When you’re looking to launch an online business, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of overthinking everything.
You read blog posts.
You listen to podcasts.
You go back and forth on “picking a niche.”
Then, at some point in your journey, you might be relieved to discover the minimum viable audience approach to building a business.
With the MVA approach, you build an email list around a certain topic, ask your subscribers about their problems, and they tell you what they would pay for.
The only question: how do you actually start building that email list?
Never mind getting 400,000 subscribers. How should you go about getting your first 100 subscribers?
How Paid Advertising Can Accelerate Your List Building (and Prevent You from Quitting)
Here’s what nobody tells you about building a list:
When you’re just starting out, morale is super important. It’s not just about the tactics. Psychologically, you need some early wins.
That’s why, in this guide, I’m going to assume that:
- You don’t want to blog to an audience of 3 readers for months before you start making sales.
- You understand the benefits of building an email list … and how a list can let you pre-sell products before they exist.
- You can comfortably invest $200 in building your list.
If you follow these steps, 30 days from now, you WILL have your own email list (and soon, business).
Side note: If $200 would make a significant dent in your lifestyle, then I don’t recommend starting with paid ads. Other methods like guest blogging can work—they’ll usually just take longer.
On the flip side, most people could sell stuff in their closet on eBay for an extra $200. Also worth noting: opening a Subway franchise business would cost you around $100,000 (with no guarantee that that would work). Paid ads are just one way to get your first 100 subscribers and shorten your time to having your own audience.
With all of that out of the way, let’s jump into the steps.
We’re going to be using Drip to build our email list, so now’s a great time to…
Step #1: Choose a Killer Topic for Your Email Mini Course
If you haven’t yet chosen a market to go into, I won’t be covering that here.
Luckily, Bryan Harris from Videofruit has a great course that walks you step-by-step through how to decide.
It’s (aptly) named Decide Already.
And it will help you do just that.
Once you’ve chosen a niche, the next step is to create your killer email course.
There are a few reasons why we’ll use an email course to attract subscribers, as opposed to a free ebook or report.
- You won’t need to hire a designer for an ebook PDF.
- You’ll actually get real, personal email addresses instead of “throwaway” emails that many people use to get one-off PDFs. (If subscribers give you a throwaway address, how would they consume each lesson in the course?)
- You can drip out email lessons over five days, so subscribers get familiar with you showing up in their inbox.
The only question is…
What topic should you choose for your email course?
To choose a topic, I recommend you look at what content is already popular in your market.
As an example, let’s say I’m interested in the paleo diet. To find a topic for my email course, I want to find paleo-related content that’s already proven to get shared.
And that means I’m going to hit up BuzzSumo.
BuzzSumo (even on the free plan) will show me the most shared content for a given topic, including the paleo diet.
Below is the most shared content over the past 12 months on the topic “paleo”:
Basically, I’m looking for patterns here.
What content do paleo readers like to share?
Just from a quick glance, you’ll see that the top six most-shared pieces of content are all recipes. That’s a good angle for a lead magnet.
Even better, it looks like most of the top posts are paleo dessert recipes.
Boom. Now I’ve got my angle for an email course.
I could create an email course sharing a different paleo dessert recipe each day, e.g. 5 Days of Healthy, Delicious Paleo Desserts.
To set that up, I’m going to browse Drip’s done-for-you sequence templates, and choose the 5-Day Mini Course blueprint.
Obviously, I’m going to fill in the blanks in these emails, and give credit to any recipes I’m linking to.
And that brings me to an important point. If you don’t have your own content to share, you can always curate content. Be the journalist or reporter in your niche. Content curation keeps the pressure off you, and lets you fill your drip campaign with value as quickly as possible.
Don’t overthink this step. Keep it stupidly simple.
Once I’ve filled out my email course, the next step is creating an ad to get subscribers…
Step #2: Create a Targeted Ad Campaign to Find Your Ideal Subscribers
Technically, you can create an ad to build your list on any ad network you want.
I’m going to use Facebook ads, for reasons I’ll explain in a second.
But if you do decide to try a different ad network, many of the major platforms will throw you a free $50 (or more) in ad credits, just for trying out their platform. Take advantage of this.
Here are a few links to check out:
- Google AdWords: Free $75 when you spend $25
- LinkedIn ads: Free $50 in sponsored updates
- Bing ads: Free $50 ad credit, no strings attached
Here’s an epic guide with links to even more free ad credit promotions:
For this example, let’s jump into Facebook ads.
One advantage of Facebook is that you get the best interest targeting options of any ad platform, hands down.
In the paleo market, I can drill down and target people who are interested in paleo blogs like Robb Wolf and The Paleo Mom.
It’s hard to match Facebook’s targeting power.
If I dig a little deeper and click “Narrow audience,” I can get a targeted audience of people who are interested in both Robb Wolf and The Paleo Mom. Note: this is different than Facebook’s default targeting, which combines people who “match at least one” of your interests.
For our goal of 100 subscribers, we’re not worried about scale just yet. We just want a super defined audience, where every single person seeing our ad will at least stop and pay attention.
In our example, I can see that there are 33,000 people in the US between the ages of 35 of 50 who read both Paleo Magazine and Paleo Grubs. Every single person in this audience is interested in paleo. An audience size between 20,000 and 30,000 is the sweet spot for our campaign.
Another benefit of Facebook ads is that you don’t need a website or landing page to build your list.
With Facebook Lead Ads, you can collect opt-ins right inside of Facebook, and send them straight to your email marketing tool.
