How and Why to Put the Horse Before Your Cart

An eCommerce brand’s email list is often the workhorse of recurring sales. Only attempting to acquire an email address once a visitor completes a purchase is “putting the cart before the horse,” as they say.

eCommerce Email Acquisition: R U Doing It Wrong?

The average eCommerce site conversion rate is somewhere between 1.4% and 5%, depending on which study or report you’re referencing. Most seem to sit somewhere around 1.5% to 3%. Even at the high end, that still means approximately 95% of eCommerce traffic leaves without a trace if email marketing lists are only built with new customers.

Things are getting better with regard to pre-cart email acquisition. Many retailers are showing a popup on exit to new customers, which offers a discount on the visitor’s purchase.

While this is better than no pre-cart email acquisition strategy at all, it is still very transaction focused. We created this post/guide to help retailers choose other offers to test against the tried-and-true transactional discounts they’re used to. We hope you find it useful.

This is a long post so we’ve included a Table of Contents below, which allows you to jump to sections of interest.

Our conversion team at Inflow has run tests comparing the performance of various offers, and the only definite thing they can say is: It depends and needs to be tested on every site to see what works best.

Example Test 1 – Subscription-Based eCommerce Client

This merchant sells a web-based solution that helps match homeowners with each other for the purpose of exchanging homes. Think of it like Airbnb but for temporarily trading homes instead of renting them. The subscription costs $180.

  • Test A was a simple 10 percent-off offer presented in an exit pop-up to new visitors.
  • Test B was just the eBook offer, no discount, presented in an exit pop-up to new visitors.
  • Test C was an eBook combined with 10 percent-off, presented in an exit pop-up to new visitors.

Results: Test C ( eBook with 10 percent-Off ) was the winner.

Test A came in a distant second, and Test B came in last place.

Example Test 2 – Retailer of Freeze-Dried Food Items

This eCommerce site sells ready-to-eat trail snacks and meals in single-serving containers, as well as long-term food storage supplies, like 10-gallon buckets of rice and flour. Their two primary segments are Outdoor Enthusiasts (camping/hiking) and “Preppers.” The average order value (AOV) for this site is about $340.

  • Test A was 10 percent-off presented as an exit pop-up for new visitors.
  • Test B was a checklist download presented as an entry pop-up for new visitors. Visitors could choose from two checklists: Camping or Prepping.
  • Test C was a control with no offer at all.

Results: Test B (checklist download on entry) was the winner.

Test B won by a wide margin when it came to new email acquisition/participation. Interestingly, there was little difference between the 10 percent-off exit pop-up (Test A) and no offer at all, which was the control.

Clearly, providing a content offer in exchange for an email is an effective way of growing the list. Things to consider when choosing offers to test include: AOV, length of buying cycle, how many of these new contacts eventually convert to customers, as well as how their lifetime value (LTV) compares with averages from all customers.

Maybe those visitors would have converted better on a sweepstakes than either a discount or a content offer. Women’s fashion retailer Navabi saw increases of 200 percent to 300 percent in new email acquisition when they placed an incentivized newsletter signup form on their homepage. The range represents differences by country. More details about the Navabi case study can be found below.

Here are some different types of offers from which to choose.

Part 1: Types of Offers

The best offer approach to pre-checkout email acquisition depends on several factors, including how much consideration is given to the purchase, which in large part depends on the price. Transactional offers like saving 10 percent-off your first order can work very well if the AOV is less than $300. For larger purchases, which require more consideration, there’s a good possibility that more education is needed, and content-based offers may perform better in the long run as a way to obtain more first-time email addresses and eventual sales.

Free Stuff

The most common implementation of this tactic would be to give away a free sample of your products. The consumer typically only pays for shipping. Sometimes the products being given away are sample packs the eCommerce brand gets for free from manufacturers, such as a pet food store giving away free sample packs of different cat food. Other times there is a cost, making this somewhat of a loss leader. A better way to look at it is Cost Per Acquisition, which could end up being much lower than PPC, paid social and other channels.

