How to Build Your Email List Before You Launch Your Online Course

The other day I went to get my haircut. Now, I keep my hair short, so I go to the barbershop for a haircut because the exact same haircut would cost 3x as much at a salon—and I'm "frugal."

Anyway, I happened to be driving that day and I parked in a space that was dangerously close to a fire hydrant. Now, there was no yellow marking on the sidewalk announcing the likely possibility of being towed, so I figured it was cool.

Maybe the fire hydrant was now defunct? Maybe when fire hydrants get fired (get it) they strip the yellow paint from the concrete? It could happen!

But just as I hopped out of the car, I saw one of the barbers entering the shop and asked him if I could park there. He responded, “Well, you could park there. But you don’t really want to."

Image Credit: Donald via Flickr | Creative Commons

Image Credit: Donald via Flickr | Creative Commons

That’s exactly my response to creating your course without growing an email list. You could do it, but you don’t really want to.

In this article, you’ll learn why building your email list is so critical to your course’s success. You’ll also get three strategies for optimizing your website to capture more emails.

The Fundamentals of Profitable Online Courses

A successful and profitable online course comes down to three fundamental elements: audience/email list, content and marketing. Try to build your course without one of these three and your chances for long-term success go south.

By now you know I specialize on the content-side of things here on Zen Courses. But it’s time to help you with the other two also: growing your audience/ email list and marketing your online course.

Let’s start with growing your audience and email list. Because before you create your course, you have to have someone to create it for, right?

What's a warm Audience?

An audience is simply people who value what you have to offer. A warm audience is a group of people who value/need what you have to offer and have engaged with you in some way.

When people subscribe to your email list, they instantly warm to what you have to say. You get to know each other, which feels really good.

It takes time to build a warm audience. And it’s tempting to try to skip this step. The questions that usually hit my inbox are:

But Janelle, can I create a course without an audience?
But Janelle, can’t I just sell my course on a marketplace like Udemy?
But Janelle, do I really need to build an email list?

Technically, the answer is yes to all of them. But you don’t really want to do the first two. Let’s talk about why.

How Marketplaces Like Udemy Harm Your Success

One of my favorite podcasts is Unemployable by Brian Clark. A while back, he used one of the best terms I’ve ever heard to describe giving up ownership in exchange for the ease of building your content on someone else’s platform. He calls it “digital sharecropping.”

To understand this better, here’s a bit of backstory on what sharecropping is.

From 1870 until the 1950s, sharecropping was all the rage in the U.S. Basically, plantation owners realized they could get former slaves to do all the work on their land with only the promise of payment. The workers hustled their butts off for free and held on to their dream of a big payday. Of course, at the end of the year, the landowners would tally up the numbers and decide to pay the workers $1, $2—or nothing. Also, if they decided to sell their land, downsize, etc. the workers were plum out of luck because they didn’t own the means by which they got paid.

Crazy, right? But think about it, we’ve all done this in the past. MySpace? Facebook?

How does this apply to you?

Marketplaces like Udemy don’t let you keep your customers email address. Plus they take a nice percentage of your profits. So you do all the work and they prosper. You hustle to find customers and they keep your customer’s information so they can sell them other courses that compete with yours.

But don't take my word for it. Here's what I found on Quora the other day:

Why You Need an Email List

Here's three reasons:

  • Your email list is how you build a relationship with your audience.

  • Your email list is the best way to keep your audience up to date.

  • Your email list is the key to successfully selling your course.

If places like Udemy value emails so highly that they won’t share them, maybe we should value them too?

The great thing about email is that you have a list of people who are already engaged with you. They’re interested in what you have to say and they share your info with friends. And that, my friend, is gold when you’re out there hustling to make a dollar out of 15 cents. (That’s my only hip hop reference for the day. Promise. #djproblems)

When it’s time for you to host a webinar, validate your next course idea or sell your course, you need email addresses. Oh and, the more email subscribers you have, the higher your sales. That's because email converts 20 times more than social media. Usually around 2%.

2259 Email Subscribers and a five figure launch

For example, my fellow Fizzle member Alan Bondy recently shared his successful online course launch. Alan and his wife run an online yoga studio for bigger bodied women. Last week, he shared numbers with us.

To protect Alan's privacy, I won't share the exact numbers, but let's just say that he and his wife made well into five figures.

You're probably just as skeptical as I was. Another "I made quadrillion $$$ post?" But Alan seems like a standup guy, so I kept reading. That's when he shared the details:

Alan admitted that he and his wife had tons of glitches with technology. If you do the math, they converted less than 1% of their audience, but they still exceeded their sales goal. So, yeah, you need an email list. 

