How to Create a Killer List Building Offer (Even if You Have No Product to Sell)

Last July, I was sitting at a table in a Portland Starbucks, biting my nails, wondering what the next hour would bring.

For the last three months I’d been working on a product that I knew had a ton of potential, but was essentially untested.  While I was working on the product itself I released a series of emails, videos, and free content to give away while I got everything ready to launch.

The time had come and I was minutes away from my beta release. I was opening Location Rebel up for 20 people, in hopes of getting feedback, building the forums, and preparing it for primetime.

8:55 – my first sale comes in, 5 minutes before I was supposed to actually launch the product. Good sign.

By 9:45 I’d sold out all 20 spots. I was expecting this to take a couple days, and didn’t have a “sold out” page prepared.  More sales came in before I could close it.

All told in an hour I made about $7,000 – not a ton of money by any means, but to this day remains one of my most proud and memorable moments in entrepreneurship.

In the last year and half this sales funnel alone has led to thousands of leads, over $50,000 in direct sales, and thousands more in affiliate sales.

However, all of this started with a killer free offer – before I even had a product to sell.

The Best Way to Build a List Quickly

I’m sure by now you’ve heard all the internet marketing gurus out there touting the wonders of a big list.

In the last year I’ve gotta admit, I’ve gotten on board with the idea of email marketing.  However, not necessarily for the reasons you might imagine.

Yes, it can be an excellent sales tool, but much more importantly, it’s been a relationship building tool.

Through emails responses via people who have signed up for Location 180 and Location Rebel updates, I’ve gotten to know more of my readers than in any other way – this wouldn’t have been possible had I not made a concerted effort to create useful offer to be delivered via email.

That being said, there’s one strategy I’ve found that trumps every thing else in terms of building that list up quickly.

What’s that you might be wondering?

I already told you: The Killer Free Offer.

In April of 2011, before I even had a finished product to sell, I created an ebook called “Location Rebel Arsenel: Everything You Need to Work from Anywhere.”

I knew my final product was going to be about building a business that allows you to work from anywhere in the world – so naturally my free giveaway was something related to that.

The result was a well edited ebook with interesting visuals, that covered all of the tools I use to run my business.

I threw up a squeeze page, mentioned it in a blog post, and then waited to see what happened.

The results surprised even me.  In less than 24 hours I had over 500 email signups.

In the last year since I’ve averaged about 10 a day.

This free offer has been more effective for growing a list, and in turn generating sales, than any other strategy I’ve tried.

In this post we’re going to look at what you’ll need to physically create your offer, as well as look at strategies for making sure you’re giving something away that people actually want.

What Can You Offer for Free?

Let’s get one thing straight first: you don’t have to have a product to sell at the end of this.  If you just want to build a list and then send them cool memes of puppies and overly attached girlfriends – that’s totally cool, up to you.

However, you want to do this right.  You don’t want to give people some BS piece of crap that will make them unsubscribe faster than Usain Bolt on a fighter jet.

When you’re thinking about your free offer, you need to be very aware of your current brand and what your audience is looking for.

Here’s a simple 3 step process for creating your killer offer:

Step #1) Create A Survey for Current Readers

Everyone thinks they know what people want – few know.

So let’s find out.  By creating a short (that part is important) survey, you can get a sense of what your readers are actually struggling with.  This will not only give you ideas for your giveaway, but can be an excellent source for real product ideas as well.  Here are three of my favorite, useful, questions:

  • What big problem relating to [Insert Your Subject Matter Here] are you currently experiencing?
  • How do you prefer to consume content (PDF, Video, Audio, Web Text Other:______)
  • What type of content do you enjoy the most (Step by Step Tutorials, Personal Narratives, Case Studies, Other:______)

With those three questions your learning: 1) Their current problem, 2) How they want to receive a solution to the problem.

When you’re creating an offer, these are the questions that will directly relate to the content you’re going to give them – which is vital to your success.

Use Survey Monkey to put this together, drop the link in a blog post, and also send it out via social media.  The responses may really surprise you.

Step #2: Create a Brainstorm List of Potential Ideas

Write out 25-50 headlines or potentials titles for your offer. These should be eye catching, and should make anyone want to click through to find out more.

Once you have your list, narrow them down to the top 10 and then make those headlines better. 

What’s a good headline look like?

I think Dane Maxwell has the best strategy for this:

End Result the Customer Wants + Time Frame + Objection Handled.

In my experience, if you have one of these three things, you’ve got a good headline.

If you have 2 of 3, you have a great headline.

If you can get all of them into a single headline, then you have one that is impossible to ignore – and that’s what we’re going for with your free offer.

Take the Location Rebel Headline for instance: Make $1,000 in Extra Income in 3 Months (Even While Having a Full Time Job)

  • Result: Make $1,000 in Extra Income
  • Timeline: 3 Months
  • Objection: Even With a Full Time Job

Rewrite your headline ideas based on this formula, and then your job is going to be to pick one of them and build a free product that delivers on the promises your headline makes.

