If you want to start or grow an online business, there is one diagnostic tool in particular that will help you determine whether your idea is good enough or not.

It’s not a business plan. Or a business coach. Or a college degree in entrepreneurship. Or 10,000 or a million or a bajillion followers on Instagram.

The diagnostic tool that will tell you the brutal truth about your business idea is… an email list.

“But no one wants more emails”

You’re right! So to join your email list, your prospective subscribers have to believe you and/or your business can help them solve their problems.

And your content has to be compelling enough or niche enough that readers are willing to overcome the inconvenience of more emails in order to receive the information they want or need.

Growing an email list validates whether you’ll be able to sell a service, program, or product. If people aren’t even willing to accept free information from you… why would they pay for it?

Don’t just take it from me. According to statistics rounded up by HubSpot and Wordsteam:

  • 58% of consumers check their email first thing in the morning (Many before they even get out of bed).
  • 77% of people prefer to get permission-based promotional messages via email (versus direct mail, text, phone, or social media).
  • 4 out of 5 marketers said they’d rather give up social media than email marketing.

Read that last one again. The professionals whose livelihood depends on marketing (and who have the most experience at it) will almost always axe social media when forced to choose.

If online marketing was a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, email marketing would absolutely be the Snatch Game episode. The Snatch Game is a mid-season episode in every season in which drag queens have to both impersonate a celebrity and ad lib comedy in a spoof of the classic game show Match Game.


The Snatch Game episode is notorious for separating the pack of remaining contestants, because it quickly reveals who’s got the goods and who doesn’t.

Having and promoting an email list will tell you the TRUTH about your business idea.

If your value proposition needs work, your email list growth efforts will tell you that. Please don’t go off chasing the next shiny object (Chatbots/Clubhouse/NFTs/et cetera) when your idea isn’t even fully formed yet.

Can’t polish a turd.💩

Email still works. So in this post, I’ll share what you need to do to start using email properly – specifically if you want your list to make you money someday.

Context: Why Bother Having An Email List?

Email is a free and immediate way to reach your readers

When you send a piece of content via email, everyone receives it at the same time. Whether or not your subscribers open your email is a different animal, but at the very least your subscribers will see your name in their inbox on a regular basis and recall who you are. 

Email lets you avoid the algorithmic hijinks that sometimes come up on social media platforms. You’ve worked too hard to put this valuable marketing material together to get TKO’d by an algorithm deprioritizing your content. 

Creators on Instagram and YouTube are being shadow banned and demonetized without much notice. Have a way to reach your people without relying so heavily on big tech.

Email marketing allows you to create automations

And automations are your best friend online. 

These are sequences of pre-scheduled emails that go out automatically based on a subscriber’s decisions, clicks, or behaviors. You may not be thinking much about automation today, but there might come a time in which you want to reuse or recycle past newsletters for future subscribers. Email lets you do this, which is why you want to go with an established email service provider.

Email helps your readers escape groupthink

There’s an additional unspoken benefit to email: It lets your fans and subscribers form their own opinions about who you are and what you offer. Too often, we develop first impressions or make snap judgments of a brand based on how other users are talking about it.

Let’s now dive into five steps you need to take to get started on your email marketing journey.

Step 1: Create An Email Address On A Proper Domain

If you want to establish an email list, you won’t be able to use an @gmail or @yahoo email address for very long.

The reason for this is that you’ll be mass-emailing a potentially large group of people all at once; doing so from one of these personal addresses will trigger spam filters for most inboxes, and your email is likely to skip the inbox entirely and end up in a subscriber’s spam folder, never to see the light of day again.

Take the time to set this up now. Your custom email address can be purchased from the same provider where you purchased your website domain or web hosting. If you don’t have a website, that’s no problem; you can still purchase a domain and custom email address and your email will be functional.

(You may want to think about setting up a simple website though, in case people actually want to visit your site and learn about who you are.)

BlueHost has a nice explainer here if you want more context, and DreamHost has an email-only hosting option. An email address with a custom domain projects credibility and professionalism; if you haven’t even taken the time to set this up, your subscribers will have a hard time taking you seriously.

Step 2: Choose An Email Service Provider

Once you’ve minted your shiny new email address, the next step is to choose an email service provider.

Newer newsletter tools like Substack and Ghost have popped up in recent years and created a fever about online newsletters – especially paid newsletters. These tools are often light on features. (I raged about Substack here)

If you can swing it, I suggest you opt for a more robust email service provider instead. ActiveCampaign is my battle axe of choice. Other household name providers like MailChimp and ConvertKit are free up to a certain number of subscribers, and you’ll have far more flexibility.

When you use an email service provider, you can request that subscribers give you their name, phone number, and/or address upon signup. The more information you request, the more likely it is that users will click out, but in industries like real estate or B2B sales, this additional information might be essential. I own a coaching and consulting business for entrepreneurs, so first name and email address are enough for me.

In your emails, you’ll be able to recall this custom information using what are called personalization tags. This is how a newsletter knows to address you by name, and it adds a personal touch to your communication.

You honestly can’t go wrong with any of the major email service providers, all of whom have been in business for years. Choose one provider and familiarize yourself with how to use it effectively.

Step 3: Set Up A Form Or Landing Page So Followers Can Subscribe

Fancy email address: ✅

Awesome email service provider: ✅

Now we need a way for prospective subscribers to sign up to your list so they can start receiving your emails.

