How to successfully encourage newsletter signup with good design

Paul Boag

Okay I admit it, this is a pet peeve. I have written about it before, twice. But come on people. We can do better with our newsletter signup forms. In fact I can prove it with the form on this site.

I'm sick of newsletter signup forms. Company so desperate to get my email address that they will resort to anything. Any annoying technique in the hope of extracting it from me. Irritating overlays you can't close. Manipulative wording designed to badger you into signing up. The list goes on.

I wish I could say these techniques don't work. But they do. If you annoy people enough a significant percentage will do what you want them to do. But at what cost? For every one person who signs up to your newsletter, you alienate another 10. This is not good for either the user or your business.

Overlays and manipulative text alienates more users than you win over.

It is also unnecessary. Take for example my own mailing list. On a relatively low level of traffic I have been able to grow a mailing list of over 8000 subscribers. A listed grows by 40 or 50 people per week. A list with a low unsubscribe rate.

All this has been possible with nothing more than good design, well-written copy and a bit of common sense! What is more it has resulted in an engage subscriber base. My open and click through rates are double what you would expect from comparable lists.

To prove how easy it is to build a mailing list without annoying users, I want to analyse my approach. It begins with a very simple question – "what value does my mailing list provide users?"

What value do you provide?

Users are not stupid. They know that by signing up for a newsletter they are providing you with something of value. They understand the value of their email address. So what are you giving them in return?

Many think that offering a discount is an incentive for users to sign up. In truth this is rarely the case. Users see discounts for what they are, a means to encourage them to buy. Discounts offer no real value in themselves.

A discount also sends the wrong message. It is saying that the newsletter offers no value in itself, so it is necessary to bribe people to sign up. Even if users do sign up to get the discount, your unsubscribe rates will be high. There is no reason to remain subscribed once they have the discount.

A good newsletter provides long term, ongoing value. It should meet a need users have. In my case that need is the desire to improve oneself. Psychologists call this self actualisation. Something found in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. I offer to help people to become user experience experts.

Ask yourself what need are you meeting? What value are you providing to users who subscribe?

In fact, most newsletters should focus on some form of education. Whether that is helping users select the best product for them or teaching them a new skill. A newsletter should inform and not only sell. You need to reflect this in how you ask people to sign up.

Balance features and benefits to improve newsletter signup

Often when I see newsletter signup forms the copy does nothing to sell the newsletter. Many times it says nothing more than "sign up for our newsletter". Occasionally the copy will go on to say what the newsletter contains, but even this is not enough.

If you want people to subscribe to your newsletter you need to make the benefits clear to them. I do this through the headline "become an expert in user experience with my newsletter". This makes it clear what the newsletter will do for the reader.

But be careful. It is not enough to focus on benefits. Users will also want to know how the newsletter is going to deliver. In other words you need to emphasise the features of your newsletter too.

I do this through the paragraph that appears below my title. In this I say users will receive advice on "improving their digital strategy, evolving their web presence and meeting the needs of connected consumers".

The copy associated with my newsletter signup form outlines what
benefits and features the user will get.

This same copy also serves another role.

Address user concerns

Signing up for a newsletter carries with it certain risks. Users worry you might spam them or that you will make it difficult to unsubscribe. If you want people to sign up to your newsletter you need to address these concerns.

My copy addresses these concerns. I explain I will only email people once every two weeks and that they can unsubscribe with a single click. Finally, I also reassure the user that I will never pass on their email address to anybody else.

Objection handling is a key component in getting people to do anything. It is not something that you should skip because you are desperate to persuade people to click.

With the copy optimised we can turn our attention to picking the right moment.

Pick your moment

In our desperation to get people to sign up we rarely consider their feelings. The moment they arrive on our website we pounce on them. We greet users with overlays, glaring calls to action and distraction.

Instead we need to pick our moment. We need to think about when it makes most sense to ask them to signup. For example, there is little point me asking you to signup to my newsletter the moment you arrived on this post. You probably don't know much about me. You don't know if I offer good advice. Advice worth handing over your email address for.

So instead I place my newsletter signup at the bottom of my posts. This means you have a chance to read what I have to say and make a judgement about me.

I place my newsletter signup at the bottom of each post. This is because that is what makes the most sense in the context of the users journey.

Of course I know that not all users are the same. That some will have read my content before and came to the site to signup. That is why I also provide a subscribe link in the main navigation. That way I hedge my bets, so to speak.

But you will notice something else. The signup form is on every page of the website. Again, this is because I know my users. I know that most will come to an individual blog post via Google or social media. In other words they will only see a single page. I cannot rely on them to visit the homepage to see my newsletter signup.

I am amazed at how many sites only have a call to action on their homepage. In a world of search and social, people rarely arrive on your homepage. In fact many will never see it at all. Look at your analytics and find out where your newsletter signup is best placed. Like my site, you may conclude you need it on every page. This is especially true if like me it is your primary call to action.

Look at your analytics to learn where you should place your newsletter signup form. In my case, a high bounce rate and only 8% of traffic on any one page, I needed it everywhere.

Of course, having a call to action on every page is meaningless if nobody spots it.

Get the design right

They tell us that size isn't everything but when it comes to calls to action it is pretty damn important! So many important calls to action get overshadowed by navigation and even content. At the end of the day your website exists to encourage people to take action. You need to make sure your newsletter signup stands out and size is one way.

That is why I don't hide my newsletter signup form under a link or button. Instead I make it big and bold. I know it seems crass but it works. But there is another reason for this too. The size gives me space to make my pitch. When all you have is a link or a button, you cannot sell the action.

But be careful. Don't let all this space go to your head. It is tempting to start adding in extra fields. That or making things complicated. In fact I have fallen into this trap. While writing this post I realised my signup form asks for the users last name. This despite the fact I never use the last name. Why then do I ask people for it? Because I blindly copied and pasted from the Mailchimp form. I didn't stop to ask myself whether I needed the user to fill it out.

Make sure you don't make my mistake. Avoid adding fields you don't actually use.

Instead we need to challenge every element we add to our newsletter signup form. Not only form fields, but every word. It has to be as simple as possible, while still doing its job of encouraging people to signup.

But all this hard work can be for nothing if we don't think about what happens when somebody clicks.

Sweat the whole process

I have put as much thought into the process people go through when they click as I did for the signup form itself. Calls to action are rarely a one-off interaction. Instead they ask users to complete more than one step. In the case of my newsletter signup I need them to confirm their email address. To confirm they want me to add them to my mailing list.

Take the time to think through what could go wrong at this stage in your process. In my case two things could happen.

First, the user might not realise they have to confirm their email address. To avoid this problem I take them to a custom page immediately after submitting the form. On this page I explain why it is necessary.

Bend over backwards to make the entire signup process as painless as possible.

Second, they might not receive the confirmation email for whatever reason. That is why on the post signup page I encourage people to contact me if they do not receive the email. I would prefer to add them myself than lose that subscriber.

But even that is not the end of the process. There is one final important thing to consider. I have to deliver on the promises that I have made. To get somebody to sign up I have told them I will help them become an expert in user experience. I have to deliver on this promise. I cannot get away with spamming them with shameless self-promotion or push my agenda. If I do people will unsubscribe as fast as I can encourage new people to sign up. All my hard work will be for nothing.

In other words, you have to deliver. The best way to grow your mailing list is to consistently provide value to your subscribers. Not only will this prevent people unsubscribing it will also lead to recommendation. So spend less time trying to grab people's attention. Instead put more effort into producing quality content.