List-Building Is Dead! Long Live List-Building! In Praise Of The GDPR

“List-building” as we know it is about to change.

While I never advise freaking out about regulatory, network, or market changes, the imminent arrival of the European Union’s new privacy regular, the GDPR, will fundamentally change the way we approach finding and communicating with new potential customers for our businesses.

And, I’d like submit that this will be good for business.

I’ve been talking about the dangers of focusing your marketing efforts on “list-building” for a couple of years now. My concern is based on my own experience. There was a time when I truly believed that I could work the numbers by figuring out the exact percentages of who would buy, how much each purchase was worth, and how many new subscribers I needed to reach my goals.

Truthfully, this kind of math is really helpful for planning marketing budgets, sales projections, and future cashflow potential. But it’s a terrible way to think of people.

The GDPR makes us remember that the people who visit our websites, give us their email addresses, store our Facebook pixels in their browsers, and buy are products are… people.

They’re people who care how we treat them, how we talk to them, and who we share their personal information with.

They’re not data. They’re not dollar signs. They’re not cogs in our marketing machines.

This is why the GDPR is good for business.

Anytime we remember that our customers are people, we end up winning in the long run…

…as do our customers and communities.

So if list-building is fundamentally changing, what is it changing into?

There will certainly continue to be a contingent of marketers in the United States who defy the principle of the regulation and comply by the letter of the law and not the spirit. However, over time, businesses will get much smarter about how they ask to communicate with people so that they’re spending the majority of their resources on people likely to become customers.

That means, as consumers, we can look forward to more transparent, direct, and value-driven calls to action. As small business owners and marketers, we can waste less time on finding circuitous routes for guiding prospects to our offers and focus more on why people need them in the first place.

But what if I lose subscribers? What if people don’t sign up at the same rate they did before? What if my whole business comes crashing down like a house of cards?

The truth is that you probably will lose some subscribers. You definitely won’t see the sign up rates you’ve seen in the past.

You won’t lose your business unless it was based on exploitation and manipulation in the first place. Time to shape up.

Here’s why I believe all of this to be true:

1) Consumers reward transparency.

Most people just want to know if you have something that can help them solve their problem, make them feel better, or teach them something new and valuable. They don’t need to be convinced. They’d love to buy from you if you can help them.

While not strictly in the marketing space, a 2016 study of the food industry highlighted just how important transparency was to consumers. It found that 94% of consumers surveyed were more likely to be loyal to a brand if it was completely transparent about its products. 81% would be willing to try every product from a brand with a high degree of transparency.

To take bring this particular example into the small business marketing sector, imagine if your current marketing efforts were summed up on a food package.

On the outside, your packaging might have words like “All natural!”, “Organic!”, and “Healthy!” But on the ingredient list, there were words you couldn’t pronounce and food sources you couldn’t grow in your garden. That’s what the current bait-and-switch list-building world is: good stuff on the outside, crap on the inside.

Then imagine some stripped down food packaging with a clear view of the food inside and a 3-ingredient label. That’s where we’re headed: marketing that’s actually about the product on the other side of the ad. What a concept!

I cited transparency as a trend for marketing in 2018 because I believe more and more consumers — especially highly coveted values-driven consumers — are demanding it. Now, we’re about to see a move toward transparency being led from the top of the value chain, too.

2) Measuring what matters leads to better decision-making.

“How many subscribers do you have?” has been almost like asking someone how much money they have in their bank account (let alone how much money they make!) in digital small business.

The reason is because “subscribers” has been the all-important metric.

But here’s the thing: subscribers don’t pay your bills.

Customers pay your bills.

You make better decisions for your business when you measure what ultimately matters to you. It’s not that tracking leading indicators like email sign ups is wrong — not hardly. But, in the end, your marketing and sales decisions should have the greatest impact on who shows up for products, not freebies.

This is why it doesn’t matter so much if you lose subscribers. People who aren’t willing to step up and affirmatively consent to hearing from you aren’t going to affirmatively consent to buying your products either.

Kelly Diels has some interesting and insightful thoughts on how our propensity for avoiding direct consent with marketing plays into avoiding consent in other parts of our culture, as well.

Your goal should be to grow a list of customers and potential customers — not subscribers — unless you are a media company with an advertising model.

That all said, you may want to consider whether your customer has a different sort of buying strategy and whether your website is set up to match that buying strategy. Not all customers come through email lists! But you’d never even consider that if growing your list of subscribers was your main metric.

3) Strategy is sustainable.

Under the current digital marketing status quo, marketers have needed to come up with new ideas to capture the interest of potential subscribers every few months. The minute you decide on a plan, things change, prospects get wise to it, and you have to adapt.

This isn’t a marketing strategy, it’s a recipe for burnout.

With more transparent and direct forms of marketing, you’ll need to think longer-term in order to reach your goals. You won’t need to keep up with the latest fads in opt-in incentives so you can devote your marketing planning to coming up with a plan that stands the test of time.

Your longer-term strategy will take into account the messages you want to communicate with your potential customers, the offers you want to present to them, and the different ways you might want to use their contact information in the future. It might sound like a lot to wrap your head around — and it’s not a small amount — but taking the time to build a strategy will pay off in sanity soon enough.

Instead of running around like a marketer with your head cut off, you can enjoy the relief of more sustainable operations.

4) Getting real about what’s valuable makes selling easier.

Let’s get real: most free guides, checklists, challenges, courses, and workshops aren’t valuable. They’re teasers, false promises, and moldy breadcrumbs.

We’ve slapped together whatever free thing will allow us to put the most enticing headline on a landing page and called it good. Whatever it takes to bring in that next subscriber.

How many of these things sit unused on hard drives? How many are never even downloaded in the first place?

That’s not even to mention all the “value” we’ve been giving in the form of blog posts, social media updates, videos, and podcast episodes. Is that piece of content you just created actually helping someone or is it a stab in the dark to see whose interest it might spark?

Look, I’ve been as guilty of these things as anyone. I think that might be what gets me so riled up!

The answer to this whole marketing conundrum is to get clear about what’s really valuable to the people who are most likely to buy our solutions.

What if, instead of thinking of your marketing & sales process like a funnel (with content or freebies that have mass appeal), you started to look at it like a pipeline? Your goal would be to only let in the people who truly want what you have to offer — otherwise, you clog the pipe.

You’d probably start by creating something valuable (a workshop, a guide, a blog post, a podcast) that is much, much closer to the point of purchase. You’d answer a question, present an idea, or teach a topic that crops up right before people are ready to buy. People would want to receive more email from you because they’d be ready to make a purchase almost immediately. You’d make your marketing for exactly that right person for your offer and forget all the other folks who won’t pay attention to it.

Then, you’d only need a few more points of contact to close the deal because the people who are paying attention are exactly the right people, ready to buy.


For as long as there is email, businesses will be building email lists.

Email marketing isn’t going away. In fact, it’s about to get better.

But the strategy and mindset behind building those lists needs to change — and change it should.

Don’t make your primary goal to build your email list. Make your primary goal to find your customers and put your product or service in the hands of the people who want it.