How to Build a Walled Garden: A Guide to Traffic to Subscriber Conversion

With an understanding of the Walled Gardens, platform risk and the protocol layers, this should shift the way we think about building a business online. This is especially true with regards to the function of our website. 

We spend a lot of time finding ways to get more traffic. The expectation, more often than not, is that if the website is optimized for whatever action you want that traffic to take, then that is the action they will take. 

It’s assumed that if you put your store’s products front and center, a certain percentage of the traffic you send to your site will purchase them. Similarly, we assume that if you include a button to “book a demo” for your software, some of the traffic you send to your site will end up clicking the button to set up a time to chat. 

But this basic assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. A large percentage of this traffic will never take the desired action. Most visitors will not do the things you wish they would. This is evidenced simply through the amount of traffic that leaves a site, often measured as the bounce rate. As of 2021 the industry-wide bounce-rate for a website is 61%. This means less than 40% of the traffic that comes to your site is actually navigating to a second page after first arriving. 

What this shows is the vast majority of your traffic isn’t ready to buy a product upon the first visit to your site. They haven’t yet bought into the narrative of your brand to be excited enough to actually want to buy anything from you. They don’t know enough about your software to “book a demo”. They don’t care enough about your services to “send an inquiry”. 

So, what happens when they don’t take the desired action? They leave your site, and often never return. This creates massive inefficiency and lost potential. So we end up spending more and more time “getting traffic”, sending it into a black box and praying for “conversions”, with all those visitors completely uncaptured. 

The thinking is fundamentally flawed. By attempting to grow your business this way, like Hayley, you’re stepping right into the role of a vassal for a Walled Garden. You’ll spend all your time on different traffic strategies, and then when you finally get it, it’ll be a flash in the pan. The solution, and the aim of this post, is to instruct you on how to cultivate your own garden – how to leverage the lessons of the aggregators to compete in a way that is more effective. 

The first step towards this is rethinking the function of your website. Consider from this point on that the primary function of your site is to capture email addresses. This seems aggressive, but it’s not. You must have a serious plan for converting the visitors on your site into email subscribers. Every visitor is a potential subscriber, every subscriber is then a potential customer. 

The way this is sometimes delineated is the distinction between a Marketing-Qualified Lead and a Sales-Qualified Lead. A Marketing-Qualified Lead, in sales terminology, is someone within your target market who could potentially become a customer at some point. They must be nurtured and educated to the point where they can become ready to be sold to, or in other words graduate to becoming a Sales-Qualified Lead. 

The distinction is important. When traffic is sent to your site from a Walled Garden, these are almost always Marketing-Qualified Leads. They know little of your business or what you offer and are generally unlikely to take the conversion action you want them to take (buying products, booking demos, etc). So the focus needs to be on capturing these Marketing-Qualified leads for further education. 

So the main function of your site is to be a machine for gathering such leads. You must make sure the traffic that comes to your site is captured. Only in doing so can we have a chance of nurturing our subscribers to the point where they’ll take action on our product or services. But how do we do this? 

Traffic to Subscriber Conversion

When taking this new perspective, one metric is more important than all others when it comes to your website – Traffic to Subscriber conversion (TSC). 

This is simply a measure of the percentage of traffic that converts to new email list subscribers: if 1000 visitors come to your site and you add 100 subscribers, your TSC is 10%. 

From an email marketing perspective, it’s the only metric that really matters on your website. All other site metrics are simply factors that lead to this: bounce rate, time on page, scroll percentage or any other metric you can think of each only require improvement in context of how they impact your TSC. 

By focusing on improving TSC, you’re making sure you’re getting the most value possible out of the traffic you send to your site. Doing so can even become a potential source of competitive advantage. The majority of sites are severely under-optimized in this area, with the average TSC conversion a paltry 1.95%. This means that for every 1000 visitors, the average site only converts 19 of them to subscribers. What’s more, the top 10% of marketers will only ever achieve a TSC of around 4.77%. So if you can beat those quite low figures, you’ll be in the top percentage of sites. 

What advantage does it yield, exactly? You’ll be able to get more subscribers, with less traffic. This frees up time for more impactful marketing activities that aren’t just trying to extract site visitors from Walled Gardens. 

It’s always easier to optimize the conversion of existing traffic than it is to actually get more traffic. Think about it: if you’re getting 10000 uniques per month to a specific page right now with a TSC of 5%, that generates 50 new subscribers. In order to get to 100 subscribers per month, you can either double your traffic (very hard) or double your optin conversion rate (relatively easy). 

