50 List Building Strategies We Can Learn From 50 Shades Of Grey

List Building Strategies From E. L. James

It’s no secret that the 50 Shades of Grey series was a huge financial and viral success. In this post, we’ll dive deep into the 50 list building strategies we can learn from Erika L. James and her 50 Shades of Grey empire.

Whether you’re a fan of the series, or are turned off by it… you can’t deny that this creation has polarized and built an incredibly powerful tribe. Let’s take a look at how you can apply the lessons in your business as list building strategies.

Table of Contents

1. Tap Into An Existing Fan Base

If Erika had wanted to write a book that wasn’t going to sell, she could have written about bats who weave baskets in Alaska… There’s no proven fan base for that kind of book. Instead, she started writing for Twilight readers as a fan fiction author. When it comes to building a strong email list, you want to base it around a topic that has proven to be popular and where people are hungry for more information.

2. Ride The Wave Of What’s Hot

The original 50 Shades of Grey book was written as fan fiction of the Twilight saga. This fandom already had a strong following, and E. L. James was one of the early fans of the series. She was able to ride the wave of popularity and hone it for her own stories. When it comes to list building, knowing where the trends are going can help you surf toward what’s going to be hot just in time.

3. Make Something Controversial

The stories that E. L. James published were taken down because of their graphic content, which were against the rules on the fan fiction platform that she was publishing on. This type of controversy is directly correlated to the popularity of her writing, and when you’re thinking of list building you need to consider if what you’re writing or blogging about is “ho hum” or if you have a strong point of view. No one will rally around something that’s too “vanilla”, so think about how you can make your content marketing more kinky.

4. Find Peers To Critique Your Work

If you want to be memorable, whether it’s with your opt-in content or your follow-up email series, you’ll do well to get feedback on your work. E. L. James had her peers review her writing, which made it more popular.

5. Don’t Work In Isolation

Erika had her inner posse of readers and friends who read her material as soon as she wrote it. This applies when you’re creating a list building landing page or writing sales copy, too.

6. Use Feedback To Create More Viral Content

Erika used the feedback she was getting to know if she was on the right track or not, and she wrote more of the scenes that were popular. This feedback loop helped her create a work of fiction that people couldn’t turn away from.

7. Tap Into Your Imagination

When it comes to list building, standing out from the crowd and choosing to “zig” when everyone else is “zagging” can get you further, faster. Erika used her imagination and stuck to her guns while she was creating her controversial stories.

8. Be a Part Of The Community

It helps when you’re a part of the community that you’re creating for. Erika was a fellow fan fiction writer, and she read a lot of other people’s work. She got a feel for what people were craving.

List Building Strategies9. Don’t Seek Fame First, Put In The Work

Erika’s stories were her side hobby for a long time before she pursued the publishing route. This gave her the time to sharpen her skills and put in the work required to build her empire. The same applies when it comes to list building strategies: don’t expect overnight results, put in the work.

10. Find Out Where These Readers Are Hanging Out

Erika initially built her following on a popular fan fiction publishing platform. She didn’t try to build her own website out of the gate and publish to the sound of crickets… If you want to build a solid email list, consider how you can get your site and offers in front of your ideal readers.

11. Create Engagement Before You Ask For Anything Else

This is a great list building strategy: ask for people’s input and opinion before you ask them to join your email list. E. L. James had people reviewing her writing every week on the fan fiction platform, before she ever tried to build a list or ask people to buy a book. People want their opinions to be heard, so this type of engagement is powerful.

12. Once You’ve Got Engagement, Use It As Social Proof

E. L. James had over 37,000 reviews on her first version of the 50 Shades of Grey books. She used these reviews as social proof, to approach publishers and convince them of the popularity of her work.

13. Don’t Quit Before You Reach Your Goals

Erika had over 100 chapters of her writing up on a fan fiction website before they were taken down. She didn’t stop writing after her third chapter because she knew that staying in the game was how she’d reach her goals. The same is true for list building: it may take awhile to get to your subscriber goals, but stay in the game.