Below are a few examples of eCommerce sites giving away free or deeply discounted products in exchange for email addresses.

The Feed is a lifestyle brand that provides highly customizable nutritional food and supplements to athletes. Items can be purchased once or as a subscription.

The Feed gives away tons of real products during the “season” of Tour De France. Come July, those who subscribe to The Feed, and those being incentivized to do so, will start to see even more compelling offers than the one below, such as a free $20 water bottle from CamelBak.

The Feed Pop-Up
The visitor pays only for shipping, unless they have other items in their cart (currently orders more than $49).

MomAgenda, has been providing free printable versions of their day planners for years, so it’s obviously a tactic that works for them.

MomAgenda eCommerce Landing Page

Home Decor Sites

It’s not uncommon for eCommerce stores that sell furniture, textiles and paint to offer free swatches. Offer

Some require a credit card and some don’t. Most require you to pay for shipping.

Loaf eCommerce Offer

Not only can this tactic help businesses collect email addresses, it can also help ensure customer satisfaction as it allows customers to get a better idea of what the product might look like in their home.

List Growth Strategies - - Free Samples

There are many more examples to be found of eCommerce stores giving something away in exchange for an email address. The relative quality and value of those new contacts depends on all sorts of things, including the brand’s ability to properly nurture new contacts toward their first purchase.

If the economics don’t work out for you after, considering the cost per acquisition and the quality of these contacts, consider one of the other types of offers below. Don’t forget to use Customer Lifetime Value in your calculations since, for some businesses, a one-time order won’t typically show a good ROI and isn’t representative of the behavior of the average customer.

Discounted Order

Probably the most common form of email acquisition before adding something to the cart is an offer to discount their first purchase, typically shown only to visitors without a cookie (i.e. new visitors) and often displayed as an exit pop-up, possibly to avoid giving the discount unnecessarily.

Mountain House creates and sells portable meals that do not require refrigeration. The brand is sold at outdoor, sporting goods and other retail stores across the country.  Here’s an example of an exit pop-up (more on delivery methods later) for a percentage discount off your next order.

Exit Pop Up Example from Mountain House

This type of offer is plentiful, and you’ll see more examples in the exit pop-up section later.

AHAVA sells cosmetic products made with active Dead Sea minerals. They appear to be testing several discount offers, including the one in the exit pop-up below.

Ahava 15 Percent Off Pop-Up

Another way of messaging the benefits of giving AHAVA your email address can be seen below, in which  percent-off becomes €-off, and the idea of a “club” or a community implies other benefits to come.

Ahava Club Offer

Penn State Industries sells pen kits, woodturning kits, mi-lathes and other pen-making supplies. First-time visitors are greeted with the following offer, which combines a  percent-off approach with the benefits of signing up to receive emails.

List Growth Strategies - Discount Offer -

Keep in mind that these still assume a transaction has to occur, and in some ways all continue to put the cart before the horse.

Content Offers

Content offers include webinars, courses, buying guides, white papers, eBooks, etc.

Designing a good landing page for your email list in general, which outlines all the benefits and rewards of signing up – such as receiving alerts on new products, discounts and VIP access – can be a compelling content offer in itself.

The smart marketing team at momAgenda also collect emails from free eBook downloads and other premium content. The cool thing about the eBook below is that it’s not directly related to a product. The title isn’t, “The Home Organizer’s Buying Guide,” but, “Seven Secrets to Finding More Time for You.”

Mom Agenda Email Marketing Tactic
These seem like offers created by people who know their audience, and the value of putting the horse before the cart.

BulletProof isn’t a typical eCommerce site but their Complete Bulletproof Diet Roadmap download is a great example of a compelling, well-targeted content offer for obtaining email addresses before the purchase.

List Growth Strategies - Content Offer - Bulletproof

Back In Stock Notifications

Most merchants specifically mention here that the shopper will see only one email from them and will not be added to a list – be sure that if this is stated clearly, then the notification is really all they receive. It would not be wise to add people to the marketing email list as the only way to receive in-stock notifications. However, it is completely appropriate to also include an offer to “sign up and save” on this purchase in the notification email when the time comes.