Of course, a balance must be struck. You don’t want to relentlessly optimize toward TSC and ignore everything else. 

How to Get More Subscribers (without being annoying)

Have you ever visited a site only to have your attention bombarded with dozens of popups? If you’ve been on the internet in the past decade, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. You know the ones: “Sign up to our newsletter”, “Enter your email to access our 10 tips to get more traffic”, “Download this free PDF with more info”. They all share one thing in common: they’re annoying. 

These “popups” are notorious for destroying your brand experience, and your site visitors generally view them as aggressive, intrusive and distracting. Because they are. 

Why do we put them there then? It’s like a customer walking into a store and prompting them to fill out a form before even saying “hello”. Terrible brand experience. The worst are those that fill your screen suddenly, forcing you to close out of them. Other contenders are those ones that slide in from the side of the screen, obstructing the text you were viewing or impeding what you originally came to the site to do. 

This may sound surprising reading this in an article about email marketing automation: but most optin forms suck. Sure, these methods can improve your TSC to an extent, but improving that metric with tactics like these come with a hidden cost. For every subscriber you convert, a large percentage of potential customers get annoyed with your site and leave. 

In a 2016 blog post titled “I'm killing most of my email capture. Here's why”, marketing agency owner Nat Eliason discovered some of these hidden costs: “I recently purged a portion of my email list, realizing that there were old signups who were inactive. Before I deleted them, I went through their information and found something interesting: almost 100% of the inactive subscribers were the ones who signed up through a content upgrade or lead magnet.”  

The point the author makes in the article isn’t that aggressive optin forms are necessarily bad (he even concedes that certain business models should show some aggression in this area), but that they can create an illusion of success by optimizing for a metric that ultimately doesn’t yield any longer term gain, as in his example. By being overly aggressive, you risk building a large list of inactive users, at the cost of your brand experience and first impressions for site visitors and potential customers. 

There’s a fine line between annoying your subscribers and being helpful, and it’s clear a balance must be struck. Many would agree that highly aggressive optin forms are annoying, and they hurt the first impressions of your brand. So what strategy should we use to still optimize our website for TSC, without annoying users and creating a poor experience?

I have three optin form placements I think anyone can implement that do just that. They strike a good balance between actively optimizing for TSC and being highly visible, while at the same time avoiding being obnoxious or obtrusive for site visitors. The idea is that with the following form placements, you won’t be annoying your subscribers, you’ll actually be offering additional value. I recommend you add opportunities to join your email list in the following places:

Site Homepage Optin

I. Site Homepage: When a visitor arrives at your site, don’t use slide-in forms or popup-screens that take up the whole page. Instead, make sure there is simply an opportunity to stay up to date with an option form immediately available.

A site homepage is typically structured with a headline which captures initial attention and states the main benefit of the brand. This is followed by a byline: a further explanation of that benefit which ties it back to the subscriber.

The place for a Site Homepage form is below the byline. After stating how the benefit of the site is related to the visitor, all you need to do is mention that there is an opportunity to stay up to date, and place the form there. A retail hedge fund uses this technique to pique the interest of site visitors.

Blog Archive Page Optin

II. Blog Archive Page: The blog archive page, in a similar way to the homepage optin, simply presents another opportunity to join the email list without being obstructive or annoying.

Think about the role of content marketing. It’s generally used as a way to build trust, establish authority and help prospective customers solve common problems. By placing an optin form in this part of your site, you provide another opportunity to extend value to your visitor without being aggressive and annoying.

What this and site homepage positioning have in common, is that while they avoid overt attention-seeking tactics, they’re still visible and center stage. After all, collecting email addresses should be one of the main functions of the site, so your user experience should reflect its importance.

This fashion eCommerce store shows a good example of a Blog Archive Page optin form. 

Specific Blog Posts Optin

III. Specific Blog Posts: Finally, each individual blog post should give your site visitors a chance to sign up. What’s the difference between this form and the “Blog Archive Page” form above? The main difference is that these forms should be highly specific and tailored toward the topic covered in each individual post. Let’s look at these in a bit more detail.

Hyper-Specific Optins

One of the most effective ways to improve TSC is by creating highly relevant optins for each unique piece of content that receives traffic. Got a blog post that gets 1000 uniques per month? The best way to improve TSC would be to create an incentive to subscribe that builds on the value of that article in a meaningful way. 

