When I began blogging for the first time, nothing seemed to work.
In my eyes, my content sounded great, and the people I told about my articles appeared interested, but each post only received maybe ten or twelve visits from random folks who stumbled upon the post on accident.
Everyone told me that I must build an email list to be successful with blogging.
But, even efforts to build an email list, my main motivator for finding an audience for my writing, failed on every level. It was at this point when I stopped and thought…
What if I completely changed my approach to blogging?
Was there something that these top bloggers, with thousands of people on their emails lists, were not telling me? In all honesty, I knew there were blogs producing better content than what I was creating, but without a doubt my content provided value to beginner writers out there.
After all, I was working a day job while running a freelance writing business (on the side) that brought in around $2,000 per month.
Writing jobs were crammed in during lunch hours and after I arrived home at around five in the evening. Pitch emails and marketing designs were completed while sitting on the phone speaking to my day job customers.
As chaotic as it was, someone must want to hear how I was able to pull it off.
Rethinking the My View of Blogging
My first job out of college was a struggle for me, along with the one after that. I was craving more substance in my life, along with the freedom to work for myself.
Blogging became a great outlet for me to express myself and build my business.
But, it required that I think differently than the traditional way people used blogging.
To build a business around your blog, you must think of blogging as more than a journal or a random collection of posts. When you take the time and organize a plan of action, it is going to multiply your chances for success.
For me, much of that plan consisted of reverse engineering what is working for other bloggers. Finding people who have done it successfully before you and tweaking those tactics to fit your unique brand.
Where most people go wrong is they see something that they think is working, and blindly adopt things into their own blog. They try it because it is what everyone else is doing. Then, when it doesn’t work for them, they give up.
Understand that everyone’s audience is different and will respond to different approaches to blogging. And the timeline on how rapidly your list will grow will be different for everyone.
My timeline looked like this…
Hitting the 3,000 mark took roughly four months from when I started blogging. It was at this time when my freelance business replaced my income of my day job, and I was able to quit for good.
If you are new to email marketing, MailChimp states that average open rates for email newsletters range from around 17% to 28%.
Every email I was sending out was being opened at a rate of 40 to 50%. My community was engaged and loving what I was sharing.
From here I shifted strategies and accumulated another 2,000 subscribers over the following four months.
That’s a total of 5,000 subscribers in eight months from starting blogging.
Standing at the starting line, I remember thinking just 1,000 subscribers is an ambitious goal.
But, it’s not as intimidating as you may think, and putting in work is worth it.
Why? A recent study by Ipsos shows that 85% of the people online use email, compared to social networking sites, at 62%. That means, to effectively communicate and form relationships with your blog readers, you must build an email list.
Once you have built your email list and established trust with your audience, you have a very low resistance sales channel for your products and services you want to offer that help solve their problems.
In the paragraphs to follow, we’ll walk through exactly what I did to grow my blog and email list and the impact it has had on my business. My hope is that you can take some of these tips and strategies to apply in your own business to get your first 5,000 blog subscribers.
Growing From 0 to 1,000 Email Subscribers
Let’s assume this is where many of you are starting, and by that I mean zero.
The inescapable bottom floor that says you need more followers for your blog to get traffic, but at the same time, you don’t have the social credibility for people to care about your site whatsoever.
After scouring internet marketing forums, blogging guides, and expert tips to see what others were doing, I concluded the most productive path to grow my audience would be through guest blogging.
It would allow me to tap into blogs that already had an established audience related to mine.
But, my biggest hurdle to overcome was my preconceived beliefs about guest blogging. I always thought I should receive compensation for my work and that the blogs I’d be writing for would entirely benefit because they were not offering compensation.
In my mind, I related this to an unpaid internship. I had worked one of those, and it brought me nowhere.
However, what if that unpaid internship was for someone truly special? Imagine if Elon Musk or Warren Buffett wanted you as an unpaid intern? I can’t think of a faster track to success than learning from the greats for free.