When you’re getting started, this eliminates a lot of obstacles to driving traffic:
- “I haven’t chosen a domain yet.”
- “I still need to write my About page.”
- “I need to find a better theme for my blog.”
With Lead Ads, I’m going to build my ad and immediately start collecting opt-ins.
Plus, in our tests and the tests of other marketers, Lead Ads are often cheaper than other Facebook ad formats.
That’s because Lead Ads were designed for smartphones, where Facebook traffic is growing at an insane rate. In February 2017, Facebook announced that its mobile daily active users grew by 23% in 2016 alone–continuing a long trend in mobile traffic growth.
That’s a lot of mobile ad inventory that Facebook needs to sell.
I’m going to build a Lead Ad targeting our audience on mobile only, as our best bet to keep traffic cheap and hit our goal of $2 per lead. With a mobile-only campaign and an irresistible course topic, this is totally doable.
Here’s how to set up your leads campaign.
Create a New Facebook Campaign with the “Lead Generation” Objective
Add Copy and Creative to Entice People to Join Your Email Course
Next, connect your Lead Ad with your email marketing tool. If you’re a Drip user, here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do that.
At this point, I’ll want to sync my Facebook Lead Ad to a Drip workflow, so that I can automatically add people into my email course (and send them what I promised).
I highly recommend automating this process, so you don’t have to download a .csv of your leads or import subscribers into your email tool.
Note: Facebook will nudge you to “connect your form to a CRM” after you create your Lead Ad. There are standalone tools that will integrate Facebook Lead Ads to most email tools, but Drip integrates with Lead Ads for free, so you don’t have to worry about paying just to sync your leads.
Step #3: Optimize and Prioritize Your Email List Growth
If you’ve previously struggled to get subscribers, then getting your first 100 opt-ins will be super exciting.
Even if you pay more than $2 per lead, that’s OK. If you put together a bonus resource or video, you can ask subscribers to share your content with their friends to get referred subscribers—the best kind—for free. Coupled with some other free “viral” marketing tactics I’ll share in a second, that should give you enough wiggle room to hit 100 subscribers in no time.
As far as next steps, there are a few things you can focus on. If you’re a Drip user, be sure to check out your Subscriber Growth report to track your progress.
Note: Drip generates this report for every user automatically.
Pro Tip: Consider installing the Chrome extension List Goal. This extension reminds you of the list-growth goal you’ve set every time you open a new tab to keep your eye on the prize.
And if you haven’t yet built a landing page for your mini course, you’ll want to do that now.
This will let you drive traffic from several channels to your landing page—and see which channels give you the lowest cost per subscriber.
Here are some ideas to keep your momentum going:
- Add a link to join your email list in your personal email signature.
- Add a Click to Tweet link at the bottom of every mini course lesson, so readers can easily share your course.
- Guest post on relevant blogs, linking to your mini course in your author bio.
- Email each new reader personally and ask them to share the mini course with one friend if they found it helpful.
- Test new, cheaper traffic sources like Instagram, Quora ads, and Gmail ads.
Ultimately, you want to test a bunch of channels and track your ROI, so you know where to invest more money (or time).
For my paleo list, I’d set up a simple spreadsheet to track subscriber growth from different channels. Like this.
Side note: I can guarantee your competition is not doing this. Tracking your ROI will give you an unfair advantage, because you’ll know the exact channels that are giving you the best cost per lead.
If you track your time, you might find—as Ahrefs CEO Tim Soulo concluded in 2016—that the ROI on guest posting isn’t great. Or maybe guest posting will be your biggest growth channel. You won’t know until you track it.
As for all your new subscribers…
Depending on how far along you are in your business, you may or may not have a product and a sales process in place.
Either way, it’s a good idea to survey your list and learn more about their problems.
We’ve written before about adding market research emails into your workflows. Below is a solid template you can add to the end of your email course to keep the conversation going.
Hi ** NAME **,
I wanted to write you a quick note to say how much I appreciate having you as a reader.
In an effort to better understand my readers (and create more useful content), I would love to get your feedback and understand your challenges around ** TOPIC **.
I’m curious, would you be open to hopping on Skype for a 15-minute call sometime this month? And as a thank-you for giving me your feedback, I’d be happy to answer any questions you have around my area expertise, which is ** YOUR AREA OF EXPERTISE **.
Let me know if you’d be up for a call. No sweat if you don’t have time.
** YOUR NAME **
(Hat tip to Jonathan Stark from Expensive Problem for the inspiring this template.)
If you’re just getting started, a few interviews asking the right questions will give you a ton of product ideas.
And if you need help launching, grab our launch sequence templates to help you collect pre-sales for a product before it exists.
With a few hundred bucks and a couple months of work, you can go from zero subscribers to a list of beta customers sending you money via Paypal for your first product.
Build Your Minimum Viable Audience and Launch Your Business with Drip
According to Moz founder Rand Fishkin, there’s a trap that many new businesses fall into. He calls it: “The Spike of Hope, then the Flatline of Nope.”
In other words, if you don’t rank at the top of Google, in most cases your posts will flatline after an initial traffic spike. And that’s assuming you have enough reach to get a spike at all.
While paid advertising isn’t the only way to get 100 subscribers, it’s the fastest way I know of to get opt-ins fast, get some early wins, and start learning what products your market wants you to create.
And you don’t even need a website to do it.
Drip’s Starter Plan is forever-free for your first 100 subscribers, and I’d love to see you start building your list (and business) with Drip.
So if you’re ready to get started, now’s a great time to…