Getting email subscribers: Incentives

Estimated reading time: 14 minutes

It takes a significant, concerted, ongoing effort to build an email list. Those efforts will pay off—as we discussed in the introduction, email marketing is widely acknowledged and accepted as the most successful form of marketing for eCommerce brands.

But here’s the rub: you can’t just expect your email list to magically fill itself with eager subscribers, ready to open every single email you send, click through to your site, and buy anything and everything you’re selling. You need to give people a reason to join your email list—to voluntarily say, “Yes, I want to accept marketing from this company.”

In this lesson, we’ll go over the psychology behind what makes a person subscribe to an email list. We’ll also cover the ways you can entice them to join, including both strategic discounts and non-discount incentives like lead magnets, VIP clubs, and giveaways.

What motivates people to subscribe?

“What’s in it for me?”

Often abbreviated WIIFM, this question factors into every single person’s decision to subscribe to your email list. It doesn’t matter how easy you make subscribing; there needs to be a clear reason why each person should subscribe and what they get for doing so. The onus is on you to present a clear value proposition (or multiple clear value propositions) for joining your list and connecting with your brand.

The success or failure of your list building effort ultimately comes down to how well you answer the question “What’s in it for me?”

Let’s look at some studies on what motivates subscribers to sign up, and then examine those studies through a WIIFM lens to figure out how you can translate them to your site and email list building efforts.

Studies on subscriber motivations

Here are the results of three different studies on what motivates someone to subscribe to an eCommerce brand’s email list.

Study #1. Via Adestra on the “most important reasons for signing up to receive emails from companies seeking your business”: (PDF)

  1. To receive discounts, 85 percent
  2. To get product/service updates, 41 percent
  3. I love the brand, 38 percent
  4. Business reasons, 27 percent
  5. To access information, 13 percent

Study #2. Via GetData on the “most common reason you subscribe to an email newsletter”:

  1. Deals or special offers, 22.6 percent
  2. To get news updates, 21.4 percent
  3. Interesting articles and content, 21 percent
  4. To get access to content, 7.6 percent

Study #3. Via Constant Contact on the “top reasons for subscribing to emails from businesses”:

  1. To receive discounts and special offers, 58 percent
  2. To take part in a specific promotion, 39 percent
  3. I’m a customer or supporter, 37 percent
  4. To gain access to exclusive content, 26 percent
  5. The desire to stay informed on an ongoing basis, 26 percent
  6. To support a business I like, 25 percent

Reason

Adestra (rank)

GetData (rank)

Constant Contact (rank)

Discounts/deals/special offers

1

1

1 (and 2)

Product updates

2

2

5

Brand loyalty/affinity

3

n/a

3 (and 6)

Access content

5

4

4

Using customer motivations and incentives to drive subscriptions

Based on the recurring results in those studies, it’s clear there are some widespread and common motivations for subscribing to an email list.

1. Discounts, deals, and special offers

Perhaps it’s unsurprising, but the runaway motivator for subscribers is a discount. Which is why almost half of the top 500 eCommerce brands use some kind of discount as a way to attract signups.

Those discounts and offers take on a few main forms.

Percent off, 28.8 percent of stores. The most common discount is 10 percent off for subscribing, followed by 15 percent, then 20 percent. There are a small number of stores offering a discount as low as five percent—or as high as 70 percent.

A percent off discount for subscribing.

Free shipping, 9.1 percent of stores. Free shipping is a popular perk, with around one out of every 11 eCommerce stores offering it as an incentive for subscribing to an email list.

Money off, 6.4 percent of stores. Some stores choose to give a coupon for a specific dollar amount off rather than a percentage. This may not be a great psychological tactic in all cases, though—a study found people prefer to see large numbers with a discount. So 15 percent off might be more effective than $5 off, even if the latter is actually a better coupon.

While discounts are popular with customers and, clearly, brands, they aren’t a flawless method for gathering email subscribers. One study found that new customers who use a coupon on their first purchase are 50 percent less likely to make a subsequent purchase from your store. They can also devalue your brand in a customer’s eyes—worst case, you can even train customers that they should never pay full price for what you’re selling. (For example, the home goods retailer Bed Bath & Beyond is famous for mailing basically everyone in America a constant stream of 20 percent off coupons—so how many people would go to Bed Bath & Beyond and buy something at full price?)

Customers who use a coupon on their first purchase are 50 percent less likely to make a subsequent purchase from your store.

