23 Data-Backed List Building Strategies From Top Experts (with case studies and experiments)

If you have a site that is struggling to gain traction, a strong focus on list building can help to break the plateau.

Your list gives you an audience for traffic generation, social shares, and profitable product launches.

Many new online entrepreneurs and marketers don’t heavily focus on increasing their newsletter conversion rate. Instead, they focus on creating great content, and generating traffic. Both are important.

However, much of the energy spent crafting content and generating traffic will go to waste. Hubspot reports that 96% of visitors are not ready to make a purchase on their first visit.

That means they won’t become a client, won’t buy your ebook, won’t buy your software, and won’t use your services.

Sadly, even with great content, most visitors to your site won’t return, especially if your business hasn’t yet built up a brand.

Therefore, the key to growing your business quickly, is to focus on list building from the start.

You’ll still create that great content, and generate traffic, but you’ll have implemented (and be testing) a list conversion plan.

I’ve always liked to look toward two things when researching what to implement in my businesses (read more about my experience).

One, what are the experts doing? Two, what does the data show?

In other articles, I share strategies for increasing your email open rate, and go in-depth into improving your email campaign as a whole.

For this post, we’re focusing in on how to improve your list’s signup rate.

With those points in mind, let’s take a look at 23 data backed list building hacks that the experts are using to grow their own lists.

1. Brian Dean’s Content Upgrade Method (793% increase)

Brian Dean of Backlinko increased the email conversion rate of one of his individual blog posts by 793% with one ingenious tweak.

He went from getting a .54% conversion rate to 4.82% from the same traffic. Getting half a signup per 100 visits versus getting almost 5 signups per hundred!

Getting that sort of signup ratio from a blog post is astounding.

Here’s an example of a free checklist Brian is giving away at the bottom of his post:

Content upgrade methodHere’s how he did it.

  • Find a blog post that’s getting traffic, but not much in the way of conversions.
  • Think about an additional resource that would make that content even more awesome (a video, checklist, pdf, podcast, etc.)
  • Give that resource away for free by including a link to download it within that particular post
  • Use a service like Leadpages, SumoMe, or your email service provider, to ask for an email in exchange for the additional resource
  • Repeat this process for all of your popular posts and pages

Check out Brian’s case study for even more details on the Content Upgrade Method and to get that free checklist to guide you through the process.

2. Derek Halpern – 7 places to include your signup form

Derek Halpern of SocialTriggers shares the top seven spots to place your signup form.

  • In a feature box, which means using a signup form with bullet benefits as a header
  • At the top of your sidebar
  • At the bottom of each post
  • As an overlay
  • On the About page
  • Within the footer
  • In a bar across the top of the page

I’ll add a couple more:

  • Within the main post content try asking for a signup within the flow of the post
  • Don’t forget the content upgrade method discussed above

You saw one example of a feature box at the top of this post.

Here’s the one from Derek Halpern:

feature box

This is at the very top of his blog, for everyone to see.  Sidebar forms can be missed.

Here’s an example that takes the feature box to the next level.

Spencer Haws of NichePursuits recently revamped his blog design, and it is astounding.

Here’s what he did with his header area:

nichepursuits feature box

When a user click the dropdown they are presented with a variety of options.

After clicking “Teach Me!” they are presented with an overlay specially targeted for the option they chose.

This is a genius idea, and from talking with Spencer, I know that the conversions went through the roof after he implemented this.

Think about giving it a try on your own site.

One key to note is that what works for one website may not work in every case.

These seven spots are good places to test, but don’t automatically assume they will work for your audience.

For example, a tech savvy audience may be especially annoyed by popups, while others may not be as concerned. Or it could be the opposite.

The point is, test everything!

3. Overlay Case Study: Headline Copy

Justin Rondeau of WhichTestWon wrote for eConsultancy.com about three overlay (another word for popup) case studies, which show that an overlay can increase email conversion rates by 400%!

The first test he covers shows how Reebok increased the conversion rate of its overlay by 40% with a simple headline hack.

Here’s how they did it.

They changed their headline from the basic “Join the Reebok Newsletter” to the much more intriguing, “JOIN AND SAVE!”

Let’s be honest.

The first headline is yawn city.

The second headline works because it shows the benefit of joining. Now I can infer that by joining Reebok’s newsletter I’m going to receive some special deals.

I like deals, and therefore, I’m much more likely to take action.