Step #3: Create an Outline of Your Offer

Ok, so now that you’ve decided what you’re going to build, we need to establish a roadmap.

You wouldn’t start a road trip without having a general idea of where you’re going, would you? No! And we want to make it as easy as possible to actually create this.

Depending on how you’re going to distribute this, there are a few different frameworks you can use.  If it’s via email, a six part course usually works best.

That’s enough to be able to cover a lot of content, without being overwhelming.

If you’re going to create an ebook or pdf, I usually end up following some variation on the following framework:

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Overview of What You’ll Learn
  • Chapter 2: Basic Knowledge You Must Have to Move Forward
  • Chapter 3: Moving from Basics to Strategy
  • Chapter 4: More Strategy
  • Chapter 5: Specific Tactic Used to Implement Strategy
  • Chapter 6: Specific Tactic Used to Implement Strategy
  • Chapter 7: Practical Application
  • Chapter 8: More Practical Application
  • Chapter 9: Conclusion

Obviously this is pretty (purposefully) vague.  The whole idea though is to introduce the reader to an idea, make sure they have the basic knowledge needed to understand the idea, and then give them the tools, strategies, and real world knowledge to apply it to their own lives.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make with this is using too much theory.  Without real world examples, it can be difficult to relate to.

If you follow through on this, you’ll have a product that you can undoubtedly charge money for.  However, by giving it away for free you have an opportunity to prove yourself – which you’ll have to do before people fork out their hard-earned cash on something you create.

Once you have a general overview of your content, get even more in depth.  You should draft out every single point, example, and idea for your free product.

When your outline is done it should be more of a fill in the blank for you at this point.  Go down the list and write content around the outline.  Depending on how in depth you go, this is something you should be able to do in a weekend.

How Will You Deliver Your Free Gift?

There are all sorts of ways you can digitally deliver your free gift.  What will work best for you is really going to depend on what your end goal is.

Are you like me and planning to eventually have a membership site attached to this new sales funnel?  Is this simply going to be an email list for blog updates? Something else?

Your tools will change based on what your goals are.

There are thousands of different tools online that will help you do various aspects of all of this.  I could rattle off all of them, but that’s just going to confuse you. Instead I’m going to tell you exactly what’s worked for me.

Yes, I know there are other ways. I know there are prettier ways. I know there are probably cheaper ways.

However this way looks decent, doesn’t break the bank, and sets you up for success over the long term.

So, that being said, what do we need?

The basics:

  • Domain
  • Hosting
  • WordPress
  • Email Service
  • Optimize Press
  • Wishlist Member (Eventually)


You should already have all of this.  However if you’re just at the beginning of your online journey, and you’re setting your free offer up at the same time as your new website, then check out this post on how to get everything setup in a weekend.

I recommend Hover for domains, and Bluehost or WPEngine for this type of hosting.

Email Service

Your email service is the central component to all of this.  After a basic website, this is the only thing you really need.

Assuming you don’t have thousands and thousands of people already on an email list, you really have two good (affordable options).

Mailchimp is the cheapest. Aweber is more full featured.

I personally use Aweber and have been really happy with it.  It starts out at $19/month and is totally worth it.  However, Mailchimp is free for the first 2,000 leads which may be less of a barrier to entry for many people.

Once you build your list to be a decent size the price ends up being about the same, and Aweber offers more, so that’s usually why I recommend it.

Optimize Press

This is for those of you that are building your email list in order to launch a membership site down the road.

Optimize Press is my framework of choice for sales funnels and membership sites.  Why? Because it takes all of it and integrates it into one (relatively) easy to use system.

It has built in templates for all of the pages that you’ll need, customization options galore, it’s own built in video player and much more.

Location Rebel is built entirely around this framework.

Is it perfect? Short answer is no.

It takes a couple hours to understand how it works, and a few more to get things looking exactly how you want, but in the end it’s done everything I thought it would and been an excellent platform to build not only a sales funnel, but the end product as well.

If you’re creating a dedicated “squeeze page” for your offer, Optimize Press is one of the easiest ways to create a page and offer that converts.

You can grab Optimize Press Here.

Wishlist Member

Now this one isn’t essential, yet.

Wishlist Member is what allows you to turn Optimize Press into a fully fledged membership site.  You can protect any pages you want, create an unlimited number of membership levels, and it integrates perfectly with Paypal and Aweber.

Since this post is only focused on your killer offer, Wishlist isn’t a necessary component.  However, if you want to take things further after this, check out “How to Build a Membership Site in 48 Hours“.

The Next Steps

Alright, so now you know what goes into a killer offer.  You have an outline for how you’re going to create it, and you have options for distribution.

What happens next, when you actually put it out there and start building this list?

There’s really only one thing you have to do, in my experience.  I mean sure, there are a lot of things that you can and will do, but there’s only one that’s important.

If you do this one thing, the rest will all fall into place.

What is it?

Always remember that every single person on your list is a real person, with real problems, and real ambition.