That means if you do decide to offer a discount, you should be aware you may be creating a lot of one-time customers. You also need to be careful about setting the precedent that your store always offers coupons, as the brand devaluation could precipitate a race to the bottom where you need bigger and bigger discounts to keep people coming back that ultimately destroys your margins.

Pros

Cons

Discounts are the number one reason people give for signing up for an email list.

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.

96 percent of Americans use coupons, and 57 percent say they would not have made a purchase without a coupon first.

Discounts can devalue your brand.

Frequent emailed discounts can keep people coming back to your store as repeat customers.

When you offer lots of discounts, it can train customers to question whether they’re overpaying if they buy something at full price (Brands have even been sued for claiming “sale” prices on items that never return to a non-”sale” price.)

Discounts don’t require any upfront time investment, unlike a free eBook or course.

If you offer sales all the time, you’ll have to keep offering bigger and bigger ones, which can destroy your margins and long-term revenue.

Those cons are pretty severe, so here’s one way to combat them: Discount via addition rather than subtraction. That means: Rather than offering 15 percent or $5 off a purchase, find a way to give a “discount” that keeps your products at full price. That can include…

  • Free shipping
  • A free gift with purchase
  • Points toward a loyalty program
  • An upgrade with a purchase (e.g., if a person buys a six-pack of face cream, they get a seventh free)

When you incentivize by using addition, rather than subtraction, you avoid devaluing your products, getting your customers into the pattern of only buying when you discount, and falling into a downward spiral of larger and larger discounts.

2. Product and brand updates

There’s a stark contrast between the people who subscribe for product and brand updates and the people who sign up solely because of a discount. These update-focused subscribers are fans of what you do and your products—and, luckily for you, want to know when you have new stuff for them to buy.

Subscribe for product and brand updates.

Using the “updates” incentive is ideal for a brand that wants to develop a strong, loyal customer base. It is also best for a company developing products for a niche market, as fans in a niche tend to be more interested in what’s new in that niche—which includes the new products your company puts out and what you’re up to.

Pros

Cons

Build a subscriber base without having to give anything away other than information.

May not appeal to as many people as a discount.

Appeals to loyal fans.

May not work as well for brands that appeal to a very wide array of people, or are more of a commodity that doesn’t inspire passion from fans (e.g., if you sell toilet cleaner, odds are you won’t build a legion of devotees).

Increases affinity toward and interest in your brand.

3. I love the brand

People who subscribe because they love your brand are even one step more passionate than the people who subscribe for updates. They aren’t just looking for product updates and sale announcements—they’re looking to make a deeper connection.

If you have that kind of connection with fans, your emails can focus on strengthening that bond with content. 

Grocery chain Trader Joe’s knows it has a legion of passionate fans—and the subscriber value proposition it presents reflects that: “Product stories,” which help the fans feel more connected to the brand; “funky recipe ideas,” which gave loyal fans a fresh way of looking at the products; and a “first look” at their monthly flier, giving loyal fans a little feeling of exclusivity. There’s no talk of discounts to be found.

A subscription form for people who love the brand.

Pros

Cons

Build a subscriber base without having to give anything away other than information.

Not every brand has people who “love” it enough for this method to work well.

Turn loyal fans into very loyal fans.

May not be enough of an incentive to get subscribers, especially for new brands just starting out.

Content-driven, which can lead to big sales.

Content-driven, which means more work.

4. To access protected content

In the case of eCommerce stores, “protected content” will mainly take the form of a PDF or eBook give away in exchange for an email. We’ll cover this more later in this lesson, but here’s a brief overview.

When done right, trading content for an email can give you a double win. The first win is you get an email subscriber; the second win is that the content you provide can, in theory, lead the customer to make a purchase from your site.

Electric bicycle company Evelo does just that. They offer an eBook called The Complete Electric Bike Buyer’s Guide in exchange for subscribing. After a new subscriber is done reading that book, Evelo has established itself as a trustworthy thought leader in the electric bike space—so it would only be natural for the person to buy a bike from them.

Subscribe to access locked content.

Pros

Cons

A strong incentive for a subscriber.

Significant upfront investment to create the content.

Scales well; other than the initial investment to create the giveaway, you can give it to unlimited subscribers for free.

It’s possible people have reached a point where they’re oversaturated with offers for free eBook and PDF downloads, making this incentive less universally appealing.

