5 ways to grow your email list without using discounts

Only four percent of the visitors to your store come to buy something. So it’s a really good idea to try to convert some of those virtual window shoppers into email subscribers. This article takes a deep dive into one of the most commonly used methods of capturing email addresses from your website: offering an incentive to subscribe.

It’s extremely popular and common to turn website visitors into email subscribers using a little bit of light bribery.

And the main reason it’s popular? It’s really effective.

According to one study, 85 percent of customers subscribe to an email list hoping for a discount. (PDF) But discounts aren’t the only type of incentive you can offer.

And there’s a good reason to look beyond discounts for building your email list: While a discount is certainly effective for collecting email subscribers, it may not be effective for collecting email subscribers who turn into repeat customers. One study found that when customers get a discount on their first purchase, they’re 50 percent less likely to come back to buy something else in the future.

Other types of incentives can also better align with key long-term goals:

  • Building brand loyalty and developing a customer relationship.
  • Establishing your brand as an authority.
  • Keeping yourself at the front of new customers’ minds.
  • Acquiring targeted subscribers who can then become repeat customers.

Here are five non-discount incentives you can offer to grow your email list.


Contests are a simple, popular, tried-and-true way of pumping up your email list.

They’re good for building a long-term customer base and elevating your brand, too. 85 percent of people who sign up for an email list in order to enter a contest stick around, and 79 percent say the contest had a positive influence on their perception of the brand. (PDF)

Here are some tips on how to do your contest the right way.

1. Make the prize relevant to your brand.

Your first big decision when you decide to run a contest is what to give away. You want to find something that is both desirable and relevant.

iPads may seem like the perfect contest gift. Everyone wants one, even though we’re still not entirely sure if they’ll ever serve any true functional purpose. And if you give away an iPad, you will get email subscribers. But how many legitimate leads will you get? I’m not really into garden gnomes (due to a persistent, but very real, childhood phobia), but if a shop that sells garden gnomes was giving out a free iPad, I’d subscribe to their email list. And I’d be a terrible lead for them.

One of the most famous examples of a bad contest in this vein was the Esurance Super Bowl giveaway in 2014. Esurance ran a commercial after the Super Bowl, where John Krasinski, in his goofily charming, pre-Jack Ryan, John Krasinski way, announced the company would give away $1.5 million to one person who tweeted the hashtag #EsuranceSave30 and followed the brand.

Their Twitter account jumped from 8,900 followers to more than 260,000 overnight and the campaign generated millions of tweets. Success, right? Well… after the contest ended, that follower number started dropping. Today, nearly five years later, they’re down to 125,000 followers, meaning they’ve bled more than half of the fans they got with their Super Bowl contest. (Though it’s worth noting that Twitter removed about six percent of all accounts last year, and that probably affected Esurance to some extent.)

You don’t have to give away $1.5 million to run an effective contest. In fact, when Josh Earl wanted to grow the subscribership for his email list about using coding app Sublime Text, he gave away something worth 99.99 percent less: a free copy of Sublime Text, retail price: $70. Yeah, it’s worth way less, but you can’t get more on-brand than that.

That prize certainly wasn’t going to attract the “I want a free iPad” crowd, but it did attract the “I really like the free trial of Sublime Text I’ve been using but I’ve been holding off on buying it because $70 feels maybe a little steep right now” crowd. His prize wasn’t as sexy or attention-grabbing as the one Esurance offered, but because it was properly targeted to his desired audience, he was way more successful.

Josh wound up attracting almost 200,000 targeted subscribers in less than two weeks—growth of 3,418 percent—and it cost him $70. Now he sells email marketing courses teaching others how to do it. There’s something poetic in that.

2. An expensive prize isn’t always a better prize.

As the $70 prize demonstrates, you don’t need to sell a vital organ to pay for a good prize.

The contest app ViralSweep analyzed the prizes from 600 giveaways on their platform and found no correlation between the cost of the prize and number of entrants on an “entrants per dollar” basis.

In fact, they found contests with prizes under $500 averaged around four times more entries per dollar spent than contests with prizes over $2,500.

