Unless you rank on the first page of Google for commercial search terms or you’ve mastered paid ads (and very few manage that), your online business will live and die by the strength of its mailing list. But how do you go about building mailing lists?

First things things first: mailing lists are nothing new. They exist in the brick and mortar world and predate the internet by many decades. Pre-internet, companies would buy mailing lists. Today, the means of acquiring these lists is a little different but the concept is exactly the same – you hold a database of people interested in your product and target them with relevant marketing. It is hugely valuable, and most business that don’t rely on organic search or paid ads use mailing lists to make money.

The Different Ways To Build Mailing Lists

  • Create valuable gated content
  • Social media
  • Buy them from service providers
  • Create newsletters
  • Strategic partnerships

So, you have a new business. You don’t rank in Google. You don’t have a mailing list. You don’t have any social followers. You don’t have money for paid ads (and even if you did you need organic traffic to know if your conversion rate is enough to offset the cost per click).

So what do you do? Well, the first step is create content. Content that’s valuable to your target clientele is key because they will give you their details to access it. You can disseminate your content via social media, press releases, strategic partners, on your site etc. In reality, the best way to find an audience for your content is on social media – and that’s our starting point. But first let’s take a look at creating content.

Create Valuable Gated Content

Let’s say you sell motorcycle parts. Your target audience ride motorcycles and you can bet they will read content related to motorcycle, particularly motorcycle repair. Articles, videos, podcasts or infographics are excellent ways to get the motorcycle aficionados onto your site and to give you’re their email address. The deal is simple, you create a landing page on your site where the sure must enter their email address (and whatever other details) to access your valuable content.

Landing Page With Gated Content

Your landing page will look something like the below. A pop up appears with copy describing the content, whether it is a PDF guide, video or whatever. The user inputs their name and address, and the site will store the details on your CMS that you can later export, or it will be a plugin that integrates with Mailchimp where it will auto populate into your mailing list.

Screenshot of lead gen content

Gated content that people find valuable is a good way to build a mailing list.

Now, you need to get people to the landing page. And when your site is new and nobody knows who you are, you need to get creative. The best way to get your link in front of people faces is social media. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to choosing a platform – it all depends on your product, your audience and you simply to have try a few things and see what works.

For example, if I sell business consulting, I am not going to get leads on Instagram. If I sell skateboards, LinkedIn groups aren’t going to help.

YouTube As Lead Generation Tool

For motorcycle products, it would make sense to make video about repairing a motorcycle part (or whatever). Sure you should create a PDF download, but using common sense, it seems more likely that this audience base will YouTube videos than look for something to read.

So you create your video, create a YouTube account and upload it. If people are searching for this kind on content, and you tag it correctly, and it the topic hasn’t been flooded with other videos already, people will find it and watch it.

Now you have two advantage here with YouTube:

  1. You can export subscribers details (it’s a hack but it’s possible).

2) You can include clickable links in the video itself, and you can ask your users to click through to your site, perhaps a landing page where they sign up for newsletter or other gated content.

LinkedIn As Lead Generation Tool

Let me say straight off: I have got more than 10,000 leads out of this alone. And it’s really pretty easy and often overlooked. If you provide professional services, this is likely your bread and butter.

The idea with this kind of content marketing is that you create articles on your site and share the post on your LinkedIn profile, company page or groups. People click the preview and arrive on your site. If they like it they might share it. The real benefit is that by creating content people like on LinkedIn, they might follow you, or if they like or comment, you can connect with them.

And when you connect, you can export their details including email address. A great, albeit long, way of building your connections is by creating a group page relevant to your niche. At first you have to invite people to it.

Once you post content regularly and get some engagement, more and more people will find it. You can’t actually export the members’ details, but you can add them as your own connections and then export. Here’s a good article on developing a LinkedIn lead generation strategy.

Update: You can no longer export contact emails in bulk following the GDPR mess. But you can still do it manually. Is it a lot of work? Yes. Is it still worth it? Definitely!  See below how to do it – just go onto your contact’s profile, click “See contact info”, and then you’ll see the email address.

Screenshot of LinkedIn email

Getting emails from your contacts on LinkedIn is a really easy way to build mailing list.


This is good for highly visual products like clothing, jewelry, décor etc. Share high quality images of your products and you’ll attract followers and they’ll click through toy our site. Once on your site you can prompt them to sign up for a newsletter, promo code etc.


For me this is difficult to get leads from. You can post content on your profile, your group page and other group pages. You can export emails of friends, but not groups. I have tried this with limited to no success. Facebook isn’t like LinkedIn, they don’t just accept friend requests without knowing you. Honestly, whilst I’d use Facebook to engage your audience, don’t expect it to be a lead generation tools.

Twitter As Lead Generation Tool

I personally feel Titter is a poor digital marketing tool unless you’re a major brand or celebrity. If I post content for one of my clients on LinkedIn I can get hundreds of likes; the same piece in Twitter will struggle to get 2 or 3. You can, however, export Twitter followers using certain tools which makes it worthwhile.

Create Newsletters As Lead Generation Tool

The idea is that people sign up to a newsletter on your site via a form or pop up form. The contacts are held on the CMS or you can integrate with an email platform like Mailchimp and they’ll automatically be added onto your mailing list.

This assumes that you have traffic coming in to your site via organic or search social media to actually sign up. These are great leads because they have clearly indicated an interest in your content, are in the market for your product/service and trust you. For newsletter content you can simply send them your latest posts.

