Your email list is the only audience you truly own, and there’s only one time-tested strategy for building an email list: the lead generation asset.

The mother of all lead generation assets is, of course, the good old fashioned e-book.

There’s a lot that goes into making an e-book, and not a lot of guides that address how to do it from start to finish.

I decided I wanted to make this process easier for you. Here are 15 steps to take your e-book from vague concept to completion.

1. Identify Your Lead’s Journey

Well before you even start considering ideas for your e-book, you need to be crystal clear about what path your leads are going to take before buying your product, and how your e-book is going to fit into that story.

For starters, you want to avoid these two mistakes:

  • Developing an e-book that solves problems too distant from the problems associated with your core products, resulting in an audience of subscribers who will not be interested in buying your products.
  • Developing an e-book that solves the same problem as your core products, and does this so well that your subscribers will no longer need your product, since the e-book solves the problem for them anyway.

Your customer’s journey typically takes them through the following steps, often referred to as the sales funnel:

Your e-book should appeal to leads that are in the “awareness” or “interest” stages of the funnel. In most cases, the purpose of your e-book will be to carry leads from the “awareness” stage to the “interest” stage.

The associated newsletter or email drip, in turn, should serve to carry leads from the “interest” stage through “decision” and “action.”

While the e-book itself will not guide leads through the entire funnel, it absolutely must be developed with the full funnel in mind. It should prime them for the transition from “interest” to “decision.” Emails aimed at guiding leads through the next stage of the funnel should not be unwelcome after reading the e-book. If the e-book doesn’t do that, you have either chosen a poor topic for your e-book, or you have poorly implemented it.

2. Keyword Choice: Understanding Searcher Intent

After mapping out your lead’s journey, you should have some idea of the kinds of problems they are struggling with that relate to your products or services.

The ideal e-book will address problems that your potential customers are dealing with, problems that are closely related to the problems your products are designed to solve, but not precisely the same problems.

The e-book should then guide them through solving that problem, while also serving to upsell them on the core problem your paid products are designed to solve. This isn’t to say that you can get away with shamelessly plugging your products within the e-book, but rather that you should naturally talk up the scale and importance of the problem your products are designed to solve. Again, this is all about cultivating interest in the problem.

Most people will be finding your e-book through a search engine, and that means keyword choice is going to be a major factor. The most common mistake e-book creators make is failing to do keyword research at all. The second most common mistake is failing to choose keywords that express the right user intent.

Most search queries aren’t conducted by people willing to download an e-book. Your typical informational search query is conducted by somebody who just wants to find an answer on the public web, who doesn’t want to be bothered with joining a mailing list. That’s where most lead-generating marketing fails: too much focus is placed on convincing people to download an e-book, rather than on targeting the people who are already willing to.

Try using the following phrases as required in your keyword tool of choice, in addition to your topics of interest.

  • e-book, ebook, book
  • download
  • whitepaper, white paper, paper
  • template, spreadsheet
  • guide
  • cheat sheet, cheatsheet, cheat codes, cheats
  • reference
  • pamphlet
  • calculator, app, application, tool
  • calendar, routine, planner, plan
  • survey, study, experiment
  • case study
  • webinar
  • countdown
  • challenge
  • quiz, test
  • checklist
  • audit
  • steps, list
  • instructions, instruction manual, recipe
  • for dummies, cliffs notes, notes
  • examples, solutions
  • secret, secrets, hack, hacks
  • courses, course, training, class, classes
  • mentorship, mentor, guru, expert, consultant
  • minute, minutes, hour, hours, day, days, week, weeks, month, months, year, years [to capture phrases like “in 60 minutes” etc.]
  • printout

In addition to helping you broaden your idea of what qualifies as an “e-book,” these phrases and others like them indicate that the searcher is looking for something quite a bit more than a blog post.

These are the kinds of search queries you want to target. Instead of choosing keywords like you would for a typical blog post, choose keywords that indicate specifically this kind of user-intent, the kind that indicates the searcher is willing to download something.

A tool like Ahrefs Keywords Explorer can help you do just that, clarifying the intent that the top ranking pages also match, as well as newly discovered related keywords:

3. “Landing Page First” Competitive Research: Clarifying Pain Points

As a marketer, you already know that in the real world, human beings inevitably judge a book by its cover.