That’s how I realized that a well-calculated guest post was invaluable. By associating with the “top-dogs” of your industry, it can rapidly boost your blogging career to a level you never could dream possible.
After all, at that point I was writing on my blog for free and not bringing in any subscribers. So, why not post for someone with a huge following to send some people my way?
It’s also important to remember that these influencers with large followings have worked tirelessly to build their communities.
Many have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising, contractors, link building, and design. When you think about it, being grateful for this free exposure is the only option, considering the site owners could charge for guest post opportunity.
Think about it. When you eventually build your blogging empire, you want to be recognized for it and not have to give away all that hard work for free, right?
That said, guest blogging isn’t just about finding any site and writing an article.
The site must relate to your niche, and YES, you must pick a niche if you want folks to take you seriously. My blog, Write With Warnimont, teaches amateur writers (with limited tech and marketing experience) how to build a freelance writing business.
Although my strategy has changed a bit since then, my goal at that time was to bring in authors, bloggers, poets, and other writers who needed tech and marketing assistance.
While I should have been hard at work in my day job, I spent most of my time creating a landscape of the blogs in my niche. In Google Spreadsheets, I compiled a list of notable blogs with audiences comprised of authors and writers.
Once I had a good amount of blogs to work with, the networking began.
I hit the list hard, sending out short, yet informative emails, or simply abiding by the guidelines given to applying as a guest writer. Your success hinges on you contacting other people with useful, yet short, emails.
Out 100+ blogs contacted, I saw a 40% response rate, and 15% out of them approved me to write guest posts.
Many of these people are known as top bloggers in my industry, so the response rate left me quite satisfied. It truly is a numbers game.
How can you formulate an email that prompts a similar response?
Carol Tice from Make a Living Writing published an interesting article that profiles three of her best guest post pitches. Much of what is contained in this article, I used as the core rubric for my emails.
Here are the must-haves for your pitch email:
- Mention if you’ve had any contact in the past.
- Tell them that you read their content and you put it to use for your own business. (Don’t lie. If you haven’t checked out the site, read through a few articles to gain some knowledge.)
- Although this extends your email message, most bloggers expect an outline for your guest post.
- Include a killer headline for the guest post.
- Reveal one of your favorite guest posts that received many shares or comments. If you don’t have any, find a post from your blog that reflects your voice.
Now that you have your pitch email in mind, how should you prepare your website?
The trouble with guest posting is having your site ready to capture emails or even to make money once the flood of people read your article, click the link in your author box and go to your site. I wasn’t in any way prepared for monetizing the site, but I at least had an email subscription form. This way, I could try to sell to these people in the future.
Each guest post brought in an average of 50 subscribers.
It’s important to point out that not every guest post is created equal. For example:
- A guest post for a site called Write to Done accumulated more than 100 email addresses for my site.
- I also posted to a smaller writing blog, and not a single person subscribed to my email list after the guest post went live.
The point is, some guest posts land while others can bring you no results.
The key is to find reputable blogs. Here are some of the requirements when screening blogs for whether or not you should guest post on them:
- Find blogs that get talked a lot about in your niche.
- Find blogs with sizable email lists, social followings, and comment counts.
- Consider blogs run by people who are noted authors or contributors in a certain industry.
- Locate blogs owned by companies that are leaders in the products or services they sell.
- Search Google for blogs in your niche, and submit to all of the ones on the first page.
Now, you may wonder, is this enough to get you to 1,000 subscribers? You bet.
I wrote about 20 guest posts in this period of time, and although some of them were flops, the big-hitters pushed me to just under the 1,000 email subscriber mark. It wasn’t long until that number surpassed the goal of 1,000.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that my freelance writing business (mainly WordPress, app, and other tech articles) was just as useful as guest posts. Why? Because I still received author attribution for them. In fact, I also got payment for them.
Building A Tribe of Amateur Writers
One qualm I had with guest blogging was that many of the followers on these sites were established, or at least consistent writers. My goal was to target the beginners, those who had a story to tell, but didn’t know how to do it.
