the four generations of opt in marketing

2182_Four-generations-20120811-1-958x538This is an email primarily about how to build a solid following and, primarily, how to get people to ‘opt in’ to receive your email newsletter.

I want to submit that there have been four generations of approaches to getting permission to be in touch with potential clients. And that what worked four generations ago, isn’t the best approach today.

But let’s start here: A lot of people focus on ‘getting their name out there’ in marketing.

And they justify a lot of useless activity with it. They go to networking events and not only give their cards to everyone but leave them on every table and they think, ‘Yup! Sure got my name out there tonight!’ They put their brochures in bookshoppes and cafes all over town, they put ads in all sorts of places, and try to drive people to their website (maybe even successfully) and they think, ‘Awesome. I am so getting my name out there.’

This kind of thinking might result in some business but I think it’s the wrong goal. I think that we want to get their name in here.

Let me explain: If you’re at a networking event, it is far more powerful to get 10 business cards from others into your pocket than to get a hundred of your business cards into their pockets. Because, if you have their business cards, you can follow up with them. You can take a next step in building a relationship with them. If not, you are stuck waiting and hoping.

And hope is not a strategy.

Put another way, let’s say you got a million people to visit your website in the next month. Sounds awesome, right?

But what if, instead of a million visitors, I gave you 10,000 new perfect-fit people for your email list?

The 10,000 on your email list is more valuable in the long-term. These are people you can stay in touch with and build a relationship with over time. These are the people who will spend money on you, hire you and tell their friends about you.

If I sent a million people to your website not much would happen.

Unless . . . unless you had a system to get those people to join your email list (and get their names in here). 

I want to suggest that there have been four generations of approaches on how to get people to opt in to be in touch with you and allow you to be in touch with them.

Generation #1: The Contact Me Page

When websites first began, there were no email newsletters. There was just a page with your contact info and, if they wanted to reach you they could email or call you.

The Downside: It’s a viable option but includes a bit of risk for the person reaching out. It also would only have people call you who were very close to being ready to buy. And if people were just shopping around, that’s a lot of your personal time answering questions. 

Generation #2: The Free Email Newsletter.

People have signed up to have newsletters mailed to them for many years. That’s not new, but, with the advent of email marketing, those newsletters could be free. I remember the first ‘free email newsletter‘ I saw was something simple like, ‘get a free inspirational quote every day’. And, at the time, that was really novel and exciting. For the first time, you could, for very little money, stay in touch with a large number of people and regularly add value to their lives. 

The Downside: The challenge with this approach now is that there are literally millions of email newsletters you could be on. Most of us are on so many lists that we don’t read. Some we got on because we participated in a telesummit or teleseminar and now we’re on their list, or because we joined years ago and have ignored it since. And some we follow regularly. 

But the bottom line is this: no one is excited to sign up for another free newsletter. No one. Now, if your website is extremely niched and your newsletter is targeted to helping a particular kind of person with a particular kind of problem people might want to. But, the idea of a free newsletter itself is absolutely no longer compelling. 

Generation #3: The Free ‘Opt In’ Gift

So, if an email newsletter isn’t that compelling, but to grow your business you need to stay in touch with people, what do you do? Should you just stop having the email newsletter? 

I don’t think so. I think your email list is the most valuable piece of property your business has. Social media lets you stay in touch but it won’t get the kinds of response rates an email list will have (unless you have a huge following). And, if your ideal client were to give it a try, they might really love.

So, how to get them to give it an honest try?

What a lot of people, myself included, have done is to offer a free gift to people for signing up. In some ways, free gift is a bit of a misnomer because what you’re really offering is a fair trade, ‘I’ll give you a lot of free advice and information if you sign up for my email list and give it a try’. 

The Free Opt In Gift could be an ebook, audio, a video, a quiz/assessment etc. There are a lot of options. The key is that it costs them no money, asks no risk of them and takes you no time to deliver. It’s a sample of your work that they can try to get a taste of what you do. It’s a pink spoon type offer that I spoke about in my blog ‘do you have a pink spoon in your marketing?