Content can establish you as a trustworthy thought leader.

Content can ultimately drive the person to make a purchase through your site.

Offering non-discount incentives for email subscribers

There’s a lot to be gained by offering an incentive to email subscribers that goes beyond a discount—but, of course, there are some serious cons as well.

Pros

Cons

Build brand loyalty.

Discounts are more popular and the incentive most people want.

Make a deeper connection with a customer to grow and nurture the relationship.

Creating a high-quality non-discount incentive, like an eBook or free course, can be a lot of work.

Establish your brand as a trustworthy authority.

Can be expensive to develop and, in the case of a physical product giveaway, can be expensive to produce and distribute.

Keep your store front-of-mind with an incentive like a cheat sheet, reference eBook, course, or physical product that a subscriber uses on a frequent basis.

Acquire more targeted, engaged subscribers who can go on to become loyal, repeat customers.

If you’re interested in trying to capture subscribers without a discount (or if, perhaps, your site is pre-launch and you’re trying to build your list up before you even have anything to sell), here are some of the incentives and giveaways you can use to entice people to subscribe to your list without a discount.

Contests

Contests are a good way to boost your email subscribers—and, quite possibly, hang onto most of them once the contest is over and turn them into customers. One study found 85 percent of people who join an email list for a contest stay subscribed once the contest is over, and 79 say the contest positively influenced how they perceive the brand. (PDF)

That study also found contests can raise brand awareness—more than 94 percent of people say a contest introduced them to a brand they otherwise wouldn’t have known about—but that can be a double-edged sword. You want to give away a prize that isn’t just something people want, but something that relates to what you actually sell—so that the people who enter the contest could turn into future customers. In other words, don’t just give away an iPad because everyone wants an iPad.

If you give away an expensive prize with universal appeal (like an iPad), you’ll get lots of subscribers—but how many of them will actually be good leads?

Here’s a contest where the clothing brand Travis Mathew gave away five of their belts and $250 in future purchase credit. Could some of the new subscribers just want the prize? Sure. But since the prize is what the company sells, now that those people are on their list, the company can try to evolve their desire for free stuff into paying for (that same) stuff.

Subscribe to enter a contest.

Another good way to cap your risk is to keep the cost of the prize reasonable; you don’t have to give away something extravagant. Contest app ViralSweep analyzed 600 different giveaways and found no correlation between the cost of a prize and the number of entrants the contest received. And contests with prizes that cost less than $500 did four times better on “entries per dollars spent” than contests with prizes that cost more than $2,500. That means a smaller, targeted prize should get you just as good (or maybe even better) results than a more expensive prize with broader appeal.

Pros

Cons

Can bring in a lot of subscribers quickly.

They might be bad subscribers who are just there for the prize and not interested in future engagement.

Many will stay once the contest is over.

Those subscribers can hurt your open rate and other stats down the road—and might even become harmful (e.g., by reporting you as spam).

People have a positive view of companies that do contests.

Contests boost brand awareness.

You don’t have to give away something that costs a fortune to have positive results.

eBooks and other digital downloads

Free downloadable content has a lot of benefits—but it has to be amazing to entice people to subscribe to get it. Think of how many times you’ve visited a website and a pop-up promoting a free PDF or eBook if you sign up appeared. Now think of how many times you’ve rushed to click the “x” to close that pop-up as quickly as possible. And of the few times you took the bait, actually downloaded the freebie, how often was it disappointingly sparse? Neither of those two scenarios is a positive interaction with a brand; your free downloads need to avoid both.

That’s why your free content has to be incredible—it’s doing a lot of heavy lifting:

  • Enticing a subscription. 
  • Holding a person’s attention as they start reading or using it. 
  • Building your authority on a topic.
  • Building brand loyalty.
  • Making a person think, “Wow, if this is free, imagine how good the paid stuff is!”

Your goal should be to give away a download that people would be willing to pay for.

Here’s an example from a website selling Portuguese lessons. In exchange for subscribing, you get a free eBook of common Portuguese phrases. This eBook is a smart giveaway. It’s targeted at someone who doesn’t know Portuguese but will still be valuable to them if, say, they’re going to Brazil tomorrow. It might even be something they would’ve bought. But more importantly, it starts warming them up to learning Portuguese, and establishes this site as a helpful authority as a place to go to learn.

Subscribe for a free download.

Pros

Cons

Builds you up as an authority on a topic.