Think about how you can update your headlines to show the benefits of joining.

4. Overlay Case Study: Overlay Size

Next, Jason covers how the overlay size affects conversion rates.

In this surprising case study, Justin shows how Favecrafts.com used a narrower overlay box to increase conversions by 8.8% compared to a wider version.

One thing to note is that during their test, they were purely testing width. So they didn’t change the button size, or the width of the actual content on the overlay.

So there was a lot of blank space to the left and right of the content on the wider version.

One thing they don’t cover is what the affect would be of using that extra space to show more benefits, a larger button, or increased headline.

It’s entirely possible that while only changing the width reduced conversions, increasing the width and filling it with content and a larger button would have improved conversions.

If we take a look at FaveCrafts current overlay we can see that they have actually gone back to a larger overlay displaying more information.

header width

Still, it is valuable to learn that width alone doesn’t necessarily correlate directly to increased conversions, which would have been my suspicion.

The learning here is to continually test. Use the knowledge from these experts as an accelerated starting point, but don’t stop there.

5. Overlay Case Study: Popup Time

The third case study shared by Justin relates to the optimal time to trigger an overlay.

For this test they tried triggering the overlay at 15 seconds, 30 seconds, or 45 seconds.

It would be natural to assume that letting a visitor get more familiar with your site before bombarding them with a popup would produce better results.

This turned out to not be the case at all. In fact, the results were much better when the overlay was triggered at 15 seconds.

The 15 second trigger produced 11% more signups than the 30 second one, and a huge 50% increase compared to the 45 second trigger.

Thinking about this from a psychology perspective it makes sense.

Triggering the overlay early causes a pattern interrupt, which literally shocks the user into taking action.

Waiting longer allows the user to get deeper into your content. At that point, they just want to finish reading, and don’t want to be bothered. So they click the X.

6. Use your banner ad spots to market your list

Check out this cool trick that John Lee Dumas of EntrepreneurOnFire uses to grow his email list.

eofire sidebar

Those three boxes all lead to signup box popups that encourage people to register to gain access to the free material.

The great thing about this method is that it doesn’t even look like a signup box at first viewing. The user simply clicks the box because they want the specific information mentioned.

Once they take the initial action of clicking, they are already in the conversion funnel, and they are more likely to take the next action.

Think about it. What’s takes more energy? Clicking on a box that mentions something you are interested in receiving, or immediately having to fill out a form? Clearing, clicking is easier. Once someone has clicked, they have already started the process of receiving the benefit. As long as your overlay is done well, this can lead to significantly higher conversions than just a signup form alone.

Another benefit is the potential to include multiple boxes all mentioning different benefits. This gives the chance to connect with a variety of readers seeking different things.

Quick note that this doesn’t mean not to have a more traditional form in the sidebar. Rather, it means that you can use the rest of the space to advertise your own products/services/guides that lead to even more email conversions.

7. Use an exit pop to convert on site abandonment

Noah Kagan has become something of a rockstar within the online marketing world, and for good reason. His team at AppSumo has created the Groupon for online business products.

They also built SumoMe, which is fantastic software built to help businesses increase their email conversions.

One of the SumoMe tools is a cool app called List Builder. This app is able to detect when a user is about to leave your site, and shows them a popup to get one last chance at an email conversion.

Here’s an example of what List Builder can look like:

list builder

It’s a low risk, high reward proposition.

If you don’t currently use SumoMe on your site, I’d highly recommend checking them out. Much of the app is free!

I discuss a specific example of using List Builder to gain 9% conversions further down this list!

8. Work from a benchmark

The next seven points will be quick hitters.

Noah wrote a post with seven actionable stats, learned from collecting over 1,000,000 emails, that can be used to improve your email collection.

First up, the average conversion rate across all SumoMe accounts is 1.66%.

This is a great benchmark for learning where you are in relation to the competition.

If you are below this mark, you can definitely stand to implement some of the methods in this list, and make quick improvements.

Of course, even if you are above this, there is likely room for large gains.

Keep reading below for a specific case study of a SumoMe implementation.

9. Regular popups have similar conversions as monthly popups

show regular popups

Before see this stat, I figured that showing a popup on every visit would reduce conversions, as people rapidly exited from annoyance.

Contrary to popular belief, showing an email overlay with each visit is slightly more effective than showing the overlay once per month.

Even more interesting, showing the overlay once per day, or once per week produces even less signups.

