Select Page

How To Use Content Upgrades To Build A Bigger, Better List

This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I'll receive a commission. Disclosure.

List building tactics come and go, but content upgrades provide so much value to you and your site visitors that it’s safe to say this method of list-building is here to stay. If this is a new concept to you, let’s start from square one…

What is a Content Upgrade?

A content upgrade is a free opt-in incentive that relates to a piece of content, usually a blog post. The idea is, the blog post helps your site visitor solve their problem a little bit of the way and the content upgrade helps them solve it even more.

For example, you might write a blog post about the importance of creating click-worthy headlines for social media posts. A content upgrade might be a .pdf of proven headline copywriting formulas.

In that scenario, the post gives the reader the rationale for why they need it and the upgrade helps them put it into practice.

Let’s talk about why this list-building tactic is different than others — some of which have lost their effectiveness in recent years — and why it’s likely to continue being an effective strategy for growing your list of qualified leads.

The Benefits of Using Content Upgrades

Grow a More Targeted and Qualified Email List

Because content upgrades are highly relevant to a piece of content, you automatically know quite a lot about the person who signed up.

For example, in my blog post How To Create A Value Ladder For Your Services, I include a Value Ladder Planner as a content upgrade.


Some assumptions I can make about people who raised their hands to get this freebie:

  • They have a service-based business (my target customer)
  • They are savvy about online marketing and looking for ways to level-up (“value ladder” is marketing jargon most people are unfamiliar with)
  • They need help creating the right offers (something I help them solve through my course and 1-1 consulting)

Because I have a good understanding of who they are and the problems they have, I have a better shot at sending them nurturing emails that are relevant to them.

Breakthrough the “Tactic Fatigue” You Get with Other List-Building Methods

When I first started building an email list, one of the first pieces of advice I read was from a blogging “guru” who said that hands-down the best thing to do is create a resource library.

She grew her list by tens of thousands in just a few months’ time so obviously I did that.

But tactics that work one year don’t necessarily work the next. Once people sign up for one free resource library (and then ten more), they start to experience tactic fatigue and become blind to them.

“I don’t need another resource library.”

Same thing with eBooks on broad, generic topics.

Don’t get me wrong — I have had success with these tactics (and if you’re doing this and it’s working, by all means — keep going!), but I was often left with a larger problem: I didn’t really understand exactly what problem they were struggling with. That’s the real downside to broad-appeal lead magnets.

And, these types of opt-in incentives take a ton of time to put together — you really want to bring the value, after all — and the payoff just might be a trickle of signups here or there.

For me, the more time and energy I put into creating lead magnets, the less effective they were. Demoralizing to say the least!

As I was struggling to get my email list to the 100-subscriber mark (I was stuck there for a loooong time), my friend Sandra (who is a list-building guru) said something that made a lightbulb go off in my head…

“If I only had one opt-in incentive, I’d still only have my friends and family on my list.”

Then she told me she had more than 30 opt-ins on her site. (No wonder she’s at the 20k subscriber mark after only a couple of years!)

I instantly got it.

The secret to creating a targeted, engaged email list is to create lots of smaller, content-relevant, consumable opt-in incentives.

Easy to Create

The thing is, content upgrades don’t need to be complicated — they just need to be relevant and help your audience solve a problem. Creating simple, easily-digestible, hyper-relevant, bite-sized nuggets of value is a win-win for everyone.

A Better User Experience

I’m over intrusive pop-ups and scroll mats — I’m sure you are too. Nobody likes things that interrupt us when we’re just tryin’ to read a blog post, man.

But people still use them because they work.


Focusing on your user experience can have tremendous benefit in earning trust with your audience, building a list of people who actually want to be on that list, and even help you increase your search traffic and page views.

If you’re using pop-ups now, read: The #1 Reason To Get Rid Of Pop-Up Forms (Backed By Data). After reading that post I had a good long, hard think about whether they’re worth it and I decided that they’re not.

I stopped using them (I only ever did exit-intent pop-ups) and nothing bad happened. In fact… since I stopped using them a couple of months ago, my list has nearly doubled. That’s partially due to an upswing in search traffic I’m enjoying now, but I’m happy that I can create a better experience for my readers and have momentum too.

As for scroll mats – they seem to really be cropping up lately. You know the ones… you’re just settling in to read the page and it pops up and blocks the screen and it’s not easy to figure out how to close it out.

Usually I just leave. Sometimes I put just to be an arse.

This may work in the short run, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to cost more in the long run. I have stopped visiting a biog I’ve been reading since 2004 because they have one of these things, and I ran into 3 of them yesterday and I’ve made a mental note… BYE.

And here’s the thing. When you focus on your user’s experience, you get brownie points from Google.