Therefore, I built a list of prospective blog owners who may have found my site interesting at the time. The goal was to locate blogs in their early stages–messy, unprofessional, yet promising.
Think about this like visiting a business, leaving your card and maybe saying a few words to the owner. The idea was to let the website owner know I had visited, comment on some of their content and extend a helping hand with a portion of their site that needed improvements.
That’s right. Most of my initial followers came from reaching out to amateur writers and bloggers first.
And you know what? Those initial followers are the ones that turned into my tribe. They contacted me through email, asked for advice on anything from RSS feeds to selling on Amazon.
My favorite example is a friend named Jay, who sent me dozens of emails asking my advice on email marketing, widgets on WordPress, newsletter design, eBook formatting, and more.
I later learned that he shared my blog with a writing group, wrote a review about my eBook, and even mentioned me a few times in his own book.
At the time I felt a little strange giving away all of this free advice. Not to mention, it sucked up quite a bit of time. However, your strongest allies, when looking for exposure, are those people who talk about you constantly.
I don’t know if it’s the best way to get past that first hump, but it certainly helps to show new visitors that you at least have a few people talking in your comment area and sharing on social media.
Doubling to 2,000 Subscribers in Under 30 Days
I was still at my old job at this point, so while sitting on the phone I made a push to follow as many WordPress writing blogs as I could.
The guest blogging efforts subsided a bit, but they still continued when time allowed. It was simply about clicking follow buttons while chatting with my day job customers on the phone.
I’m not sure if everyone would consider this a sound business practice. For example, I know many folks consider blindly following people on Twitter a joke, but it actually connected me with plenty of nice people, and I still read a few of the blogs that I found interesting.
At the time, I compared this to cold-calling people or knocking on doors. Regardless of what some people may think, this method worked rather well and I found two of the editors whom I work with quite frequently.
A follow here, a comment there, and even a few likes were sprinkled in there. This was one of my biggest spikes in email subscriptions, and it’s because people actually responded with interest.
I constantly checked out new blogs, and in the process I started filling my own Feedly reader with cool sites that I was learning from. They even have a cool filter and tag function in WordPress to locate relevant blogs that you might deem worthy to take a look at. If someone didn’t respond there was no harm done. I simply moved on in search of folks who wanted to strike up a dialogue.
Commenting on blogs and interacting with other people in your niche should be part of daily routine. It’s not easy to measure the return on investment when commenting, liking content and following blogs, but Neil Patel says that if you want commenters and followers on your own blog, you must go out and make blog visible by marketing it and being visible.
You can’t expect visitors if they don’t know you exist.
Outstanding content and a well-designed blog will determine if people are willing to follow you back to your own blog. How can you make your blog outstanding once those connections land on your site? Kevin Muldoon provides some nice tips that I follow regularly:
- Make your blog design professional, so people don’t cringe and click the “X” in the corner.
- Spend time on your topics so that they’re relevant to the people you’re marketing to.
- Write awesome articles, since they are more likely to be read and shared.
- Blog on a consistent basis, so that it doesn’t look like your site is dead.
- Make it easy for people to share your content.
- Talk to your readers so that new visitors are more likely to comment.
Offline Interactions Took Me Beyond 3,000 Subscribers
A few months were spent targeting local writers in Chicago (where I currently live). The goal was to find potential blogging partners, send amateur writers to my own blog and to seek out more experienced writers with advice for my own career.
I’m not sure if it was the most efficient way to bring in email subscribers, but it certainly gave me a fresh perspective on what it takes to run a business, along with providing some much needed face-to-face time with people in the industry. The experience also located some people who are still quite active on my blog.
My strategy was two-fold: Reach out to the companies to find freelance work, and see if I could find any local writers working for the companies. I sent emails to all of them and got a decent response.
I went on to visit local Meetups just about every week, gave a few speeches and exchanged business cards at all of these events. Part of this was for one of my clients, but I used the time to network for my own blog as well.
