing up.

Whatever the benefit, this isn’t the time to beat around the bush. Keep your copy short, snappy and clear.

Email sign-up form offering subscribers a ten percent discount.


The simplest sign-up forms are often the most effective. After all, you’re asking your customers to do something. Don’t make them work for it! Only ask for the information you really need – just an email address is usually enough.

There are a few situations, however, when you might need to know a bit more. A fashion retailer may want to include a gender preference so they can market menswear to men and womenswear to women. A B2B company might need to know a subscriber’s job title or industry, so they can tailor their emails.

Sign-up form for email list showing preference options for men's and women's fashion.

Just remember, each new field is an extra hurdle to signing up. Take a critical look at each field you add and ask yourself if it’s really necessary.

Want to perfect your form even more? Check out our detailed guide to email sign-up forms.

Step 5: Drive traffic to your website

Now that you’ve got a sign-up form on your website, you need to make sure people see it. Here are a few strategies to consider.


Every marketer knows that digital ads are a great way to reach new audiences. You may already be using ads and paid search to market your products. These same ads serve a double purpose. They build awareness and drive traffic to your website, where people will also encounter your sign-up form.

A woman drinking coffee sees an Instagram ad for houseplants on her phone.

Lead magnets

You can also draw new email subscribers to your website with lead magnets, another classic email capturing strategy. Lead magnets are high-quality pieces of content (a report, webinar, template etc.) that attract people to your email sign-up form. By placing this content behind a form, you are offering something of value in exchange for someone’s email address.

Once you’ve created a lead magnet, use digital ads, organic search and social media to help potential customers discover it.

Step 6: Incorporate email into your workflows

Your email sign-up form is the best way to collect emails for your email list, but it doesn’t have to be the only one.

A woman in a red shirt makes a payment at a trendy hair salon in an industrial space.

For web shops and other online platforms, collecting emails is a natural part of doing business. Brick-and-mortar businesses can also incorporate email into everyday interactions with customers with online appointment bookings and digital receipts.

However, there’s one method you should never use to grow your list: buying email addresses. Using purchased email lists will send you straight to the spam folder and harm your email deliverability well into the future.

Step 7: Stay on top of your email list

Once your efforts have paid off and you’ve built a thriving email list, the real fun begins. It’s time to start designing campaigns, engaging your customers and learning from your email analytics.

But don’t forget your list-building efforts entirely. Continue to plant seeds for healthy growth and set aside some time for email list management. That way, when you send out future campaigns, you can be confident they’re resting on the foundation of a thriving mailing list.