If you’re waiting for the perfect technology or moment to start your website and build your list, stop. Just pick a platform and get started.

I was just like you

For nearly the first six months of running Zen Courses, I didn’t spend a lot of time focused on growing my email list because I was busy running a business that I eventually shut down. Six. Friggin. Months. And I knew better! Luckily I got my act together early this year.

Don’t be like me. Share your light with as many people you can from the jump. Here are the 3 strategies I used to get my first 300 email subscribers once I got my life together.

Most people give you strategies that assume you’re getting a ton of traffic or have a ton of time to try a bunch of things. Not these. These strategies are all about optimizing your time. They're simple changes you can make to your website to start building your email list.

#1: Strategic Lead Magnets

This is the foundation for everything I do to build my audience. And it’s pretty simple: research the expensive problems your audience has and offer lead magnets to solve those problems.

By expensive problems, I mean things that take up a lot of time or money. By lead magnet, I mean a PDF, email course, or some other asset that offers value in exchange for your reader’s email address.

That’s really it. The key is to do your research by visiting online communities where your readers hang out. If you don’t know where these places are, here are a few of things you can do:

  • Use BuzzSumo to search for your topic’s key terms and see what comes up

  • Take those key terms and search for them in Twitter. This will give you context. How are people talking about these terms? Who are the people who mention them? What other sites do they follow?

  • When people opt-in to your email list, ask them 1) what their biggest problem with [topic] is and 2) where they currently go to get solutions for [topic]?

  • If none of that works, join a membership community or forum for your topic. Read-listen, ask questions, offer value.

Once you have insight into your audience’s problems, you’re ready to try one of the next two strategies.

#2: The Welcome Gate

Andrew Warner from Mixergy was the first person I saw use this years ago. Then I saw a couple other people use it and decided to see if I could create it here on Zen Courses.

But what if you don’t get a tonne of traffic to your site? How can you make the most of the traffic you do get?

Give readers one call to action that solves a specific pain point. That’s the essence of the welcome gate. Here’s what it looks like:

This welcome gate strategy converted 51 percent of visitors into subscribers. Here's a screenshot of my Leadpages stats:

And here are the steps to implement this on your site:

  1. Research common problems your audience has.

  2. Make a list of the top 5 and pick one.

  3. Create a 1 page download that gives solutions to this problem.

  4. Now, grab a large hi-res photo (mine was about 1500 px wide)

  5. Create a page that uses the photo as a background.

  6. Optional: Add an overlay of color to dim the photo just a tad.

  7. Add a compelling headline. Questions work great. The question should speak to the problem.

  8. Finally, add a button to the page. It should hit above the fold of the browser so people don’t have to scroll.

  9. Link the button to a Leadbox (using Leadpages or another platform you choose to deliver your opt-in downloads).

  10. Add a second button that gives them the option to reject your offer and visit your site.

#3: The Upside Down Homepage

A month after using the welcome gate, I decided there was a problem. What if people don’t want this ONE thing? They’ll leave forever and never sign up, that's what.

If you’re in the same boat, you could be losing out on growing your email list and building relationships with your readers by not offering multiple value-based opt-ins. Luckily, the Upside Down Hompage, created by Bryan Harris over at Videofruit, is the solution.

Basically, you keep the image and opt-in button above the fold, but then you add social proof and additional lead magnets that solve problems your readers have. It’s like Choose Your Adventure for blogging!

For example, you've seen this on the current Zen Courses homepage. Brennan Dunn also uses the Upside Down Homepage on  

Here are the steps to take to implement this on your site:

  1. Research common problems your audience has.

  2. Make a list of the top 3.

  3. Create a 1 page download for each one that offers a solution to each problem.

  4. Follow steps 4 - 8 above.

  5. Add social proof logos from anywhere your work has been featured.

  6. Add three calls to action that solve specific problems your audience has.

  7. Optional: add a popular article or story below your three calls to action.

  8. Add a call to action at the end of the article.

  9. Move your navigation from the top of your homepage to the bottom, just after the article.

  10. Link each button to a Leadbox so you can see how well each one performs.

What Else?

If I had to list one bonus strategy, it would be content upgrades. You’ve probably heard about these lately. They seem new, but here’s the secret: you’ve already seen content upgrades if you’ve read (or written) a good guest post.

If you write a guest post, you don’t want to just put your name and link to your website at the end. Nobody clicks on that. Plus, you worked hard, dang it—you should get some subscribers!

So what do you do?

You think about what's valuable for the readers of that blog, create an offer for them, and place a clear call to action at the end of your guest post with a link to your offer in exchange for their email address. They get value and you get a new subscriber.

A content upgrade is the exact same strategy but applied to your own blog posts, with a slight tweak.

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