The power of getting out from behind the computer and meeting people in person cannot be underestimated.
A past freelance client of mine would send me to local Meetups to network and locate people to write about or work within the mobile app industry. The client managed a fairly popular Android blog out of London, and they planned on expanding to the US, using me as somewhat of a transition guy.
This process started by visiting a somewhat techie Chicago Android Meetup.
After the first of three speakers concluded, I quickly realized I was in over my head with the technology talk.
I packed up my notebook and pen, looking for a chance to slip out the door. That was when the final speaker started discussing his journey to write a book in three months, using Google Hangouts to conduct his interviews.
This guy had signed up to speak at the wrong Meetup!
He quickly addressed his mistake at the beginning of the speech, but proceeded on to talk about his journey, insisting that someone might find it helpful.
So, not only was I at a meeting that was way over my head, but this author was also in the wrong place. I grabbed him afterwards and we starting chatting about the mishap. We talked for maybe an hour, until the lights went out in the building and we had to head home.
I discovered that he had just written a book with dozens of interviews with authors and writers all over the world. He volunteered to connect me with every single one of them.
It resulted in new followers of my blog, finding a co-author to my ebook, and a few new ghostwriting projects.
All that after just getting off my butt and fighting past my fears of interacting with people for long periods of time. Writing originally attracted me from the peace I found in the solitude, but building lasting connections amazed me with the results.
Other useful events included Live Lit and the Printer’s Row Lit Fest, where I networked with the speakers and attendees.
You might say, “Well Joe, that’s Chicago. It’s a huge city with tons of literary opportunities.”
True, but my parents have a lake house up in Burlington, Wisconsin. Every Friday there is a literary reading at the local coffee shop.
My point is, no matter your niche, people are interested about it in even the smallest of towns. Sometimes it takes thinking outside the box and pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone in order to bring exposure to your blog. There are no set “rules” to this game.
What I Learned About Email Marketing and Open Rates
My open rates gradually decreased with more subscribers, but that’s natural when you jump from 100 subscribers who you know by name to a few thousand folks you can’t keep track of.
Open rates are nice for checking to see if people are still engaging with your content, along with managing clickable subject lines; however I have one word of advice on how to use your open rates wisely.
Like I talked about before, a small percentage of your followers are your tribe. Can you guess the best way to single out these VIP followers? With open rates, of course.
MailChimp, and most other email services have stats on which people open and click through on your emails the most. MailChimp rates these folks with stars, and it even separates VIPs from the five-star people, since the VIPs are even more engaged than the best on your list.
I can’t say this enough: Locate your VIPs, give them all the love they need and make them love you back.
Here are a few examples of how I treated some of my VIPs:
- I respond to any emails from them within 24 hours.
- I have a list of them in Excel for addressing them by name when commenting.
- Whenever I get deals on products or free goodies, I send them to VIPs first.
- Any eBooks I write are given out to VIPs for free.
- I even found two subscribers who lived in Chicago and met up with them for coffee.
- Any type of monetization strategy I have in the future will always be given to VIPs for free or at a discount.
Hitting 4,000 Subscribers By Leveraging Content From Top Bloggers
For about a two-month stretch, I focused on boosting the quality of my posts, really trying to figure out what made people share on social media.
I don’t claim to be a social media expert, but I wanted to start by finding bloggers with insane amounts of social shares. My theory was that they did something right, so maybe I could reverse engineer their success.
Remember that quality is essential, yet the quest for perfection is a sure-fire path towards failure.
Steve Jobs once said, “Real artists ship,” referring to the fact that everyone has ideas, and many people work hard to shape those ideas.
However, you can’t expect to get started on your way to success by critiquing every little detail of your work. You must eventually “ship,” or publish your work.