It’s easy to look at metrics and numbers and become detatched. Or to simply treat your email list as a sales tool and a way for you to make money.

The minute you treat it as such, is the minute it will all go away.

Interact with as many people as possible. Respond when you get emails.  Open up the lines of communication and encourage them to engage.

You’ll learn more about your audience than you ever thought possible, make new friends and contacts, and become much more personally involved in your community.

Thats the real benefit of doing this.

Photo Credit: Joel Montes

diamantis December 3, 2012 at 9:18 am

Hi Sean !

The idea of a membership site is very compelling , I have to admit.

But I wonder if it is a sustainable business model. On one hand if you charge for example every month there is the danger of members leaving after a while. On the other hand if you charge once you constantly need new members.

The way I see it now , lifetime membership has more pros than cons.

Anyway , I would like your thoughts on that.

Be healthy and smile.


Sean December 3, 2012 at 9:42 am

I run sites with both models, while you’re right there are definitely pros and cons I personally like finding a way to integrate both models into the same site.

Perhaps you charge a high price for one time fee access, and then charge monthly for access to a portion of the content or a lower tier. Everyone likes paying for things a different way, so if you can devise a strategy for both you’ll have a balance of higher payout and hopefully steady revenue in the process.


Dave December 3, 2012 at 9:52 am

Great article Sean! This is actually perfect for me because I’ve been trying to figure out a great free offer to help me build an email list. I’ve debated between a few different methods, but I personally think a free e-book is the best way to go. I can see the survey being very helpful as well, but do you think you already need a high number of subscribers in order for that to really work?


Sean December 3, 2012 at 9:58 am

Not generally. Even if you can get feedback from 10-20 people you’ll know a lot more than you would have otherwise. Take everything with a grain of salt, of course, but between Twitter, FB, a blog post, and any already existing email you’ll be in good shape.


Kevin Cole December 3, 2012 at 10:04 am

There’s a reason the only metric Chris Guillebeau counts is email subscribers. They are your die-hard fans. But, without providing something of value, it can be tough to build that list.

I am going to have to apply some of these principles to my own blog. It wasn’t until I tried to create a free course to build a list that I realized how tough it can be. The e-book template is definitely going to come into play when re-organizing my course. Nicely done, Sean.


Sean December 3, 2012 at 10:08 am

Hey man,

Pop into the “Bonus Content” section of Location Rebel, and check out the “Info-Product Creation Framework”. I think that will go a long way towards what you need.


Chad Wittrock December 3, 2012 at 10:22 am

Insanely valuable post, Sean! As you mentioned in your weekly recap the posts haven’t been as frequent but they have offered a TON of value. Much appreciated!


Harrison December 3, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Ahh … the dreaded email list building … something I’ve kept pushing off since this past June.

Kick my ass Sean, got to do that. I guess a huge major goal for me starting 2013!


Carlo Cretaro December 3, 2012 at 7:39 pm

This is another excellent post Sean. Value town!

This is something which I’ve wanted to go about doing for my blog but never really looked into it for two reasons; 1) I didn’t know the framework(that you just described) , and 2) I don’t know what kind of ebook to create as my offer.

At least I’m 50% of the way there now 😉


Joe Cassandra December 4, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Great post Sean as usual! I started off with an e-book, but plan on building on membership content to keep them intrigued, it’s ok so far…but a survey could be a great idea to go with!


Mary December 9, 2012 at 8:51 pm

Very helpful post, Sean. I’ll send out the survey this week to my, um, 8 subscribers. 🙂 Seriously, I will!


Fred December 10, 2012 at 10:12 am

I couldn’t have found this article at a better time. Now that I have my basic site ready, it is the plans to build an e-mail list to offer my prospects actionable advice about a real problem in their web content that I will reveal using the free offer idea. Other than that, I won’t get in the trap of viewing my stats as just numbers, but as real cool people who will get real value from the advice and solutions offered – all thanks to this piece. . Thanks for sharing this. 🙂


Mans December 19, 2012 at 8:43 pm

Hey Sean,

Great list. This is also a great tactic for building out your products. At the end of the day, you might have an idea of what your potential customers might want, but it is always best to get the feedback from them instead.

I try to keep all of this stuff somewhere in between the front and back of my mind as I’d prefer to focus on quality content that helps people every day (as I’m sure you do too).


Ami Sanyal January 10, 2013 at 6:38 pm

Great post—and very relevant to my plans. Glad I discovered your site (via Hack The System).


FERNANDO July 17, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Really helpful tips for my new online offer. It’s great to see you cover the basics and remind about starting with the best email service providers. Recently I started to use Mad Mini, which is an amazing email service provider. Has anyone used it before? You can easily dig deep and find who read what they did and how they engaged with your feed and offers.

Thanks for the great tips Sean


Justin March 1, 2015 at 8:39 pm

Great article man! Just came across this; there’s definitely some easily-to-apply tips here that I can use. I appreciate it Sean!


Leave a Comment

« »