Should you create an email opt-in incentive?

Everybody likes incentives

Email Opt-In IncentiveConfession: Until about six months ago, I’d never even considered offering a email opt-in incentive for newsletter subscribers. Then I began hearing discussion about the practice and seeing examples of bloggers and businesses offering worksheets, ebooks, and other free downloadable content to anyone who signed up for their email lists. So I started to wonder if I was missing out.

And, sure enough, many marketing experts recommend offering people a discount, free gift, or other subscriber-only takeaway as a means of boosting your list. Some say that doing so can double or triple your subscriber count, and that an incentive helps potential subscribers overcome their hesitancy to sign up for yet another list. So let’s break down the opt-in incentive.

Pro: Incentives grow lists

Sarah Von Bargen, blogger at Yes and Yes and social media consultant, swears by this tactic.

“When it comes to growing my list, absolutely nothing can touch content upgrades and opt-ins. Not even close,” she says. “I doubled my list in a month once I found and created the right opt-in! Sure, they take a while to create, but they are so, so worth it.”

Von Bargen offers a selection of ebooks and downloads in addition to weekly discounts for anyone who joins her list.

Con: An Opt-In Incentive can feel exclusionary

Greg Cox, who designs and manages the popular fashion advice blog You Look Fab, takes another view.

“We never really considered having an opt-in download,” he told me. “I would worry that it would be viewed as a way to harvest email addresses.”

Cox went on to explain that he feels incentives can be seen as divisive.

“As for the email signup reward, we were never comfortable having special content that is only for people who provide their email address. We like to make all content available to as broad an audience as possible. We have thought about non-content rewards, but we haven’t settled on anything yet.”

Email lists can grow organically

Recently, I worked with a ghostwriting client who was obsessed with creating the perfect downloadable incentive. She worried about giving away too much content, being too specific in focus and alienating new subscribers, how on-brand the downloadable’s message was … and eventually, I had to gently remind her that some people would simply sign up because they were interested in her message, and not for some free PDF. She’d been told again and again that an incentive was essential for building your list, so she seemed genuinely surprised by the notion that people would sign up without being offered a freebie.

It’s important to remember that, if you’ve already got a healthy website with steady traffic, your email list will grow slowly on its own. (So long as your signup box is prominent and easy to use, that is.)

Email signup — Important considerations

Naturally, this is a highly individual choice. If you have a small but loyal following, you might feel similarly to Cox and worry that a subscriber opt-in incentive would look sketchy. If you lean heavily on your newsletter to drive sales or traffic, building your list could be directly linked to income. So, as was the case for Von Bargen, doubling your subscriber count through a freebie might be a game-changer. In the end, it depends on three main factors:

  • How aggressive you want to be in expanding your reach
  • How sensitive your existing base might be to exclusive content
  • How much time and energy you can spare to create a slick, beautifully designed downloadable that represents your brand and message

Email opt-in incentives are definitely an effective tool, but that doesn’t mean they should be used to build every email list everywhere all the time. It’s up to you to determine if it’s a tool you want in YOUR site’s toolbox.

Image by: Waldo Jaquith Flickr via Compfight cc

Sally McGraw
Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer, editor, and blogger. She is the creator the popular daily blog Already Pretty, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a Huffington Post contributor, and the author of several books about style and body image. Sally is also a ghostwriter and editor who specializes in non-fiction books and book proposals. She believes that writing is like solving a living, breathing, ever-changing puzzle, and finds the challenge exhilarating. Her favorite word is "crepuscular."