Rapidly Grow Your Email List With This 5-Step Sidebar Opt-in Form Checklist (+ Examples)

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Popups and lightboxes are all the rage at the moment.

And for good reason. Despite being annoying for users, there isn’t any doubt that a compelling lightbox can achieve excellent opt-in rates.

But what if you feel that lightboxes are too disruptive for your users?

Or you want a chance to capture the increasing number of users who click “X” on popups out of principle?

The next best placement (if you don’t want to create lead magnets for individual posts – more on that in a future post) is the sidebar.

I realise this is hardly breaking news. But most website owners are missing out on huge numbers of leads due to poor quality sidebar forms – and this could be avoided with just a few simple changes.

Five Essential Elements of a Strong Sidebar Opt-in Form

Here are five elements you should include in every sidebar opt-in form. Add these elements to your form and I guarantee you’ll see a boost in conversion rates (assuming you understand your target market’s desires, emotions, beliefs and pain points).

  1. Eye-catching design that stands out from the rest of the blog and instantly draws the eye.
  2. A compelling “ethical bribe” that offers something the reader truly desires for FREE…in return for their email address (it’s got to be something the reader would happily pay for). The “bribe” or lead magnet should focus on a specific problem that your target market is desperate to solve. It doesn’t need to be long – in fact a short, simple solution to a problem is often more attractive than a 163 page PDF.
  3. A concise, clear and compelling headline that immediately grabs the prospect…tells him what he can get by entering his email…and provides an overt or implied benefit. There is no room for creativity or fancy wording here – the headline should be relatively short and instantly communicate what the reader stands to gain from signing up.
  4. A simple form (preferably with only an email field) that makes the user feel safe. Privacy information can help with this (see the example below).
  5. Strong call-to-action that reinforces exactly what the user is going to get for signing up, and pushes him to take action.

Sounds simple enough? Let’s look at some examples…

Examples of Good (and Bad) Opt-In Forms

To start with, here’s a form that definitely doesn’t have the five essential elements….


How many times have you seen an opt-in form like the one above?

It pains me to think about the number of potential subscribers blog owners are missing out on with forms like that!

  • No “hook” or even a reason to sign-up.
  • No giveaway or lead magnet.
  • No eye-catching design elements.
  • No hint at what’s included if you “subscribe.”
  • No compelling headline or call-to-action.

A form like this is better than nothing (barely)…but it can be easily improved.

Here’s a much better example…


This is currently the opt-in form at QuickSprout (a great blog about content marketing and other topics).

Here’s a quick breakdown of what makes it so great:

  • Eye-catching design – The design stands out from the rest of the blog – while still maintaining the overall theme of the site. The subtle drop shadow also lifts it “off” the page (if you click through to the blog, you can see that no other elements have a drop shadow).
  • Free Course” – The user is quickly aware that he can get something for free. The headline also positions the giveaway as a valuable course…not a cheap eBook. Even if the course is delivered as a PDF, just like an eBook, this positioning greatly increases the perceived value.
  • “Double Your Traffic in 30 Days” – A clear benefit with a specific timeframe. This is a “big benefit” headline that may not work when selling a product (internet marketing is a mature niche that needs a stronger USP)…but is compelling enough for a free giveaway. It could potentially be improved by including a unique mechanism – something that makes it stand out from other similar products.
  • “Secret bonus (valued at $300)” – Builds curiosity and increases perceived value further. You almost want to opt-in just to see what the bonus is.
  • Body copy and image – The body copy includes a short reinforcement of the main benefits of the course, and implies that doubling your traffic is only a conservative estimate of what you can achieve. The image of the DVD and manuals also increases the perceived even more.
  • “Fill out the form below to start your FREE course” – Tells the reader exactly what to do next. There can be no confusion on a short-form landing page or opt-in form – even the slightest lack of clarity can reduce conversion rates.
  • “Yes, Lets Start The FREE Course” – Further reinforcement that this is a free course, and creates a sense of urgency by implying the reader can get started straight away.
  • “100% Privacy. I will never spam you!” – Every opt-in form should have some sort of privacy policy to reassure readers. This is a simple, clear privacy statement that doesn’t leave any room for misinterpretation. It’s also written in the first person, so the reader knows he’s signing up for the blogger’s personal list (Neil Patel in this case).

There is nothing ground-breaking in this opt-in form. But hopefully you can now see why it’s so effective…especially compared to the first example.

Bonus Tip #1: Positioning Is Everything

The average blog sidebar is filled with “Latest Posts,” “Latest Comments,” random widgets, social media icons, search bars, tag clouds (shudder…), and all kinds of flashy clutter that no-one ever clicks on.

OK, some of these ARE useful. But chances are you could safely eliminate most of your blog’s sidebar and no one would notice.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at your analytics. How many people have actually clicked on your archives from 2012? Or your list of “Latest Comments?”

I’m not saying get rid of every sidebar element – but many can be moved. Social icons should be clearly visible in the header and footer, so you probably don’t need them in the sidebar. The search bar should also be in the header. Tag clouds should be forever banished to your archived widgets section in WordPress.

Why would you want to clean up your sidebar though?

Your opt-in form is one of the most important elements of your entire site. It allows you to reconnect with readers, develop a stronger bond, market products and build a more sustainable business. It is MUCH more important than your “Latest Comments” widget. Yet many bloggers surround their opt-in form with random elements that distract people from actually opting in.

The opt-in form should get prime position at the top of the sidebar. And if you can remove everything else from the sidebar, so that your opt-in form gets maximum attention, even better!

Bonus Tip #2: Split-Test Immediately

Testing is the key to improving your conversion rates – so it makes sense to split-test sidebar opt-in forms.

There are plenty of tools to help you do this. And once you’ve gathered statistically significant data on which form converts best, switch the loser for a new variation. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can make consistent, incremental improvements to your conversion rate with some simple A/B testing.

So don’t wait – create two opt-in forms and start testing right away!


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