14. Look At How Other People Are Growing Their Audiences

E. L. James was in the media industry, and she pulled on her knowledge to see what worked and what could be done differently… When it comes to cultivating a strong list building strategy, take a look at what’s working in your industry and outside of your industry for cross-pollination of ideas and inspiration.

15. Let Your Work Evolve

When E. L. James started writing, it was just for fun and it was clearly an Edward and Bella story. Over time, it was rewritten to be original characters that had their own intricacies. If you start out building a business around one topic or niche, and decide to change along the way, don’t assume that people won’t want what you have to say next. Bring them along for the ride.

16. Leave People Wanting More Every Week

50 Shades of Grey was originally published as serialized fiction. This means that Erika published a new installment of the story each and every week. There was built in suspense for what would happen next. Use this same type of storytelling and leave people wanting more in your newsletters… they’ll stay subscribed and look forward to your next emails.

17. Publish Regularly, and Consistently

Erika L. James published a new piece of content every week like clockwork. Be dependable, and your subscribers will know when to expect to hear from you, and they’ll be more likely to read your emails… and take action, too.

18. Let Other People Spread The Word For You

The power of creating something that gets people talking is that word of mouth can spread the word about your work for you. Make your emails and opt-in offers stand on a strong enough foundation (even a controversial one) that people can’t help but talk about it to their friends…

19. Don’t Be Afraid Of The Competition

There’s no shortage of romantic and erotic fiction… but that didn’t stop E. L. James from putting herself out there. The same is true when it comes to building an email list or coming up with your content. There may be others in your field, but there’s still a place for your work out there too!

20. Be Approachable, Especially In The Early Days

The benefit of starting out is that you have a lot more free time. That means you can interact with your early fans and get to know them personally. There are plenty of people who “knew Erika when” she was just starting out… I have no doubt that this early one on one interaction was key to her success.

21. Interact and Adjust Course

Thank your subscribers and readers when they give you feedback or edits… even if it’s pointing out a typo. This type of rapid prototyping helped E. L. James write several books in a few short years, because she wasn’t doing it alone. With building your email list, each interaction can lead to a potential sale or good word from someone. That’s priceless.

22. Co-Create What The Market Wants

Not sure what your opt-in gift could be? No problem, just listen to what your blog readers are asking for… or what people are often talking about in forums. 50 Shades Of Grey was inspired by many people, and was not created in a vacuum.

23. Don’t Be Afraid Of Criticism

As the 50 Shades of Grey empire has grown, there has been a lot of criticism aimed at Erika and her work. That kind of backlash happens more often as your visibility and reach increase, and it’s a sign that you’re on the right path if you want to grow exponentially.

24. Keep Your Goals Front and Center

It’s easy to get sidetracked by life, other commitments, and even procrastination. When you’re clear on what you want to create, you can keep going despite the challenges and obstacles that come your way. Building a loyal email list is a great goal for any online business, but it’s easy for it to fall at the bottom of your todo list. E. L. James prioritized her aspirations to make them a reality.

50 List Building Strategies

25. When Something Works, Do More Of It

E. L. James gave other writers feedback, and they reciprocated… giving her more status and authority on the fan fiction writing site. That worked, so she did more of it in those early days. This might be the equivalent of leaving comments on other people’s blogs — and whatever you find to work well when building your list, whether it’s webinars, guest posts, or Facebook ads… do more of it.

26. Republish Your Content Across The Web

After Erika had already established her series on one fan fiction publishing community, she branched out and had her content re-published on other web sites. This got her more exposure for the same story, and helped her build her audience. When it comes to list building, there are times when republishing a blog post or email newsletter on another platform or website can be extremely effective at building your list faster.

27. Build Your Social Media Following

In the early days, E. L. James didn’t have much of a web presence outside of her fan fiction account. Eventually she branched out onto social media, and started building her following there, too. This came in handy when her content was removed from the fan fiction site, she still had a way to communicate with her fans. When it comes to list building strategies, I recommend building an email list first and then getting people to follow your social media accounts second.