That said, my list of bloggers and authors is rather long, but here are a few people I tried to reverse engineer in their social sharing and traffic building strategies:
These mentions are random, and many other bloggers out there have solid reputations, but these were ones that I had been following for a while. I tried to copy their techniques and even turned some of my website designs into similar layouts you might have noticed from Jeff Goins or Michael Hyatt.
This research revealed one simple conclusion: Even the top bloggers are not perfect.
In fact, it’s impossible to assume that one person’s techniques will work for your own niche, but by picking and choosing, you can slowly form your own voice, presence, and design.
For example, I noticed that Maria Popova from Brain Pickings doesn’t have her comments section open. I tried this for a bit and my followers hated it, sending in emails wondering what was going on. However, the Brain Pickings titles are marvelous, not focused on SEO, but packed with specific details, names and intriguing words that get creatives excited.
As I turned my focus towards creative titles, I began seeing my open rates increase for almost every email.
If you have ever seen my newsletter, you’ll find that various components are eerily similar to the newsletters of Jeff Goins and Michael Hyatt, each of which have wonderful components for their own past articles, books, social pages, and more.
Looping Top Bloggers Into My Posts
Around this same time I also started including mentions of top bloggers in my posts, along with a few roundup posts (featuring advice from top bloggers), which gained quite a bit of traction.
My blog followers told me they had an interest in this through emails and comments. On Reddit, I noticed threads where writers debated vehemently about which is more important–giving your audience what they want, or remaining true to your own creative needs.
I sent quick emails to people like Seth Godin, Hugh Howey, Carol Tice, Jon Morrow, K.M. Weiland and several others. To my surprise, about 90% of the emails I sent out received responses, some brief, others close to short stories.
My followers had been clamoring for a post like this and the response was great.
In addition, several of these prestigious writers tweeted about the article, bringing in a few waves of people who wanted to hear more from my blog.
And the icing on the cake…
I was now on the radar of all-star writers like Seth Godin and Hugh Howey.
They are my idols, and I’ve been able to reach out to a few of the contributors for help on other projects. All because I opened up a dialog with them.
An Interesting Raffle, Along with Strategic Friendships Lifts Me Past 5,000 Subscribers
For my most recent list building push, I strayed away from just mentioning top bloggers in my articles, and instead tried to partner with them for projects.
My first attempt was a Kindle raffle, where I used a Rafflecopter module to gain email subscribers and social shares.
The deal was that people had to post a comment about their biggest fears as writers. After that, they were entered for a chance to win an Amazon Kindle Fire HD, with additional entries for things like social shares.
The Amazon Kindle Fire HD contest served as an experiment, but the item was purchased with income from freelancing.
Overall, 92 comments (and 2,706 entries) came in.
This equated to roughly 700 subscribers in total to my email list.
I was happy with the results of the contest and you should definitely consider a contest or raffle on your own blog.
HubSpot states that one-third of contest entrants will accept to receive information about your brand upon conclusion of the contest.
Of course, many entrants were interested in the prize alone. You will want to take that into consideration as some of the people may mark your newsletter as spam when you send out that first email following a raffle.
I highly advise you to include some sort of disclaimer saying that by joining the contest, they also understand they will be added to your newsletter list with periodic updates. And in the first email, give them a very clear and blatant way to opt out.
Probably the most traction for the raffle came from a partnership formed with Hope Clark from Funds for Writers.
She agreed to a sponsorship deal, where she posted an ad for my raffle in her own newsletter read by thousands of writers (40,000 as of now) looking for paying jobs.
In exchange, I announced that Funds for Writers sponsored the raffle, hopefully bringing exposure to her platform.
Once again, a nice wave of subscribers came over from the Funds for Writers site, and I brought in more from various shares that came from the excitement that is a raffle.
At this point, it’s worth noting that my subscriber growth was compounding from my previous efforts. I’d be silly to think that my raffle accounted for another thousand subscribers, but it still helped quite a bit.
My final example comes from what I like to call a fortunate friendship. Carol Tice, from the Make a Living Writing blog, reached out to me to partake in her Freelancer Fear Buster audio campaign, which highlighted the fears of 17 freelance writers, and how they overcame those fears.
