How to Get More Mail Subscribers Without Trashing the User Experience

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Annoying pop-ups may result in more subscribers but they also ostracize many other visitors.

Luckily you don’t have to resort to cheap workarounds when you design your site in a conversion-oriented manner from the start.

Getting subscribers doesn’t have to be about annoying people. Building your audience doesn’t work by force.

Building a store in the desert

For years business people have been trying to optimize their websites for search engines after they’ve built them. That’s a lot like building a retail store in the middle of nowhere and then realizing that there is no road or even a sidewalk that leads to it. That practice has resulted in a lot of unnecessary problems.

In some cases website owners have had to relaunch their site again in order to implement necessary changes to their IA and/or site structure.

SEO is self-evident these days. Only complete amateurs design a site without search visitors in mind. Basically, ignoring SEO is a mistake only absolute beginners make.

Relying on taxi drivers – being forced to pay for traffic

There is another relatively new discipline called conversion (rate) optimization that businesses tend to ignore when they design their sites. Which is why most CRO has to be done afterwards, and because of this “late is better than never” approach, websites that hamper conversion have to implement various workarounds. What is a conversion? It depends on the site but in most cases it’s either a sale or another goal that may lead to a sale in the future.

Even if you’re not after sales, but instead ad clicks, donations or simply spreading the word about issues, you still need one thing – an audience.

Otherwise you have to count on Google, Facebook and other third parties to provide you with steady new traffic. The more these corporations control the flow of traffic the more businesses are forced to pay for access to “eyeballs” through them.

Now that both search and social media are turning increasingly into paid channels, the only direct way to build an audience is to get subscribers. There are currently two major ways to get them, one way is via RSS feeds and the other way is via email. Since RSS feeds tend to have the smallest reach, you’ll want to focus on building email subscribers.

Shouting at visitors in front of you


Many businesses don’t realize that they need email subscribers until it’s too late and their site is already depending on Google, Facebook and similar gatekeepers. Then, when they finally wake up, they start to frantically attempt to get those subscribers by

  • interrupting
  • begging
  • pushing

people to subscribe whenever they can.

These erratic workarounds often lead to an awful user experience and disgruntled visitors who never come back.

Of course the analytics tools only tell half of the story. They don’t show those who never come back. Tools like Google Analytics focus on those who stay and miraculously subscribe. Short-sighted marketers are quick to declare that you have to clutter your site with annoying full page-overlays and similar user experience nightmares to get more subscribers.

There is even a blog on Tumblr that collects the worst examples of such broken UX. It’s called aptly “Tab Closed; Didn’t Read.”

Will those subscribers really open your messages, read them and click on the links inside? One of the most common issues is a horribly low “open rate” of about 10% or so. People who were tricked into subscribing are seldom keen on listening closely to you.

Making impolite interruptions the norm


For most people pop-ups were made for ads. That’s not really true historically, but that’s what most people know from first hand experience. Pop-ups are in most cases ads and you have to block them. The simple JavaScripts used initially for popups have evolved so that it’s not as easy to block them anymore. Also pop-ups, or technically layers, are not only used by third parties but often the sites you are visiting, such as the example above from Shotkit. Many people probably won’t even recognize that difference.

Visitors may assume that such a layer is not even part of the actual website they are trying to view.

That’s also the key to solving both the annoyance problem and the audience building problem at once. Why would you start to include an email subscription after the site is ready and functioning by putting your subscription for it above the content? You need to design your website around the conversion from the start. It’s obviously the “add your mail address” form.

Embracing the opt-in focused web design


  • Do not show the content above the fold on your homepage or even your whole site and make the subscription form the pivotal element of your web design. It’s as simple as that but as most designers know, simplicity is difficult to achieve.
  • Many people won’t “convert at the first sight” and will instead engage with your site. That’s actually great. Give them the option to subscribe with each touch point. When they comment. When they download. When they view more than one page. There are many options.
  • Use a call to action that combines what the visitors want with the need to opt-in. Join the community, sign up for early access, and get free advice are common CTAs to explain the value of connecting via email.


Visage is a site that converted me with my first visit. I was convinced that I wanted early access to the upcoming tools, even though I rarely subscribe to anything at all. In fact, the homepage is almost perfect landing page. There are barely any distracting elements, only ones that are truly needed. The text is limited to a bare minimum despite that everything is in one place – the Call to Action, the motto, the explanation and the menu. This site is not the exception. There are numerous similar examples in the wild.

Skipping the redundant nuisances

Many old school email marketers still want you to ask your visitors for as much information as possible. At least they want to know the names of the subscribers in order to “personalize” the messages so they can send messages that start with, “Hello [your name],”.

Most people these days know that it’s not a personal message.

It works to some extent, but many people aren’t willing to disclose their name. That means you lose subscribers with every additional and unnecessary input. Your opt-in form should only require one input field, the email address. Many people won’t tell you their real name, which means you’re addressing them by the wrong name when you send faux-personal messages.

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