Magento Back in Stock Message

Loyalty Programs

These tend to include sending out email offers, early release products, discounts, swag, etc. that are actually exclusive to only the VIP people that are part of your loyalty program.

This can be done many ways, but one fairly easy way includes building a flow in a marketing automation platform that only sends to customers once they reach a certain spend threshold.

Flash Tattoos Offer Screenshot

Flash Tattoos uses a tool called Sweet Tooth to run their Gold Rewards loyalty program. Learn more here. You can also use other tools that focus solely on running solid loyalty programs.

Personalized Offers

Most of the time personalization requires that you already have their email address, but it can also be based on other identification sources, such as cookies or the referring website, as shown in the example below, in which a phone accessory retailer shows a personalized offer to visitors from Pinterest.

Personalized Pinterest Offer

Survey/Questionnaire Participation

The general tactic here is to offer a short survey (incentivized if the economics work out for you), at the end the participant is given an opportunity to provide their email address if they wish to receive a response, see the results, receive their incentive (e.g. coupon code), etc.

Headsets Offer - eCommerce Feedback

In the example above, visitors will only see this option if they have been to five or more pages, but have not added anything to their cart. These should be set up carefully as using this method too soon when a customer is still shopping could turn them away. In-depth research on pages/visit and average product pages visited before purchase should be completed prior to implementing something like this.

Similar triggers are used for Chat Support/Shopping Assistant features, which may or may not require an email address.

Along these lines, I think a promising area for pre-purchase email acquisition will be conversational commerce, including “chatbot” style shopping assistants.

Qualaroo and Drift are useful tools for this type of campaign.

Events and Retail Stores

Something as simple as the option to be emailed a receipt can go a long way in building an email list from in-person shoppers. Discount/rewards card memberships are also a common strategy, though technically both of these examples assume an initial transaction has happened.

If the customer does choose to receive an email receipt from an in-store purchase, the email receipt should not be overlooked. Use this email to its fullest potential as the open rate will be extremely high.

Shopping Cart Abandonment Offers

You can’t send shopping cart abandonment emails without knowing their email address, and in many cases that is not acquired until one of the last steps in the checkout process – well after someone adds something to their cart and wanders off.

There are a few ways to approach the situation. First, you could show an exit pop-up reminding them to “Create an Account to Save Your Cart!,” which would ask for their email address.

Second, you could show an exit pop-up with a compelling offer to save on their purchase. Be careful not to train shoppers to abandon their carts though.

Additionally, you might consider moving the email address field in the purchase process further up, so it’s one of the first pieces of information acquired before moving on to the rest of the checkout.

Contest/Enter to Win

Enter To Win!

This has long been a go-to strategy for getting an offer shared on blogs and across social, and for acquiring new customers and contacts from those channels, among others.

I think Mountain House is getting it right. They’re showing a lifestyle image that says more than several paragraphs of words. It is immediately apparent who their audience is, and what’s in it for them ($5,000 in cash and prizes).

In a very short period of time the visitor has an idea of what’s expected of them. Take an outdoor adventure picture of yourself while eating a Mountain House meal, post it to Instagram or twitter with the hashtag #MyAdventureMeal and go daydream about the gear you’ll buy with all that loot.

Summer Camp Offer

Over time, Mountain House has adjusted their strategy. Back in 2014, contest participants just needed to post a selfie from their adventure. But now, they need to incorporate the Mountain House brand into their #MyAdventureMeal photo submissions.

Navabi is a plus-sized fashion retailer in Europe. They originally tested this on the second page-view. It would pop up after the visitor scrolled on their second page. It worked so well they promoted it to the primary offer on all first page visits.

Fashion Retailer Sweepstakes

Switching from an on-scroll pop-up on the second page to the central position on the first page increased email gathering by about 250 percent in the UK, 200 percent in France and 300 percent in Germany.

New contacts are then enrolled in an automated “lead to first purchase” program once they sign up for the newsletter, in addition to being enrolled in the contest.

