Let go of “Building an Email List”

Instead, build an engaged audience.

George Kao
Nov 14, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

“How do I grow my email list?”

A lot of people have asked me this question over the years. They hear from many business experts that growing an email list is the most important thing to do in marketing.

Unfortunately, building an email list is the wrong focus. If you talk more deeply with marketing people, I think they’ll agree.

None of us need an email list. What we actually need is an audience who cares about our messages.

It is essential for authentic marketing to switch our mindset from “building an email list” to “building an engaged audience.”

  1. When one is fixated on “building an email list,” it is tempting to use any means necessary to “get their email address” even if the tactics erode the relationship. Example: A pop-up window asking for your email address is annoying… but businesses still do it because it does build a bigger email list. The subscribers are initially reluctant, and then increasingly annoyed by unwanted emails. To understand this dynamic, read my post “No More Lead Magnets.”
  2. When you instead focus on “building an engaged audience” you’re thinking about the relationship — and whether they care about your message. Your actions will be aligned with their needs and wants, rather than a soulless numeric metric of “email subscribers”.

Email list-building was hot in the 2000’s. It was still kind of cool to receive emails from brands you like. Then marketers started to notice that audiences grew tired of being on lists.

Services like Unroll.me (helping you to quickly unsubscribe from email newsletters) became mainstream.

Audiences began to expect brands to meet them where they’re at.

  • You like surfing Facebook? Great, you’ll see my posts there.
  • You watch Youtube videos? I’ve got a channel there.
  • You prefer podcasts? You can subscribe to my podcast.

If you care about your audience, go to where they are.

Of course, this needs to be balanced with your limited time. I’ve written about this before: Focus your marketing on just the few channels you’d like to become great at. For example, I’ve decided not to have a podcast at this time, as Facebook and Youtube keep me plenty busy. There are more than enough people in any one channel you choose, e.g. Facebook, Youtube, Medium, Podcasting, etc.

In other words, don’t force your audience to give you their email address to get your best free content. Post it where they are hanging out. Make it easier for them to consume and engage with your content… and to share it!

Many people find this annoying about marketing:

  1. Someone dangles their awesome “free” report, video series, free templates — and make us salivate …
  2. …but they require our email address before they give it to us.

They build up our desires with a deception of “free”, then hold it for ransom.

We end up paying for that “free gift” by allowing an ongoing barrage of emails of things they want to sell us. The “payment” is steeper than originally looked (“simply submit your email address!”)

We don’t have to be like those marketers.

“But my email list is the only thing I really control!”

… is what marketers tell me.

The truth is that nobody is really in control of their email list. So many peers have lamented to me about low open rates. In fact, average email open rates are less than 25%!

Many email campaigns are going into spam folders… and never reaching the intended people.

Here’s the reality:

  • You cannot guarantee that your email subscribers will receive your email…
  • Even if they receive it, you can’t guarantee they’ll open it…
  • Even if they open it, you can’t guarantee they’ll care about your message!

You control only your behavior: whether your content is authentic, relevant, and consistent.

  • Authenticity = Being real and sharing your truth
  • Relevance = Caring enough to find the intersection between your interests and your audience’s wants
  • Consistency = Being reliable so your audience can depend on the rhythm of your content

An engaged audience arises from you being authentic, relevant, and consistent.

When your audience cares about you, they will look for you.

On Facebook, they will seek out your posts, in the rhythm they’ve become accustomed to seeing from you. Their behavior will train the algorithm to show them your posts.

On Youtube, they’ll miss you if they don’t see your videos in the Recommended stream, and will go to your channel to see what’s new. Again, the algorithm will notice this and put you into their Recommended section.

And yes, if they subscribed to your email newsletter, they’ll look forward to it!

So… should we build our email list?

If your audience wants to receive your content via email — and if you don’t mind sending a consistent email newsletter — then yes, offer it as a service of convenience to your audience.

As I wrote in my blog post “No Lead Magnets”, I do have an email newsletter which I keep as simple as possible, so that it’s sustainable for me to keep it up.

I don’t look at my newsletter as the most important asset in my business and the one channel I can control.

I see the George Kao Email Newsletter as a free service of convenience for my audience. It’s for those who like receiving newsletters, and want to keep up with my latest content via email, rather than having to hunt for my posts on Facebook, Medium, etc.

(If you’d rather charge, you could monetize your email newsletter using a service like substack.)

But here’s the point — I also have followers on Facebook, Youtube, or Medium who aren’t on my email newsletter. I meet them where they’re at.

When it comes to building an audience, release your fears and need for control. Dive into your caring and generosity. Share your truth, love your audience, and they won’t let algorithms get in their way of finding your content.

They will keep looking for you, and be delighted when they see your content.


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​All of George Kao’s content, including this post, is in and for the Public Domain / Creative Commons. Use however you’d like!

 by the author.

George Kao

Written by

Authentic Business Coach & Author of 4 Books including "Authentic Content Marketing" and "Joyful Productivity" https://www.GeorgeKao.com

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