As with most things, the art of enticing new subscribers depends a lot on the kinds of emails you send and the kind of people you're trying to attract. Realize that by offering tons of enticements to recruit subscribers, you're likely to get more addresses but wind up with members who may be a bit fickle. Conversely, by understating the value of your emails, or not promoting the signup link enough, your list will likely be made up of very loyal readers, you just won't have lots of them.
We call this the Inverse Loyalty Curve. Actually we just made the whole Inverse Loyalty Curve thing up, but if we were to give it a name, Inverse Loyalty Curve would be it, and before you know it people would be blogging about 'Inverse Loyalty Curve this' and 'Inverse Loyalty Curve that.' Pretty soon there would be entire books and seminars devoted to it. But back to the matter at hand.
Ask yourself why someone should sign up to get your emails. Is it because they'll get tips that can help them run their business, or access to articles before they're published or coupons that will save them money? And then make your case clearly to prospective subscribers. Don't just ask them to sign up for your emails; instead, ask them to sign up for your emails to get exclusive, email-only deals and discounts (or whatever the reward might be).
In life, timing is everything.* So make sure you ask people to join your list when they're most likely to say yes: after they've just bought something they love from your store, or after they've finished a great meal at your restaurant or when they've just read the most fascinating article on your website. So be sure to incorporate your "join now" link and teaser into the parts of your website – and business – where people are most likely to jump at the chance.
The people who love you will be perfectly content to fill out three screens of information and take a short survey to join your list. The people who like you may not. So keep your signup process short and sweet. Minimize the clicks, and ask only for the information you truly need (if you're not planning on using people's birthday information later, don't trouble people for it). And by all means, don't mislead people into thinking the process is short and sweet only to hit them with a 20-minute routine. (You've seen signups that ask only for your email address followed by a "join" button – but instead of joining you're greeted by 20 more fields and a citizenship test.) Make signing up a pleasant, fast experience, and you'll lose fewer people along the way.
It's possible the content of your emails is reward enough. But you might also consider offering people a bit of instant gratification for joining. Maybe new subscribers get an instant 10% off their next purchase, or access to special premium content on your site, or a chance to win an iPod or -- even better -- an iPod chock full of Air Supply hits like "Here I Am (Just When I Thought I Was Over You)." If a song has a really long subtitle in parentheses, it has to be good. But we digress. Remember that you can customize the thank-you screen that greets new subscribers. Get creative and make the thank-you screen itself a printable coupon, or include a link to premium content, or just let them know their name is in the hat for those sweet Air Supply tunes.
MarketingSherpa published the results of a case study conducted by technology company HP in which they attempted to wrangle a beast of a texty 15-field registration form. Shifting a focus to quantity over quality – the prior belief being that whomever completed the lengthy form really wanted to get HP emails, at the cost of other leads who abandoned the page – yielded a 186% increase in conversion rate. They opted to use a third party to supplement data no longer gathered from their fields. In the end, HP found that keeping things simple, with a newly designed and rebranded five-field signup form and less descriptions for each field, worked best. The full article is here, and it's a good read.
*Also: Location, location, location. Fortune favors the bold. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. People in glass houses really should have considered buying a house made out of wood or brick.