The takeaway: Less expensive prizes can be just as effective–maybe even more effective–at getting subscribers.

3. Test out different contests, find what works, and repeat.

If you’re keeping the cost of the prizes reasonable, you should be able to run multiple contests to see what kinds of prizes, verbiage, and pop-ups are the most effective at attracting new subscribers.

The eCommerce store LostGolfBalls.com did that with six contests over the span of six months.

All in all, the prizes cost them $6,300–and ultimately brought in $53,500 from new email subscribers. That’s a ROI of 661 percent. And what they learned has also helped them with future contests, both big and small–everything from a giveaway for a dozen balls to trips to famous golf courses.


Digital downloads like eBooks, WordPress templates, and sample graphics make excellent lead magnets. The subscriber gets access to the download immediately, so it’s got instant gratification going for it. Plus, they tend to have lower costs associated than giveaways of physical objects, especially if you’re giving away something you already make.

The free download is also an excellent tool to turn a new email subscriber into a future customer. If you run a digital product business, it’s a perfect way to give a taste of what a customer will get when they pay. But even if you don’t sell digital products, you can still leverage a download like an eBook—because it can establish you and your store as an authority in your niche.

Here are two tips for using a free download as an incentive.

1. Make sure the download is something the person would be willing to pay for.

Think of how many times you’ve been on a website, got hit with a pop-up about a free eBook that was clearly just a sales pitch, and immediately clicked the “x” to close the pop-up.

That’s why the download you offer has to be high quality. We’ve all been inundated with so many offers for low quality downloads that they’re pretty easy to spot. Offering a download with legitimate quality and value will serve you better in the long run. By giving away a good sample of your work, you’ll make a potential customer think, “If this is the free stuff, imagine how good the paid stuff is.”

Electric bike company EVELO uses a free eBook called The Complete Electric Bike Buyer’s Guide to capture emails.

It’s a healthy 74 pages of useful information that doesn’t aggressively try to sell you a bike. At the end of the book, rather than a hard sell, there’s simply a message that the staff at EVELO will help readers apply the info from the book. The book is high quality and doesn’t read like recycled content, but instead feels like something of value. (After reading it, I know I personally felt confidence that EVELO are experts in their space who I’d be more apt to trust if I were in the market for a bike.)

2. Make sure the download is on brand.

In other words: Don’t give out any random eBook and call it a lead magnet. If you sell Himalayan skin creams, giving out free copies of a Harry Potter book might generate email addresses, but it won’t help you sell to anyone.

Here’s an example from Amazon—yes, even mighty Amazon sometimes uses a free download as an incentive to gather email subscribers. In this promotion, they offered a free Kindle children’s book to anyone who joined their Kids newsletter.

The promotion is effective because they’re giving out name-brand kids books, showing the price point to demonstrate that the giveaway is valuable, and appealing to their target audience with a download that’s super relevant to the list they’re trying to build. (Of course, you don’t have to sell eBooks to give away an eBook, it works across industries–but if you do sell eBooks, it’s a no-brainer.)

Exclusive club

Instead of asking people to subscribe to your email list, you can frame the list as an exclusive club instead.

As mentioned earlier, 85 percent of people subscribe to an email list for discounts, but they have plenty of other reasons too. (PDF)

  • 41 percent want to learn about new products or services.
  • 38 percent sign up because they like the brand.
  • 27 percent sign up to take part in product research.

All three of those groups could be attracted to a well-positioned “club.”

There’s high upside in branding your email list as an exclusive club. You’re more apt to pull in subscribers who are really interested in your brand; they’re not just looking for a quick, one-time discount or freebie, they’re in it for a long-term relationship.

Plus, these subscribers could be more valuable than normal, because many of them actually want to give you feedback and connect with your brand on a deeper level.

Here are some tips for positioning your email list as a club.

1. Actually make it feel exclusive.

From the first email you send—especially in the first email you send—reiterate that this person didn’t just subscribe to an email list, they joined a club.