When it comes to using e-books to build leads, I firmly believe in taking a “landing page first” approach to your e-book. A landing page first e-book is designed to fulfill promises for specific things that your leads will already be searching for.

Here’s what I mean. Your leads are going to decide whether or not to download your e-book based on what they see on the landing page. If the landing page doesn’t promise them something more than what they can find elsewhere, they will not be interested.

I’m not saying you should actually develop the full landing page before creating your e-book, but I am saying you should have a very good idea of what you would need to put on that landing page in order to convince your leads to sign up.

Competitive research starts with identifying exactly what is already out there in the public, and exactly why it is not satisfactory.

Here’s what you need to do.

Identify your informational keywords

After choosing a list of “e-book keywords” like the ones discussed in the previous section, it’s time to work your way backwards and identify what users were searching for before desperation led them to that keyword.

A good place to start is with your general topic plus “who, what, when, where, why, how” in the “keywords to include” section of the Google Keyword Planner. Review the search results for these and compile all of it together as research, taking extra care to identify what seems to be ubiquitously wrong or unsatisfactory about these results.

Another good place to look is Q&A sites like Quora and Yahoo Answers, as well as doing an “inurl:forum” search in Google. This will tell you the kinds of questions people ask when they evidently can’t find anything in the search results.

Finally, download every existing e-book or other lead generator on the subject.

Make a list of everything that is missing

People are looking for e-books when they can’t find what they need in the search results. Look for the following:

  • Things all of the search results keep saying that searchers will find frustrating
  • Ways in which none of the search results are helpful
  • Myths that propagate these search results
  • Ways in which the search results are impractical
  • Ways that the search results will lead the searcher astray
  • Evasive answers
  • Answers that align with a specific worldview while ignoring another
  • Promises made that are not lived up to
  • Ways all of the other lead generators fail to meet expectations

You want to be able to tell the searcher that you know precisely what they’ve already searched for, precisely how they have been let down by everything they’ve come across before, and exactly what promises you will need to make in order to persuade them to download your e-book.

By consuming everything a searcher might have found before coming across your e-book, and summarizing to them exactly how it is unsatisfactory, you can convince them on your landing page that you can be trusted to truly deliver on your promises.

4. The Long Tail: Know Every Question Searchers Will Ask

If you want your landing page to capture traffic from search engines, you need to make sure it’s built to bring in long tail traffic.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, the “long tail” is the very large number of keyword variations that make up an enormous percentage of Google’s search queries, with an astonishing 15% of those queries being entirely new, never before searched phrases.

While it’s of course impossible for you to target queries that have never even been asked before, you can capture a large portion of the long tail by acknowledging as many questions as possible on your landing page and making sure that they are addressed in your e-book.

I’ve already discussed one very powerful way to find long tail keywords, by adding “who, what, when, where, why, how” to your “keywords to include” section in the Google Keyword Planner. What I said above about Q&A sites and forums also applies.

Here are some other sources of these long tail queries:

  • Gather keywords Google gives you for free.
  • Google Webmaster Tools lists keywords you are already ranking for, but with a list more extensive than any other tool. Not useful if you haven’t produced any content on the subject matter yet, but very useful if you have.
  • Use Soovle to see the automated drop-down suggestions produced by Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, Answers.com, Yahoo, YouTube, and Bing.
  • Use Keywordtool.io to get a longer list of suggestions mined from Google autosuggest.
  • Use SEMrush or a similar keyword tool to identify what keywords your competitors are ranking for.

Finally, a little-used feature of the Google Keyword Planner:

Put your competitor’s landing pages in the “Your landing page” field of the keyword planner to see a list of suggested keywords for your own landing page.

The keywords suggested by Google’s keyword planner when you search by landing page instead of keyword can be very different, more unique, and more long tail. You should be aware, however, that this will often return bogus results or no results if you are not paying for AdWords ads yourself.

It’s important to do all of this research before producing the e-book to ensure that you can include promises to deliver on all of these keywords in your landing page, and ensure that the e-book itself actually lives up to those promises.

5. The Extra Mile: Your Unique Selling Proposition

Once you’ve identified your primary “e-book keywords,” done your competitive research, and identified your long tail keywords, it’s time to take the next step and identify your primary unique selling proposition.

If you were following along during the competitive research phase, you should already have an idea of where to start. During competitive research, you should have identified common issues that all of the other publicly available sources suffer from, and this should have provided you with a series of promises to make to your lead in order to convince them to sign up.

