For startups and small businesses that self-fund / bootstrap everything. Not for big-budget businesses.

❌ Do not give away an ebook.

❌ Do not spend money on subscribers from Meta or LinkedIn.

✅ Borrow other people’s lists.

✅ Use a smart lead-gen tool / pop-up on your site.

Circa Feb 2018, Copyhackers did a webinar with ConvertKit on how to write emails that convert.

Copyhackers built / owned the webinar sign-up page and integrated it with our email marketing platform so registrants went straight to our list. As a result, every person who signed up for the webinar was a person we could:

  1. Add to our list (with double opt-in),
  2. Nurture so they actually showed up for our webinar and
  3. Continue connecting with – or selling to – after the webinar ended.

With that one partner webinar, we grew our list by more than 2,300 subscribers in a couple of days.

No, sadly, I don’t have a screenshot of that because we’ve since moved from ConvertKit to ActiveCampaign. I’m sure I fired a screenshot over to Ry Schwartz and my team when the numbers came in for those tagged #convertkit. But that is one of a million files named “screenshot” in my drive, so you’ll just have to trust me on that one.

Less than a month later, we promoted Copy School to our list, including those 2,300 new leads.

That was our first seven-figure Copy School promo / launch.

This is a blog post about how we’ve grown our list – which is currently at 85,450 “contacts” or email addresses, ~32,000 of which open our emails regularly. Which, to me, means our list is ~32,000 people. (We practice really aggressive list hygiene, but even still some disengaged folks stick around.)

Screenshot of contacts in AC
Contacts in ActiveCampaign

More importantly this post is about how we’ve failed to grow our list.

After all, 12 years into this CH business, I feel like we should maybe have more than 32,000 engaged-ish subscribers.

So I decided to write this post to lead with the things we’re not doing anymore because they don’t work and they’re expensive. These are the things Matt Lerner would call “sevens.”

And then I’ll share the things that work great, or what would earn a 9 or 10 (versus a 7).

Things that have not worked for us.

1. Facebook ads. LinkedIn leads. <– expensive

They’re expensive. They don’t actually double opt-in subscribers to your list. And your so-called leads don’t necessarily know who you are, what your brand name is, what you offer – any of it.

What freaks me out about lead-gen on social ad platforms is this whole “one click” lead-gen idea.

Here’s how a one-click lead arrives on your list:

  1. A person on X social network clicks a link / button on an ad – that is, on a completely different platform from yours – and
  2. via a series of integrations,
  3. they show up on your contact list.

Magical, right? One-click, friction-free lead-gen.


You then have to get them to double opt-in. Which they rarely do.

Which means they’re a bad lead.


You absolutely NEED to use double opt-in. That’s the act of getting subscribers to *confirm* they want to get emails from you. They can confirm by:

  1. Clicking a link in your email, which instantly tells your CSM / marketing tool that it’s now okay to send them emails, or
  2. Replying to your welcome email, where you’d then set up rules to move them onto a safe list or tag them as opted in.

Because there’s this extra layer of friction in getting that lead, marketers HATE double opt in.

But it’s the layer of friction you need. It’s the confirmation that, yes, Jo, you can email me.

Ensure you’ve got good email addresses, sans typosCut your list size in half or more because new subscribers don’t confirm
Ensure you’ve got a real person on your list, not just whatever email address
Ensure your new subscriber is actually using an email address they check, not some throwaway
Reduce likelihood of being called spam
Improve your deliverability scores thanks to all of the above
Good marketers love double opt in.


Bad leads are more likely to bring down your email sender reputation because, by not confirming they want to get emails from you, they tend to, well, not want to get emails from you. And here’s the thing: your sender reputation score gets negatively impacted when:

  • Subscribers don’t open emails from you, which tells ISPs you’re a bad sender
  • Subscribers mark you as spam (which happens if you keep showing up in their inbox uninvited)
  • They unsubscribe fast, which tells ISPs you’re a bad sender

And the more this happens, the worse your reputation gets. Which makes it nearly impossible to actually use your list. And you have to go through this whole re-engagement, re-activation effort with new list hygiene rules in place. So yeah — just do double opt-in out of the gate, and you’re safe(r).

So if all that is true…

Why do businesses spend money acquiring one-click leads on social platforms?

In my experience: Facebook ad managers / coordinators, media buyers, agencies – they love to say you should use Facebook (sorry Meta ugh) ads to build your list.

It’s one click. And voila! They’re on your list. Except, as we’ve already covered, they’re not really.

Technically yes, you’ve added a new email address to your list.

But this is not a good lead. This is a step up from a cold lead. Barely a step up.

