2017 guide to building your email list on WordPress

Brittany Berger's Layout avatar

There are a lot of people who thought email marketing would be dead by 2017. Heck, there are a lot of people that believe it’s dead already.

But it still doesn’t show signs of slowing down. In fact, look at your favorite website, this website, or even your own. Do you see an obvious way to join the site’s email list? They’ll prove these statistics are on point.


So many of us are still making it a priority that it’s actually getting harder to be successful. As every website starts offering content upgrades and pop-ups and free newsletters and all that jazz, it can get more and more difficult to get people to notice yours.


The 2017 list building landscape

Last year, we created an ultimate guide to WordPress opt-ins. But since then, certain trends have slowed down, others have gained speed, competition has increased, and Google has laid down the law.

It was time for an update.

For one, some of those tactics aren’t as popular anymore. I love a good sidebar, for example, but I can’t deny that a lot of people are moving their opt-ins to more noticeable areas or losing the sidebar completely.

The most important new change to note – one that’s not just shifting trends – is Google’s new penalty on intrusive pop-ups. Taking effect this month, it aims to improve the usability of their mobile search results by penalizing sites with intrusive interstitials.


That means best practices for things like pop-ups and welcome mats (which we’ll talk about in a minute) have changed a lot, so this new guide will make sure you can build your list effectively.

“The main thing to remember? Don’t be rude with your opt-in. ”

Google’s new rule is in reaction to user frustration with not being able to easily access content behind crazy interruptive and irrelevant calls-to-action. With great technology comes great responsibility – you have to commit to using these tools well.

Instead of interrupting readers with an opt-in as soon as they land on your site, use more targeted triggers for anything intrusive. And the more targeted your offer, the better. A content upgrade or lead magnet for a specific audience will be more relevant than a vague newsletter.

How to grow your email list on WordPress in 2017

1. Welcome mats

Welcome Mats are one of the most “love ‘em or hate ‘em” list building tactics among marketers and website owners. The fact that it draws so much attention to itself is both a blessing and a curse, so let’s get clear on what they are and what they aren’t.


(via SumoMe)

What it is: Welcome mats are full-page screens with a prominent call-to-action or form that displays immediately on page load, putting the opt-in really front and center. The reader needs to take an action like scrolling down or clicking a “down” button to dismiss it and get to the site content.

Why it works: Attention. Welcome mats make it so that when people land on your website, they have to make that “yes” or “no” decision about whether they want to opt-in, before they can do anything else.

What to watch out for: That “intrusive interstitial” thing. Covering the whole page right on page load is pretty intrusive, so it’s important to deactivate these on mobile. Use them sparingly on other devices to avoid coming off as too aggressive with your list building.

Tool to do it well: SumoMe. The Welcome Mat is SumoMe’s “thing,” one of the features the tool is best known for. And that’s because they do it well. You can get set up in a few minutes, even with the extensive template and targeting options.

2. Pop-up overlay

Pop-ups are probably the only other opt-in type that can actually incite anger in website visitors. As effective as they can be, they’re frequently handled so, so wrong. But they keep on converting, so you shouldn’t be writing them off anytime soon. Just make sure yours is one of the good ones.


(via OptinMonster)

What it is: An overlay that pops up in the center of the screen based on a variety of different user activities. A lot of people have it pop on page load, but you can do better than that. There are also options for exit intent, spending a certain amount of time on the page, or scrolling down a certain amount.

Why it works: Attention. While pop-ups may not take up the entire screen like welcome mats do, they’re still really “in your face.” All of the focus and attention is on them. But with the more advanced trigger options, they can target engaged users only, making them more effective for getting really targeted subscribers.

What to watch out for: That dang Google penalty on mobile again. Well, the penalty and the fact that people don’t like it. Don’t have a big ole thing pop up immediately on mobile. But with this type, there’s a different workaround – you can use the more targeted trigger options like scroll triggers on desktop to be less intrusive.

Tool to do it well: OptinMonster has really fancy targeting and trigger options that are perfect for making pop-ups less annoying for website visitors. Add to that a variety of templates and other advanced features, and it’s easily one of my favorite list building tools.

3. 2-step opt-in

Click-triggered, or 2-step, opt-ins are another version of pop-ups that remove the interruption completely. Because the user has to ask to see the opt-in form, they’re in control and it’s not interrupting them at all.


(via Amanda Genther)

What it is: A pop-up overlay that comes up when the visitor clicks a link, either linked inline text or a call-to-action image, as shown above. There’s then a second step where they actually fill out the pop-up form, which is where the name comes from.

Why it works: Steps. By breaking up the opt-in process into multiple steps and having the visitor only take one action at a time, you’re asking for less of a commitment up front while also making sure they follow-through. Once someone clicks the trigger, they’re likely to finish the process.

What to watch out for: Blending in too much. Because these are as simple as an image or text link, it can easily blend into the rest of the page content. Make sure it’s designed to stand out and any call-to-action text uses strong, persuasive copy.

Tool to do it well: LeadPages. I’d say 2-step opt-ins are to LeadPages what welcome mats are to SumoMe. A lot of companies may offer them and offer them well, but there’s a reason one company is known for it over others.

4. Notification banner

Not all of the current and popular opt-in methods have to be in-your-face. A subtle approach still works well, especially when combined with other strategies from this list.