If you’ve done that, identifying your unique selling proposition is really just about distilling an overall guiding message behind those promises.

The reason for doing this? You need something to put in the headline of your landing page that gets the message across quickly, before the searcher sees anything else on the page. If the headline doesn’t communicate a clear differentiating factor quickly, the searcher is likely to dismiss your e-book as just another dead-end.

6. Entering the Research Phase

During the keyword research, competitive research, and long tail research phases of the process, you should have already absorbed a great deal of background on the subject at hand, but if you are going to deliver on your promises, you will need to do more than just compile this information. You need to give the lead something that they won’t easily find elsewhere, and that means getting innovative with your research.

Here are some guidelines for taking your research to the next level.

  • Go to primary sources. This doesn’t just add to your USP, it also improves your chances of successful promotion if those primary sources are, themselves, somewhat influential, with their own followings.
  • Use Google Scholar to get information directly from the peer-reviewed literature including academic papers, books, and scientific studies. Going straight to the source in this fashion enhances your work by providing you with a much firmer foundation to stand on, and by providing you with information that you simply would not find in the standard search results.
  • Go to the library and read books.
  • Buy a book on the subject.
  • Step outside of your industry and look for things that apply from other sources. Answers can be found in unexpected places. If you mix and match ideas from different disciplines, you will end up with more innovative and comprehensive material. This is the opposite of getting stuck in a bubble the way that most of the public information targeting a specific keyword is designed to do.
  • Perform your own research. That can mean conducting a survey, grabbing anecdotes from interviews with others in the industry, using your own personal stories, using your own data, or doing some investigative journalism. The point is to take things to the next level by providing genuinely new information. This isn’t to say that the novel information has to be earth-shattering, simply that it truly is unique, in that it wasn’t copied from some other publicly available resource.

You may be asking yourself whether it is really necessary to take things to this level. My answer is that it isn’t strictly necessary, but the goal is to build tremendous trust with your readers, not just to get them on an email list. Your e-book should surprise readers with its quality if you want your next steps to transition them from the “interest” stage to the “decision” stage and through the “action” stage.

Finally, always bear in mind the guiding principle of all of this research. The goal is to specifically address problems you will be promising to solve on your landing page, problems that you should have already clearly defined during the competitive and long tail research phases.

7. Your Table of Contents

Whether you should develop a table of contents before or after doing your research is an open question, and one I won’t plant any flags on. Your table of contents, or outline, should almost certainly come before you begin the actual writing process, however. In most cases, an e-book should run significantly longer than a blog post, and it’s a bad idea to try and do the organization after the writing when you’re dealing with something this size.

In structuring your e-book, be sure to consider the following:

  • How informed is your audience? How much of the book should be frontloaded with introductory background material?
  • What type of resource is your e-book? Is it a primer on a topic? A how-to guide? A 30-day challenge? A template? Is it meant to be read in bite size pieces or in one go? Is it something to refer back to over and over as a reference, or just read once? Does it need to be read in order or is it more of a coffee-table book that can be read out of order? Is it meant to be skimmed?
  • What type of organization is most logical for the subject matter? Is it the type of book that should be ordered based on knowledge, in which each chapter informs the next? Is it a step-by-step book, like a series of instructions that should be followed chronologically? Is it an eclectic list that can be skimmed and read in any order, and so would probably best be organized like a tree of categories?

8. Good Writing Habits

If you struggle with writing long form content, the following advice is indispensable:

  • Write in the morning.
  • Commit to writing every day, even if it is only a paragraph. These small commitments have a way of leading to greater outcomes.
  • Prioritize the e-book over any other writing commitments, as it is almost certainly more financially valuable.
  • Take measures to assure that you will not have any interruptions while you are writing.
  • If getting distracted by the internet during writing is a problem for you, compartmentalize your research so that it is complete before you write any given chapter, and write without an internet connection. (Terrifying!)
  • Do not get hung up on phrasing and grammar during your first draft.
  • Reward yourself for writing, and don’t reward yourself if you don’t write.
  • Stick to a schedule.

