Building a Valuable Email List: You Must Train Your Audience That They Are, In Fact, Customers

Here’s a marketing lesson I learned the hard way about a decade ago, and it’s still relevant today. Back around 2006, my wife asked me to build her a web site. For a while, it was a small site, relatively speaking (and my first Wordpress site, by the way).

Soon after that, we decided to take some online marketing classes and build it out more. Specifically, we had the idea to grow our email list by coming up with a cool freebie giveaway and offering that as an incentive for signing up.

So, we spent time developing the freebie, and also spent time developing a bunch of follow-up freebies to further solidify our relationship with the new subscribers. We set these up as auto-responders, which means that, after someone signed up, subsequent mailings went out automatically on a schedule we specified. As an example, it went something like this:

  • Visitor signed up and got access to our main freebie (which was a recipe book, by the way).
  • A few days later, they got an email saying something like, “We hope you liked that book! And, by the way, here’s a bonus recipe for you!”
  • A few days after that, they got another, introducing some cool areas on our web site.
  • A few days later, they got one asking for social media follows.
  • And so on…

I think we had six or seven such emails setup, with a total of three or four free recipe attachments thrown in to add value. After the chain of auto-responders was complete, subscribers received our regular newsletter blasts, which went out monthly or thereabouts.

We didn’t do any hard selling in any of these communications, just opting for some rather passive affiliate marketing links thrown in (which did produce a little revenue).

At one point fairly early on, a well-known vlogger came to visit us at our home and we wound up making a special recipe for him and his wife. They went nuts over it and vlogged about it. Suddenly, we went from a healthy amount of followers who enjoyed reading our offerings to more than 10,000 opt-in email subscribers.

It was pretty neat for a while, but what started as a low-cost hobby had turned into something for which the monthly list fees (we were using aWeber at the time) were $100 or so. Granted, that’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme, but we didn’t really have enough regular income from the site to justify investing $1,200/year for list-maintenance alone.

So, we decided that we needed to monetize the site and came up with a new service that we could market to our list. Looking back, I think it was a pretty good fit for them, too — great value, on-target demographically, and reasonably priced.

What happened next surprised us — and, to be frank, angered me. We put all of this work into building out this new platform to offer to our list and, when we sent out the offer to our 10,000+, the following happened:

  • Massive unsubscribes;
  • Massive complaints;
  • Low conversion.

The low conversion was disappointing, but at least it was understandable. Perhaps our salesmanship was off, or maybe we needed to tweak our messaging somewhat.

As for the inordinate number of complaints and unsubscribes, I have to be honest, I thought to myself, “You ungrateful bastards! We send you tons and tons of great, valuable, free information and recipes that you couldn’t get enough of, and then we merely ask you to take a look at one thing that might require money, and you freak out!”

I was pretty soured by the experience. But, I think our mistake was our own fault in the end. Here’s why:

When you invest time and money into giving away freebies without ever selling to your customer base, you are in effect training them that your channel is all about nonstop free stuff for them. As such, you are attracting, and paying to maintain, an all-take audience that cannot be successfully sold to.

Such an audience may well have its place in the world, but if you’re in need of income (even a modest income) from such an audience, it’s the wrong tactic.

The Alternative Approach

The solution to this conundrum, I believe, is to train your audience from day one that they are a customer in the full sense of that word. Yes, you can (and should) offer them free information and resources of value as an incentive for connecting. But, with that connection must be their implicit permission for you to sell products and services to them. (They needn’t buy, of course, but they must be okay with your selling to them, at least.) And you must actively get that dynamic setup and in-play very early-on.

So, what happened, above, is that we built a list. That much we did spectacularly well. We just built the wrong kind of list. Had we actively sold to that group early on, we’d have weeded out those who were not convertible into active customers, which I believe would have had the following positive effects:

  • fewer unsubscribes after receiving our offer (because they would have been amenable to it);
  • fewer complaints after receiving our offer (same reason);
  • less subscribers overall, which would have reduced our monthly list maintenance fees while simultaneously improving the overall health of our list;
  • less bitterness from me.

I want to stress, again, that web site marketers should expect that some (perhaps many) people will subscribe only for the freebies and never will convert into paying customers. This is normal, and still has some marginal value in terms of branding and awareness.

But, the above tactic at least weeds out those who are offended by it. Trust me, you don’t want or need those people; they’ll only bring you down.


Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. Photo atop piece is adapted from “Audience @ LeWeb 11 Les Docks-9317” by OFFICIAL LEWEB PHOTOS (Flickr, Creative Commons). Please 👏 👏 👏 for this article if you liked it (by clicking the applause icon below).