Survey after survey puts email marketing as top dog among digital marketers for effectiveness and return on investment (ROI). But getting web site visitors to subscribe to receive emails can be tricky.

This article will look at the different techniques used by websites – predominantly retailers – to improve signup rates above the magic 2%. And remember, Econsultancy subscribers can download our Fundamentals of Email Marketing report.

The recipe for email signup success has 10 ingredients:

  • Targeting
  • Placement
  • Visibility
  • Timing
  • Proposition
  • Copy
  • Ease
  • Legitimacy
  • Clarity
  • Testing


This list was compiled following observations of sign-up techniques on websites, including retailers and email practitioners and conversations with experts at Emma, GoDaddy, Privy and Adestra.

First let’s quickly look at some of the numbers.

  • 47% of marketers said email was the digital marketing channel that delivered the most ROI, ahead of social at 19%. (EMMA, June 2017).
  • 41% rated email the best-performing channel (DMA Customer Acquisition Barometer 2015).
  • 73% rate email as ‘good’ or ‘excellent' in its ability to deliver ROI (Econsultancy, April 2017).

If those numbers are a surprise then, arguably, there's probably something wrong with your email marketing program.

Getting hold of website visitors-to-email-signup conversion stats is more difficult. 2% appears to be the accepted industry norm, though some suggests that retail may enjoy sign-ups of north of 7% (Contently 2015) because email captures tend to be associated with offers and discounts.

Whatever companies may be achieving, there can’t be many digital marketers out there who wouldn’t want to improve their signup rate.

Ben Jabbawy, is the founder of Privy, a company that help clients improve email signup rates:

“In today's marketing landscape, 98% of website visitors leave your site without completing a purchase, or signing up. Across our network of 100K+ sites, we've seen that number remain true for the most part.

“But when sites introduce targeted overlays with incentives they can very quickly begin to break industry standard conversion rates. Then you can forget the usual 2%. Introducing fly-outs, banners, bars or popups, when targeted, regularly push conversion rates to over 10%.

“The key word here is targeted. When you display the right offer to a high intent visitor, that means that "popup" is no longer a dirty word.”

1. Targeting – who is the target customer?

You know the marketing mantra: right person, right offer, right place and right time - right? A generic “signup to our email” hidden in the links in the footer of your website in no way ticks any of these targeting boxes. But it’s a lot less damaging than throwing up the same massive in-your-face interstitial at everyone that lands on any page of your site.

Start to consider email signups in line with the principles (but rarely practice) of targeted advertising – after all, you are advertising a service. Take into consideration what you know about the visitor, the context of the page, the device they are using and the geographical location of the visitor to make your offer more relevant.

Colby Cavanaugh, senior vice president of marketing at email marketing provider Emma, explains:

"As marketers, we know how to drive traffic to our website... but we are very bad at converting site visitors. The problem is that even though we know site visitors all behave differently, we treat them all the same.

"We have to detect them as individuals: Have they been there before? What are they looking for? Personalize the experience, and amazing things will start happening."

2. Placement – where on the page?

The default placement: the footer

The norm for an email signup is in the footer of each webpage on the website. These vary in size, shape, boldness, wording and style.

There are two types: a) a button or text link to a sign-up page; or the much more efficient b) a box inviting the visitor to enter their email address to sign-up.

Whatever the type and style, placement in the footer always means the call to action sits below all the content of the page and usually way below the fold. The example of Selfridges, pictured below, could have been a multitude of other e-commerce sites.

Above the fold placements: sticky menu; header; drop-down menu, side-bar menu or in-content.

There are a number of options for placing the call to action above the fold, all surprisingly rare on ecommerce sites, these include:

  • In the page content such as homepage sliders. This technique is a staple of many B2B sites, but still isn't used much in retail where products take precedence.
  • The page header. Check out the prominent icon top right of every Lidl webpage.
  • In the header menu.
  • A sticky footer menu e.g. Primark.

The Primark sticky menu, pictured below, improves on the default placement in the footer, shown in the Selfridges example. While the call to action, seen bottom right, could be bigger, bolder, catchier etc., it is visible above the fold, on screen at all times, on all pages. This sticky footer is universal across Primark’s international sites.

email signups

Dynamic placement

There are a number of alternative dynamic methods to ensure above the fold visibility. The most common of these is the popup or overlay. These are more common on US sites than UK sites (read into this what you will), but are far from the norm.