I wouldn’t have guessed this either, but the stats are clear.

10. Showing the popup 5 seconds after entrance produced the best results

popup frequency

AppSumo tracked the ideal time to show the overlay.

5 seconds clearly beat out the other options.

This falls in line with the stat posted earlier, uncovered by WhichTestWon. They had found that showing the overlay at 15 seconds produced better results when compared to 30 and 45 seconds.

WhichTestWon hadn’t tested less than 15 seconds. So the AppSumo test simply confirms that less time is better.

I’d recommend testing a variety of times to see which produces the best conversions for your traffic.

11. Headlines with social proof, free giveaway, or a discount work best

best popup headline text

Another test from AppSumo showed the best headlines to use in your overlay.

They found that three things made the biggest difference in conversions.

First, showing social proof moves the needle. Talk about how many subscribers you already have, or any niche experts that have endorsed you.

Second, you can give an incentive for joining. So create a great guide, and send it to them after signup.

Third, offer a discount. If you sell products/tools/services that you could discount, it’s a great way to get new subscribers. Offer a one-time coupon, and get a subscriber for the long run.

12. A red button color produced the most signups

Notice at the top of each page on this site I use a big red button to attract attention to my own newsletter.

I actually switched colors after seeing this chart from AppSumo:

best button color for popup

I find it incredibly interesting to learn how simple things like button color can have such a drastic effect on conversions. It’s little updates like this that can make the difference between a profitable campaign, and a failed one.

Take the time to implement these suggestions in your own business, and you will see improvement.

13. Use button text to reinforce the signup reason

what should button say

Next up, AppSumo analyzed the best Call To Action on their buttons. What they found is that emphasizing the benefit received for joining increases subscribers.

Surprisingly, the simple, Subscribe Now, still works well. Just don’t use “Submit.”

You’ll see that “Send Me Free Tips!” was their #1. The largest difference I see between this and the others is the use of the word Free.

I’d recommend testing a variety of phrases that incorporate Free to find the best one for your business.

14. Use a unique benefit, exclusive to email subscribers on your popup copy

As you can see with the following image, using copy that shows an exclusive benefit to joining can greatly increase conversion rates.

popup copy

Think about something extra you can give your subscribers.

Also, make your subscribers feel special is a great way to increase loyalty. Create a community feel by giving subscribers a name like VIPs or Tribe Members, etc. It’s that little wordplay that makes a connection with readers.

15. Example: Gaining 9% conversions with SumoMe

BlueWire Media was able to generate a 9% conversion ratio from the SumoMe List Builder app.

You can set it up to show after a certain time period, or use their Smart technology to show it as the person is exiting.

You can tie it directly into your email service provider, so it has a lot of power.

The entire suite of free tools from SumoMe can work together to really boost your list signups.

Give it a try!

16. 3x signup increase by moving signup form above the fold

When BlueWire Media moved their signup box above the fold they skyrocketed their conversions by 3x.

Check out the header they implemented, and then check out the concrete stats below:

bluewire header

This increased their email signups from 2.1% to 5.9%!

Imagine tripling your list from a simple design tweak.

That’s awesome sauce.

17. Use an entrance popup

We’ve shown some great examples of how to improve your overlay conversion rates, and shown a tool for generating simple exit pops to boost email signups.

If you want more flexibility and control over how your overlays appear, you’ll want to use a tool like Popup Domination.

It’s a great WordPress tool that is packed with a ton of awesome features.

First, as I love data, I want to share a great article by Dan Zarrella of HubSpot showing that popups work and don’t hurt your bounce rate.

Here are his stats:

signup rate with popups

Boom! More conversions, without a negative.

What’s really surprising is that his bounce rate actually went down!  Obviously, it’s a small amount, and likely not statistically significant,

Sure, there are some experts that don’t like popups, and strongly campaign against them.

It’s understandable, popups can feel annoying.

However, when building a business, it’s best to go with what the data says, not with what feels right.

Ott Niggulis wrote an excellent post (full of data) over at ConversionXL.com.

He started from a place of popup skepticism, but came full circle after looking at what the stats had to say.

Definitely check that one out for even more popup statistical goodies.

18. Using Qualaroo to ask for email increased signups 500%

Wow! This one is an awesome method shared by KissMetrics.

They share how the University of Alberta increased their email signups by 500% using the survey tool, Qualaroo.

When a visitor was reading a piece of news, and had stayed for 10 seconds, they had Qualaroo slide up to ask for an email.