9. Structure, Prose and Engagement

No matter how great your research and your subject matter, you need to understand how to write in order to maximize engagement, or your e-book will fail to reach its goal. Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind:

  • Use short paragraphs to avoid intimidating the reader.
  • Use plenty of subheadings to keep things organized and easy to navigate.
  • Use bullet points.
  • Do not get too formal with your language, depending on your target audience. The most common new writer mistake is to “overwrite,” using big words to sound intelligent. No matter how heavy the research was, your goal should be to make it as light and digestible as possible for your readers.
  • Don’t be afraid to include some personality in your e-book.
  • Do not waste words. Focus on conveying information clearly and concisely.
  • Structurally, consider where it makes sense to introduce some suspense by “leaving things hanging.” Suspense is what carries readers through most best-sellers and can be a useful tool in an e-book as well, even though it’s not a work of fiction. Just make sure to deliver on your suspense often enough to develop trust.
  • Do not use passive voice. Use the active voice, where we focus on what is taking action in the sentence, not what is being affected in the sentence. It’s “He jumped over the fence,” not “The fence was jumped over by him.”
  • Use “command language.” When telling the reader what to do, don’t say “You should do this or that,” or “One should do this or that.” Just say “Do this or that.”
  • Don’t waste too much time stating the obvious or, especially, elaborating on it. Consider your audience’s knowledge level and avoid stating what they already know too often. A reminder here or there can be useful, but you will bore the reader if you dwell on the obvious instead of the profound, insightful, and counterintuitive.

10. Editing and Beta Readers

After finishing your first draft, give your e-book a second read for:

  • Grammar errors, misspellings, and wrong words
  • Awkward sentences, run-ons, and phrasing that distracts from the message
  • Repetition
  • Statements that could use more context, or that should be moved to another section
  • Abrupt changes in writing style
  • Consistent tone

After giving your draft an edit, it’s time to find your beta readers. Since there is no way for you to catch everything on your own, and no way to know what you don’t know, the best writers show their work to others and get as much feedback as possible.

This is useful not only because it helps you refine the book with insights from your potential audience, but because it involves people in the process who will be more likely to talk about it after the book goes public.

Beta readers should be people who are in the target audience, or at least familiar with it. A few places to look:

  • Talk to influencers in related communities to see if any of them would be willing to give the book a read. Not everybody will, but some will be thankful for the chance to read a book for free without needing to sign up for an email list.
  • Go to related forums and ask members to PM you if they are interested in reading a beta version of an upcoming e-book.
  • Show your e-book to any colleagues or friends who are familiar with the industry and would be close enough to your target audience.

Keep the purpose of beta readers in mind. They are there to provide constructive criticism and feedback, and they are most useful for identifying where they have a problem, less so for telling you precisely how to fix it. A beta reader is not typically a professional writer themselves, so their primary use is in identifying where something doesn’t feel right, especially if you find that you have multiple beta readers identifying a problem in the same place.

11. Design and E-Book Tools

To create a professional-looking e-book, you will need to take advantage of a few tools:

  • Use Canva for your design work if you aren’t a graphic designer and don’t have a favorite tool already. This is a great tool for producing your book covers and for doing some design work to include within the e-book. The results are surprisingly professional for minimal time investment.
  • Alternatively, use a design marketplace like 99designs or CrowdSpring for affordable, professional design work.
  • Use MyeCoverMaker, boxshot, or 3DCoverMaker to create a 3D book cover to put on your landing page.
  • Use Calibre to convert between EPUB, MOBI, and PDF formats so that your leads can access your e-book with any device.
  • You can use MS Word or Google Docs to write your e-book, and insert images and shapes to achieve a professional result, then save the files as PDF. This should be satisfactory for most lead generators, in combination with your design software of choice.
  • You can use Adobe InDesign for design work within the e-book itself for added professionalism.
  • While it’s not really the topic of this post, you can use Gumroad or e-junkie to easily set up a shopping cart to sell your e-book on your own website.
  • You can use MailChimp to set up a sign-up form, email list, and thankyou page and thankyou email with links to your e-book.

12. Influencer Involvement

I highly recommend making sure influencers are involved in the process of creating your e-book, since people who are involved in the creation of the project will be more likely to help you promote it as well. Influencers who carry their own audiences can multiply your reach and make it much easier to find an audience. HubSpot isn’t shy about mentioning the influencers who took part in developing their SEO e-book. You shouldn’t be either.

On top of multiplying your promotional efforts, working with influencers increases your trustworthiness. The trust these influencers have developed with their own audience transfers to you, since they were willing to work with you on the e-book.

