Big time marketers will think I’m crazy for saying this, but here’s how I got my first 1,000 subscribers: face-to-face conversation.

That’s right. I personally invited a thousand people to be on my list. Yes, my list growth was slow. It took years. If you don’t have that kind of patience, you can stop reading now.

Still here? Great. Here’s how it works.

Fair warning: this works well for B2B service companies with a very consultative sales process. It’s not for everyone.

Although it took years, these personal invites didn’t add extra time from my day. I was meeting with hundreds of people per year anyway, during the normal course of my day. (I’m the co-founder of a web design company – I average five meetings per day with current and prospective clients).

Make it a habit

I simply make it a habit to offer my newsletter at the end of conversations. It always feels more natural when, during the conversation, I bring up an article I’ve written. I’m constantly referring to past blog posts when talking to people. It creates a natural hook for the newsletter.

Here’s how it sounds:

Me: “Great meeting with you today. Thanks for taking the time. A  few minutes ago, I showed you something I’d written that seemed relevant to you. I actually write articles like that for our newsletter every two weeks. If you’d like, I can add you to the list.”

Them: “Well, sure. Ok. You have my email address…”

Me: “I’ll add you, but please, don’t hesitate to unsubscribe if you’re overwhelmed with email. I would never take it personally. The trick to email marketing is to not send email to people who won’t want it!”

Them: “Thanks for saying that, but it’s fine. Feel free to add me to your list.”

More than 95% of people accept, perhaps because it would be awkward not to. But when they stay on the list and stay engaged (high open rates, high CTR, low unsub rates) I know I’ve honored the invitation with quality content. So, here’s something to keep in mind…

Email is a privilege, not a right

When you’ve met with your subscribers personally, you’d better step up your game. You’ve been granted the privilege to send email to that person. Honor that subscriber by keeping your promise to send great stuff. Don’t add noise to their inbox with anything less than excellence.

Great content meets one of these three criteria: it’s actionable, it’s proven, or it’s a strong opinion.

Here’s a bit more on my criteria for writing.

Bonus tip for public speakers

Here’s how to give a “personal invitation” to a room full of people. If you can get this to work, speaking engagements will suddenly have a LOT more value to you. Here’s how it works:

    1. Give an amazing presentation. Give it your very best in both style and substance. Prepare carefully, share something practical (or personal), care deeply about your topic.

    1. During the presentation, mention specific materials, such as tools, articles, links, handouts, or the presentation itself. Suggest that people don’t need to take to take detailed notes, because you’ll be sharing things afterwards. The last slide of the presentation should show images of these materials, if possible.

    1. Once you’re finished with the presentation and Q&A, offer to send the materials to anyone who give you their card. Here comes the pitch:

      “So, if you’d like me to share these resources, just drop off your card here on the podium. But be forewarned! I’m going to assume that each of you is interested in these topics, so I’m going to add you to my bi-weekly newsletter. If you would prefer not to get these emails, no worries. Simply mark an ‘x’ on your card and I’ll make sure not to add you. I would never send email to someone who doesn’t want it!”

      Generally, two-thirds of attendees leave their card and more than 90% of those cards won’t have an ‘x.’

  1. Send the follow up email within 24 hours, if possible. Budget the time in advance to manually enter the new subscribers into your database. Make a note showing what presentation they attended. The follow up email will BCC each of them, include the materials, and remind them of the upcoming newsletter. Here’s a template I often use:

    Thank you all for the chance to present at [EVENT NAME]. Here’s a quick follow up with the presentation and materials I mentioned. Here is the [LINK TO RESOURCE]  and the [LINK TO PRESENTATION ON SLIDESHARE]. You’ll also find [RESOURCE] attached to this email. I hope you find these as useful as I do.

    As I mentioned, if you’re not already on our newsletter list, I’ll make sure to add you. You’ll receive it [WEEKLY / MONTHLY / QUARTERLY] starting on [DATE]. The next issue will be about [SPECIFIC TOPIC]. As I mentioned, if you are overwhelmed with email or if you get tired of the topic, please don’t hesitate to unsubscribe!

    Thanks again, everyone. Looking forward to keeping in touch. Feel free to connect with me on [LINK TO SOCIAL NETWORK].

    Andy Crestodina

Some attendees will send a quick thank you reply. Take the time to answer each personally. It’s worth it.

This approach has led to hundreds of subscribers and makes every speaking engagement far more valuable than it would have been otherwise. Sometimes the pile of business cards on the podium overflows and people laugh as they add their card to the top!

It’s about quality, not quantity

I’d rather have a small list of engaged subscribers than 100,000 random addresses. No question. In fact, a smaller list can be a big advantage. A smart marketer knows how to turn a small audience into loyal superfans.

In-person meetings are a great way to build a great list. The people you’ve actually met are ideal subscribers. After all, that’s what email marketing is all about: staying top-of-mind with people with whom you couldn’t otherwise keep in touch by delivering valuable content.

Andy Crestodina is the Strategic Director of Orbit Media, a web design company in Chicago. He’s also the author of Content Chemistry, An Illustrated Guide to Content Marketing You can find Andy on Google+ and Twitter.