We do need to warn you to be careful about how you implement this tactic. In 2016, Google started devaluing sites that showed intrusive interstitials on mobile. This is largely to ensure that site owners are creating user friendly environments for mobile users. However, it doesn’t appear that this pop-up penalty affects desktop sites at this time.


This doesn’t usually bring in new contacts before their first purchase, but for those who have joined – whether they’ve purchased anything or not – it means that visitor will actually be “logged in” to the site. A logged-in user is the Holy Grail for personalizing someone’s shopping experience.

On-site communities probably work best for social shopping eCommerce sites like Polyvore and Fab.

Polyvore Online Shopping Community

Conventional retail brands can pull this off too, but online communities are extremely difficult to build and maintain. For most brands, it would be difficult to pull their audience’s “community time” away from platforms like Facebook and Pinterest.

The best option for those brands may be to leverage large social networks to present email acquisition offers to their communities there, thus growing their own email lists and regaining control of their messaging options without incurring the costs and headaches of building and maintaining their own community platform, which may or may not succeed.

But once you have the data from a user logged into an online community like this, there are countless email campaigns you can put together that include personalized data.

Part 2 – Delivery Methods

Now that you’ve settled on a few appropriate offers to test, let’s consider the various ways in which to format and deliver them.

Standard In-Line Offers

An in-line offer could be nestled amongst the content of a blog post, shown in the sidebar or as the featured content block on the homepage. It doesn’t pop-up, slide out or follow you around.

The in-line offer by Nordstrom links to an offer landing page, which describes the fine print, and then links to another that describes the many benefits of their rewards program. That extra page in the middle has to severely hurt conversion rates. Damn lawyers…

List Growth Strategies - Inline Offers -

Pop-Ups (and Other Interstitials)

These are pretty standard and a lot of eCommerce companies are using them on desktop. Standard pop-ups showing offers like “20% Off Your First Order” are probably the most commonly used.

Bedding Style Offer

Pop-ups can appear on exit when the user begins to move their mouse toward their navigation bar. They can also be triggered by time (e.g. five seconds after page load) or location (e.g., 75 percent of the way down the page).

Pawstruck Offer Popup

How do you feel about the “No thanks, I hate saving money.” in this CTA? PawStruck has probably tested enough to know this converts better than just, “No thanks” or a bigger X button. But have they asked shoppers how it makes them feel? Is their brand typically humorous and sarcastic? That would probably be the first question to ask when considering a humorously sarcastic exit link.

Here’s a different approach to using the same tactic:

Hourglass Angel Popup

Here’s an exit pop-up from Vintage Tub and Bath. They have a high consideration price point, which is perhaps why they aren’t showing a “buy now and save” type of offer:

Vintage Tub and Bath Offer

Lead Generation on Other Sites and Events

New pre-purchase contacts can be acquired on other websites, as well as at physical (festivals, trade shows) and Web-based events (webinars, online courses).

HP Cloud Offer
One example of this can be found with Twitter Lead Generation Cards like this one by @hpcloud.


This is about as close as you can get, outside of CTAs in the navigation, to being there when the visitor wants it to be and tucked away when they don’t. The “Free Website Grader” chiclet below, for example.

Red Tab Chicklet Offer

Ideally, the tab will follow the user down the page, but they could click an X to make it go away at any time.

Similarly, persistent footer or header bars that follow the user down the page should have a noticeable X so the user can remove it if they like (unlike ours in the screenshot below).

Inflow Header Bar Ad Screenshot

Another advantage of this type of offer over a full pop-up is it can provide a much better user experience on mobile devices when properly implemented.

Offer Landing Pages

These are great for PPC, social and affiliate channels. They are also necessary when the important values of your offer (what’s in it for them) can’t be communicated in a CTA. Landing pages provide the space necessary to really sell the offer by describing its many benefits to the visitor.

eCommerce eMail Marketing Tactic by Quadratec
Quadratec uses a landing page to promote a “giveaway”

This tactic may be effective when sending traffic to a website from social channels, which tend to have poor eCommerce conversions, but convert well on giveaways and sweepstakes.

