How our startup reached 8-figure revenue while losing email subscribers

The money is NOT in the list

Tim Soulo
Tim Soulo
Jan 29 · 8 min read

Do you ever receive messages from strangers on Linkedin?

Oftentimes, someone wants me to try their product, recommend their service or provide them with marketing advice.

But, last week, I received a different kind of inquiry:

After regularly visiting our company blog, Uffe had yet to encounter a single slide-in, pop-up or lead magnet. Considering the standardization of opt-in hacks, he was surprised.

Visit Ahrefs’ blog, and you will see one form, located at the very bottom, right above the comments section, for collecting email addresses. That’s it.

Here was my response:

A quick search within our Intercom database revealed Uffe had indeed signed up for a paid trial several months ago.

In other words, we never needed his email address. Our blog content was compelling enough to make the sale on its own.

Every article we publish highlights the functionality of our software, while teaching readers how to become better SEOs.

Our philosophy:

Why focus on converting readers into leads, when you can focus on converting readers directly into customers?

So far, it’s working.

Over the past 3 years, Ahrefs has achieved +65% YoY growth (and 8-figure revenue) without opt-in hacks, lead magnets or nurturing sequences.

The crazy part is — we’ve lost more email subscribers than we’ve gained, during that time.

Check out our MailChimp stats below — note: We merged two lists in July, which created the appearance of a “boost.”

Obviously, our philosophy directly contradicts the advice espoused by most online marketers, growth hackers and digital agencies.

Hang around any seasoned marketer long enough, and you will probably hear him say: The money is in the list.

Perhaps, some crazy successful marketer from the “direct-mail” era coined the moniker — no one knows.

However, we don’t believe this philosophy is the most effective way to convert leads into paying customers today. Which is why we base our email marketing efforts on the following premises:

1. The money is NOT in the list

It’s in solving problems.

Let me explain.

Were I was reporting to anyone other than Ahrefs CEO and founder Dmitry, I would probably get chastised for neglecting list-building tactics. However, Dmitry is a “product-first” guy.

That means he prioritizes investing resources in continual feature improvements over executing on every marketing tactic there is. And these product capabilities inform the basis of our SEO-based marketing strategy.

Again, our experience suggests the money is in solving problems via engaging content that:

  1. Teaches our readers how to become better SEOs AND
  2. Illustrates the features of our software.

For this reason, Ahrefs ranks high in Google for many SEO-related searches. Search traffic that we get to our website and blog is our second biggest source of customers, only outperformed by the classic word of mouth.

Here’s where traditional list-building tactics fall apart for me…

Say someone lands on an article via Google search. They arrived seeking a specific piece of information.

Why would we interrupt them when they are, voluntarily, reading an indirect, sales pitch for our software? The article they found is teaching them how to solve their exact problem with our toolkit.

Our writers spend a TON of time ensuring each article we publish is exceptionally relevant, valuable and engaging. Directing attention away from something we worked hard to produce just seems dumb.

As long as our ARR continues to climb, we’ll continue allocating resources toward what’s working. And, for us, that is creating content that promotes something we alone are qualified to deliver:

An SEO toolkit that boasts the world’s largest index of live backlinks and second best web crawler after Google.

2. Open rates above 30% are miracles

Another surprising fact? Our email open rates are kinda sad.

Check out the metrics from our last blast:

According to the IBM 2016 Email Marketing Benchmark Study, the average email open rate in the United States is 21.5 percent.

Hubspot conducted another sample of more than 25 million emails with an average open rate for “computer software” companies of 28 percent.

Yikes — we’re 11 points below average. You might be wondering that’s because our actual emails are boring, irrelevant or ineffective. But comments like this suggest that’s not the case:

Engaging in better list segmentation, inactive subscriber purging and other factors might improve our open rates. But such tasks aren’t a priority for our small marketing department. Why?

Companies “doing everything right,” still fail to reach 30 percent of their audience. Put simply, our 10-person team doesn’t have time to waste effort on minimal gains.

Our solution was to create an app notification feature; the bell icon alerts Ahrefs users whenever fresh content is published. Yes, we copied the idea from Facebook!