Call to action popups sit ‘in front of’ the webpage, so do not tend not to fall fowl of popup blockers. But they still come with a health warning, as used too frequently or imprudently they can negatively impact user experience, mobile usability (if hard to quit), accessibility (screen reader users) and may ultimately affect search ranking.

They can appear, often homepage only, in a number of formats, but most commonly:

  • A light box with rest of webpage shaded e.g. Topshop (UK); ToysRus (US site, but not UK site); Gap (US and UK); McDonalds (US and UK sites). Note in the screenshot below how the McDonalds popup sits over an on-page email call to action.
  • Bar at the bottom (or top) of screen, similar to a cookie banner, that can be clicked away (least invasive) e.g. Carrefour (French site).

For more on popups and other forms of call to action see the Visibility section of this article.

email signups

The website is only one of many places where companies should be promoting their email program. Becca Brennan, deliverability and compliance analyst at GoDaddy Email Marketing explains:

"Common effective placement for subscribe forms or opt-in URLs include:

  • Directly on the front of the organization website, in a sidebar, or in a popup.
  • On an order page.
  • In a tab on the organization's Facebook page.
  • In your personal email signature.
  • In the footer of the newsletter itself, so that if recipients forward the message to friends (to be encouraged) those friends can subscribe."

3. Visibility – how to get noticed

There are two aspects to making your call to action more noticeable. The look (i.e. the size, text size, shape, colour, boldness of the call to action) and the prominence i.e. where, when and how it appears.

Things that move, appear with an element of spontaneity or purpose, get in your face or require an action are more likely to get people’s attention (for better or worse).

There are a variety of methods for making calls to action stand out on webpages, many of which have been borrowed from the ad business. These include the popup, as above, fly outs, or a widget (like the ones commonly used for inviting feedback).

Privy undertook some research over a six month period between 2015-16, A/B testing different call-to-action techniques for email sign-ups:

  • Popup: typically displays in the centre of the web page, or sometimes as "fly outs" in the corner. Conversion rate 1.31% (possibly not helped by the irritation factor).
  • Bar: A full width bar that typically sits either on top or at the bottom of the site. Conversion rate 1.34% (possibly too subtle).
  • Banner: sits at the top or bottom of a site, but starts in a "hidden" state until triggered, then rolls in to sight. Conversion rate 2.2%.

4. Timing – when to deliver

There are two types of timing that are important to email call to actions. The first type relates to audience targeting and contextual relevance i.e. right offer, right person, right time and right place.

A lot can be assumed about a visitor and their intention by their browsing behaviour and the pages they choose to visit and dwell upon.

If a shopper browses the sale pages for womens clothes the probability is that they are a woman or are interested in purchasing womens clothes and likes deals. So it’s a good time to entice a signup to receive news of other bargain dresses or be rewarded with an additional 20% discount for doing so.

The screenshot below is from Macy’s Deals and Promotions page, to the right is a call to action offering a 20% discount off the next purchase to new email or text subscribers.

Examples of contextually relevant targeting like this are surprisingly rare in the retail sector. With one key exception, the checkout.

The checkout is retailers' favourite time to capture signups, rightfully so. The shopper has clear intention to purchase and is already sharing details, including email address. Signing up here is no harder than ticking a box – or neglecting to untick one (see: Legitimacy below).

macy's signup

The second form of timing refers to the time a user has spent on the site, on a page, or the expectation of departure. The display of a call to action could be triggered by time, scrolling or a mouse movement towards the exit.

Such triggered call to actions are not common in the retail space – popups, when used, by retailers tend to be on the homepage and instantaneous when the visitor arrives on the page.

An exception is Gap, pictured below, where the popup appeared to be triggered by mouse movement towards the browser navigational keys after dwelling near the signup section of the page.

The effectiveness of calls-to-action triggered by either a timer, scrolling or exit intent is far from clear. In fact the Privy research found that visitors were 25 times more likely to subscribe when they triggered the signup form themselves by clicking a tab, than if it was automatically triggered by time, scrolling or exit.

5. Proposition – what is on offer?

People need to be persuaded to sign up to your email marketing program: i.e. they need to know what is in it for them. Blindingly obvious? If so, why don’t more retailers make more of an effort?