This is a great, unobtrusive way to increase your list.

Here’s what it looks like:

qualaroo alberta

Since the person is already reading and interested, Qualaroo just asks if they’d like to get more news.

Simple, and effective.

19. Get customer feedback to increase list signups

One awesome tip I had to pull in from Ott’s popup defense article is his reference to using popups to generate feedback.

We aren’t talking about general customer suggestions here.

Rather, this is asking your readers for the specific reason that they have yet to join your email list.

Is this blunt? Heck yeah!

Does it work? Absolutely.

Ott gives the example of how the email service provider Vero uses this tactic.

If you are on their page for 30 seconds without taking an action, they slide up a popup that asks why you have joined their list yet.

This is a great way to uncover any sticking points about your site.

Let’s take this a step further.

By combining this feedback method, with the method used by the University of Alberta (described above), we can both generate feedback from readers with real sticking points, and also have one more list building tool for those users that just didn’t think to join yet.

Read the next strategy, and consider how you could add that one to this.

20. Show the negative consequence of not signing up

If we really want to take this strategy to its maximum effectiveness it’s helpful to take a look at what QuickSprout is doing.

On their popups they have two buttons. One leads to the signup, and one closes the popups.

The one that closes the popup specifically mentions the negative consequence of not joining.

quicksprout overlay example

Notice how the No option says “No, I have enough traffic.”

Definitely makes it harder to click.

Hmm, do I want traffic, nope, I’m good. Not something most businesses think.

Ott from ConversionXL references a study using this tactic that showed it brought a signup increase of up to 34%.

That’s some tasty data.

21. Don’t use the word spam (40% conversion swing)

ContentVerve published a signup box design case study that disrupts a common practice.

In their case study they discuss button copy, sharing benefits, and more.

The piece that excited me was their data around using the word “spam” in the signup box.

Compared to not mentioning privacy at all, saying “we will never spam you!” decreased conversions by 18.7%.

no spam


Those exact words can be found across the web on countless sites.

Apparently, people see the word spam and it creates a negative reaction in their mind.

They get in a less sharing mood.

ContentVerve found that rather than using the word “spam” saying “your information will not be shared” increased conversions by 19.47%.

use share

That’s almost a 40% swing from “spam” to “share.”

It just shows again the power that words have on emotions and actions.

If you are currently using the word spam, go change that now!

22. Show clear benefits to joining (83% lift)

Another strategy from ContentVerve shows an 83.75% conversion lift by using bulleted benefits in the signup box.

Rather than a simple headline and form fields, they added bullet points that clearly communicate the benefits the reader will enjoy by signing up.

bullet list improvement

The key here is that you must deliver on these benefits.

Combine this with the Content Upgrade Method shared above to really explode your list building efforts!

23. Ensure your headline is relevant to your audience

ContentVerve also shared how updating the headline to show a specific value actually decreased signups by 12.45%.

bad value prop

This shows that while showing value is important, you need to show the right value.

If you mention a benefit that your audience doesn’t actually care about, it could have a negative impact.

This makes sense.

A benefit is specific. So if it’s the wrong benefit, the reader may assume the list isn’t for them.

Use the feedback technique described above too narrow in on what your audience craves. Then use that.



I hope you enjoyed these list building strategies.

Let me know your personal experiences in the comments section below. I’d also love a social share if you have two seconds (buttons on the left)!

Thanks so much for reading.



Rocket designed by Cris Dobbins from the Noun Project

Leave a Reply

10 Comment threads
18 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
11 Comment authors
esta h. singerGracious StoreFaruknativemediaGuest Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Adam Franklin

Hi David, thanks for mentioning our marketing experiments at Bluewire Media. I love all the other examples you’ve used here too. It’s awesome finding other people that love this stuff as much as I do 😉

David (ProfitPursuits.com)

Hi Adam, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Your experiment was seriously impressive!

I agree, one of the reasons I started this site was to connect with more people that share these interests.


Mike L. Silverman

David. I found this link on Inbound.org. What a great list. I’ll definitely be putting a few of these to the test.

David (ProfitPursuits.com)

Hi Mike! Really glad you found some of these strategies useful. Which one do you think you’ll try out first?

Mike L. Silverman

Definitely pop-up time. Going to try the 5 second test and see what that does!

