Mailing ListAn email list is one of the most valuable assets a business can have; building one is too important to limit yourself to just the online world. You need to get email subscribers from every available channel, including offline sources.

At first blush it might seem like the only way to build your email list offline is to rely on fishbowls of business cards and signup forms. But there’s way more you can do.

Before I get into specifics, let’s distill offline list building down to its three major parts:

  • The technologies that enable offline list-building
  • The best places for your offline list-building promotions
  • Which offline list-building promotions are the most effective

B2C marketers might have a slight advantage when it comes to offline list building, but not by much. B2B marketers can do just fine if they refine where they promote their offline list building efforts. In some cases they might be positioned to get even better offline opt-in rates than their B2C peers.

3 offline list building technologies

The first thing to address is the mechanics of getting these new subscribers on your list in the first place. Because they’re away from their desktops, you’re basically stuck with one device: their phones. Fortunately, that really isn’t a problem. Here are three easy ways to build your list, even when your prospective subscribers are on the go.

1. Text-to-join

We all know how wildly popular texting is. Why not leverage it?

Text-to-join is offered by some of the major email service providers. You can also sign up with several stand-alone services to add text-to-join to any email program. JoinByText is one of the best-known services, but there’s also Call Loop and TXTImpact. Here’s how JoinByText works.


If you do public events or even radio, text-to-join can be downright awesome. It works whether you’re a garage band at a gig or a corporate executive giving a keynote address.

2. Email capture apps for tablets

Many businesses have an email sign-up form near their checkout station or at the receptionist’s desk. This is a good start. But did you know 10-20% of the email addresses people write down end up being illegible?

There is a better way. Ask people to enter their email addresses into a tablet. You’ll save time by not having to type in all those emails, and you’ll get email addresses you can read. That’s like getting 10-20% more email subscribers just by switching.

If you’re already using a tablet for checkout, then people have the tablet in hand anyway. Asking for a sign-up (especially if they’ll get a discount right then and there) makes it easy to say yes. If your potential subscribers don’t have the tablet in hand, get their attention with a screensaver that shows a tempting signup incentive. As soon as someone touches the screen, the opt-in form pops up, like this:


There are a lot of apps available to add subscribers via a tablet. Try OnSpot Social or SignUpAnywhere. They both work with or without an Internet connection, and SignUpAnywhere is free.

3. QR codes

Poor QR codes. They’ve got a bad rep for not working, if not being an outright joke. The trouble with them is that opening a QR code scanning app and scanning the code is more of a hassle than just typing in a simple URL.

QR codes work far better in Asia because phones there have built-in NFC capabilities, which means the phone automatically recognizes the QR code. In a recent surprise twist, Snapchat has also figured out how to shortcut the scanning hassle with Snapcodes.

Sometimes called Snaptags, these are Snapchat-branded QR codes that appear on users’ profiles. Just scan the Snapcode and you’re following that user. According to Snapchat’s website, “The response has been incredible. Snapchatters scan millions of Snapcodes each week!” They’re also offering downloadable vector files so users can add Snapcodes to their websites or anywhere else. Just use your Snapchat camera to scan it, or it won’t work.

This is a working snapcode.

If you’re still interested in trying an old-style QR code, consider dressing it up first. For example, this is a working QR code:


You can create QR codes like this for free with tools like VisualLead.

After creating an eye-catching QR code, make sure you follow these best practices:

  • Always include a call to action with your QR code.
  • Make the incentive to use the QR code good enough to overcome the hassle of using it.
  • The printed size of your QR code should be at least an inch across and have a white background.
  • Test, test and test again. On more than one QR code reader.
  • Track your QR code activity to verify it’s working. For example, use a different QR code on your business cards, snail mail and event giveaways.
  • If you do go with a colored QR code, make sure there’s enough contrast between the code and the background.
  • Don’t put the QR code where people can’t reach it, or won’t bother to slow down to use it. Crowded places and outdoor advertising won’t work. Even if someone could get cell service while they waited at this subway stop, they’d need a really great incentive to risk signing up.


7 places to promote your list offline

Now let’s take a look at some of the ways you can build your email list in the offline world.

1. On your business card

You’ve got every imaginable way to get in touch with you on your business card. Why not pitch your email list, too? If there’s room (like on the back side of the card), give people the option of text-to-join, a simple URL, or a QR code for an online opt-in form.