The fitness brand P.volve does a great job with this, making their list feel special even before you sign up. Their form doesn’t say “Subscribe to our email list,” it says “Join the P.volve Movement.”

Then, when you do, the first email has the subject like “You’re in!” and the headline of the email reads “Welcome to the P.volve community.” They’re selling only the experience of the club at this point.

Later in the email, they offer a 15-day free trial. While that’s not an exclusive offer only for club members (which could be a good thing for you to do, by the way), it is an attractive offer that’s not mentioned on the front page of their site.

2. Give the club a name.

It’s a little thing, but giving your club its own branding lends to the club’s legitimacy. Some examples are Foot Locker VIPs, the Adidas Creators Club, and the Crocs Club (presumably there are some others out there somewhere that aren’t shoe-related).

3. Really sell the experience of joining the club.

With well-crafted copy, you can make it sound like a can’t miss opportunity to join your club, especially to someone interested in your brand.

Here’s how the sunglasses company VonZipper does it.

The language choices are all on brand: The name “All Access Pass” gives the vibe of a concert or festival; and they use casual, slacker-style phrases like “throw your email in the box” and “latest and greatest.” For a fan, the promise that signing up will “take your VonZipper experience to the next level” comes across as authentic and intriguing.

Think about that entire paragraph, then compare it to what they could’ve said: “Join our mailing list.”

4. Push to get a little more info.

The usual rule of thumb when it comes to collecting email subscribers is to reduce the friction of sign-ups by asking for as little information as possible—often just the email address and nothing else.

With an exclusive club, you might be able to get away with pushing for a little more info, which is invaluable for segmenting and personalizing your emails.

Here’s how Sperry does it with their “Crew” club. They offer five perks to demonstrate all the value in joining the club, then ask for four things: Your email, zip code, birthday, and product interests.

That’s a good balance of asking for info without being overbearing or making the registration form prohibitively long. The company gets pretty much all the segmenting info they need without bogging down the registration process by asking for things like a home address or even a name that are less important for their needs.


Online courses can be an effective way to promote your brand as a category leader, build brand loyalty, and develop customer relationships. They’re not just good for getting subscribers, they’re good for driving sales from those subscribers, too. One study found courses actually convert 16 percent better than eBooks.

Here are some ways to make a free course work for you.

1. Make it good, both in content and production values.

If the content in your course isn’t any good, people won’t complete it and you won’t get the full benefit from it. Ditto if it looks like an amateur production. So, obviously, take time to plan it out and make sure it looks and functions well.

Fortunately, there are a lot of good apps out there that make it relatively easy to create content for courses, like Wistia Soapbox; and others that help you create and deliver the actual courses, including Teachable, Thinkific, Podia, and Lifter.

But if that sounds too intimidating, don’t worry–you could always give out the course as a drip email campaign, emailing the lessons one-at-a-time on a schedule to new subscribers. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. You’re not Harvard, so while you don’t want to put out something sub-par and untrustworthy, it’s perfectly fine to start with something that has a few rough edges.

2. If you sell courses, use a free one to give people a taste of what you do.

Yoast, which sells search engine optimization tools and courses, gives out a course for free in exchange for signing up for their email list. It’s a good way to give people a chance to sample their courses and get them interested in the other SEO products available.

GuitarZoom does something a little different. They promote a short quiz offering a custom guitar course, which adds a touch of personalization and directs people to different samples of their courses based on their results.

3.  Use a course to establish authority, especially in a lesser-known niche.

If your products lend themselves to it, you can use a course to educate potential customers on how to use them and, of course, why living without them is absolutely impossible.

Tiny House Build uses a free course to teach people everything they need to know about building, well, a tiny house. Once you’ve completed that course, you’ll be ready to buy everything else they sell, from blueprints to workshops to other courses.

One side note: If your business doesn’t obviously lend itself to a course–for example, if you run a t-shirt store, your visitors probably don’t need a course on how to wear a t-shirt–there are still ways to make it work. Perhaps your t-shirt enthusiast customers would be interested in a course about how to screen print at home. Or maybe they’d like a course about how to properly care for shirts so they last longer.