Takes a long time to create—especially since you need to create something extremely high quality.

Builds brand loyalty.

People have become conditioned to ignore “free eBook” pop-ups, so you’ve got to make something that really stands out.

Won’t cost you anything to send out copies.

Giving away something that people would otherwise pay for can feel like a bad idea.

People who do download and read are excellent, targeted leads.

VIP club

Instead of “just” having an email list, you can frame your list as a VIP or exclusive club to add some extra cachet and appeal. After all, while the studies showed the primary reason people sign up for an email list is the discounts, people are also incentivized by a multitude of other reasons, including learning about new products and services, liking the brand, and wanting to take part in product research. All of those fall under the umbrella of a VIP club.

When you position your list in this manner, it helps attract subscribers who are very interested in your brand. You might not pull in the same volume of subscribers you would if, say, you offered a 40 percent discount or gave away a trip to Prague, but the quality of the subscribers will likely be much higher. To use a dating analogy, these people aren’t looking to play the field—they’re looking to settle down with you. They’re incentivized by the idea of becoming a valued, vaunted VIP with your company. That means they’re not just potential customers, they’re potential beta testers, reviewers, and brand advocates too.

Here’s an example from art subscription box company Tombow. While their email subscription VIP club hints at discounts, those discounts aren’t the primary sales pitch. Instead, Tombow is targeting people who love their products and want exclusive items, gifts, access, and information.

Subscribe to join a VIP club.

Another asset of framing your list as a VIP club is it enables you to push to get a little more info. Most email signup forms are designed to be as frictionless as possible—often asking just for an email address and nothing else. When someone’s taken the initiative to join your VIP club, you can push for some other identifying info, like name, birthday, gender, and location. That information is invaluable for your future personalization and segmentation efforts. (We cover personalization and segmentation in a subsequent lesson.)

A VIP club allows you to ask for more subscriber info.

Pros

Cons

Frames your email list as something special, which gives it (and your brand) more prestige and equity.

Could lead to a slower rate of acquiring new subscribers, as the appeal of the offer is more niche.

Targets people who are potentially much better, ongoing customers.

You have to actually deliver consistent exclusives to members, which takes work.

Helps your customers feel like a part of a community.

Allows you to reasonably ask for more information from subscribers.

Courses and webinars

An online course is a good way to promote your brand through education (a content marketing staple) and build trust with a customer. It’s also a good way to stay front-of-mind; if someone really does take a course from you, they aren’t likely to forget you quickly.

Courses aren’t just a good way to build an email list, either; they convert into sales. One study found they convert 16 percent better than eBooks.

However, courses are a ton of work. You have to teach great material, and your course needs to feel professional. While there are a number of apps that can help you do that, a course is still a major time, effort, and resource commitment—all for something that won’t directly make you a dime.

One technique you can use is to make your course a drip email series, rather than several online videos. That’s what House 214 Design does to promote its paid email and video courses.

Courses are a good way to build subscribers.

There are certainly some eCommerce businesses that naturally lend themselves to courses more than others. If you sell online courses, of course, a free taste is a perfectly logical marketing step. Michael and Evita, a couple that sells online dance instructional videos, offers a “three lesson mini course” for signing up for their email…

Some eCommerce businesses naturally lend themselves to courses.

If you’re in a niche industry where client education is crucial (say, eco-gardening or leatherworking), a course can be a good way to establish yourself as an authority with customers. Here, a company that sells beekeeping equipment and training courses offers a free 40-lesson course to build a loyal hive (ahem) of beekeeping fans.

Beekeeping courses show the value of advertising a niche course.

Even if your eCommerce business doesn’t obviously lend itself to a course that doesn’t mean one is out of the question. If you run, say, a t-shirt business, you don’t need to educate customers on the fine art of putting on a t-shirt. But you could do a course on shirt care, shirt folding, or setting up your own screen printing operation. 

One related note: Free webinars are similar to offering free courses, with the primary difference being that webinars are live. Those will, therefore, require more ongoing work, as you’ll need to keep hosting them in order to serve both old and new subscribers. However, the potential payoff for webinars just might make them worth the effort—thanks to the extra level of interactivity that come with webinars, studies have found they can convert at extremely high rates. (One study found that a two to three percent conversion rate was standard, but some could even get above 20 percent.)

Here’s an example of an eCommerce store selling college application guidance services using free webinars as a means of growing its email list. The signup box is extremely effective, asking for just two things (first name and email address) and giving examples of some of the great topics the webinars will cover.