Content upgrades are a way to build your list, add value, earn trust, and create an amazing experience on your site.

Confession: When there’s a special promotion I want to call attention to, I use a “ribbon” form from Thrive Leads that goes on the top or footer in an unobtrusive way. But, I usually only have these active for a limited time and they’re easy to click out of.

Examples of Content Upgrade Ideas You Can Steal


Worksheets are a great way to help people work through problems. Ask good questions and provide them with space to brainstorm and write their answers.

Interactive .pdfs (using Adobe Acrobat to create “fillable forms), Google Docs, and even printable worksheets all work great.

Pro tip: When doing a printable worksheet, you will want to tone down the design a smidge so you don’t force your readers to eat up all their printer ink. Interactive worksheets built with Acrobat or Google Docs mean people can fill them out electronically.

Audio Files

If you have an exercise that would work well for people to listen to podcast style, consider creating an audio file.

It’s easy to do with free tools you probably already have on your computer like Quicktime.

Make an audio recording and use it as a content upgrade

When you’re done, you can either deliver it as a downloadable .mp3 file or upload it to a site like SoundCloud (free!) and embed the player on a landing page.

Video Tutorials

Make a video tutorial — again, you probably already have software that comes included with your computer. I just use QuickTime for this. You can also use a tool like Loom (also free) to do short screencasts.

I sometimes use Zoom to record tutorials because it allows me to record my screen and also automatically shows an insert of my face as I’m talking through the presentation.

(Zoom is really a tool for video conferencing, but you can have a video conference of one and it will either save the video file to your computer or to the cloud.)

There are other ways to do this technique but Zoom makes it easy and I’m all about easy.

(Also, I talk with my hands… it’s a thing. I had a hard time finding a screen capture where I wasn’t gesturing like a big ol’ dork.)

Using Zoom to create easy video presentations with inserts.


People looooove templates. Anything that gives people a starting point makes for a great content upgrade.

In this example, I created a template for creating a brand guide using Google Slides. I don’t use Google to create brand guides for clients, but this is perfect for people who are doing their own branding or for people who are new to design and just want a glimpse behind the curtain of what’s included.

This is one of my more successful upgrades and it only took me about a half an hour to put together.

Swipe Files

A swipe file is a collection of ideas that people can “steal” and use, saving them the time it takes to do the research or create something from scratch.

While not technically a content upgrade (because this is one of my low-priced digital products), an example of a swipe file is my Font Personality Swipe File.

The problem this swipe file aims to solve is all the time it takes to find the perfect Google font combinations for branding and design projects. So I cleared a day and scoured every single Google font out there and created 75 combinations organized by brand personality dimension.

So think about ways you can make someone’s life easier, save them some time, consolidate information in one handy swipe file for them to refer to over and over again.

Scripts & Formulas

This might just be my favorite. Help people write or say things faster and more effectively by giving them scripts and formulas to follow.

For example… copywriting formulas like headlines and sales pages; scripts like sales scripts, customer service emails and so on.

For example, you might have a blog post called “How to know it’s time to fire a client” that talks about dealing with difficult client situations. You might include a content upgrade with email or conversation scripts — give people ideas for exactly what to say or write when confronting a client they need to fire.


Checklists are a great way to break down the information into logical steps and action items — helping your readers put what they’ve learned into action.

Brian Dean of Backlinko talks about how he uses content upgrades — his checklists are remarkable and memorable.

Beautiful example of a content upgrade from Backlinko

Content Upgrade Design

Dean talks about the importance of going the extra mile on the design — even though the checklists are very short, the design boosts the perceived value to his audience and makes the post share-worthy.

He recommends using a freelance designer from a site like UpWork.

Admittedly, because I’m a designer I have a bit of an advantage here — I can whip up content upgrades pretty quickly.

And I can tell you that when I create eBooks and lead magnets for clients, they can cost in the hundreds to even thousands of dollars.

While there are scenarios where investing that kind of money in lead magnet design is worth it, for most uses, you want to be able to make them quickly, easily, and cheaply…

How to Create Content Upgrades Quickly and Cheaply Even If You’re Not a Designer

What I recommend for bootstrapping business owners is to use Canva (design software for non-designers with a free option so you can test drive it) and grab a great template pack like this one that has pre-designed lead magnets you can use as a starting place.

(I like to recommend that one because it comes with Canva & design training and you’ll also get graphics to go with your lead magnets to design your opt-in forms and social sharing graphics, etc.)

You can also keep it simple and use Google Docs – I do that quite a lot because in some cases, it’s just more convenient for my audience (and for me).

Pro-tip: To make a Google Doc sharable without running the risk that one of your readers will modify the document, use this trick: After you create your editable, sharable link – paste it into your browser bar and replace the word “edit” in the URL with the word “copy.” Then, use that link to give to your readers.

