How to Customize Your Email Newsletter Sign-Up Forms to Increase Reader Engagement | Jane Friedman (2023)

Today’s guest post is the second in a series about growing an email list, by author Kirsten Oliphant (@kikimojo). You can go back and read the first installment on how and why to start an email list.

The connection with your email newsletter subscribers starts much sooner than you think. Connection begins somewhere unexpected, in a place that many gloss over or ignore altogether: your signup forms.

Confession: I hate forms. Paperwork of any kind and digital forms make me crazy. Spreadsheets make me twitch. But the signup forms for email lists are so vastly important that I make an exception and dive down deep. You should too.

Why Customizing Your Forms Matters

Why do these forms matter?

I want you to think for just a moment: Are any of the signup forms you have filled out memorable? When I think of forms, two images come to mind.

The first is from Paul Jarvis and Jason Zook of the Invisible Office Hours Podcast (among other places). When you click your email to confirm that you do, in fact, want to receive emails from them, you get this lovely digital high-five. It put a smile on my face. It was unforgettable and silly. But important (and I’ll get to why in just a moment).

The second is from Ed Cyzewski (a writer who has penned several pieces here on publishing). It is a picture of his rabbit. I’m not a rabbit person. But getting this seemingly random picture of a rabbit in the midst of email signups made Ed memorable to me. The next time I got an email from him, I thought of the rabbit. Again, I don’t like rabbits. It’s not about rabbits. This is about becoming a real person to your email subscribers. It’s about the unexpected and the personal.

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Your forms can accomplish several key things that will help determine the open rate and engagement of your emails. If you customize and optimize your forms well, you can:

  1. Become memorable to your readers
  2. Establish a more personal connection right away
  3. Create several points of connection
  4. Repel your non-ideal readers

When your email subscribers remember you, they are more likely to open your email. When your email subscribers have more of a personal connection, they are more likely to read and engage with your content.

When your subscribers connect with you in other places, they are more likely to stay connected, so along the signup process, you can leave links to your Facebook group or page or your Pinterest profile or Twitter—whenever you want them to connect further. You could also leave links to your books, but I would personally recommend sticking to non-paid connections at the start.

When you are more personal or unique, you will turn some people off. We tend to hate unsubscribes. But unsubscribes are a good indication that you lost someone who wasn’t a true fan anyway. Sharing your Star Wars obsession may send Trekkies off in another direction. But it’s better to turn them off at the beginning by letting your flag fly than to have people be dead weight on your list, deleting emails without opening because they don’t really like you.

Rather than just thinking of all the forms in the signup process as a necessary evil, consider each form an opportunity to form a lasting relationship with readers. These forms set the tone for the rest of that reader’s relationship with you. Take the time to maximize these opportunities.

Creating Your Persona

Before we dive into the specifics of customizing your forms, you need to take a step back and ask if you know your writer’s persona. You want to think about the way you want to come across to your readers and the vibe you want to present. Consider what things you will share and what things you’ll hold close to the chest.

You may not want the fun vibe that Jason and Paul are going for with their high-fives. But that is very representative of who they are and the way they interact. It helps people connect or else realize that they don’t want to hear from guys who take a picture of a digital high-five. When it comes to lists, you want people who are drawn to you and your content, so the more personal you can be, the better.

Customizing Your Forms

Depending on your email service provider (ESP), this process will look different. Some ESPs give you the option for a single-click opt-in; I would not recommend this. Single opt-ins are like using your head in volleyball (as I learned in high school gym class): legal, though not preferred. Dust off your dashboard and get into the forms section of your ESP.

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Pre-Work: Research

You don’t want to overcrowd your inbox, but sign up for lists in a similar niche. See what you like and don’t like about the process. Take screenshots of things you like (or don’t like). This will help give you ideas.

Step 1: Do a Cursory Check of Your Signup Process

Head into your ESP dashboard and look for the signup forms. Typically there will be:

  • a signup form (sometimes you may use a third party that connects—like Hello Bar or SumoMe—so look at that)
  • a confirmation message or page that pops up after the form
  • an email to confirm
  • a pop up message or page after someone clicks confirm
  • a welcome email

You may have more or less, but those are the basics and the most important forms. Some will be forms, some will be emails, and some will be pages on the internet that either your ESP hosts or that you can have redirect to your site or another place.

