To buy a list or to build a list? That is the startup question.

Traditionally, marketers have gone the route of buying a list, and why not. It saves time, it lets you attribute ROI directly to a specific cost, but, most of all, it’s easy. Hell, if I could buy a list and get the same level of engagement as 2011, then I’d do it in a heartbeat.

But alas, times have changed. Most of the time, buying a list results in 10% open rates with very little engagement. It’s like taking a literal shot in the dark. Sometimes you hit, but most of the time you miss. You also end up pissing a lot of people off throughout the process. Regardless of what you hear these days, if you want long-term success, then you need to build an organic email list. The best way to do this, is by using a content-driven strategy as the backbone.

You’re probably thinking “Aww shucks, ANOTHER article about content marketing.”

Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s not.

Leveling up your marketing means looking at marketing holistically, instead of silo-ing every different area into it’s own department. After all, the way I see things, a marketers goal is to help people find a solution to their problems (even if they’re not aware that a problem exists). SEO, email, social media, content, paid advertising — they’re all tools that help us reach that goal.

Build An Email Marketing List Organically

Now, let’s get to the fun part. How do you build an email marketing list organically? When you load your email marketing platform (Mailchimp, Constant Contact, or whatever you’re using) start by typing: Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A. (Gamer Five!)

Did it work? If only things were that simple, right?

Unfortunately that old cheat code won’t work. Luckily for you, there are plenty of other ways you can level up your organic email marketing list. Here’s the play-by-play.

– Get the Right tools.

For every startup or growing business, I always recommend having at least two tools to work with your website:

1) Email Marketing
2) SumoMe.

For email marketing, I’ll always recommend Mailchimp as a starting point. It’s simple, easy-to-use, can handle: semi-complex workflows, automated processes, and nurture campaigns. It also easily integrates with several other tools you may or may not use as your business grows.

The next tool that I use is SumoMe. They have a suite of tools for list building that I think are incredible for small and growing businesses, and it integrates directly with Mailchimp — Creating a nice 1-2 punch that can be an absolute knockout when used correctly. If you don’t like Mailchimp or have some other preference for email marketing tools, then don’t worry because SumoMe probably works with those too.

Now, the other reason why I opt for these two solutions is because, when used correctly, you can automate most of your marketing processes. This is crucial with small and growing businesses. Automation allows you to focus your efforts elsewhere, while you create a steady lead and opportunity pipeline. And that’s the goal right? To level up your list building with as little effort as possible.

– Build Content

Content is an extremely vague term. Content can be white papers, guides or how-to’s. Content can also be an image, an infographic, a blog post, an article, or any other bit of media that can be understood and enjoyed by your potential customers.

So, what do I mean when I say content? I mean something that your audience finds valuable, interesting or worthwhile. You can use this stuff in multiple ways, but the way in which you use it should always be based on your audience. So, just like you’re investing specific tools, you’ll need to invest time into creating some fairly awesome or useful content.

What content should I build for best results?

I wish I had an answer for you there, but until you’ve built it, you won’t know.

Every brand attracts a different audience. Maybe the people visiting your website are Walking Dead aficionados, or maybe they’re more about the Kardashians. You won’t know until you start gathering some intel on the people you’re targeting. To start though, I always like to keep things simple. Keep things relevant and keep things interesting.

For example, If you’re providing software to help improve office productivity, then you may create a list or guide called:

– “67 Badass Ways to Increase Office Productivity,” or
– “The Definitive Guide to Get Employees off their Butts and Get Work Done,” or even
– “Turning the Walking Dead into Your Competitors Dread.”

Possibilities are pretty endless here. A common trick of the trade that you’ll see out there, is using random numbers like “67 ways”, “138 tips”, etc, for your listed content. The reason, is because it stands out more than those other “Top 5” or “Top 10” lists that are plaguing the internet like a deadly mist. Also, make sure that your piece of content aims at solving some sort of problem you think your prospects may be experiencing. Could be productivity, could be office hygiene, whatever will help your prospect conclude that you are a good source of information and a potential solution to their problem.

Next, I’ll get into how you can mushroom your list from a tiny mario to a Super Mario!

– Content. Now what?

Now, it’s time to level up your organic email list building. You’ll want to have your awesome guide (I’m going to use “67 Badass Ways to Increase Office Productivity”) converted into a PDF.

Next, we’re going to go into MailChimp (or whatever your email service provider is), and create a list called “67 Badass Ways to Increase Office Productivity (or whatever your content is called).” You do this, because all of your contacts that are going to be generated, will need to be added to a list. You’ll want a specific list because, that way, you can create workflows and campaigns based around the fact that they downloaded or signed up to view this piece of content (more on this later).

To start, you’ll want to pick out the SumoMe tools that you’ll want to use the most. You’ll be able to leverage every single one BTW. I like to start out with the Welcome Mat. It also happens to be the tool that I notice SumoMe promoting the most, and they have several articles written on creative ways to leverage it.

