How I Grew My List in 1 Month with an Email Course

Build Your Audience Guest Posts

In August of 2016, my very first email course generated 1,817 new email subscribers without me doing a thing to promote the launch. No paid ad campaigns. No joint webinars. No influencer outreach. No time-consuming guest posts.

New email course subscribers for Finding a Profitable Business Idea, August 2016.

I didn’t even send a promotional email to the 20,000 subscribers I had at the time.

All I did was implement a few strategically placed calls-to-action within my highest trafficked blog post.

Sounds pretty easy right?

Well, I’m not being 100% fair with you.

The blog post I implemented these calls-to-action on, a 10,000 word deep dive on the best side business ideas, was already generating around 150,000 monthly readers and now has more than 54,000 shares (more on how I did this below). In short, I worked my ass off to get that post ranking well in organic search for high volume terms like, “business ideas,” but it was proving to be a massive leaky funnel.

In fact, that post alone nearly tripled my hosting bill and was effectively losing me more money than it was worth. Before I created this free email course, that blog post was only giving me around 200 new subscribers per month.

I’m no mathematician, but that’s about a .13% conversion rate.

Although the post was being rewarded with tons of traffic, I wasn’t convincing many of those readers to join my community—largely because my previous call-to-action was to, “get my weekly newsletter!” So convincing, right?

I had to do something about this problem quickly once traffic picked up and my expenses skyrocketed.

My hypothesis was that if I created a more relevant lead magnet that builds upon the value my post already provides, I’d be able to convert more readers into email subscribers and eventually customers.

As a ConvertKit customer, I had already read up on  the power of email courses, so I decided to take a few weeks and put together one of my own as a little side project.

Now I had to answer my first big question…

How do I choose an email course topic?

In hindsight, it seems like a no-brainer for this post and course topic combo.

Post about business ideas… email course to help you find the right business idea. Duh.

However, I’d been teaching myself the same hard lesson over and over again for years…  

Don’t risk wasting time or money building what you think people will want. Take the time to carefully identify your target customers and ask them what they need first.

So, before I began investing time into building an email course to tie to this blog post, I personally emailed 25 of my subscribers, asking them to be in my early feedback group for this project. I gave them 3 options of potential free course topics for me to build and asked which one they wanted most.

Here were the options I gave them:

  1. How to Find a Profitable Business Idea
  2. The Complete Guide to Validating Your Idea
  3. How to Get Your First 1,000 Subscribers

How to Find a Profitable Business Idea was the winner by far since most of my subscribers had gradually come to me with the hope of learning which types of businesses have the most potential today. This topic hit my audience’s pain point spot on.

Over the next few weeks, I set aside 2 hours every other day during the week to work on developing my content, creating my PDF worksheets, and crafting my emails.

Because I know myself very well, I knew that I’d never get this email course shipped if I didn’t have a clear deadline and if I neglected to physically schedule these blocks of time on my calendar—especially since I still had a demanding day job at the time.

So, I set my deadline for 3 weeks out and scheduled the time I’d need in order to build this email course quickly.

make a schedule to help you create online course content
Screenshot of my Google Calendar schedule from when I was building my course content.

After just over 3 weeks of creating the course content and a weekend of building the landing page where I’d direct readers to sign up, my email course was as ready as it’d ever feel. It wasn’t perfect, but I knew I’d be tweaking it based on student feedback in the future.

Next, it was time to whip up a call-to-action and place it within my post on side business ideas so that I could start funneling people into my new lead magnet.

In the month I released this course, my conversion rate on that post jumped to 1.2% with this very simple call-to-action near the top of the post, below the third line of copy.

call to action for online course
My simple call-to-action for readers to join my contextually relevant, free email course.

Still not a standalone great conversion figure, but that change represented an 809% increase in conversion rate from where it was before, without changing anything else on my post. Not a bad starting point to grow and optimize from.

