As you’re assembling the pieces of your content marketing program, I’ve often heard the question,
When’s the right time to start an email list?
And the answer is pretty much the same as the timing for planting a tree.
The best time was 10 years ago. The second-best time is today.
In fact, if you don’t have anything in place at all yet to publish content (no blog, no podcast, no social media following, etc.) it’s smart to get your email list started before those things are in place.
Because you want to be able to capture the sustained attention of everyone who runs across your work and thinks they’d like to know more.
Now, if you’re publishing some content but you don’t have a list yet, trust me, you aren’t alone. But this coming week would be a fabulous time to either launch your email list or improve the one you already have.
For now, if you haven’t started a list but you’d like to, here are a few things to look for in your email provider.
1. Don’t try to do this yourself
Unless you’re an email expert, let the pros handle this for you. There are many excellent providers who will help manage things like deliverability and your reputation with email hosts, as well as providing you with smart tools to get your messages to the right people at the right time.
I happen to like ConvertKit (and they don’t pay me to say that) because it strikes a good balance — it’s easy to use, but it has a powerful feature set. They’re also friendly to commercial projects (some email services are not), and their support is good.
There are other fine services out there, so if you’re happy with the one you have, I suggest you keep using it until you have a strong reason to switch.
2. The cost should scale with your business and your audience size
If your audience is still small, look for a provider that has a free starter account or something very moderately priced.
Email marketing is known for its exceptional ROI (return on investment), so don’t worry about paying something for it. But you don’t need complex and expensive automation services before you have a large audience and an offer that converts to put in front of them.
3. Make sure they have some automation and segmentation tools
These features might not be in a free starter plan, and that’s reasonable.
But once you’re paying something to send email to your audience, at a minimum, your provider should be able to send messages based on your subscribers’ behavior, like clicking a link.
That’s how I can offer the ability for folks on my email list to switch from daily strategy messages to a weekly one. And that helps me make sure I’m respecting your inbox and your time, and not flooding you with messages that aren’t right for you today.
If your email list is about pets, automation lets you send more messages about dogs to folks who click on articles about dogs, and more messages about hamsters to the folks who click on those messages.
You also want the ability to construct sequences that can be delivered over time when people do something like subscribe to a list or click a link. Again, that lets you offer relevant, useful strings of messages just for the people who will benefit from them.
Now: balance content and offers
There are two ways to go wrong with an email list. You can do nothing but pitch, which is irritating and erodes trust. Or you can do nothing but educate, which means you never discover which members of your audience are ready to progress to a more advanced solution.
If you have a decent-sized audience but no revenue, this is the perfect time to turn that around. Look for a way to make a small but valuable offer, and get it in front of folks frequently.
Here’s one example: At Copyblogger, we offered a one-page checklist of things to check before publishing content. I recorded a short, focused audio lesson to walk through the checklist, and we sold that pairing for $7.
That gave us a list of buyers, which was a subset of our list of readers. (Of course, we loved our readers, too.)
And folks who have bought one product and found it valuable are much more likely to go on to pick up something that solves a bigger problem.
This is sometimes taught as a psychological persuasion “trick,” but that’s the wrong way to look at it. You aren’t tricking anyone, you’re demonstrating that you can be trusted to provide value for money.
If you like, you can absolutely create this offer when you first launch your email list. You may only get one or two sales a month, and you might not even get that. But it’s excellent practice for packaging and delivering paid work as your list grows.
What’s the difference between an email list and a newsletter, anyway?
These are often used roughly interchangeably. From my point of view, newsletters look a lot like print publications. They’re delivered on a predictable schedule, in a consistent format, and their main focus is delivering value to readers. They can include promotion, or they may be a paid product in themselves, or both.
My weekly email, The Fierce, is a newsletter. The daily notes I’m sending this summer for the #SummerOfStrategy could be described more as a project or campaign from my list. (“Wild hair” would also be an apt description.)
At the end of the day? It doesn’t really make much difference what you call it. 🙂 Just keep an eye on the balance between content and offers that I mentioned above.
- If you don’t have an email list yet, start looking at providers. Find out who your friends are using, and who powers your own favorite email newsletters.
- If you do have an email list, are you making offers regularly? If not, start brainstorming a few ideas along that “$7 product” line.
- Not sure what messages to send? Compile a curated list of any content you published the previous week, plus additional resources or links you found useful.
- Look back over your VEP, particularly your “E” (expertise). Think about audience problems you might solve with your email list. We’ll be looking more closely at that the day after tomorrow.
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