2. Public speaking events

Any time you give a talk, you’re building your status as an expert and an influencer. So capitalize on being in the spotlight. Ask your audience to sign up for your email list. One good-sized public speaking gig can net a hundred or more signups.

Here are a few tips to make it happen:

  • Don’t have just one sign up form or tablet. People hate lines.
  • Include a text-to-join option or other call to action on handouts, just in case people are rushed after your talk and don’t have time to sign up then.
  • Offer an incentive to sign up that is tailored to the audience you’re speaking to. Don’t just give them the same old freebie from your site.
  • Limit how long you’re offering that special incentive.

3. Any other types of events

Even if you’re not speaking, you can still gather up a bunch of new subscribers. Events can range from a business mixer to a nonprofit event you sponsor. Trade shows are also obvious opportunities. Even a job fair could work. Giving away any tchotchkes at these events? Those could have list-building prompts on them, too.

4. The fishbowl

Oh, I know how old this is. People have been putting fishbowls out for decades now. If you think of building an email list offline, the first thing you’ll probably think of is the fish bowl. And while they’re old and too often ignored, the fish bowl still works. Just be smart and offer a cool incentive if you want more action from the bowl.

5. Invoices, packing slips, snail mail and other collateral

Many times, we assume that everyone we send snail mail or invoices to is on our email list. But that’s not always so.

Here’s a printed ad that motivates both new customers and existing customers to sign up via a QR code or text-to-join. Image credit:

6. At checkout, especially with an employee incentive

This is the classic location for an email sign-up sheet. If your company doesn’t have a checkout per say, perhaps you’ve got a receptionist? Either way, making email subscriptions an incentive for the in-person employee is a great way to build a list.

7. Johnny boards

Please excuse the name, and forgive how unglamorous this tip is. But johnny boards work like gangbusters. They get some of the highest conversion rates of any printed advertisements. So what’s a johnny board? They’re advertisements placed in bathrooms.

Clearly, your corporate office may not benefit from this tip (though when I visited Google, I found johnny boards in their bathrooms, announcing corporate news and productivity tips).

If you’ve got a service business or a restaurant, or any kind of business that needs a bathroom, this is actually one of the best ways to build your list. As with any email list building prompt, include a great incentive and make it easy to sign up.

restroom advertising

Don’t forget to make it fun. If you’re going to invade people’s private moments to ask for their email, you might as well have a sense of humor about it. “Got a moment?” seems to be a good opening.

Here are a few more ideas for places to pitch your email list:

  • Napkins
  • To-go cups and bags
  • Water bottles
  • T-shirts
  • Printed ads
  • Billboards
  • Door hangers
  • Shopping bags
  • Bookmarks (for books, not browsers)
  • Car door magnets
  • Bumper stickers
The standard fish bowl signup usually either works or doesn’t work based on how good the signup incentive is.
The standard fish bowl signup usually either works or doesn’t work based on how good the signup incentive is.

Which promotions work best for offline list-building?

As you know, it’s no longer enough just to ask people to join your email list. They need more incentive than that. You need something good enough to overcome people’s resistance to:

  • Pulling out their phone and fussing with your opt-in process.
  • Realizing they’re about to sign up for yet another email list.

That means your incentive has to be good. It probably also means you’re going to have to test a couple of different offers, and that those offers need to be tailored to the particular audience you’re trying to get to sign up.

Coming up with the perfect sign-up offer is an art in and of itself, but here’s a few ideas to get you started:

  • Coupons (emailed coupons are big business, though this is more suited to you B2Cers)
  • Free consultations
  • Free estimates
  • Discounts on their first order, or on a specific service (like 15% off a standard tax prep package)
  • White papers, survey reports, or case studies
  • Recorded webinars
  • A chance to win something they’d really want
  • Worksheets that show them how to make a decision or create a plan
  • Access to an online tool

Once you start thinking outside the desktop, there might be even more opportunities to build your email list offline. I’ve given you the basics and some starter ideas, but only you can determine the best ways to build your list offline.

Before you go, are you doing any offline list building? If you are, please share which tactics are working. That comment box is right below, just waiting for your input…

Once you’ve built up that email list, be sure every email you send hits the mark. Check out this guide to creating amazingly effective email so you can keep those subscribers coming back for more.