28. Your Free Content Can Be Your Paid Content and Vise Versa

Erika’s 50 Shades of Grey books had been previously published for free on the web. Did that stop her fans from purchasing the paid books? No! In fact, her earliest fans were happy to support her financially by buying her books even if they had already read the story online for free.

29. Use Your Free Programs to Inspire Your Paid Programs

The benefit of working with a publisher is that you’ll have an editor and a whole team to help you polish a work of writing. In the case of an online business, you can create free offerings as list building strategies, and then polish and create more in-depth or higher quality versions to offer as a paid program. That’s what we do with our free version of PopupAlly and our more full-featured PopupAlly Pro.

30. Give Your Fans Opportunities To Pay You

In the beginning, E. L. James did everything for free online. This built her loyal following. When she had a paid offering, people jumped at the chance to exchange value in the form of money. If you don’t yet have a way for people to give you money, get cracking on a paid offering.

31. Don’t Try To Rush It, Build Trust First

Because of the trust that E. L. James had built by being in the fan fiction writing communities for so long, it was easy for people to cheer her on when she got her book publishing contract.

Don’t rush trying to make money from an email list, instead provide great value and then offer ways to work with people.

32. Don’t Wait To Be Approached

E. L. James wasn’t writing in her cave, keeping all her ideas to her self… she hit publish regularly. Similarly, you want to put yourself out there, be daring, and step out into the spotlight.

33. Talk To People Who Have Done It Before

When it came time to work with a publisher, Erika already had a group of writers to ask questions of. She was able to find out more about the publishing process before she went ahead. The same goes for list building: talk to people who have successfully built a great email list to find out what worked for them, and what to watch out for.

34. Don’t Compromise On Your Ideas to Please a Majority

I’m sure Erika had people telling her that her books were too graphic or “too much”… But she stuck to her guns, and she was rewarded by extremely loyal and happy readers. When it comes to building an online community or email list, don’t shy away from being yourself… If you swear, don’t stop swearing because of one or two people.

35. It Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect, If It Comes From The Heart

50 Shades of Grey is not one of the most polished or perfectly crafted novels out there. But it is extremely commercially successful, because Erika didn’t sweat the small stuff. She did what she had to do to get it done, wrote from the heart, and let the rest happen as it would. Your list building strategies don’t need to be perfectly executed, your opt-in gift doesn’t need to be super polished, and you don’t need to spend 3 months working on it… Get it done, with heart and it will land.

36. People Love Different Mediums

Some people love reading, some love watching videos, and others prefer audio… The 50 Shades of Grey series is now available in all formats, from a Hollywood movie to audio, print, and digital books. Your opt-in gifts might be better received in different formats, too.

37. Let People Pass Your Work Along

Have easy ways for people to share your newsletters, articles, and free content. I’ve heard many times how friends were sharing and borrowing copies of 50 Shades of Grey. Once someone reads the first book, they’ll be looking for the next ones. The same goes for your free content: if you let people share it, then they’ll want more.

38. Your Work Is Bigger Than Yourself

Once Erika L. James understood that her stories were bigger than herself, she was able to relinquish control over all the details and her work was able to spread even wider. Don’t think that you have to do it all yourself: hire a designer, a developer, or a social media strategist if you want to make your opt-in and list building even more effective than you can on your own.

39. Balance Anonymity With Your Personality

In the early days no one really knew who E. L. James was, and she still has an air of mysticism to this day. But she also shares herself on her social media profiles, and we see glimpses of her life on Instagram, too. If you’re building a business around yourself and your personality, you’ll have to find what balance feels good to you around sharing and keeping your private life private.

40. Tap Into Your 1000 Fans

The concept of the 1000 true fans is a powerful one, and in E. L. James’ case the reality of her early fans helping to spread the word about her book once it got published is key to her success. Building your list with those first 1000 fans is a great priority to have, and will help you build momentum over time.