Privy compared three types of campaign:

Sign-up campaigns: the simple 'join our email list' popup that may mention what the subscriber can expect i.e. specials, offers and announcements, but doesn’t offer any specific incentive. Conversion rate 1%.

Offer campaigns: a give-away campaign that promises a specific promotion code, discount coupon, or exclusive content in exchange for email address. Conversion rate 5%.

Enter-to-win campaigns: at the end of the campaign, or (better) periodically, there will be a sweepstake where a winner or winners will be randomly selected to win a prize. Conversion rate 15%.

But before you dust of that iPad, it’s imperative to remember that with email lists the aim is quality subscribers not quantity.

Becca Brennan:

"People are less likely to share their email address with an organization if they're not given a reason to do so.

"Offer an incentive that's relevant to your subscribers and to your goals:

  • If your organization hopes to increase sales, it's a great idea to offer a discount to new email subscribers. Something as simple as 10% off an order can encourage people to subscribe, open your mail, and make purchases.
  • Occasional deals exclusive to newsletter subscribers can help nurture signups, loyalty, and repeat business.
  • If the goal is to increase traffic to your site, offer exclusive content for newsletter subscribers.
  • Relevant incentives gather legitimate and active subscribers. Offering a free iPad will get you plenty of subscribers, but those folks aren't going to pay much attention to what you send if they don't win.
  • Offering a discount for your product or a free trial of your service will result in more subscribers who will continue reading your mail and interacting with your brand."

Incentive-led email subscription campaigns are often associated with growing retailers. Examples from bigger retailers include:

  • Macy’s (pictured above): “Sign up for emails & texts. Be the first to know about sales and events! Plus you’ll get 20% off your next purchase.”
  • Old Navy (pictured below): “Subscribe to Old Navy Emails and take 30% of your purchase.”
  • Gap (pictured above): “Join our email list and hear all the latest (arrivals, deals and more). Plus get 25% off reg. price styles online.”

6. Copy

The call to action copy must sell the email. You have to convince the shopper in a few carefully chosen words that this is a) an opportunity not to be missed; b) focused on their needs; and c) not just the same old marketing, salesy email claptrap they get from every other retailer.

There isn’t a huge amount of variety or innovation in retail call to actions, here’s a sample, with the more informative first:

  • Sign up today – receive special offers, sales alerts and coupons – ToysRus
  • Sign up for the latest news, offers and ideas – John Lewis
  • Join our email list. For news, promotions, and more delivered right to your inbox – McDonalds (US)
  • Be the first to save! – Walmart
  • Sign up for ASOS style news – ASOS
  • Sign up for Net-A-Porter news – Net-A-Porter
  • Sign up for daily emails – Saks Fifth Avenue
  • Sign up here for our email newsletter – CVS
  • Sign up to our newsletter – Selfridges
  • Subscribe to newsletter – Primark
  • Get email updates – Nordstrom Rack.

Frankly, people, you know you can all do a lot better. Sell your email like it’s a product.

7. Ease – keep signing up simple

There are two types of retailers.

Those that make signups easy:

A number of retailers allow people to sign-up by simply entering their email and clicking the submit, signup or go button, direct from webpage footer of a popup, these include Saks Fifth Avenue, ToysRus, Walmart, Nordstrom Rack, John Lewis, McDonalds US and ASOS.

ASOS has an interesting twist on the norm, by substituting the submit button for two buttons labelled men and women, so it can introduce basic segmentation of signups while avoiding form filling.

asos signup

And there are those that make signups harder.

Subscribing with these retailers requires clicking through from the homepage popup or footer to a signup form, then filling out numerous fields, some compulsory others optional.

Examples include: Top Shop, Nike, McDonald’s UK, Primark, CVS, Macys, Net-A-Porter and Selfridges.

A number of these retailers add to the frustration by mimicking the easy signup above, but when the email address is entered it links to a form (with the email form prepopulated), e.g. Top Shop (see screenshot below), Net-A-Porter and CVS.

The longer the form the less likely the sign up

Colby Cavanaugh recommends reducing "signup friction whenever possible to grow your email audience and reach more potential customers where they already are – their inbox."

"On your form, only ask for the information you actually need, like first name and email address. According to our friends at Privy, every field you add will reduce signups by 25%."