The point is that you dedicate just as long as you took to write that article to building this incentive. Sounds like a lot of work? It’s worth it. It may take time, but it’s an incredibly high leverage activity - the ROI you’ll get from this should rank at the top of your marketing activities list. 

This is because these types of Hyper-Specific Optins are the most effective way to improve TSC. I mentioned previously the average TSC was around 1.95%, and the top 10% of marketers only achieve a TSC of around ~5%. But the image below shows an example of some Hyper-Specific Optins that achieve far and above the disappointing average of 1.95%. 

The lowest converting optin in the below image is 11.65%, already achieving higher than the supposed “Top 10% of marketers”. Better still, the top performing example on the bottom row hits a TSC conversion of more than 20%. 

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The reason these types of optins are so effective is because they actually create an experience of extra value for the site visitor. They are neither annoying nor aggressive. They build on the value offered in your content marketing efforts and extend an invitation to continue the relationship with your prospect. Importantly, this invite takes place on your email list - not on a Walled Garden you don’t control.  

So how do you make sure you’re building an optin that’s actually valuable? In short, focus on helping the subscriber implement something taught or demonstrated in the article in question. A “Free PDF” usually won’t cut it. The key to a high performing optin form is to go above and beyond in the value you provide in the article. 

Here are some examples of high-performing optins:

  • Tools: The most effective method I’ve personally found to improve TSC is by providing a highly specific tool that helps the subscriber implement something taught in a post. From the examples above, the optin achieving upwards of 20% conversion is itself a tool of this kind.

    The article in question explains how to calculate expected value from different marketing activities. The optin is then a spreadsheet that has the entire model from the article built-out inside it. By spending time building a tool that implements the lessons from the article, you do the legwork that they would have had to have done anyway. It creates additional value the visitor is more than happy to exchange an email address for. 
  • Quizzes: Another high-converting opt in incentive that can be tailored to specific articles are quizzes. Quizzes can help subscribers take the education in your articles to the next level and offer them the chance for a personalized and entertaining experience. Providing these sorts of highly-personalized interactions with your site are highly effective, and said to be a large part of the success of internet media giant Buzzfeed.

    You can borrow from that success by providing a way for your visitors to interact with your article via a quiz. For example, marketing-focused quiz software company Interact claims almost unbelievable success via their software, stating their quizzes have “generated over 8 million email subscribers with an average conversion rate of 50%”. What if you could convert 50% of your site’s visitors to email addresses?
  • Discounts: Last but not least, the humble discount is a mainstay for eCommerce stores for a good reason: they work very well. In a survey by, they found 92% of consumers surveyed reported using a coupon or took advantage of a discount in 2017. 

The effectiveness of these discounts is related to their placement. These types of incentives are most effective and have the highest conversions when used in a similar manner to the above: only offer the discount when it’s relevant. Use behavioral triggers such as page scroll percentage or on specific pages, to offer discounts that are personalized to the product or category your visitor is viewing. 

The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs

With that in mind, it’s worth recognizing the phenomenon known as the “Law of Shitty Clickthroughs”. Originally coined by Venture Capitalist and startup founder Andrew Chen, the Law simply states that “Over time, all marketing strategies result in shitty clickthrough rates”.

An example of this is the traditional “banner ad” seen everywhere in the early days of the internet, the banner ad was highly effective when it first appeared in 1994, “debuting with a clickthrough rate of 78%”. The expected conversion rate from a banner ad today is now something in the range of 0.05%, as tested on Facebook by Chen in 2011. 

All marketing strategies will eventually be exhausted. As marketers and business owners we must constantly reiterate and redesign our tactics in order to keep up with the times and maintain effectiveness. However, the “Law of Shitty Clickthroughs” applies to granular strategies, not to timeless marketing principles. 

What I hope to demonstrate over the next few posts is a system for thinking about marketing strategy that has true staying power. Concepts such as respecting your audience, seeking to constantly provide value, and developing your customers aren’t just tactics that will change and fall like leaves. Like the principles of growth we’ll copy from nature, these are timeless ideas that have long been central to all successful businesses. The Natural Orders system I’ll walk through in the following posts will serve you for years to come. 

The “Kronos Effect” posed by the information empires first outlined by Wu in 2011 aren’t going anywhere. We are still at the beginning of the Walled Gardens, and this makes things such as email marketing, automation and “cultivating our own garden” more effective and important than ever. We need to build our own ecosystem in order to build a business that can stand on its own.

In followup articles, I'll going to walk through exactly how to set up the foundations for such an ecosystem.

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