My 25,000 Email Subscriber Mistake
Don’t build the wrong audience just because you want more subscribers. Build the right audience and focus on nurturing it.
A few years ago, I put my first email signup form on a website (for my IWearYourShirt business). I had no clue what I was doing, but several people had told me I needed to “grow an email list.” I had plenty of traffic coming to my website, so I started to get subscribers quickly. Actually, I started to get a lot of subscribers.
Over the course of a year I racked up more than 25,000 email subscribers. There was only one big problem: I had no idea what to do with them.
I would send emails haphazardly. Sometimes on a Monday, sometimes on a Thursday, sometimes two emails on the same day if I felt like it. Whenever I thought I had an interesting thing to share, I pushed it to my email list. This was problem number one, but not the biggest problem, by any means.
You see, after sending emails for a few weeks, I noticed a trend. The more emails I sent with giveaways, prize opportunities, or freebies, the higher the open and click-through rates. These two statistics were digital crack. I craved seeing them climb higher and higher. And the subscriber number? That was like, well, I don’t do drugs but whatever is better than crack. Super crack!
If you’re a veteran email marketer (or just marketer in general) you probably already know where this story is going. Either way, hold on tight because it’s about to be a bumpy ride.
The more giveaways and prizes I offered to this growing email list, the more interaction the emails garnered. An iPad giveaway here, a $100 visa card card there, so on and so on. There were times when I could send an email to this list asking them to like a Facebook page, and more than 1,000 people would do it within an hour. That’s pretty damn powerful in the 2010–2011 era of social media.
But then I noticed another trend with my email list. When I sent an email without a giveaway or prize, the open and click-through rates were abysmally low. Even worse than that, those emails usually came back with negative responses and high numbers of unsubscribes. I’m not sure which hurt my ego more, but it’s silly to look back and think that I let any of that dictate my decisions so much.
Nevertheless, I kept the email list going for years. I reduced the giveaways and sent fewer emails. I didn’t like the feeling that I had built this sizable email list of people who only cared about giveaways. Heck, that wasn’t even why they signed up for the email list in the first place. I never advertised, “get on this email list to get free stuff!”
I tried lots of different content in the emails. I varied the sending schedule, and even tried a set day and time for a while. I tried segmenting the list. I tried deleting huge chunks of subscribers (we’re talking 5,000+ at a time). I took a break from sending any emails to this list for nearly a year (never a good idea by the way). I even tried changing the name and email address of who the email came from. Unfortunately the damage was already done and the list was essentially worthless. In fact, it was costing me a couple thousand dollars every year.
After two years of trying everything I could think of to cater to this large list of subscribers, I finally gave up. I realized I had fallen into a sunk cost trap, and just needed to let go and move on (which as we all know, is never easy).
So I sent three final emails. One announcing the list was closing down. One letting people know they could get on a new email list I was passionate about that wouldn’t feature any giveaways (The Action Army). I was clear about the type of content the list would receive. And the last email simply thanked them for being subscribers and said goodbye.
Then I deleted the list. I didn’t back it up. I didn’t save it. I just deleted it. 25,000 subscribers gone.
After all was said and done, only about 200–300 people moved from my old email list to this email list. And that made me happy.
I am over wanting a huge email list (wide). Instead, I want an email list that thoroughly enjoys the emails I send (deep). This is what I’m building with The Action Army.
You still might be wondering why I would walk away from 25,000 subscribers. It’s simple. They were the wrong subscribers for me. They weren’t my “Rat People,” as my friend Paul Jarvis says. They weren’t my “Tribe,” as Seth Godin says. It was simply a list of people who wanted something from me that I wasn’t happy giving them.
My thoughts on email marketing have changed drastically over the years. You might assume I loathe email marketing and list building because of this story and my not-so-great-experience. But it’s actually the contrary. This email list, the Action Army, that I’ve been building for the past year has brought me a ton of value and dollars in my bank account. I made a mistake and failed with my previous list, but I also learned a lot from the experience too.
I want to close this out with a few things that I think are incredibly important when it comes to building and running a great email list:
1. Be crystal clear about what your subscribers are going to get if they sign up for your email list. Let them know the schedule, the type of content, and what kind of value you are providing them. Put this information right next to your signup form and remind them of it in a Welcome Email.
2. Do not worry about the numbers. Again, don’t focus on going wide with your email list. Focus on going deep. If you only have 15 subscribers, that’s totally fine. Pamper the heck out of them, engage with them, but make sure you’re doing it with the content you want to be sending.
3. Don’t hide the unsubscribe button/link. In fact, make the unsubscribe option prominent in your emails. I promise you, if someone wants to leave your list, you should let them go and wish them well on their way.
4. Unless you’re Groupon, do not create an email list with giveaways, deals, and prizes. Trust me on this one—you’ll build a list of people who only want those things. It’s not worth the extra subscribers because they won’t bring you any value in the long run. They’ll actually end up costing you time and money.
5. Deliver your unique value to your subscribers with every email. Don’t copy someone else’s strategies. Don’t copy subject lines. Just pour your uniqueness into every email you write.
People always ask me the question: “What’s your best marketing advice?” And I have a very simple answer these days: Build a quality email list. It’s not a sexy answer, but it’s the smartest and most valuable marketing you can do these days.