This experience reinforced a very important lesson to me…

Listen to your community and build what they need.

I already had the content that was bringing me a ton of new readers each month, but I wasn’t meeting them on an even playing field in terms of the exchange of value for their email address.

Joining my newsletter or signing up for a waiting list of a course wasn’t enough, but this free email course that promised a much more relevant value was the tipping point.

Today, this email course alone continues to generate around 50-100 new subscribers per day for me.

My subscriber figures for


I’ve since added multiple new lead magnets including downloadable PDFs, templates, and detailed guides that are all significantly more appealing than asking people to just, “join my weekly newsletter!”

As I grow my traffic and create new content for my blog, I now have a process to follow for building relevant email courses—which have a very high perceived value to my audience.

Ok good for you, Ryan. But how do I get this much traffic to my blog posts in the first place?

Well, let’s take a quick step back to where this all started.

During 2015, my blog was getting anywhere between 1,000-15,000 monthly readers who were coming from various channels, primarily organic search, to read in-depth posts that chronicle my own ups and downs with starting a side business.

I attracted a few hundred email subscribers who loved my raw stories about going from zero to $160,000 in a year with my last side business, but I hadn’t built any products for this site yet and it wasn’t generating any revenue. These posts were mostly just stories and not optimized to achieve any real goals other than to captivate my readers.

Still not bad I thought, considering I had really only been blogging for about a year at that point and I was working mostly on developing my voice as a writer.

However, I was reading almost daily about how much traffic, subscribers, and revenue other popular bloggers and online business experts were bringing in from their blogs. Comparing myself and my small numbers to the stats of others who’d been in the industry for years made me feel pretty mediocre.

The traffic to my blog was unpredictable at best.

It depended heavily upon whether or not I was publishing new content, how much outreach I was doing each week, and if I was taking the extra time to write and pitch guest posts to bring back more new readers.

It took a ton of manual work on my part to get those couple thousand monthly readers.

Despite the small numbers, I was slowly building an engaged email list of readers who’d click through to read every new post each month. Still, I wasn’t experiencing the type of growth I was seeing in my day job as a content marketer at CreativeLive where I’d been learning how to systematically drive high volumes of traffic to our blog content.

I wanted quicker results with my own blog too, so I starting putting my learnings into practice with my content.

One of my biggest takeaways with content at CreativeLive was that search engines love long-form deep dives on a specific topic. When you can combine that deep, expert-level content with even just a handful of high quality backlinks, your posts have a strong chance of ranking well in organic search results over time.

Once you’re ranked well by search engines for the right keywords, the floodgates can open with traffic overnight. That’s exactly what happened to me.

Monthly traffic growth for for the first half of 2016 after publishing epic side business ideas post.

Very shortly after I published my post on side business ideas, the longest single piece of content I had ever written for just one post, my organic traffic began to take off. But that didn’t happen overnight or by accident.

How I engineered my post for success.

There were several key things I did both before and after publishing my epic post on side business ideas, which helped it eventually climb to where it is (as of today) in search rankings as the #4 organic result for, “business ideas.”

  1. Targeting a less competitive long tail keyword phrase.

Unless your site already has a high domain authority and strong online reputation, you have to choose your keyword battles wisely. Sure, I eventually wanted this post to rank for business ideas, which has an estimated monthly search volume of 162,515 according to Google’s Keyword Planner Tool.

Google’s Keyword Planner estimate for monthly search volume on, “business ideas.”

However, when I first published this post, my blog had a very small amount of traffic compared to the other sites I’d be competing with for this term. I knew it wasn’t going to be possible to quickly unseat competitors like Entrepreneur, Inc, and other websites that have been creating content for literally decades.

So, I chose a less competitive longer keyword phrase to optimize my post for: best side business ideas. There wasn’t anywhere near the same amount of competition for this specific of a term, but it still had the root phrase of, business ideas in the title.