How To Test Your Content Upgrades

Keep it simple, make it fancy later…

The 10-minute Content Upgrade

For new content, I like to start with a 10-minute content upgrade then up-level the design if people sign up.

I do this by offering a “printable .pdf” of the post as a first step. Then, once I start getting traffic to the post and if people sign up for that, I know that spending more time on the upgrade will be worth it.

To do this, all you need to do is install the Print Friendly .PDF extension for Chrome (free!) and go to any blog page and click on the icon to instantly download a .pdf version.

Make instant .pdf downloads for your posts!

You can delete sections (sometimes you want to remove things from your post that don’t make sense in a “takeaway” version), save to your hard drive, upload to WordPress to create a permalink and you’re good to go!

I do this with new blog posts when I’m not yet sure how popular the content will be — I don’t want to spend a ton of time creating something if the content goes over like a lead balloon.

Make it fancy to boost conversions

Using Thrive Leads, I can see the conversion rate on the .pdf opt-in and if it’s going pretty well, then I up-level the upgrade and the design to increase the conversion rate.

This isn’t a remarkable result, only 1.46% conversion rate — but that happened within a relatively short period of time after publishing the post so I went ahead and decided to level-up.

This is the original form… (snooze fest, but still, people signed up for it – that says something!)

Before …

After …

Testing the viability of a content upgrade with Thrive Leads

Here, you can see I went from a 1.46% conversion rate to 6.97% when I improved the content upgrade — I turned it into a planner and spent a bit of time on the design.

Since that’s a pretty good conversion rate and it’s so closely related to my products and services, my next step might be to run a Facebook ad to the post to see if I can pour some gasoline on the good results.

Want to see how simple this is to set up?

I’ve made a .pdf version of this post and used Thrive Leads to generate a simple link and form and then a shortcode that lets me copy and paste it right into the content. 👇

If you click on the link, a form will pop up and you’ll be redirected to the .pdf.

Pssst: If you don’t want to sign up for my email list, you don’t have to, I’m really just trying to demonstrate what I mean and I do like to keep it meta around here. 😎 You can see the .pdf here. I just wanted you to see that it’s not fancy but it also took me literally under a minute to create that, upload it, and add it to the form.

Once you have your .pdf, here’s how to connect it with Thrive Leads.

Thrive Leads takes a bit of getting used to (like any tool) — where to find formatting settings and so on… but now that I know my way around, I can create opt-ins like this in 10 minutes tops.

If you don’t plan to use Thrive Leads, you should be able to set this up with your email provider — all you really need a way to create a form that will deliver the .PDF.

Content Upgrade Plugins for WordPress

Now, Thrive Leads isn’t the only content upgrade plugin out there, but it is the one I use and recommend.

You can also check out OptinMonster and Sumo.

While Sumo does have a “free to start” version, both OptinMonster and Sumo have monthly-fee structures. While they’re both good tools — I’m just not a fan of that.

ThriveLeads does have a monthly plan ($19/mo.) but it includes their entire suite of products – plugins and themes all designed to help you optimise your conversions. (Hey, if you’re going to do a monthly deal — this is waaaay better).

And for people like me who don’t like having a ton of recurring expenses wherever I can avoid it — they also allow you to purchase their products at a one-time-fee rate.

For ThriveLeads, $67 and you’re done. It’s one of THE best investments I’ve made on this website and worth the splurge.

How to determine which content should have an upgrade

Here’s the thing. You don’t want to start creating content upgrades for all of your content — nobody has time for that.

The place to start is to look in your Google Analytics and find your most popular landing pages that are coming from search.

Note – This is from a custom dashboard I created that I use daily in my business, you can install it for free by clicking this link… Blog To Win Dashboard by Endeavor Creative

Alternatively, you can find your most popular landing pages from search by going to Acquisition > All Traffic > Source/Medium > Google Organic > Secondary Dimension: Landing Page.

Take a look at this report and see if there are any top-performing pages that make sense to add a content upgrade to.

Repurposing Content Upgrades By Targeting Categories

Sometimes it makes sense to create a content upgrade for one of your blog categories rather than just one specific post.

Using ThriveLeads, you can use “Lead Groups” to target content with laser precision — it can add your content upgrade form to posts within a specific category — automatically.

(You won’t have to do any copying and pasting of shortcodes or anything like that. This is a HUGE time saver if you have a lot of content.)


Content upgrades are a great way to build a targeted email list by providing opt-in incentives that are relevant to the content your site visitors came for. Because this creates an amazing user experience — as opposed to intrusive and annoying alternatives — they also allow you to build trust with your audience.

Do you use content upgrades? How have they worked for you? If not, will you be adding this to your list-building arsenal? Let me know in comments!