The reason you’re being told you should use this – no let me rephrase: the reason you’re being PRESSURED to use social ads for one-click list-building is because it’s easy for that coordinator, buyer or agency to measure and “prove” that the ads are working.

“See? We added 100 leads to your list last week.”

And then? Then it’s all on your EMAILS to convert them.

Which would be fine.

IF your emails were being sent to good leads.

Which they’re not. As we’ve already covered.

All you’ve done is pay (very good money) to buy leads that 1) don’t care (bad lead), 2) said yes to something free on Instagram (bad lead), 3) haven’t actively opted in (bad lead) and 4) may have NO CLUE who your brand is or what that sender is in their inbox – “looks like spam” *hits spam button* *loves hitting buttons, hates reading* – (BAD LEAD) only to push that crappy-ass lead along to your Email Marketing Department… aka one person with coordinator status who’s like life is too short.

(BTW, this is why Boxcar exists and why our clients get addicted to it.)

Don’t. Give. Meta. Money. For. Shitty. Leads.

You’ll just keeping giving them money. And it’ll stress you out.

Instead, try putting that ad budget into converting the leads on your list before you throw more money at Meta (a company that’s really bad with its own money so prolly doesn’t respect yours and that’s not so good to its people year after year while you’re busy trying to make money so you can treat your people even better).

List size is not the point. List quality is. Yes you know this but you keep forgetting, so I highlighted it for you.

2. Free ebooks.

Basically free anything is bad for quality list growth.

Now this point is not universally true. We’ve worked with clients – like Launch Darkly – to give away good lead magnets that bring in really healthy leads that convert into massive contracts. Giving away a Forrester report, for example, is generally going to be a safe bet if you’re trying to attract SVPs with budget.

(BUT selling that same Forrester report could bring in just as many great leads, just as fast.)

What I’m talking about here is the general recommendation shared in 99.9999% of “build your list” webinars, targeted at small online businesses and startups, that insist you should:

Now these are not universally horrible ideas. Not at all. They can work in combination with a healthy Meta ad budget. Or they can work if you’re sharing something brand-new with an audience that’s absolutely perfectly primed for that new something.

But here’s the thing:

If you’re not using paid ads (see point 1 above), then you’re likely depending on promoting that lead magnet to visitors to your website and/or on social media (in your link in bio). And I hate to break it to you, but unless you’re mega big – which you’re not ‘cos again we’re talking about small online businesses and startups – it’s okay we’re in the same boat! – you do not have a lot of traffic coming to your site.

You’ve got drips of traffic.

You put together a whole ebook… to give away free… to drips of traffic.


According to LeadPages, the average conversion rate for a lead magnet on a dedicated email opt-in landing page is between 5 and 15%. And again:

  1. That’s on a dedicated email opt-in landing page (typically used for ads; rarely a natural landing point on a website; definitely nowhere near the traffic a home page or blog post gets on your SMB site), and
  2. It’s reported by LeadPages, a company that is hardly unbiased in its reporting on the effectiveness of lead magnets and lead pages. No shade to LeadPages! We use it and love the people. But the bias is there.


If it takes you 100+ hours to write an ebook…

and then you give it away for $0…

to the 100 people visiting your site on any given day (with a fraction of that on weekends)…

only to have MAYBE 5 visitors opt in for it a day…

then you’re lucky to be growing your list by 150 people a month.

With an ebook.

Which you spent 100+ [billable] hours writing.

Let’s pretend you can stomach that ridiculous use of a good month of lost productivity.

First problem with the “just give away an ebook” strategy is:

Getting new leads to read your ebook. Fun fact: I love the Harry Potter series. Fun fact: I haven’t finished reading it. Which means… I have books I’ve PAID for and know I will ENJOY that I haven’t prioritized reading in the last two decades. That FREE ebook filled with WORK I have to do? Ummmm definitely not high on my nighttime reading list.

And if you never intended for subscribers to read the ebook – if that doesn’t matter to you – then why did you write an ebook? You could’ve repurposed *anything* you already had if all you were looking for was a lead magnet. You could pop together an SOP based on how you get good work done and kill it.

And the second problem is:

Converting those 150 subscribers in a month.

We’ve seen this pretty universally at our agency: engagement drops off after Day 3 or Day 4 of a subscriber’s life. So it doesn’t matter how many people you add to your list in a month. The email calendar works on days, not weeks or months. Most / All leads will give you a max of 4 days before they cool waaaay down.

Gif from Friends: "Chappy's heart rate has slowed way down."

And even if you have a super long sales cycle, the fact is that nobody signs up for your list hoping to solve their problem in 4, 6 or 18 months. Yes, you may have a long sales cycle. But *some* people could be engaged to the point of buying / booking a demo / etc much sooner, you have to admit.