Last Thoughts

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for acquiring a potential customer’s email address.

Things to consider when choosing a strategy, and which tactics to test, include knowing how much you can afford to pay to acquire that email address. Several things go into this calculation, including the likelihood of that contact making an eventual purchase (based on your own benchmarks), average order value (AOV) and the customer’s lifetime value (LTV).

The more generally applicable we make marketing best practices, the less specific they are to any given business. Therefore – above all – properly test your assumptions.

What not to do:

What Not to Do

Don’t buy a list

The contacts are crap and sending to them could end up lowering your overall deliverability rates.

Don’t overdo it

Ensure all the settings are in place to avoid showing a pop-up to the same person multiple times in one session. Ensure they don’t see multiple offers at the same time. In general, spend a lot of time on the site logged out in Chrome Incognito mode to make sure things are working the way they’re supposed to and not annoying your shoppers.

Don’t forget to test on mobile

The experience, and conversion rates, could be vastly different. Should that pop-up become a footer bar on mobile? Should the offer show at all? Test it.


Kevy is an eCommerce marketing automation platform. It is priced well for small and medium-sized businesses and has all of the features one would expect, including cart recovery, personalized pop-ups, reporting and email marketing.

Klavio is a robust marketing automation system for retailers, featuring cart reminders, segmentation, personalization, order confirmations, list growth (e.g., pop-ups and other forms), analytics and more.

Windsor Circle describes itself as a “predictive lifecycle and retention marketing platform.” They’re really strong on analytics and most of the needs once you have an email, but possibly not so good if you don’t know the email and need to acquire it (though they do collect data and present about unknown users).

SumoMe is a suite of tools that are very useful for patching together your own system when funds aren’t available for one of the full-featured marketing automation platforms above. Their list builder (smart pop-ups), heatmaps and social tools were developed with lead generation businesses in mind, as opposed to eCommerce, but few pop-up tools can integrate as easily as theirs with so many customization options and a good mobile experience.

WisePops is a powerful pop-up platform, which is much more oriented toward eCommerce than SumoMe’s list building tool. WisePops has lots of ready-made pop-up templates, as well as customizable display location, timing, triggers, etc., and is mobile-friendly.

Optinmonster is another user-friendly tool for creating and A/B testing pop-ups for email capture.

Hello Bar is a simple lead-generation form that appears at the top of the page. It’s unobtrusive and displays nicely on mobile (if your message text is short) but is definitely limited to certain applications.

Qualaroo is a useful tool for exit surveys, and allows you to customize the logic as to when and where, and for whom, the pop-up will appear.

Marketizator is probably one of the most feature-rich survey tools you can find, and includes A/B testing, analytics, scheduling, personalization and segmentation.

JustUno allows you to create pop-ups, header bars and other email capturing displays easily. You can also run A/B tests and mobile promotions, personalize pop-ups, and access analytics.

Really Good Pop Ups, by JustUno, is enormously useful for getting inspiration for ad creatives. Sort pop-up examples by category or search by keyword to see some “really good pop-up” examples.

Optimizely will help with A/B testing if you’re looking for a good way to get started.

The tools above, along with many other options specific to the platform – such as extensions, plugins and modules, should help you at least get a few tests up and running to prove the concept internally, and see what works best for your brand. If you find integration difficult, look into IFTTT and Zapier, and there’s usually a workaround.

Further Reading

Next Steps

Test. Choose a highly targeted content offer, a compelling discount and a contest. Create all of the necessary assets. Using internal developers or software like the tools above, test each of these three offers using various delivery methods with the primary goal of obtaining new email addresses. Segment these by customers and non-customers. Using marketing automation tools like those above to create an automated welcoming series (i.e. lead nurturing sequence) for non-customer contacts. Let us know how it goes or if you need any assistance

Note: Inflow’s SEO, PPC, and Conversion teams are experts in eCommerce Marketing. Schedule a call If you’d like to talk about your eCommerce email marketing strategy.