Physical product giveaway

It may initially seem extravagant to give away a free product in exchange for an email address, but the returns could make it completely worthwhile.

If you’re considering a product giveaway, the first thing you need to do is calculate the value of a subscriber. Those calculations can get quite complex, but for a ballpark estimate, try this formula: Last month’s attributable revenue from your email list divided by the number of subscribers. That will give you your revenue per subscriber.

If sourcing and shipping a product is less—maybe even much less—than that number, giving away a physical product is a viable strategy for you.

The costs may be high, but the benefits are too.

  • You’ll collect way more information. This person isn’t just subscribing for your email list, they’re creating an account within your eCommerce platform, which can help with everything from segmentation to cart abandonment recovery down the road.
  • You’ll build a much more loyal customer by sending them something tangible.
  • With the right kind of giveaway, you can stay front-of-mind for the subscriber and the other people in their lives. For example, if you give away stickers, which are cheap to produce and mail, recipients will likely make their laptop, skateboard, car, window, or something else a billboard for you.
  • Not a lot of eCommerce stores are doing the free physical product giveaway move–trust me, we looked–so you can really stand out from the pack by doing it.

Here are two tips for a good giveaway.

1. You don’t have to give away something expensive.

If you’ve ever been to a convention where companies are giving out swag, you know how much people love free stuff, even if it’s cheap. Pens, tote bags, flimsy Frisbees, 16-megabyte USB drives that are already clogged with promotional materials–it doesn’t matter.

Via: Giphy.

Custom steel sign company Redline Steel ran a promotion where they gave away free steel keychains in the shape of a heart and a paw in exchange for an email address. The keychains aren’t expensive, but they’re a reminder about Redline Steel every time a person picked up their keys–and a good sample of the types of steel home goods products the company sells.

2. Make sure the giveaway is targeted to the audience you want.

Since, again, people love free stuff, you want to make sure you’re not wasting your money and effort on people who just want your giveaway.

Survival Life, a company that sells products to preppers and survivalists who are actively preparing for all sorts of apocalyptic scenarios, did that with their giveaway of the “EverStryke Match.” By giving away a product that would be very interesting to survivalists and totally uninteresting to basically everyone else, they made sure their giveaway wouldn’t wind up in the wrong hands. (Like mine, someone who’s totally uninterested in survival, and is planning to just succumb immediately to the zombie hoard when that day arrives.)

Two other things to note about their promotion:

  1. They put the price of the giveaway ($15) and added a sense of scarcity (“Warning: A small number of free matches remain”), both of which are there to entice people into signing up ASAP.
  2. They charge shipping and handling. Whether you do that is up to you, but by getting someone to pay, you’ll weed out lots of the “freebie hunter” types and ensure you’re adding people to your list you know are willing to give you money. But if you’re looking to get the biggest possible subscriber numbers, using a less-expensive giveaway with free shipping should get the job done.

Key takeaways

Discounts are the king of incentives, but there are other options that get results too.

  • By running a contest that’s on-brand you can bring in a major influx of sign-ups in your niche, and you don’t have to spend a fortune on a prize to get those results. In fact, you’re better off not spending a fortune on the prize.
  • If you offer a free download, you can give new customers a taste of your digital business. With an eBook, you can guide a buying decision and establish your brand as a thought leader in your space, whether you sell digital or physical products. But remember to give away something good.
  • By framing your email list as an exclusive club–with a cool name–you can get subscribers who are really interested in your brand long-term, and potentially collect more info from them than just an email address.
  • Free online courses can cultivate ultra-loyal future customers, educate people about your niche to help guide their buying decision, and cement your brand as an authority.
  • And a giveaway of a physical product will get you a ton of info about your subscribers, turn them into advocates (or billboards) for your brand, and help you really stand out from the crowd.

The right choice for you depends on the nature of your business. Like all marketing strategies, why not test a few and monitor which works the best?

Sam Greenspan
Sam Greenspan was a Marketer at Jilt based out of Southern California. He's a veteran blogger as well as an author, board game inventor, and recovering t-shirt collector.