Webinars As A Lead Generation Tool

Webinars are a really great way of getting leads. In my experience of using webinars for lead generation where I promote on social media and to mailing lists, 30 to 50% of all registrants are new. That’s crazy effective. If it’s a topic relevant to your target audience, and you post on social media, and its free, people will sign up because it’s very easy to do and there’s nothing to lose – even if they don’t actually attend. If you have an existing mailing list, it’s even better because people share these emails or tag others in the social media posts. For B2B products it’s easy to imagine a manager getting his/her team to sign up and that one registrant turns into 5 or 6 or more. This is highly effective. It’s also a wonderful way to engage deeply with your audience and you end up with the recording which serves as a high quality piece of content you can use down the line, and repurpose into editorial content.

Understand Your Quality Of Leads

Not all leads on a mailing list are equal. The quality can vary enormously depending on how you acquire the contact. If it is somebody who actively signs up for a piece of content on a gated landing page or for a newsletter, then these are great contacts and with enough of these you can build a real business. When you send emails to this group, a lot will open the emails and some will click through.

That’s active signs up who have proactively engaged with you. Passive contacts like those you export from social media platforms are not quite as valuable. If you post content on your LinkedIn profile or company page, and somebody likes it, then you add them as a connections, that means they like your content, but it doesn’t mean they have signed up for your sales emails.

It doesn’t mean they necessarily in the market for your product or service. They might be, but unlike the people who actively sign up for communications from you, they’re just not that engaged with you. They’re still worth having though – just remember that you import a whole load of these contacts into your mailing list, you will get unsubscribes, and your open rates will be lower. That’s not a problem (within reason!).

The best quality leads are those who have bought something from you. Make sure you keep a list of everyone who makes a purchase on your site.

Buying Mailing Lists

If you have ever run a site, you may have received unsolicited emails from companies selling mailing lists with the details of your competitor’s customers or subscribers. Under GDPR in EU countries, it is illegal to buy and sell mailing lists if the people on them haven’t expressly indicated their consent. In the USA, it is not illegal, despite what many people think. The CAN SPAM law that is meant to address this issue doesn’t, and nobody really knows what is legal and what isn’t.

Either way, buying mailing lists, whether digital or brick and mortar, can work well. And it cannot. It all depends on the service provider and the steps they took in acquiring the list. I know companies who have bought mailing lists in the past and it worked spectacularly, selling big ticket services. The emails you might receive in your inbox? Who knows. The ones I have seen offering me mailing lists of my competitors are apparently acquired by searching social media to identify people who have bought the same service I sell.

People at these companies search social media platforms for a specific product or service, see who is talking about it, and then scrape their details. The idea being that if they, for example, attend training from a competitor in your field, there’s a good chance they’ll attend yours. The method of lead gathering is legitimate, but is it going to work for you? You never know until you email them and find out what the open rates are.

The downsides to buying mailing is that they may have already been sold to marketers like you and the people on them already spammed. The users email severs know this and will block your emails to protect their users. The same goes for your email marketing platform like Mailchimp. You might also get unsubscribes and abuse reports.

Buying mailing lists is a dodgy, murky world and I have never bought lists because my clients don’t want to – the risk of wasting money and only finding out after the fact is not an attractive prospect. But will you face legal problems if you buy or sell a mailing list? If in Europe where GDPR has taken effect, in theory, yes, but it’s difficult to imagine who will find out, let alone prosecute you. In the USA it is a legal grey area but there’s no law specifying it is illegal. Make of that what you will.

Build Strategic Partnerships

On of the most effective ways to build mailing lists is to form alliances with people and companies who have them already. What companies will do is establish an arrangement to co-create and disseminate lead gen content. They will promote to their respective audiences (email marketing, press releases, promote on social etc.) and together reach a bigger audience than they could individually.

An example is a webinar. One party hosts it on their site, with a landing page that has a registration form. Both sides will promote the link to maximize them number of registrants. Once the webinar is done, the party hosting the webinar shares the contacts with the other party.

The same concept applies to different kinds of content like guides, research reports, etc. All marketing departments at all companies of a certain size actively look for other companies int heir space with a similar audience. They are complementary, rather than competitors, e.g. a business software firm and a business consultancy firm. The audience is broadly the same and by working together, both sides can benefit.

For small business owners, look for other companies in your niche that you don’t directly compete with, as well as online publications like blogs, trade magazines, podcasts etc. If the idea of creating a research report or hosting a webinar sounds too much, it could be as simple as agreeing to promote each others newsletter to your respective mailing lists.

This method is hugely powerful, and is the core of most digital marketing, as it can generate hundreds and even thousands of leads relatively easily. T’s basically a polite, above board way of trading email lists – and you can bet that some companies out there will directly trade (part of) their lists with each other.

My personal experience: I am in the middle of doing this with two companies – one initiative is a joint hosted webinar with the marketing team at a division of one of the biggest tech companies in the world, the other a joint research report with fairly small niche business publication. We’re getting close to delivering both assets for both initiatives – in both cases, it has taken about 8 months to get to this point. It has been slow to say the least.

Aligning on terms and conditions hasn’t been easy – there have been a lot of calls and emails and MOUs sent back and forth, and issues with the bigger company in terms of what the content of the webinar should be (educational vs. salesly). But we you get 500 qualified leads from the venture, it could all be worth it. Here’s some useful info about strategic partnerships for lead gen if I haven’t scared you off the idea. One thing I will say – both parties must be transparent, and absolutely commit to giving each other value for it to work.

Bottom line When It Comes To Building Mailing Lists

If you have no traffic, you must put valuable content it in front of your audience on social media and drive them to your site. If you have traffic, then you need subscriber forms offering valuable content in exchange for your details. It is laborious, but people do it because mailing lists are the backbone of any success business.