Ben Jabbawy verifies the stat:

"We have seen that if your form has more than just the email field, conversion rates decrease usually by 25% for each additional field. Keep in mind if your offer is strong enough, you can play with additional fields and not see such a drastic decrease."

Of course, there's a trade off in that you'll have less information about the user, but this can be gained throughout the customer's email lifecycle.

8. Legitimacy – let the customer opt in

There are three elements to email signup legitimacy:

  • The success of an email list is not the number of people that signup but the quality of those subscribers, i.e. the number of people on the list who a) want to be there (for the right reasons) and b) are likely to turn into loyal and profitable customers.
  • Sending emails to people who did not sign up and/or did not expect or want to receive emails of this nature from your brand, is dangerous for a) brand reputation, b) customer loyalty, c) being marked as a spammer by ISPs, d) legal reasons.
  • The customer should always feel that they are in control of the relationship with the brand.

There are a number of situations where companies may email people who have not explicitly and actively opted in to receive them. This includes the implied opt-in, where a person has given their email when making a purchase or in order to download a piece of content; and they passively opt-in via a ready ticked check box, regularly found at retailer checkouts.

We will take an in-depth look at these areas in a subsequent post but the forthcoming GDPR will do more to outlaw these dubious practices.

9. Clarity – what will be received and how often

Colby Cavanaugh:

"Be sure to set clear expectations for the type and frequency of emails new subscribers will receive; this will help reduce opt-outs in the future."

Only one of the retailers mentioned in this article gives an indication of how many emails will be sent - Saks Fifth Avenue with its “Sign up for daily emails” call to action.

As can be seen from the sample call-to-action messages above, few retailers set any expectation about the nature of the emails – using fluffy terms like newsletter, news, updates. The best subscribers get is “receive special offers, sales alerts and coupons” from ToysRus.

10. Testing – never stop testing and measuring results

The only way to improve the impact of email call to actions is to test different methods, placements, timing, copy, campaigns and so on. Aggregated results from industry surveys and studies such as Privy’s all help to inform what you should test, not what you should implement.

A good way to do this is by A/B testing i.e. showing an alternative version of a webpage to one group of visitors, with a single change to the call to action, while the control group sees the original version. Measure and track the results using web analytics and behavioural tools such as heatmaps. 

Becca Brennan: "A/B testing can be a great way to determine effectiveness of various methods. Depending on who you're marketing to, different audiences will react to different methods." 

Stay tuned for the next installment on email sign-up legitimacy and opt-in best practice.

Remember, Econsultancy subscribers can download our Fundamentals of Email Marketing report.

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Published 15 June, 2017 by Andy Favell

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Comments (3)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Great article. We recommend that you don't hit visitors with a signup form before they've had a chance to engage with your site. We got best results by displaying the form when they've spent 30 seconds on a page - or when they are leaving of course.
https://www.freshrelevance.com/blog/research-study-do-pop-over-subscribe-forms-work

Note also that subscription is not a one-off event. You should keep on collecting information about subscribers *after* they have signed up, for example what product categories they like, so the emails you send them get increasingly well targeted.

As for competitions and big offers, our research shows that these DO result in a lot more signups - but they are people who come for just the competitions and offers and do not transition into normal shoppers. Also you cannibalise your full-price sales to some extent. We have found that stopping the discounts increases profits but YMMV.

4 months ago

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Tony Edey, . at RCL Cruises Ltd

Assuming it's true for your company, then clearly and concisely explaining that you do not share data and that to unsubscribe is easy provides reassurance to the person when considering whether to give over their personal data.

4 months ago

Market Force

Market Force, Performance Marketing Manager at Marketforce @ Digital RiverSmall Business

It’s relatively easy to drive volume, but we would always urge clients to consider quality over quantity. Asses the LTV of your particular campaigns and tactics to understand which ones bring in the most profitable and loyal customers. Worst case driving volume can lead to complaints, ISP issues and blacklisting.
It’s important for brands to understand their value proposition and therefore the benefit to the consumer in signing up to their email program. This is even more important for premium brands where leading with discounts is not an option. As the article highlights, all too often email sign-ups are generic, vague marketing speak that does little to entice the customer.

Finally, it’s important not to forget the journey doesn’t end with email sign-up. All too often I’ve signed up to a brands email program and a month later received a generic promotional email campaign. A tailored and well thought out Welcome Program will mean that all your hard work capturing emails is not wasted.

4 months ago

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