41. Get People Onto Your Own Platform

After her writing was taken off the fan fiction platform, Erika put up her own website and had people visit her there. This showcases the importance of having your own website that you control, both for list building purposes and the longevity of your business.

50 Shades Of Grey42. Give People More Of What They Ask For

Once 50 Shades of Grey took off, there were opportunities to create spin off products. These were not likely ideas that Erika had from the start, but were requests from her fans. Think of the 50 Shades of Grey Wine and ties. Let your subscribers tell you what they’d like you to create, and then see how you can make it happen.

43. Thank The People Who Helped You Get There

One thing that authors tend to do really well is thank the people who helped them write their books and get them published. Being grateful for the people who help make your dreams come true ensures that you can keep creating new dreams with them. You don’t have to thank people directly in your newsletters or on your website, but cultivating a strong sense of gratitude will help you go further.

44. Be Willing To Change The Title

If you have an opt-in gift but it’s not converting… you have to be willing to change the title or positioning of it, to make it convert better. E. L. James’ first title for the 50 Shades of Grey series was “Master Of The Universe”, and she wasn’t attached too strongly. In fact, she was willing to change it to help make the series more successful.

45. Only Quit Your Job When It Feels Like The Right Time

Erika kept her full time job while she built her audience and wrote her novels on the side. This took dedication and helped her have a stable income while she was putting the foundations for massive success in place. If your business isn’t making enough money yet, or your list isn’t big enough to help you replace your full time income, don’t quit your job yet.

46. Get Support To Move Through Upper Limits Gracefully

I don’t know if E. L. James knew her books would be as popular as they have become, but she likely faced lots of upper limit problems along the way. She most likely worked through these blocks by having mentors, talking to her publishers, and peers. Don’t try to build an email list or a business alone: get support, use the right tools, and do it with a community of like minded list builders.

47. Adapt List Building Strategies For Authors

E. L. James did most of her list building through old school guerrilla marketing tactics… and if you’re an author, you can learn a lot from other successful authors who have built a loyal audience and email list. If you’re not an author, you can still do much of what Erika has done by tapping into existing platforms, communities, and websites… You might just need to adapt these ideas to your market.

48. Taboo Topics Can Go Viral

One of the reasons why 50 Shades of Grey went viral once it reached the mainstream is because of the subject matter. Sex is a taboo topic, and while there are many books in this genre, there hadn’t been a book with a strong built-in audience ready to buy at publication to make it rise up the ranks of the bestseller lists. If you can use controversy to break out of the ho-hum mundane reality of your niche or market, your website and topics can go viral too.

49. Ride The Trends Or Create Your Own

After the Twilight series came out, there was a precedent for incredibly successful books for women. It’s much easier to convince a publisher or a Hollywood executive of the potential of such a project after a blockbuster. If you know that other people in your market have been successful with running a social media challenge, or doing a contest, or having webinars… then it makes sense to tap into what’s already working.

50. Don’t Underestimate The Power of Storytelling

One final list building strategy is to use the power of storytelling. Don’t underestimate how primal stories are to us as human beings, and use them in your email marketing, and before people sign up for your list or community. Create strong characters, cast your readers as the hero or heroine, and take them on the journey of a lifetime. They’ll thank you for it.

Now I’d love to hear from you!

Did you read 50 Shades of Grey? Watch the movie? Which of these list building strategies will you be applying in your business?

Leave a comment and let me know!

16 Comments

  1. Kat Bern - Dream Home Creator on April 29, 2015 at 11:07 am

    This is a GREAT article, thank you!

    I have one question re: 26. REPUBLISH YOUR CONTENT ACROSS THE WEB.

    I heard that this actually isn’t good for your SEO, especially if you republish it on pages that come up on google much higher than your own website (where you originally posted your content). Allegedly to the search engine it looks like you are the one plagiarising the bigger website and your website could get penalised for that.

    Do you know anything about that? True or false? Thanks! :)



    • ambitionally on April 29, 2015 at 1:08 pm

      I cover that more in my Simple SEO training, but basically there’s a way for you to link back to your original post using a tag called “canonical” that tells the search engines that this is a copy, and the original is on your site. There’s also the possibility of lightly rewriting or changing titles, and main headings with a new intro / outro that can help keep things fresh too!