Use free webinars to build your list.

Pros

Cons

Great way to establish yourself and your brand as an authority in your space.

A significant upfront effort for something you’re giving away for free.

Builds a deeper bond with a customer.

May not feel like a great fit for your eCommerce business.

Grows customer loyalty.

Webinars require an ongoing effort because they’re delivered live.

Have been shown to drive sales.

Physical product giveaways

Your first thought on giving away a physical product in exchange for an email address is probably… that sounds expensive. And that’s not wrong; between manufacturing or buying a product and shipping it out, the costs will certainly add up. But if your revenue per subscriber metrics allow you some wiggle room to play with, there are some strong benefits to giving away a physical product to grow your list.

First, very few brands give away free physical products, meaning you can stand out in a crowded marketing space. Second, when you send something tangible and tactile, you create a connection on a different level with that subscriber. Everyone loves getting stuff delivered—we have a Pavlovian joy at seeing a package waiting to be opened and reveal its secrets. Your free product giveaway can benefit from that. 

Third, with the right product, you can stay front-of-mind with a customer (for example, a sticker they can put on their laptop puts your brand in front of them—and others!—every day). 

And fourth, a physical product also lets you ask for a lot more customer information, which is good for your segmentation and personalization efforts. After all, you can’t send a customer a sticker without their full mailing address.

Giving away a free products is a great way to build subscribers.

You may or may not want to charge for shipping on the item, but if it’s more substantive than a sticker or something else in a regular envelope, it wouldn’t be out of bounds to do so. Just note that a shipping charge no longer makes it “free”—and that could hurt the volume of subscribers.

Giving away a substantial giveaway, but charging for shipping.

As a word of caution: make sure the physical product giveaway is targeted at the audience you want. Similar to the warnings in the contests section, the worst case scenario with a physical product giveaway is that a bunch of people with zero interest in your store flood in, claim their free item, and are never heard from again.

Pros

Cons

A tactile product establishes a different type of customer connection.

Can get very expensive.

Helps you stay front-of-mind with the customer (and, perhaps, other people who see them with your product).

Freebie seekers may just want your product without any interest in future business with your company.

Lets you collect a lot of extra info about your subscribers.

Helps you stand out, as few brands do free product giveaways.

Summary and implementation

Summary

Building an email list will pay off in the long term but requires strategy and a long-term commitment of effort and resources.

The most important thing to remember is that people need a reason to subscribe to your email list—its mere existence isn’t enough. Even customers who’ve purchased from you may not want to subscribe unless they know they’ll get some benefit from that subscription in the future. You need to offer people a good answer to the question, “What’s in it for me?”

A number of studies have affirmed the most common answers to that question:

  • Discounts or offers
  • Product and brand updates
  • Brand affinity
  • To access content

As you begin to formulate your strategy for growing your list, figure out which of those is the best fit for your business.

  • Discounts can work for big brands, companies with lots of margin to play with, stores with customers looking for deals, and stores just starting out. Offers can take the form of non-discount incentives as well, including contests, digital product giveaways in the form of things like eBooks and courses, or even small physical products.
  • Product and brand updates work great for companies with loyal fans, often in niche markets, developing lots of new products.
  • Stores with passionate fans can aim for subscribers who love the brand and incentivize them with content and an air of exclusivity, perhaps by framing the email list as a VIP club.
  • And stores with walled-off or premium content can leverage it toward getting subscribers.

Implementation

Here are some action steps you can take in order to use everything from this lesson to start growing your email list both in the short-term and long-term.

Step 1: Figure out your email value proposition

  • What’s the clear, obvious answer when potential subscribers ask, “What’s in it for me?”
  • What form will your value proposition take? A discount? Product and brand updates for fans, maybe in the form of a VIP club? A non-discount incentive like a content reward, contest, or giveaway? Figure out which one fits your business the best—and be willing to test to see if one works better than another.

Step 2: Create your incentive

  • If you’ve chosen to create a digital product as a giveaway, like an eBook or course, you’ll need to create it.
  • Regardless of what the value proposition is, determine how you’re going to present it. Work on the copy you use to describe your email list and what a person gets for joining.

Step 3: Promote your incentive

  • Check out our next lesson for tips on how to work your incentive into the signup forms on your website.

What technique are we using here to get you to subscribe?

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