So in those first days of grace, email new subscribers like so:

  • Day 0: Sign up day! A good lead is a hot lead in this stage – open to persuasion. Send at least one great email. Ideally send two.
  • Day 1: The lead is still warm, but distractions in life mean they may a) not care as much or b) be more fatigued by their problems than they were yesterday. Send at least one great email.
  • Day 2: Engagement is now half of what it was on Day 0. You are going to lose this lead soon. Send at least one great email.
  • Day 3 and 4: Technically, this is where your re-engagement campaign should kick in, trying to recreate a Day 0 engagement experience (as covered in Copy School) by giving them a new offer they can easily say yes to, like a webinar or a very topical paid product (i.e., paid ebooks go here).

Your ebook is supposed to be sitting on their kindle (rare) or desktop (common), drawing their attention. But if it has not… and if 4 days have passed since they downloaded it… well, now the chances of engaging them are insanely low.

As in, those 5 people who download your free ebook TODAY…

but who do not read it…

are FOUR DAYS away from becoming cold leads.

Now what if, instead of giving away that ebook, you sold it?

You would convert fewer people. But the ones you converted would be ACTUAL leads – people who are now starting to get in the habit of giving you money in exchange for value on a subject of your brand’s expertise. Actually scratch that – they aren’t just leads now. They’re actual customers.

*You can grow your list well with actual paying customers.*

A lead does not always have to be lured in with the most magical free bait.

And back to the main point here:

To get the volume of traffic you’d need for a free ebook to be a good lead magnet… you would have to use paid ads. Which brings us back to point #1 on this what-not-to-do list.

Now let’s move on to the what-to-do list. Because it’s not all bad news.

Things that have worked for us.

Dare I say the first item here is THE thing that works for *everyone* who’s grown their list in any real way:

1. Borrow someone else’s list.

‘Member how we quickly grew our list by 2,300 new subscribers a couple years back?

We had partnered with ConvertKit. We’d created an offer that was a great match for their list… and then we’d sent that offer, in an email, to their list. And then we’d filed those webinar registrants directly onto our list at sign up, where they had to double opt-in to receive the webinar details. That’s how you do it.

And notice how summits always get their speakers to email their lists about the summit?

Or the podcast you’re on pings you when your episode goes live, so you’ll share it with your list?

👉 If you want a seven-figure launch like Amy Porterfield’s Digital Course Academy has had… you partner with a big course platform like Kajabi so they’ll email their list about your course…

👉 If you want an eight-figure launch like Marie Forleo’s B School has had… you set up a bunch of affiliates and reward them so they’ll email their list about your course…

👉 If you want freemium users for your SaaS like Nathan Barry wanted for ConvertKit in its early days… you partner with a super-affiliate like Pat Flynn so they’ll email their list about your SaaS…

To grow your list, borrow someone else’s.

Borrow lots of people’s lists.

❌ Do not write an ebook and put it on your ghost-town website behind a two-field form.

❌ Do not spend your profits before you even make them so billionaires and a bunch of sh*tty media buying / ad agencies can pretend to be busy doing anything other than plainly burning your money.

✅ Make a list of brands that have the audience you want, and instead of spending 100+ hrs writing an ebook or $10,000+ on ads… create a high-value content asset for them to share with their audience, pitch them like it’s your freaking job (it is)… and then be sure to drive people from their list to YOUR lead-gen page and onto YOUR list.

Note that we’ve also had success with borrowed list growth with a free ecourse we did with HubSpot and a paid course we did with LinkedIn Learning. We also saw lead-gen success with free ebooks we did with partners Unbounce, LeadPages and GetResponse. But the BEST outcome has come from the process I laid out above:

  1. Set up registration page
  2. Connect it to your email platform / CRM
  3. Have partner send email to their list, linking to your registration page
  4. Ensure new subscribers / registrants double opt-in

If the partner collects the email addresses and sends you the CSV, that’s not so good because:

  • Those subscribers have cooled since the start of the promo / when they first signed up,
  • Those subscribers have likely forgotten your name since that initial sign up and
  • You have to put them through the whole double opt-in process now… which is not going to be great given the previous two bullets.

2. Put a clever exit-intent pop-up across the website.

Remember when everyone used + hated pop-ups circa 2015?

That’s when Bounce Exchange – now called i think something like Wunderkind, after many rebrands – first entered ye olde scene with pop-ups that looked like this:

A typical opt-out pop-up from BX.

Importantly, the Bounce Exchange pop-up introduced something new to the pop-up world, and that something was *huge* for conversions:

The opt OUT button.