I’ve interacted with Carol several times, from roundup posts, to simple Twitter conversations.
I also find it tough to not stumble upon one of her Entrepreneur Magazine articles from time to time. This was a fortunate friendship since she asked for a short clip, put in all of the work compiling this podcast-style resource, and in return, sent me lots of subscribers.
When you set out to reach that initial 5,000 subscriber count, take a moment, or rather a few hours, to formulate a strategy for how you can reach the magical 5,000 mark.
A blog, or any business opportunity, sits dormant without action. A long term content strategy is the first step to ensuring your visitors are pleased with their browsing experience; yet reaching out to people, whether in-person or through comments, is what has served top bloggers well in the past.
After looking at how I managed to jump start my blog to 5,000 email subscribers in eight months, several mistakes and obstacles occurred. Plenty of successes came along the way as well.
Here’s a roundup of the key points to take away from this journey, allowing you to implement the tips yourself for an invigorating and eye-opening quest to 5,000 email subscribers:
- After choosing a niche for your blog, scour the internet to see what people in the market are talking about. This is your goldmine for content ideas. If it’s not relevant to your niche, scrap it and move on.
- Use lists to your advantage. Consider making lists with contact information for guest posting, lists for blog post ideas and lists of links and resources for sharing and marketing your own blog.
- When searching out sites to guest post on, only pitch those with strong followings. You may befriend someone with a blog, but it’s not worth your time to write a free blog post for their 200 followers.
- When pitching for guest posts, keep it short, but include personalized connections, an outline of the post, past work and even a short sentence on how you admire the person’s site. Craft your guest post outline using the seven crucial tactics for successful guest posts, from the folks at Copyblogger.
- Foster relationships with people who admire your work (regardless of how amateur they are,) since word of mouth is one of your biggest strengths for gaining exposure.
- “Knock on doors” by commenting on other blogs, interacting with people online and giving your opinions. Simply following blogs or liking them work as icebreakers as well.
- Check out relevant groups in the area. Book speaking gigs, or go listen to speakers to learn more and meet people who may find your blog interesting. A face to face interaction is always more memorable to potential partners and followers than an email.
- Jot down bloggers you admire and try to reverse engineer the blogging elements that make them great. Remember that no one is perfect, so your best bet is to piece together strategies to develop your own voice.
- Always work on improving your content. Forget being perfect, but accumulate feedback from your followers to see what they like and don’t like.
- Consider holding a contest or raffle to bring in new readers and to generate buzz about your blog.
- Think strategically about your online friendships. It’s always fun to chat with people, but constantly think how you can capitalize with the people you chat with on Twitter, blogs, Reddit and more.
Going from 0 to 5,000 may take you less than eight months, or it may take you a little longer. The key is to use this advice to weed out the tactics that fail and to discover your own new and exciting methods for expanding your online presence.
What List Building Methods Work For You?
My goal with this article is to present the ideas and methods I have used in the past.
Yes, I put in a great amount of work over those eight months to accumulate 5,000 email subscribers, and yes those users are fairly active on my blog, but I stumbled upon quite a few roadblocks, and found that some of these methods may not be worth trying again in the future.
Like I stated above with the top bloggers I tried to copy from, consider picking and choosing from your idols to find your own voice. Refrain from simply copying one or two people, because chances are, some of the tactics won’t work for your audience.
Frank Lloyd Wright was known for copying his mentor Louis Sullivan.
In fact, much of Wright’s work reflects hints of Sullivan, with his signature ornamental designs. However, once Wright matured and combined that knowledge with his own surroundings and creative needs, he eventually strayed away from Sullivan, finding his own vision. That’s what you’re tasked with as a blogger.
Now, I want to hear from you…
What is ONE STRATEGY you are focusing on this year to grow your email list?
It could be something I covered above, or totally new method. Let me know in the comments below, and I will be sure to reply.