Step 2: Sign Up for Your Own List

Before you make changes, experience it for yourself. Sign up and go through the process. Make a note about each page. What do you like or not like? What could be better? Where is there space for improvement?

Step 3: Change the Wording Everywhere

One of the smallest and best changes you can make is taking out all of the standard wording. No one wants to “Sign up for our newsletter.” But they might want to join your community of awesome. Or they might not want to miss out on exclusive free content. Whatever the case, change the wording. Even the “Subscribe” button can be better. Try “Join me now” or “I dare you—click the red button!” Anything that represents your persona and makes you stand out from the other 500 signup forms that person sees every day is a good thing.

Step 4: Add Bells and Whistles

Branding is a whole subject unto itself, but the creation of your persona is a part of your brand as a writer. Visually, your brand also comes through very clearly, so pick some colors that work well that are also preferably on your blog. Utilize those colors in your forms and in your buttons. Any time you can, choose your colors for buttons or for headings or backgrounds. (But avoid changing the full background color where the text goes. Generally speaking, people are less drawn toward white text on a dark background.)

Consider where you might add images and what images would best represent your writer persona. Think about links to include so that people can connect even more.

A warning about links: Do not use links on the pages where people have to click to confirm or enter your email address. You want to make sure people do that one important action of signing up for your list, so don’t add in a bunch of social media links or blog posts links. Save that for the welcome email, or make a unique page for your subscribers where they are redirected when they confirm, and include the links there. Clickable items belong only in places where there is no other necessary action to take.

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Step 5: Sign Up for Your List Again

Now that you’ve gone through your forms, it’s time to sign up again. (You can either unsubscribe or use your other email address.) See how it looks now that you’ve customized. Check that the links are working and that things don’t look wonky. Try it on mobile. Have your mom try it. (No, really. If you may have someone older than you sign up, be sure that the process is accessible for someone older.)

Your ultimate goal is to have the process both streamlined, so that people can easily sign up, and memorable, to establish a deeper connection, form connections in other places, and turn off those readers who aren’t your ideal in the first place.

If you want to get a visual for going through the signup process, this is a MailChimp-specific workshop I did that goes deep into customizing forms. (It was recorded live, so there may be a few now-irrelevant references, but the customizing is still relevant.) I hit on the importance of email again and also how you can utilize and customize forms. Even if you aren’t in MailChimp, this may give you some ideas.

The great thing about customizing forms is that so many people do not take the time—or don’t realize that they can. This will make you will stand out from the start. You will already be memorable because you used different wording on your button to sign up. You might even get more signups because people notice that your signup form is just their brand of humor. We get sidebar blindness, and that extends to forms with the standard wording that comes straight out of the box with MailChimp or Mad Mimi or AWeber.

When your readers see your name in the inbox, they will now have a whole host of (hopefully great) memories either in the front or back of their mind. They will see that digital high five or your rabbit or remember that great blog post you linked to in the welcome email.

These tiny details can have a big impact and make your list more engaged and more filled with the right readers for your work. You will have a lot more work to do in terms of establishing connection through your content, but the signup process sets the tone. Start establishing your connection early and make use of the opportunities your ESP provides by way of otherwise annoying forms.

Go back and read the first installment on how and why to start an email list.

How to Customize Your Email Newsletter Sign-Up Forms to Increase Reader Engagement | Jane Friedman (4)

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How to Customize Your Email Newsletter Sign-Up Forms to Increase Reader Engagement | Jane Friedman (5)

Kirsten Oliphant

Kirsten Oliphant has an MFA in fiction from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is the creator of the Free Email Course to help de-mystify email lists for bloggers & writers. She writes about authentic platform building at Create If Writing and interviews writers, bloggers, and other creatives on the Create If Writing Podcast. You can find her tweeting as @kikimojo or sign up for free monthly workshops on list-building, image creation, or other helpful training.

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