Unfortunately, even this method of reaching customers is imperfect.

Though our data shows the notifications perform better than emails, the overall reach is still quite low. Which is why we rely upon several other marketing methods to make sure our content reaches our audience.

3. Opt-in tricks may do more harm than good

Ok, you may still be wondering:

But why not, potentially, make your list even bigger? Why not use opt-in tricks?

As previously mentioned, our CEO dislikes marketing “tricks” because they are disingenuous by design. But he also questions their effectiveness.

For every visitor who subscribes via pop-up, you might annoy someone else away. Unfortunately, there is no definitive way to track how many potential customers are lost this way.

However, I often come across case studies like this one about food blogger Nikki McGonigal.

The foodie procured 1,375 percent more subscribers with a light-box pop-up than a sidebar opt-in, during an 8-month period. Clearly, the strategy sometimes works with elegant execution.

However, that’s not what many online marketers seem to advocate. After receiving three pop-ups in quick succession, SEO Dan Petrovic said he abandoned marketer Neil Patel’s site in frustration.

He shared his experience on social media with a post titled “How to lose audience in three easy steps.”

Below are the pop-ups Petrovic is referring to in his post:

Here’s the thing — Patel is marketing to a specific segment of marketers, and he’s proven through testing that these techniques work on them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will work on your audience or mine.

However, I think Ahrefs could improve its opt-in strategy with something in between the two previous examples.

Right now, we utilize a “classic” subscriber form located at the bottom of each post. I suspect these forms are often overlooked, due to their widespread usage.

After publishing this post, we’ll be experimenting with something more eye-catching — a discrete, slide-in form. However, the opt-in won’t appear until the reader reaches the bottom of the article.

Could we entice readers with a freebie in exchange for providing their email addresses? Yeah, but we don’t want them to feel like “just another number” in our email lead nurturing sequence.

Our goal is to maintain an email list of individuals who voluntarily signed up to receive notification of newly published articles — not a downloadable bribe.

Setting and fulfilling clear expectations builds trust, and trust translates to sales.

Our blog brings us new customers because we put 110 percent effort into creating content that solves their problem, while demonstrating the power of our platform.

With this in mind, we don’t want to interrupt the reading experience we worked so hard to create. A pop-up requires someone to leave the site, check their Inbox, confirm their email address and refocus.

Considering how much time and money we spend creating articles, why would we, voluntarily, direct potential customers away?

The majority of our business comes from word of mouth. Our readers regularly recommend our content on platforms like Reddit, LinkedIn and Twitter.

This wouldn’t happen if we distracted them with enticing freebies, before unexpectedly inundating them with “lead nurturing” emails.

Translation: Giving people exactly what they came for is everything.

4. Lists are expensive to maintain

Finally, the ultimate downside of “growing your list at all costs” might be the cost of maintaining it. Email service providers like Mailchimp commonly offer scaling price plans based on “number of emails sent.”

This is a really bad deal considering less than 30 percent of subscribers are opening the average business’ emails. Check out this notification we received recently because we ran out of credits:

Fail to set-up “double opt-ins” — where subscribers must click on an emailed confirmation link before joining — and you’re, potentially, leaving even more money on the table.

Why doesn’t Mailchimp charge based on “number of emails opened?” I’m not sure, but paying for something that consistently delivers low ROI should always be questioned.

Again, the money isn’t in the list

It’s in our ability to solve problems with valuable content that promotes our product while drawing organic search traffic. Right now, our buyer’s journey looks like this:

  • Someone searches for an answer via Google.
  • They read a post that solves their problem (and features our tool) on our blog.
  • They sign-up for a trial.

This simple sequence works because the person wants to put into action what he or she just read about.

Engaging in email funnel optimization would add two extra steps to the journey — email confirmation and additional email engagement — that would prolong the visitor from their main objective after reading the article: Playing with the software!

What about you? How do you approach list building? What sort of results have you experienced with pop-ups, sliders and more?

Let me know in the comments below.

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Tim Soulo

Written by

Tim Soulo

Head of Marketing at Ahrefs.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +479K people. Follow to join our community.