How to use lead magnets to grow your audience

By giving away select amounts of valuable content in exchange for emails, independent news publishers can grow their audience.

Everybody likes free stuff. That’s the concept underpinning lead magnets, a marketing tactic used to gather contact information like emails, also known as leads. The concept is simple: you draw people in with something valuable (hence, magnet) in return for something also valuable — in this case, an email address. Every email you capture is a new audience member to potentially win over with great journalism so they eventually pay for your work.

A key struggle for emerging publishers is getting people to discover the amazing work you do. That’s where this tactic comes in. The Discourse Nanaimo used a lead magnet to grow its email list in the lead up to its official launch. This single lead magnet, a PDF summary of findings related to the local news outlet’s investigation into housing affordability, brought in 1,285 leads — a significant chunk of their founding campaign target.  

The lead magnet helped bring new audience members into The Discourse Nanaimo’s top of funnel. As the team continues to deliver valuable content, build relationships and warm these new audience members to the brand and its values, by the time they ask them to pay for the work, subscribers will be more likely to say yes.

Here’s how to do it:

Identify a target audience 

It’s important to consider the recipient before you design your gift. Missing this step is akin to gifting your four-year-old niece a sensible sweater. Good gift, wrong person. 

Be specific about your target audience: How old are they? What are their interests? What are their pain points? As you design a gift that’s right for this group, keep in mind the state of your own email box and offer something that’s good enough to warrant giving an email address away. 

Develop a high-value, exclusive gift

This sounds daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Journalists are masters at creating useful,engaging content. Simply repackage existing reporting into a standalone piece of content you know people will want to access. This could be as short as a PDF tipsheet or as long as an entire email learning series

The keyword here is repackage; the longer you spend creating this, the more you’re adding to the cost of acquisition. Work to use parts of your reporting that ended up on the cutting floor. 

Lead magnets often work best visually in the form of a downloadable PDF, presented in a way that’s brand-aligned. (If you don’t have access to a designer, you can use a free online tool like Canva.) They could also be a recorded piece of storytelling, video or behind the scenes photo gallery.

But the medium doesn’t matter as much as the content. If you know people are desperate to find a local doctor, for instance, a simple spreadsheet or email could prove extremely valuable. The gift can also be exclusive access to an online community group or event (keep reading for more examples). Whatever you develop, make it evergreen: it’s most cost effective to keep leads running for at least a few months.

Create a landing page

This is where you describe your gift and provide a space for people to enter their email. Write a call to action that’s simple, compelling and clearly describes what people get in return for their contact information. 

The Incarcerated used Substack to offer up its seven-part series on prison labour in Minnesota to build their subscriber base in advance of officially launching the newsletter. 

To do this, you can easily create a landing page in Mailchimp or similar tools. You can also use a plugin like OptinMonster on your website to invite people to sign up for your gift.

Wherever you host it, keep it simple and uncluttered. Ask for their email and name only. Remember that this landing page and the content you deliver is a person’s first impression of you. Make it clean and enticing as a taste of what’s to come.

Run an ad promoting the gift to your target group

Ads are essential for getting traffic to your landing page. If you link your landing page to a Facebook pixel, which gathers user data from websites, you have the advantage of retargeting people who visited the page. Keep a close eye on performance to make sure your calls to action — and the gift itself — are resonating, and A/B test as much as possible. Though it depends on the specific market, the Indiegraf team suggests you keep your cost for advertising low, at about $1 and $2 per email captured, known as your cost per lead.

Send an automated email series to everyone who opts in

Mailchimp and other newsletter hosts make this step easier than it sounds. It can be as simple as one email confirming subscription and delivering the gift, followed by the welcome series all of your subscribers get. 

Think about keeping these new contacts as a sub-group or segment of your main email list. If they have distinct interests, you can then fundraise with user-specific value propositions.

A word of caution: if these audience members begin to receive the same emails as your entire list, they may get bombarded with too many at once. To avoid this, keep them as an independent segment to control the flow of content.

Put a price on it (or not)

Most often, lead magnets offer something for free in exchange for an email. But keep in mind that if your offer is something really valuable, you can and should put a price on it. For instance, Simon Owens outlines why he now re-packages select issues of his newsletter into paid PDF ebooks, with hope that people will later subscribe for his paywalled content.

If you do offer it for free, consider sharing the value on your landing page, so people understand the worth of what they are receiving.

Track your progress. 

Any tactic is only as good as what you learn from it. Watch your metrics closely to be sure that what you think is valuable actually is, and adjust as necessary. If people are clicking, but not completing the transaction, check for bugs or issues in your checkout process and make sure it’s mobile friendly.

The key takeaways

Ready to start? Here’s a breakdown of ideas to get you going. Remember that the more consistent your lead magnet is with the value underpinning your regular content, the more excited people will be to receive your newsletters and eventually pay for your work.


  • An investigation summary – Breakdown the big findings for your audience.
  • Case study – Showcase a solution underway to inspire readers.
  • A white paper – Summarize findings on a complex issue.


  • Guide or tip sheet – Curate links and resources that can’t be found easily. 
  • Summary – Synthesize something like an annual budget or report for your audience.
  • Early access-  Offer up a sneak peak to a big investigation.
  • Checklist- If you know your target audience is passionate about photography, consider something like a field checklist.


  • Photo gallery – Offer up images of a location people can’t find elsewhere.
  • Behind the scenes – Show the making of a popular piece of content. 

Community building:

  • Online group access- Offer up access to a private Facebook or Slack group.
  • Online event access- Offer VIP access to an exclusive online event.

In the news


Have a tip, pitch, question to ask, link to include, or opportunity you want to promote? Send it to me!

And one more thing… 

This is a unique approach to opinion content.


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