How I grew my email list 6x by using content upgrades

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Something a bit nuts has been happening here at Despite the fact I took an unofficial/official break from blogging over the summer, my email list grew by the tens or the teens, every day. I didn't realize what that meant until I was writing a guest post about the crazy “virality” of my How to digitize your hand lettering post and YouTube video.

How I grew my email list 6x by using content upgrades, plus a free downloadable list of 15 content upgrade ideas

Now that my ebook is launched (!!!) and especially because I quit my job, I have the time and energy to focus on Hello Brio stuff again. And though I haven't made a consistent effort since about March, I've watched my traffic and email list grow like crazy over the past few months.

What? I now need to pay for Mailchimp?

Yeah. Here's something I never thought I'd see. When I went to send out my last newsletter, Mailchimp told me I didn't have enough account credits to do so.

I ran out of credits to send a regular email newsletter, because my lists together are now over 2,000 subscribers. Let me reiterate: this is never. something. I thought. I'd see.

Taking a look at list growth

You see, I've been blogging at for quite a while. Sure, I'd seen some growth in my newsletter since 2012, but not a ton. Then, January 2015 hit, and suddenly my list started to grow.

In January 2015, my list started at 299, and grew by 135 subscribers. Each month after that, my list grew anywhere between 140 and 240 subscribers per month. But the weird thing was: I stopped blogging consistently after March. So, where was all of this list growth coming from, and so consistently?

First, we have to look at the types of content I was posting before and after January 2015. Let's take a look at May, June and July 2014.

Content analysis—Was it the change in content that grew my list?

My content, if nothing else, was super duper scattered. I wrote about my failed Crazy Pen Lady blog launch. I posted a pen review. I talked about organizing your blog and staying motivated (with anything). I posted stuff about happiness and choosing a blogging platform.

Then something clicked. Over the summer of 2014, I started a new blog, the now-defunct It was a place for me to talk only about hand lettering and illustration. Suddenly I realized I was liking this streamlined content a lot more than my usual scatterbrained editorial calendar. I ended up merging this content with HelloBrio content because after all, it's still all about creativity and design. From there, I started a weekly series about hand lettering—starting with my (now super-embarassing) How to Create a Hand Lettered Chalkboard Drawing in Photoshop tutorial. Since then, I've posted a hand lettering related post nearly every Saturday between August 2014 and March 2015, with my other content types scattered throughout the week. So, was it this consistent posting schedule that grew my newsletter?


If it were about the consistent content, my list would've skyrocketed before. Same as if it were about the strategically-placed newsletter subscription boxes. It was neither of these things. Then what caused the list growth?

It all came down to a freebie: Content upgrades for the win

In my content exploration phase, I ended up with a product that I could offer for free. The free Paperweight font launched January 15, 2015. Anyone from anywhere could download this fully-functioning desktop font for a simple exchange—an email address. The font was also featured on several popular design blogs in various freebie roundups, thus expanding my reach. (No longer free.)

From there, I posted a few other freebies: several desktop backgrounds, watercolor brush stroke freebie, and a free hand-lettered printable calendar.

Another notable freebie? A downloadable cheat sheet for my Skillshare class: Create Your Own Hand Drawn Font.

There's no question about it: people love freebies. But the news of this can be super disheartening for bloggers and content creators. Does this mean people will only subscribe and listen if you give them something for free? Will the quality of the subscribers be diminished if you're using Oprah-like marketing tactics? (“You get a car! YOU get a car!”)

What freebies and content upgrades actually mean for growing your email list

Sure, it is a bit soul-wrenching to learn your email list grew mostly because of freebies you provided. But at the same time, the blogosphere is an extremely competitive environment: there are a bajillion new blogs popping up every day(source: my Saturday-morning brain) and a lot of them are competing for your audience's attention. You've got to go that extra mile.

If you're teaching a font tutorial on your blog, and 10 other people are doing the same, but you're the only one to provide a downloadable cheat sheet, guess who is going to be the one to gain an email subscriber in exchange for said cheat sheet.

In summary: level-up your content, especially your popular content. 

By doing so, you're not being a sell-out; you're providing an extra mile of helpfulness that goes above and beyond your competitors. In exchange, you're developing a loyal fanbase of people that see your content as that much more helpful than others. By going the extra 10%, you'll be perceived as the generous and valuable blogger that you are—by providing awesome blog content AND THEN giving your readers something awesome to take home in exchange.

Download a free list of 15 content upgrade ideas

Whether you finally want to add content upgrades to your popular blog posts, or if you're looking for different ideas to upgrade your content, download my list of 15 content upgrade ideas. No email address needed, though I would love it if you signed up for my newsletter!

There you have it! After this investigative post, I'm still amazed to see my crazy email growth was due to freebies and content upgrades. Just goes to show you: they work!

I'd love to hear: what ideas do you have for content upgrades or freebies? How have content upgrades worked for you?