I freaking loved that button. We saw such list growth with it, we wrote this whole post about it and I spoke on a bajillion (or like three) stages about it, even as all the marketers said _stop doing this people hate this_.

Here’s one of the many pop-ups that worked well for our list growth:

One of the pop-ups from Copyhackers in the past.

You’ll notice the lead magnet is… an ebook.

Ahem. That after all my insisting that you not use an ebook.

We used an ebook for lead gen because:

  1. We already had that ebook ready to go, just sitting on a digital shelf.
  2. The pop-up across the site meant we captured more eyes across the site (vs what most small businesses do when giving away ebooks, which is add a tiny non-optimized lead-gen box to some rando page on their site).

But back to the point:

Here’s how our list grew with that two-button pop-up across

Graph showing performance spike in list growth when BX added to Copyhackers. Starts in Oct 2014.
Note that we took this screenshot in mid-April 2015, which is why the bar height drops and the graph ends there.

I remember that, after we published the post about the results we were seeing, I was on a call with Noah Kagan (as AppSumo was just starting to build some of its suite of tools). He was doing audience research and asked me what it would take for me to leave Bounce Exchange. And I confessed that the tool was *so good* that 1) I couldn’t imagine leaving and 2) I was actually a little suspicious about the number of signs ups — maybe BX was faking sign ups by loading our list with bots.

They weren’t. 🙂

But the results were that good.

So it’s not just that you should “put a pop-up on your site.”

It’s that you should use smart methods to collect addresses from visitors across your site.

3. Stop wasting time on the things that don’t work.

Inevitably, you’re going to be drawn back to the things that don’t work. The Facebook ads with shit ROAS. The LinkedIn ads that cost $100+ per lead. And you’ll return to those things under the guise of, “Hey, it’s just an experiment.”

But small businesses don’t have the luxury of experimenting on things that don’t work for other businesses on the off chance they might work for you. Far better to remember this song whenever you think “it killed them but it might work for us – let’s try it”:

Never smile at a crocodile.
No you can’t get friendly with a crocodile.
Don’t be taken in by its welcome grin –
It’s imagining the way you’d fit within its skin…

I’m not kidding. That song keeps me out of so much trouble.

If you spend time and money on things that don’t work for other people LIKE YOU, you take time away from working on things that DO work for other people like you… and that feasibly STAND A CHANCE of working for your business, too.

So unless you have masses of organic traffic and/or a giant ad budget to drive lead gen:

❌ Do not write an ebook and put it on your ghost-town website behind a two-field form. It will not help you grow your list.

✅ Do write an ebook and charge for it, then put new customers into your email upgrader flows. It will help you fill your list with paying customers.

❌ Do not spend your profits before you even make them so billionaires and a bunch of sh*tty media buying / ad agencies can pretend to be busy doing anything other than plainly burning your money. It will not help you grow your list with actual leads who want to hear from you.

✅ Make a list of brands that have the audience you want, and instead of spending 100+ hrs writing an ebook or $10,000+ on ads… create a high-value content asset for them to share with their audience, pitch them it’s your freaking job (it is)… and then be sure to drive people from their list to YOUR lead-gen page and onto YOUR list (where you have double opt-in set up). It will be the #1 driver, by a landslide, of list growth for you.

❌ Do not put a crappy opt-in pop-up on your site. (Crappy is subjective. You may think the one on our site right now is crappy.) It will not help you grow your list significantly.

✅ Capture leads by blanketing your site with smart pop ups (or overlays or slide ins or embeds). The smarter the lead-cap tool, the more it will help grow your list.

And keep in mind…

I say this all as someone who has never had the kind of business you raise money for and, as such, has scratched, pitched, wept, celebrated and scrimped to get every copper penny that’s run through QBO over the last 12 years. I hate wasting resources. And I love emailing to grow businesses.

If you’ve raised a lot of money, ignore me.

If your reaction to hearing that CAC or CPA is $220 is NOT omg we could literally pay 2 salespeople to acquire customers more affordably and reliably, ignore me.

If you think wasting resources is a natural action on the path to business profitability, ignore me.

If you hate emailing to grow your business, ignore me.

Otherwise, happy list growth.

~jo 🙂

PS: We’ve switched from Bounce Exchange (years ago) to ConvertFlow. It’s self-serve and it integrates nicely with ActiveCampaign, which we use and love.

PPS: More than anything out there, THE WAY TO GROW YOUR LIST is to borrow someone else’s. And THE WAY to get someone with a healthy list to promote you is to be publicly great at what you do. You don’t have to be a genius or uber-nerd (although that’s great if you can bring that, too). Just bring you into the world… and repeat.