And the difference you’ll see between just saying, ‘sign up for my free email newsletter’ and ‘enter your email here to get this free gift and you’ll be added to my email newsletter too’ is huge. You will get very few sign ups with the former approach and many more with the latter. You’ll be shocked at the difference it makes if you take this approach.

The Downside: More and more people are doing this too. The idea of the free opt in gift is no longer rare. It’s almost expected. And, here’s the surprising twist, even resented.

That’s right, increasingly, people might even resent your free opt in gift.

And here’s why.

Imagine you come across a website. It seems like it’s targeted to people just like you! Amazing.

This website definitely seems relevant to what you’re going through. Now you want to find out more. So you read a bunch of generic stuff about the business but then there’s nothing else to read. No blog. No articles. No videos. You want to know more about their point of view and approach. You want to know their take on your situation.

But there’s nothing that tells you that. Which means you’re going to have to go through the rigamaroll of emailing them and asking them and who knows when they’ll respond and . . . WAIT there it is! There’s some free info – they’re offering a free video series on how to take some first steps at handling your issue.


But . . . wait . . . you have to enter your email for it. Shit. You’re already on too many email lists. You resent that, to just check them out, you have to sign up to be on another email list that you aren’t even sure you want to be on.

To make it clearer why this is an issue: imagine you go to an ice cream shop and you ask to try a sample of their ice cream – just a little pink spoon. But, instead of having you the pink spoon they hand you an iPad and ask you to enter your email first. You say, ‘Uhm. Why? I just want to see if I even like this flavour . . .’ And they inform you that you need to be on their email list before you try it. Holy backfiring coercion.

Another downside, a lot of people will just sign up for your free gift and then unsubscribe at the next email. This might be unavoidable but if they see you regularly have new content on your site or at least a tonne of free content, they’ll be a lot more likely to come back of their own accord to check you out.

Generation #4: The Non-Opt In Free Gifts + Opt In

So, what the hell? . . .

What are you supposed to do?

I don’t know for sure but here’s my theory on what’s next: a mix of opt in and non-opt in pink spoons for people to try. 

Give people some things they can check out for free, without having to sign up for a damn thing on your website. Let them try free samples of your bread at your bakery or soup at your restaurant. Let them get a taste of you without having to commit to anything. But also give them the option to get some extra special if they’re willing to take the risk to sign up. 

On this website you can read over 500 posts on my blog for free. There are case studies. There are over three hours of free video. And there’s also a 195 ebook called The Way of the Radical Business you can get if you sign up for my email list. 

I am a big fan of the idea of being a generosity based business. But, being real, I give away a lot more than I need to. You don’t need to offer even a fraction of what I do (out of laziness of turning them into sellable products (actually true)). You just need to offer people a taste. A sample. A way of understanding your point of view. Enough that they can know if it’s a fit to take the next step. 

People will respect this. They love it. They love being able to explore your take on things and get a bit of help without having to pay anything and it will build trust in you.

When people email me to ask for coaching, they’ve likely already been following me for years. They don’t haggle over price. They’ve decided they want to work with me. They’re also often very familiar with my approach to marketing which is wonderful and allows me to help them more. 

Now, if you’ve got a single teleseminar or course, it’s fine to have a squeeze page – just a simple page where the only option is to sign up. But, I think of your website as more your home. It’s a place where people can come to learn about you and if, overall, you are a fit for them. 

And this isn’t even to speak to the benefits of blogging and how that free content can drive traffic to your website or give you little pink spoons you can send to people at networking events and have you feel even more proud of your website.

I want to submit that this fourth generation will build a more solid relationship with your people over time than insisting they sign up for your email newsletter to find out anything about you.

If you want help developing your free opt-in gift, you might want to check out my ‘How To Create Your Free Gift‘ workbook.