Influencers are more willing to contribute to projects like these than you might expect. While not everybody is capable of persuading an influencer to contribute a page or more to an e-book, many are willing to answer a quick question to be quoted in your e-book. Even small quotes like these add journalistic value to your e-book and provide it with the novelty it needs to go beyond what people would expect from a blog post.

I’d add that you don’t need to work with the most renowned experts in your industry to benefit from influencer involvement. Midlist bloggers and others who are at your level or even below are perfectly capable of adding trustworthiness to your e-book and multiplying its reach. Never underestimate the power of people with their own audiences, no matter how small, especially if you work with many of them.

13. The Landing Page

We spoke a great deal about what should be on your landing page (and mobile landing page) in the research phases at the beginning of this post, and the research you conducted at that time should absolutely be the driving force here.

That said, there is more to consider.

The biggest consideration? How long should your landing page be?

Most e-book landing pages are fairly short, at least when we are talking about lead generators as opposed to paid products. The bigger the ask, the bigger the page, as the saying goes. When all you are asking for is an email address, the landing page itself doesn’t need to be too long.

I tend to agree with this sentiment, but with a small caveat. I actually believe many web marketers go overboard with brevity on e-book landing pages. I don’t think an e-book landing page should stretch on for ten pages the way that the landing page for a $100 SaaS product would, but keeping everything above the fold isn’t necessarily the perfect choice either.

Copyblogger is no stranger to split-testing, yet surprisingly willing to use long form content on their list-building page.

We need to remember that we live in the age of smartphones. People are accustomed to scrolling and aren’t put off by doing so. Scrolling can even keep the user more engaged with the page.

More importantly, a slightly longer landing page gives you more room to address all of the objections a lead might have to giving up their email address. As time goes on, email inboxes get cluttered, and privacy concerns grow, asking for email addresses has become a bigger ask than it used to be.

I’d also stress that if the choice is between a healthy amount of whitespace with attractive large fonts, and keeping everything above the fold, I would choose healthy whitespace every single time.

The right answer will depend heavily on your industry, but in general I believe it is worth testing a slightly longer variant of your landing page than has become the industry standard.

With that out of the way, here are the elements that I consider essential:

  • Your headline should communicate the e-book’s unique selling proposition immediately, and it should focus on benefits, not features.
  • Your text should address the problem they are facing and state specifically how the e-book solves it.
  • Address specifically what the e-book solves that can’t be found elsewhere.
  • A sign-up form should be visible above the fold.
  • You need to run A/B tests.

14. Repeated Promotion

A surprisingly common fear in the inbound marketing community is the fear of saying the same thing more than once.

I’d certainly avoid publishing the same idea multiple times on your own properties, but when it comes to promotion, I’m of the opinion that there is nothing wrong with repeating yourself, especially if you are doing so to different audiences.

Content marketers often get stuck in a cycle of guest posting in their own bubble, where it is in fact the case that people will start to notice if somebody starts repeating themselves too often. What many don’t realize is just how big their potential audiences are, and all of the places they can reach new leads.

A smart list builder doesn’t say a whole slew of things to the same audience. A smart list builder says the same thing to as many audiences as possible.

Think of every possible slant on your topic and promote it on as many platforms as possible before moving on. It’s worth the effort.

15. Continue Promoting or Rinse and Repeat?

While the above is true, it’s also a process that can’t continue forever. At some point, you will find diminishing returns, where there are no places left to reach new audiences with the same message, at least not within your grasp.

How do you know when you’ve reached that point?

It’s subjective, but these guiding questions should help.

  • Have you reached out to every major platform in your own industry?
  • Have you reached out to every platform in your industry that is at a level similar to your own?
  • Have you considered how your audience might intersect with audiences outside of your own industry?
  • If you’ve identified other industries with overlapping audiences, have you pursued every major platform in those other industries?
  • Have you pursued every platform in those intersecting industries with an audience similar in size to your own?
  • Have you considered the massive audience slant on your topic? The slant that would appeal to mainstream sites?
  • Have you considered other widely shared slants on your topic, such as implications for home life, business, family, relationships, entertainment, and current events?

Once you’ve exhausted these, it is time to move on to another lead generator. Up until that point, I would stress that you are almost certainly missing out on major opportunities to increase your exposure.

Time to Get Started…

Don’t hesitate. Few things build your business future quite the way a proper list-builder does.
Put these steps to use and watch that subscriber count grow.