Most email service providers enable this by giving you a forms feature. Forms are what allow your readers to input their email address and any other pertinent information; you can either embed a form directly onto your website, have it be a pop-up, or create your own URL (Web address) for the form.

Avoid the pop-ups options if you can; most people hate ‘em and they don’t perform well.

Many providers have now also started offering what are called landing pages. Landing pages – also sometimes called squeeze pages – are web pages on which there is only one action to take.

Here’s why this matters: The more buttons and links you give people on a web page, the more likely they are to be distracted. 

A landing page helps your prospects stay focused, and when given the opportunity to do something rather than nothing, many readers will choose the former – especially if they are interested in your business, blog, or brand.

How to 3x-5x your signup rates

According to a white paper from the Radicati Group, the average American worker gets over 120 emails a day. Instead of saying “Sign up for my free email list,” consider offering a free gift or something of value instead. In marketing, this is known as a lead magnet.

A lead magnet is a piece of content or a discount given to readers in exchange for their email address. Lead magnets are also known as “ethical bribes” or “opt-in carrots”; you’re making an offer to your reader to give them something valuable for free in exchange for joining your email list. Here’s one of mine.

If no one is signing up for your email list, but they are seeing your posts and blogs online on a regular basis… it’s time to create a compelling lead magnet that people actually want to download. 

This is where a lot of newer entrepreneurs get tripped up: They don’t make their lead magnets compelling enough. How can you add value to your readers and save them time, money, or heartache? Start there and you’ll be on the right track.

The good news is you only need to do this once. Once your signup process is in place, you won’t need to mess with it again. Make people aware of your lead magnet in your blogs, social media posts, and other networking groups or communities.

Step 4: Go Where The Fish Are

This is the hardest step in my opinion, and it’s also a step that is ongoing and never ends. If you decide to go into online entrepreneurship, be prepared that you have to put yourself out there more than you think you should – every single week.

In a past blog post, personal entrepreneurship blogger Ramit Sethi refers to this stage as “marketing tactical hell”. There are SO many ways to market yourself to new people that it quickly gets overwhelming.

Tell me if this sounds like your stream of consciousness lately:

“Maybe I should get Clubhouse. Should I start doing Reels? SEO is definitely the way to go. I should start a podcast. How do I get mentioned in Business Insider? I’m gonna register for Upwork. I’m gonna post on LinkedIn every damn day until it kills me. Should I make an app? … … … why is nothing working?!”

… sound familiar?

That’s marketing tactical hell in a nutshell.

You DO need a way to get in front of new people. But you don’t need to be everywhere.

The advice I’ve published often is: Choose one or two platforms and focus on getting really good at creating content unique to these platforms.

If the information is truly valuable and entertaining, people will meet you where you are.

Step 5: Add Value On A Regular Basis

Readers are now signing up for your fancy new email list. Excellent! Now… we actually need to email them on a regular basis.

Here’s some good news: Your emails don’t need to be complicated. In a past episode of the Social Media Marketing podcast, Social Media Examiner founder Michael Stelzner noted that when the company tested many different email formats with their list of over 500,000 subscribers, the simplest emails actually performed the best. Fancy graphics aren’t necessary in email marketing if your newsletter content itself is solid.

Challenge yourself to send a weekly newsletter. The advantage to sending newsletters on a regular basis is that you train your list to expect communication from you at a certain day and time each week. The same psychology that justifies weekly TV shows or new podcast episode releases applies to email newsletters here; set clear expectations and your audience’s open rate will improve with time.

Less is more

We often receive newsletters that have 15 or more buttons in one newsletter, especially from retailers. For most of us, giving our audience lots of options will backfire and cause them to not click on anything at all. 

A rule of thumb in conversion marketing is: One newsletter, one call to action. Your call to action can be to click on a link, reply to an email, forward the newsletter to a friend, or schedule a call with you, depending on what actions you want your readers to take.

Email newsletter writing can quickly take you down a rabbit hole if you’re not careful. Remember to focus on your reader and make your content all about them. Help them with their challenges and problems so they can realize their goals and dreams. This is why one of my offers to my readers is email scripts; short, punchy emails sent at a weekly cadence build momentum and relatedness with your readers, which is exactly what you want before getting ready to sell a product, program, or service.

Final Takeaways

Here’s a simple recap to help you cement what you’ve just read.

  1. Create a separate professional email address to ensure your hard-fought newsletters don’t end up in spam folders.
  2. Choose an email service provider that will help you build your email machine. Every service provider has a learning curve; once you find your way around, you’ll love it.
  3. Create a form or landing page so that readers can subscribe 24/7. Pro tip: Create a simple lead magnet to incentivize signup. Everyone loves presents.
  4. Go where the fish are. No one wants to visit a hot dog stand in the middle of the desert. Place your content where human eyeballs will see it.
  5. Add value on a regular basis. Build relationships over time with your readers and you’ll have a warm, friendly audience ready to go when it’s time to launch your latest mad science experiment.

There’s a saying in online marketing: “The best time to start an email list was two years ago; the second best time to start is now.”

Get the ball rolling with your email efforts today and you’ll be well on your way to cultivating an audience of raving fans.


This post was originally written for Entrepreneur.com. Copyright 2022 by Entrepreneur Media, Inc. All rights reserved.

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