David (ProfitPursuits.com)

Awesome! What niche are you in? I think starting with 5 seconds is a great way to go. Then once you have a benchmark, it makes sense to try other times. Different niches will respond to popups in their own way.

I’m still testing to see if popups are the best choice for this site. Some people in my niche don’t like them at all, but then you see blogs like Quicksprout using them. So it’s always good to test, rather than going off emotion alone.


Mike L. Silverman

We market SEO, Inbound Marketing, Logo Design, Video SEO & SMM to local and national businesses. I come up high for some very strong keywords and am always looking for ways to capture emails.

David (ProfitPursuits.com)

Cool! Popups will definitely be a great test. Let me know how it goes! Perhaps I could feature your company as a case study in a future post.

Mike L. Silverman

I will. Thank you!!!

Nirmala Santhakumar
Nirmala Santhakumar

Awesome list building strategies, gonna try few ways. Thanks for the helpful post David.

David (ProfitPursuits.com)

Hey Nirmala,

I’m glad you found them useful! As with Mike below, I’m very curious about which methods you are most excited to test.

What is your niche?

David (ProfitPursuits.com)

Can you check the url of that link you included? I clicked to check it out, but it went to a not found page.

David (ProfitPursuits.com)

Hi Nirmala, that was a nice site you shared. Looks like you are doing well with traffic!

I’d love to hear about some of your traffic generation strategies.

Btw, I didn’t approve your first response because I don’t think it would be best to link to the url that doesn’t exist 🙂

I’m definitely impressed with the site you shared in your last note!

Bishal Biswas

David, wow! Each and every details you’ve written over this article just revamp my ideas of building strong list. Especially – the timing factor (5 sec), Brian’s content upgrade, that Triggering Word – and wasn’t aware of SPAM goes wrong.

You’ve nailed it, thanks. Also I’ve bookmarked it since there are few points to consider while making changes and IF forgotten then it would be wrong so for reference done so 😀

*Profit Pursuits: You’re on my daily reads blog list 🙂


David (ProfitPursuits.com)

Thanks so much for for these kind words Bishal! It’s great to hear from people like you that get excited by strategies like these.

I’m definitely going to be creating more content like this, so I’m happy to have you as a reader!

Muhammad Saad Khan

Great info here. Exit intent technology can also help anyone increase conversions. There are many tools around. BounceExchange (Expensive), Picreel (Cheap), OptinMonster (Cheapest). At Cloudways, we are using Picreel and our conversion rate is around 14%. And that is all on top of usual conversions.

We are moving to OptinMonster soon as its cheaper and allows unlimited campaigns and tweaks.

David (ProfitPursuits.com)

Wow Muhammad! 14% conversions, you are definitely doing a lot of things the right way. I’ll take a look at your site for some deeper analysis.

Cool to hear you are moving to OptinMonster, I’m currently researching a few overlay tools myself. Hmm, maybe a comparison post (with data) is needed.


I’m going to steal some of these ideas 🙂

David (ProfitPursuits.com)

Do it! 🙂


I’m going to ‘steal’ some of these linkbuilding ideas!


how do I get rid of the BIG grey banner that’s sitting on top of the page which is taking over 1/3 of you page that I want to read?

David (ProfitPursuits.com)

Hi Faruk,

That banner is not a part of my site.

It’s put there by the traffic source you came from.

What led you to my site?


Hi David. It was a sponsored story inside my Facebook news feed. Weird! O well I found this great read.


David (ProfitPursuits.com)

Glad you enjoyed it!

Definitely odd that a random person is using Facebook Ads to drive traffic to my site and trying to collect emails with a giant banner.

Too bad I don’t have the ability to stop the banner from showing. I guess I could thank them for helping to introduce you to the site!

Gracious Store

Does these strategies work for all websites? My E commerce site is really struggling it is almost three years now and I can barely get traffic to it.

David (ProfitPursuits.com)

This list is meant to show real case studies and examples of what has worked for other online businesses. Many of these examples can work for a variety of businesses. What I recommend is to start testing them. As you test, keep track of the results so that you can compare over time. In terms of getting more traffic, having an email list does help, as you can email your list with new promotions and opportunities. Depending on your business, you could also write guides on how to use the products you sell, and even produce video tutorials to share… Read more »

esta h. singer

Thank you SO much David! GR8 post; learned lots :))

David (ProfitPursuits.com)

Thanks Esta!

Glad you learned some new things. Let me know once you’ve applied them. It would be great to hear your results.