I made sure that the phrase side business ideas was mentioned many times within my post—more than any other combination of words—to help signal to search engines that this is what my post was about.

My hypothesis was that with a lot of hard work over time, I’d be able to gradually rank for side business ideas (less competition, less reward) and eventually change my post to be optimized specifically for just business ideas (more competition, more reward). This subtle strategy paid off much quicker than expected.

Enter: That hard work.

  1. Strategic links within my post.

Before I hit publish on my post, I spent a good amount of time thinking about who I wanted to link to from within the content of my post—with the intention of reaching out to every single brand, blog, publication and influencer I mentioned.

I wanted to maximize the chances of picking up backlinks and landing high value guest posts that’d help me drive back more new readers to my blog.

Within each business idea of the 101+ I wrote about, I took the time to find at least 1-3 authoritative blogs that looked like good potential opportunities for me to generate backlinks from—either in the form of a mention in a related post on their blog, or from a guest post I could pitch.

Here’s an example of what that looked like:


It’s a numbers game, but once my post was live I started reaching out to other marketers and blog managers at the companies I’d mentioned within my post.

A little more than half of the people I reached out to got back to me. From that smaller pool, another half eventually turned into backlinks or guest posts over the course of the following months like this on Skillcrush, this on General Assembly and this on HubSpot.

This pre-linking technique of providing value before outreach also developed into a strategy I use within my freelance business and I was able to transition some of these new brand relationships into paid client relationships as well.

  1. Social influencer outreach.

I knew the importance of social signals when it came to SEO, but I didn’t have a big audience of my own to kickstart the social sharing.

Most of the brands and blogs I had started building relationships with proactively shared my post with their social audiences, which gave me the first 1,000 shares on the post. But, I wanted to double down on that.


After the momentum began to slow, I turned to the social research tool, Buzzsumo to start identifying more potential brands, blogs and influencers who may be interested in sharing my post.

I pasted in the link to one of my biggest competitor posts from Entrepreneur and built an outreach list of the 50 or so most reputable opportunities I thought had the highest potential of either sharing my article, giving me a backlink or letting me guest post. Queue the outreach again.

That round of emails eventually led me to a handful of influential Pinterest users who shared business-related content and had hundreds of thousands of followers. So, I put together one of my first pins and my new Pinterest friends started seeding it around to dozens of group boards.

The pin for my side business ideas post has been repinned more than 27,500 times.

To someone who was brand new to Pinterest, the resulting traffic and repin numbers that have continued to increase for nearly a year has been nothing short of insane. My original pin, which has been my most successful to date now has more than 27,500 repins.

This has become an essential part of my distribution workflow. Now all of my blog posts get a few Pinterest image variations and make their way across a dozen or so business-related group boards after the post is published. Most end up being repinned somewhere between 2,000-10,000 times over the first couple of months the post is live.

Want big results with your content? Leverage your strengths.

In the end, your success with driving traffic and generating email subscribers from your site will depend heavily upon how well you’re able to lean into what you’re good at.

I’m a content marketer with a strength in writing—so I lean heavily into establishing relationships with reputable websites and securing guest posts that win me new backlinks, readers and subscribers. It’s taken time to develop, but this is my system. You need to find what works best for you.

If you’re a designer by trade, try leveraging your strengths by pitching infographics as guest post alternatives on high authority websites. If video is your medium of choice, find a way to provide value to the top websites in your niche with video content.

Once you have content that clearly sticks, continue the conversation with your audience and keep building exactly what they need.

Everything good comes first from building trust and providing genuine value without asking for anything in return.

Want to follow along with a crazy experiment I’m running this month? I’m challenging myself to build a completely new business—without using any of my existing relationships—during the month of December. Check it out here: The 30 Day Validation Challenge.

Ryan Robinson

Ryan Robinson is an entrepreneur and writer. He teaches over 200,000 monthly readers how to start and grow a profitable side business on

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