We’re going to do this the easy way. If you want to go crazy and try new things, do that on your own time. Start by creating an “attention grabbing” headline. Me, I’ll opt for something informal and somewhat fun.

Headline: Turn Your Employees into Badasses!
Subheadline: 67 badass ways to increase office productivity
Call to Action: Show Me!
No Thank you Button: Nah, we have no productivity problems.

The “No Thank You Button” text is one of my favorite things to play with. Using something like I used above, creates hesitation and drives visitors to rethink clicking that stupid button. As you got through the settings, make sure that, under behavior, you select “use this page as a landing page button”. This ensures that they either have to click the “No Thank You” or down arrow to get past that page. You’ll also need to add the URL for your asset as the redirect URL for confirmation.

Have you followed me so far? Good! because you’re almost done.

In your SumoMe dashboard you’ll want to integrate SumoMe with Mailchimp and select your new list as the one that new contacts will be sent too.

Congratulations! You’ve now successfully turned your website into a Venus flytrap. Now, every time a visitor comes to your site, they’ll get caught in your brand new Welcome Mat, causing your marketing list to grow exponentially (muahahahaha!).

4X Bonus Round!

What you didn’t think it was over did you? It’s time for the bonus rounds.

1) Paid Traffic

You might see this and think to yourself, didn’t we decide against paying for a list earlier? Well, this is different. When you use Pay-Per-Click advertisers like Facebook, Linkedin, Google or Outbrain, you can actually supercharge your list generation when you have your welcome mat running. The result is an email marketing list of visitors that ACTUALLY opted in. You’ll get fewer spam complaints, and open rates that range in the 30% area.

2) SEO

SEO, or as I like to call it — the gift that keeps on giving. To some SEO is dead, but to me, it’s just evolved. People used to get away with crappy content and just made it up for it with proper H2 tag placement, keyword density, and an armada of inbound links. Not anymore. Now, it’s all about quality of content and providing something that is either entertaining or valuable. Building content around a sets of categories and keywords can help you build a long-term growth strategy that will continuously bring in traffic. These visitors will will get caught in your Welcome Mat, and other tools you use to build your organic marketing list.

3) Competitions

As simple as it sounds, a competition is a great way to generate leads. The most important part of any competition is understanding your audience and what drives them. I always refrain from using the typical shlock like iPads, iPhones, and Apple watches because it’s not personal enough. Usually, I’ll use fun things like Bacon crates (, yoga packages, gift cards to popular local restaurants, etc. There’s several tools that can help you directly integrate the competition to a WordPress site, and make sure to choose a tool that has the ability to let users share or “like” for additional entries into the raffle. This enables participants to spread the word among their social circles, which in turn, helps to promote your business and increase the number of leads you generate.

4) Other Sumo Tools (list Builder, Scroll Box)

After I’ve set up my initial Welcome Mat with SumoMe, I like to play around using these other calls-to-action. Both are great ways to continue to build your email marketing list and to provide your visitors with additional content. Here’s some great examples of the scroll box and list builder tools in action (courtesy of scroll box from sumo me

Boss Round

Using workflows and automated nurture to turn leads into revenue. So you’ve used Paid traffic channels, SEO and competitions to capture leads… now what? This is where the magic happens. I like to think of this in terms of Pokemon. First you capture your leads, and then you have to slowly develop those leads until they evolve into revenue (like evolving your Charmander into a Charizard). I like to use a simple model that has been around for a long time, but popularized by HubSpot — breaking down your leads into 3 lifecycle stages of: Awareness, Consideration, and Decision.

During the Awareness stage you nurture your contacts with low-friction, thought leadership content. These will be blogs that you write that are related to the industry and also blogs/articles that you share from 3rd parties. This is where you build trust with your new contacts and butter them up for the eventual purchase.

The Consideration stage is where you begin to probe into your contact’s pain points. This is where you’ll typically send content that includes “Guides to Buying X”, “Tips for Improving X”, etc. I like to use a good mix of low friction content, such as blog posts, as well as content that is gated by forms, to assess their actual desire to solve their problems. From here, you being to transition them into the Decision stage.

In the Decision stage I like to begin by referencing their pain points and our products benefits as a solution to those pains. Initially, I’ll use a softer call to action. Example: Asking about their interest in learning more, etc. Then, as the emails progress I get more direct with the calls to action, scheduling specific times for meetings/calls, or making a purchase.

Here’s a good example of great email topics that flow into each other, courtesy of Marketo.


Now that you have the right structure you’re going to want to automate this entire campaign. What you’re going to do is use Mailchimp and create a workflow based on someone joining a list. Wherever you’re pushing your new leads, you’ll want to use that list for this initial workflow. Once you’ve done this, you’ve officially created an automated marketing workflow. This will ensure that all leads that you generate from your welcome mat will be nurtured all the way to the purchasing decision.