About Tad

  • cherylpickett

    HI Tad, Great article first of all. It’s a topic that I’ve been struggling with for a while actually. As you said, what worked in the past doesn’t so much now and a lot of internet marketing types insist you must have a free gift because no one wants to be on a list. That’s where I struggle. I have always had a blog on the sites I’ve owned, as I totally get that trying to get someone’s attention, or worse yet, to buy, without any interaction makes no sense.

    From there, though is my sticking point. The only reason someone would sign up is to stay in touch/get further information whether you officially call it a list or a newsletter or whatever. If they don’t want to, what difference does it make to offer something free. To offer a gift without saying, “By the way, you’re going to get future stuff from me” (as I see you do above) feels misleading to me. Maybe that’s some of what turns people off. They wanted a free ebook, now they’re getting emails every other day.

    In the retail store (or even craft show) example, the taster samples and lists are separate. Want a free cookie? Great, here’s a cookie. Want to see what this lotion feels like? Here’s a dot on your hand. Want to stay in touch and get monthly coupons? Great here’s where to sign up. They’re completely separate and sign ups are totally transparent and deliberate on the part of the visitor.

    I think that’s what you are encouraging, but I didn’t quite get the idea that the two parts of the process could be separate like this. That’s what feels right to me. I’ve been experimenting and list growth has been slow, so not sure if this structure just doesn’t work as well online, or if I’m just not quite getting enough of the right people to visit. Plan to keep trying. Thanks again for the post.

  • Kim Tanasichuk

    Geesh. I already think you’re brilliant, but there you go with some completely awesome ideas. Keeping this on file for my clients. LOVE this article.

    I think you’re right about people resenting the free gift thing. In observing my clients, when I ask them that question in the consult, if they want that strategy, many give a turned up nose…. I think because it doesn’t feel like them or that they’d be putting on a car salesman’s plaid suit and they don’t like it. Unless they are coaches or speakers. Those clients are super on board with the free gift opt ins.

    I also find this article very helpful to me personally. I don’t have this on my own website. I think because I also resist it, and the practical side of me says, “Well I don’t want to spend the time putting out newsletters.” Yet now, I do think it’s something that takes a business to the next level. A way I can help people, without spending extra time one on one. And your last option, of just offering free stuff, and the option of the sign in, feels more like me. Okay, slow website revamping coming up!

    P.S. Could a 5th and old type, be the email chain letter? But they weren’t very good at collecting the emails afterwards. Hmm, or is that how viagra spam gets spread? ;-P

  • chain letters! the future! :-P

    and thanks! yeah. i’ve just been noticing what i like and how annoying it is for me to not be able to really learn about someone before i invest too much.

    – t

  • i think the key is having such a clear niche and platform that your ideal client would totally WANT to be on your email list. to me that’s central. but even if what you’re offering is totally relevant to them – they might be hesitant because they’re already on so many other lists. I think the free gift is a gracious acknowledgment of that reality and makes that first step easier and sweeter for them. that first step is often the hardest to get them to take.

  • cherylpickett

    Just came across Daniel Pink’s new site design. He has no blog, but a resource section instead and his sign up box just says sign up for my newsletter. I found it on FB and the person who shared it, said that this format, no blog is a new trend. I think that might be attractive to a lot of small business owners.

  • interesting. what’s your take on why that approach is being taken?

  • cherylpickett

    One of my first thoughts was basically because he can. He already has a big audience and maybe this is an easier way to maintain the relationship.

    However, it still fits with the pinkspoon philosophy. There’s plenty on the site to get a taste and it appears the newest stuff is saved for those on his list, which could be an incentive. Even though he’s well known, new people will still find or be introduced to him, and he has a newsletter, so it’s not like he is not concerned at all about building and maintaining community.

    I also think having a resource section like this could benefit small biz owners who are just too intimidated or who can’t find the time/desire to blog. It may not benefit SEO etc. as much, but it is still better than just having standard sales type info.

  • i really like that. yes – you lose a lot on SEO but i imagine he’s doing plenty of other things to drive traffic to his site