How We Built a Million-Person Email List in a Year Building your list is not a black box but rather an achievable, repeatable and scalable process -- here's how we did it.

By Colin Darretta

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When I launched WellPath and was starting out as a first-time entrepreneur seeking to get initial traction without the capital to pour into expensive channels like Facebook, I was faced with the harsh realization many aspiring entrepreneurs face: "I built this awesome product, now what?"

Related: The 5 Mistakes That Will Land Your Email in the Spam Folder

With few exceptions, the reality is that if you build it, they will not come. Great product does not automatically beget audience. This reality is even more pronounced at the beginning of a business when getting an initial foothold can be a daunting challenge.

From the early days, we were big believers in Mary Meeker's 3C's -- specifically that you should leverage content to foster community and ultimately drive commerce. We were all-in on building great content through a newsletter, but how were we going to build an audience of readers?

Surveying the landscape around us, we realized that there were many other brands with similar target audiences, similar demographics and a similar readership as ours but, importantly, with non-competitive products. What this meant is that we could barter our promotional efforts and eyeballs with these brands without fearing that we might be exposing our customers to the competition. This meant working with well-known brands like Reebok, Well & Good, Fabletics, Men's Health and myriad more.

Marketing tactics that in the past might have been derided as low quality were significantly improved by our team becoming increasingly data-driven about the audiences we chose to work with and how that conformed to our own target audience. This ultimately enabled us to acquire tens of thousands (and later on, even hundreds of thousands) of newsletter subscribers a month while maintaining strong open and click-through rates. In shaping our own growth strategy, we've found a number of elements to be of important utility, the most crucial of which I break down below.

1. Incentive sharing through rewards, recognition and gamification

We all respond to different types of psychological motivators. Some people seek economic value, some people like the pure sense of achievement and others value public recognition.

Related: 5 Ways to Aggressively Grow Your Newsletter Subscribers

When it comes to tapping into those different motivators to encourage readers to become evangelists, nobody has figured out the process better than theSkimm. TheSkimm creates status (you're a "Skimmbassador" upon sharing with 10 people), rewards systems (you can get a combination of money and prizes for sharing), recognition (the "Skimmbassadors" are recognized in the newsletter on their birthdays) and gamification (a graphic serves as a fun and easy way to track your success and progress). Every one of these tactics can be incorporated into your newsletter to drive significantly more virality than any one of them in isolation.

2. Contests and giveaways

Many brands have used lightboxes on their own sites that may offer some prize to those who sign up for their newsletter. This is a fine tactic and can convert a modest percentage of existing visitors into readers. What you are really trying to achieve is finding new readers who most closely resemble your existing base.

The key here is in being data-driven with how you select partners to run these contests with. The potential scale here is significant, as a single giveaway can yield tens of thousands of entrants. The risk, however, is that if you are not highly disciplined in choosing the partners you work with on different campaigns, then engagement on those acquired emails will ultimately be poor. Of all the methods we've executed, this tactic has consistently driven the most significant growth but has also required the closest monitoring and management.

Related: Side Hustle Secret: Here's How to Get Your First 5,000 Email Subscribers

3. Content swaps

While having a newsletter that only promotes your own content will ensure your readers never leave your ecosystem, it doesn't do much to expose a new audience to your content. We use six content "blocks" in our newsletters -- essentially summaries of articles that appear on our main content site. By swapping one of these six blocks with another publisher whose audience was a good one for us to reach out to, we bartered audience and grew our email list while actually decreasing the content production demands of our internal team and enabling them to focus on fewer, better pieces of content.

4. Cross newsletter mentions

When Finimize was building its relatively nascent newsletter with the mission of helping people "understand today's financial news within three minutes," it worked with other newsletters with similar audiences, like CB Insights, to cross-promote and mention one another's newsletter to each brand's respective audience. People who already subscribe to and read newsletters are far more likely to sign up for another newsletter that falls under their interests, which can make this a particularly effective tactic.

Related: 7 Newsletters Online Entrepreneurs Should Subscribe to

Any one of these tactics used in isolation can drive growth, but the real power is unlocked when they are used together in concert. At WellPath, we started with a nearly 10,000-person email list acquired through our ecommerce business and prior to launching our newsletter. When we did finally build out our own newsletter, we did so with the tactics we learned from others in mind.

First, we built features into our newsletter to incentivize sharing, akin to theSkimm, understanding that enabling our evangelists to create virality would be core to success. Then we ran content swaps with brands like Fatherly to get our voice out there and build the readership base. Next, our focus shifted to executing giveaways with brands like Women's Health, Bandier and MindBodyGreen to really pour the fuel on the fire. Finally, we were able to broker newsletter cross-promotional opportunities with many other brands across the wellness industry. Over the course of our first year after launching the newsletter, we executed partnerships with over 200 different companies and acquired 1 million subscribers.

While all of that relationship-building may sound daunting, there are plenty of platforms that exist to facilitate the connection process. Linkedin, Levo, DojoMojo (which, in full transparency, I ultimately co-founded to facilitate the building of brand connections) all exist to help network-building. Even absent using a software solution, there are almost always preexisting relationships you or a team member already has that you can tap into.

There are few more cost-effective ways to build your brand, establish thought leadership and acquire customers than by building a direct relationship with them through an email newsletter. And building your list is not a black box but rather an achievable, repeatable and scalable process you can incorporate into your business strategy tomorrow.

Related Video: The Only Technique You Need to Quickly Grow Your Email List

Colin Darretta

CEO of Innovation Department

Colin Darretta is the CEO and co-founder of Innovation Department; former private equity at CI Capital and investment banker at Goldman Sachs; and occasional angel investor and writer.

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