Pimp Your Newsletter: List Building 101

I make no bones about the fact that I freaking love permission based marketing, which is marketing wanker speak for email newsletters. Dollar for dollar, this is the absolute cheapest form of marketing you can engage in, and even if you’ve never thought of having a newsletter before, chances are that when we work together, you’re having one.

There are two reasons I love newsletters. One, anyone who would turn down the opportunity to put their brand in front of hundreds or thousands of people each week or month and generate click-thus for their site for pennies is a moron. Two, because these subscribers have opted in and asked to hear from you, they already have an affinity for your brand, product or service. These are essentially pre-qualified buyers, and if you can get them to open your mail and give them a strong call to action, you can pretty much convert the snot out out of them.

Plus I love doing them. I make a lovely looking HTML newsletter if I do say so myself, and the metrics you get from Campaign Monitor are like crack bananas for monkeys. Every mailing is pretty much 24 hours of stats porn, and the market intelligence in those stats is worth 1,000x the cost of the mailing. It’s fantastic.

So when I work with a new client, some portion of the time is spent on the mechanics of building their new subscriber list. People new to email marketing generally have a vague notion that you go out and buy a list somewhere, but in fact you never do this. You build your own list, slowly and carefully, with a combination of cunning and brute force.

The standard “sign up to our newsletter” form on most websites (including this one) isn’t, let’s face it, enormously appealing. If you want people to sign up – and I assume you do even though I do not – you need to help them do that:

  • Incentivise People: Very few people want more email. However, many people would like the chance to get discounts, to enter a contest, to get industry intelligence, or whatever carrot you can offer.
  • Bribe People: “Would you like to give me your email address?” is not really a winning sales pitch. “Would you like to enter to win a free Wii?” works surprisingly well, however.
  • Catch People: Catch them at checkout with a tick box when they’re buying from your online store, and catch them at the till with a clipboard list if you have a retail shop. Don’t be aggressive but make sure you give them an opportunity to opt in.

The best example I have of guerilla list building in action is Ciara Crossan at WeddingDates.ie. Ciara does six trade shows a year, mostly bridal fairs. She doesn’t have a product to sell to brides that would make doing shows worth her financial while, which is sort of a bummer. On the plus side, the aisles are literally crawling with women who are perfect for her mailing list.

So that’s what she does. She parks herself next to a display stand with a champagne bucket and a romantic arrangement of bubbly and fluted glasses and says “Would you like to enter to win a free champagne draw?” several hundred times a day. The first time I saw her do this, she signed up 400 subscribers on paper entry forms, and then nagged one of her brothers into entering them into her database. (Ciara does not have siblings; she has staff.)

This is, from a guerilla marketing point of view, a brilliant result though not entirely unexpected – Ciara could sign Eskimos up for ice. What’s interesting from a mailing list point of view, however, is the unsubscribe rate. Our strategy with these gigs has always been to announce the winner of the bridal fair draw in the next newsletter, so that those manually-entered subscribers are very definitely getting the content they signed up for.  Still, you’d expect a lot of people to unsubscribe when they a) don’t win, and b) get a newsletter they had never seen before and didn’t exactly wake up that morning desperate to join.

But they don’t. These subscribers are such tightly targeted, high-value acquisitions that they stay. They unsubscribe at a rate of less than 1%. Complaint and bounce rates are so low as to be statistically insignificant.

And that, my friends, is pure marketing gold.

I’ll be honest with you and say that most people who are start-ups are absolutely horrified when I suggest not only that they go outside and talk to real people, but solicit them as well. You absolutely can do this kind of marketing online from the safety of your PJs using social networks, but you cannot target it on Twitter the same way you can at a trade show, gig, or conference. You can do a pretty good interest-targeting job with Facebook ads, but your click-thrus will be shit.

I am nothing if not the queen of Do As I Say, Not as I Do, so as a concrete example here’s how I would build my list if I was interested in increasing the subscriber base for the newsletter I have no idea what to do with:

  • I would have launched my re-design with a contest for a free Bootcamp session and a Wii, tied together with a marketing strapline like “Get Business Fit” except less lame.
  • I’d Tweet my contest once and rely on people with whom I have credibility and karma to re-tweet it for me, then pray it trickled down. I’d also run a Facebook campaign for cheap kicks and reinforcement.
  • I would embark on a round of Barcamp talks, Open Coffee rounds and maybe a local tech conference or two. At the end of each talk I did, I’d send round a clipboard for signups and pimp the online contest.
  • I’d Tweet and blog about it one more time before the contest entry closing date, and then call and yell at myself for being tacky and embarassing.

I’m pretty sure that with a bit of effort there, I could gain several hundred subscribers for the price of a Wii. Luckily, I don’t have €169 at the moment, so you will be spared from a campaign designed to get you to sign up for my newsletter, and I will be spared from having to actually decide what to put in it and sending it.

And really, isn’t it better when we all win this way?

Photo: ©Rob DiCaterino