      • Kat Bern - Dream Home Creator on May 12, 2015 at 5:43 am

        Thank you, Natalie! This is helpful – gives me so many new opportunities! I will be sure to check out Simple SEO too :)



  2. linda on April 29, 2015 at 11:21 am

    Love this!!!! As always, you offer such great content! Can’t wait to read your future bestseller! xo



    • ambitionally on April 29, 2015 at 1:08 pm

      Aww thank you Linda, this is definitely up your alley – and you know it’s coming! ;)



  3. Julia Elmore on April 29, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Thank you so much for these fabulous strategies. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but the info you shared here sparked a whole stream of ideas. I just started creating some video content and people have responded well, so I will be doing #25 and creating more. I am working towards #17 and #7 got me thinking about how I can use my street art to spread the word. *Exciting!*



    • ambitionally on April 29, 2015 at 2:18 pm

      Yeah rock on Julia!! So happy this was helpful, and you totally don’t need to have read the books to be able to take a page out of this empire’s strategies and ideas. ;)



  4. S. Brooke Bailey on April 29, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    The biggest thing that jumped out at me from this post is your repeated emphasis on taking a position that may be controversial. Off the top of my head I’m realizing that while I originally thought my approach to helping people find their purpose and live from their highest potential was something most people would jump at the chance to experiance, I also realize that there is often fear associated with living your best life. It seems counterintuitive, but going after what your soul truly wants can be scary and controversial for the people who care about you. As for the yoga classes I teach, I also realize that there is a controversial nature to the way I approach yoga from a more energetic and mental angle than the more popular physical angle. Thanks for helping me see some of the “controversial” aspects of what I offer! I hadn’t thought of it this way before.



    • ambitionally on April 29, 2015 at 3:38 pm

      Yay Brooke! I think it’s interesting to see what you do in a controversial light sometimes. One of my yoga teachers was saying that it takes a certain kind of person to come to her classes, and I didn’t quite understand what she meant until she explained that most people in her area are not open to it and resistant, too!



  5. Marg Kinneen on April 30, 2015 at 4:06 am

    Brilliant, Nathalie. Controversy also stood out for me. Just today I mustered up the courage to write a blog post revealing my belief that the universe is all feminine, and that the masculine is simply the wounded feminine. Your article has addressed my fear around revealing my true beliefs, and turned it into a positive force. Thank you…I’m truly grateful. Xxx



    • ambitionally on April 30, 2015 at 11:09 am

      Ooh wow Marg! I had never heard your point of view before, but so happy you felt safe to share it. :)



  6. Shauna Sanders on April 30, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    GREAT connection and lessons to be learned from 50 Shades, who knew! I really like that you high lighted this author and book because it’s NOT your usual point of topic but just goes to show you, you can learn business savvy from anything successful. Also, you shocked me and I always love being shocked :)



    • ambitionally on April 30, 2015 at 2:28 pm

      Hehe so happy to hear that this shocked you, but that it also taught you something, too. Rock on! :)



  7. Tam on April 30, 2015 at 10:57 pm

    wow – love how you have compiled this positive blog – there are so many ways we can extend ourselves



  8. Carol Dunlop on May 1, 2015 at 8:53 am

    Love the breakdown for the list and the take on 50 Shades. I actually just saw the movie. It was ok in some spots, really good in others. I haven’t read the book yet, jury is still out on that. But I really like how you correlated everything that she did to build the audience and then draw them in to what she was doing. The ultimate way to get life-long fans that follow you and keep buying from you.



  9. Patricia on May 26, 2015 at 11:30 am

    Wow! Just wow!!

    I’m blown away. Thanks for the actionable tips Nathalie. You rock!

    My biggest takeaway from this piece is this: put in the work first (a lot of it)… and then the fame and goodies will follow. Thanks for the reminder.



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