Notification banners aren’t as trendy or hot, but they’re a permanent fixture of email marketing and a staple for growing your list. They’re just probably not a tactic that will explode your list’s growth on its own.


(via Freelance to Freedom Project)

What it is: A permanent bar at the top of the website or in the header with an opt-in call-to-action. Some notification bars also stay fixed to the top of the screen as the reader scrolls, but that’s usually a feature that can be turned on or off.

Why it works: Permanence. It may not be right there in your face on targeted pages as soon as they load, but that can actually be a good thing. Instead, users encounter it more subtly over and over and over again, until they ask themselves, “why haven’t I signed up for this yet? Better go do it!”

What to watch out for: Blending in too much. Like a 2-step opt-in, these can easily blend into the site’s design or the rest of the content. Especially if it looks just like your navigation bar and they’re sitting right next to each other. You want it to be subtle, but not too subtle.

Tool to do it well: HelloBar is a super minimal list building tool that only offers notification bars, so you can get it up and going in less time than it takes to microwave popcorn.

5. Header image

Somewhere between an obvious welcome mat and a small banner is a header image. It’s big and permanent, but a subtle part of the theme’s design, so you definitely won’t be annoying anyone with it. I like to call it the “new and improved sidebar opt-in,” since so many people are getting rid of sidebars and moving their opt-in here.


(via Coded Creative Themes)

What it is: An opt-in form contained within the site’s main header image. They usually trigger a 2-step opt-in to pop-up, but sometimes you’ll see the button link to a landing page or the button will link to a new landing page.

Why it works: Permanence and focus, again drawing on some of the best parts of opt-in types we’ve discussed already. It’s big and bold like some of the more aggressive opt-ins, but is still a seamless part of the site design, like the more subtle approaches.

What to watch out for: A weaksauce CTA can ruin your header opt-in as quickly as it can one of the more “hidden” opt-ins. If it’s not strong and actionable, people may just think the copy is your slogan instead of a call for them to click on the pop-up button.

Tool to do it well: Since your header is a core part of your site, I’ll leave that part up to you. But when it comes to using that header as an opt-in, you can go with LeadPages again to create the 2-step triggered pop-up that will actually display the opt-in form.


Bonus areas

While these other opt-in placements are less common right now, they’re still worth noting:

Sidebar forms: Newsletter and lead magnet forms in a blog sidebar are pretty classic. Even though lots of designers are getting rid of sidebars, those that aren’t can always count on readers looking there for a signup form. They’re reliable.

Footer: I don’t see a ton of forms in site footers, which surprises me. They’re easily accessible and where readers normally go to look for other important items like contact information and links to other pages.

Site navigation: Another creative way to work 2-step opt-ins into your site’s design, in addition to using the link in your header image, is to include it in your navigation.

“ALL the opt-ins!”…with a caveat

I know the temptation of wanting to try out every list building tactic right away. But you know that saying about trying to do everything and doing nothing instead? It could not be more true with email marketing.

You don’t want to rely on just one opt-in form on your website to really grow your list and drive business. But it can be tricky to combine the different placements together in the perfect mixture of “a lot but not too much.”


Here are a few best practices to follow when it comes to being persistent about opt-ins without coming off as too pushy:

Sprinkle opt-ins throughout

Most pages of your site should have multiple opt-in forms in a few different areas, but you’ll want to spread them out. For example, if there’s one in the header at the top, one in the sidebar a few scrolls down, and a scroll-triggered opt-in more towards the bottom, the reader will never be far from a form.

Keep the offer consistent

You want strong message match in your opt-ins.

Don’t offer a free ebook in your welcome mat, a weekly newsletter in your notification bar, and a pop-up for a cheat sheet. That just makes your reader choose between a bunch of great options, and no one likes doing that.
Be consistent in what you’re promoting to really drive the offer home.

Don’t be rude

Going back to the introduction of this post, be polite with your visitors. While you do want to repeat your offer in a few different places, you don’t want to bombard them until it feels like you’re stalking them around your site. Give people room to breathe and actually take in the page’s main content.

So, for example, if you use a welcome mat that people have to scroll past, then use a scroll-triggered pop-up as soon as they get past the page intro, that’ll be an aggressive 1-2 punch for them.

How do you mix and match these opt-in placements to grow your email list? Share what’s worked for you!

Comments ( 5 )

  1. Vickie

    February 10, 2017

    What about those opt-ins that appear as a person exits... those "are you sure you want to leave" pop-ups. Are those going to be discluded from Google penalties, or are these a good idea or a bad one in your opinion?

    • Brittany Berger

      February 13, 2017

      Hi Vickie, thanks for the comment!

      Yep, that's an exit intent pop-up, which is one of the more specific types of pop-up overlays discussed in section 2. Having it only pop-up when someone's leaving the site is a great way to make them more targeted and less annoying, which should keep you safe from Google's current rules that go after more intrusive mobile pop-ups.

      To be extra safe, you could also make the exit intent pop-up display only on desktop since Google's penalty is focused on mobile. :)

  2. True Artists Recognition

    February 18, 2017

    Good info. Thanks Flywheel.

  3. Narinder kumar

    March 31, 2017

    Thanks for sharing great article for creating email list building its really helpful for my blog.

  4. WPTeam Support

    May 2, 2017

    Excellent info as always Berger! thanks so much. Keep up the good work!

  5. Sinoun

    July 22, 2017

    Great list! As a website visitor, I would have to say the pop-ups are my least favorite though.

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