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[00:01] Rob Walling: This is Startups for the Rest of Us: Episode 8.
[00:13] Rob: Welcome to Startups For the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers be awesome at launching software products, whether you have built your first product or are just thinking about. I’m Rob.
[00:23] Mike Taber: And I’m Mike.
[00:24] Rob: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s going on this week, Mike?
[00:31] Mike: Not a whole lot. Just still working on a couple of product launches, trying to work out some issues with mailing lists, and trying to get everything all squared away there. How about you?
[00:41] Rob: Well, I haven’t been doing much the last week. I actually was off the majority of the last couple of weeks, doing some traveling. And the good news is most of it was not work related. So nothing much too important in terms of business.
[00:55] Mike: Cool. Slacker, though. [laughs]
[00:58] Rob: Yeah, I know. It’s been nice to come back to my email and just churn through it and realize that I’m not missing that much by being out of the office for a week.
[01:07] Mike: That’s good.
[01:08] Rob: Yeah, it’s a good place to be in. It’s very different than where I was a few years ago as a consultant, where you stop working and you don’t make any money that week!
[01:16] Mike: Well, plus, everything grinds to a halt when you are doing the consulting work and you stop working for a week or two.
[01:22] Rob: Yeah, absolutely. When people are relying on you, it’s just a big traffic jam like you said. So it’s been neat. You know, I came back and checked, all my advertising’s still going, and revenue is still coming in. And certainly it couldn’t be on autopilot for two months, but for a week at a time here and there, it’s really nice. And I didn’t need to get anybody’s permission. You know, I just kind of left on a whim, and we decided to go to a cabin, and then we went to the beach for another few days. It was cool. It was a good feeling of freedom, frankly. So I’ve been enjoying it.
[01:49] Mike: That’s cool. Do you find that you’re more behind now than you were before or no?
[01:53] Rob: No, I’m really not. Basically, I came back and I had about 150 emails, and I went through those in about 90 minutes or two hours, because a lot of them were just information, and so I deleted them or archived them or whatever. And I had just a few that I had to act on. A couple customer service emails that I still handle. And yeah, there really wasn’t much else.
[02:14] Now, I didn’t make any progress. I obviously didn’t accomplish tasks on my list, but these tasks that I have, like AB testing and approving marketing, and expanding products, or whatever, none of those needed to get done, really. I mean they need to get done over the next several months, but there’s no hard deadlines.
[02:32] So yeah, I’m not any more or less behind than when I left. It just kind of all went on autopilot, which has been my goal for years. So it’s neat to see it actually work in practice. It feels good.
[02:42] Mike: Cool!
[02:46] Rob: This week we’re going to be talking about building a mailing list. And I think the first question I want to throw out is, why don’t more people build mailing lists? Why don’t more software developers, in particular, when they are launching a product, why don’t they build a mailing list before they are launching, as well as once they’ve launched?
[03:02] Mike: Because it feels dirty. [laughs]
[03:05] Rob: Yeah.
[03:06] Mike: You basically feel like a spammer, at least from a developer’s standpoint. I mean if you are a developer, you hate going to websites, and especially when you’re trying to evaluate a product, for example. The only way to get to it is to give your email address. And people, myself included, tend to hate handing over their email address just to get a trial download for something, or to see the pricing for something, because why should you have to hand over an email address just to see the price of something or just to get a trial download which is generally freely available anyway. It just somehow feels wrong or feels dirty if people resort to those sorts of tactics.
[03:41] But I don’t think that you necessarily have to resort to those tactics to get people on your mailing list.
[03:46] Rob: What are some other tactics? What are some good approaches?
[03:49] Mike: Well, I think one of the best approaches is to offer people some sort of a reward for getting on your mailing list. And that reward can be something along the lines of you’re actually giving something away, or you could provide them information that they need to accomplish their goals anyway.
[04:06] So, for example, if you are selling flower pots, if you are selling flowers online, then you might want to start a mailing list and give people gardening advice, give people advice about what to plant and which times of the year, what sorts of flowers work well together, which ones go in the shade, which ones don’t — those sorts of things.
[04:24] And you can get people to your mailing list by providing them that valuable information on your mailing list. And just by the nature of that information, people are going to want to sign up for it, because they’re going to get what they feel is valuable information.
[04:38] Now you are going to have to provide that to them. You are going to have to create that content and give it to them. But you could also publish that on your blog, for example, or on your website some place and help with your SEO. Or you could do a delay where you send out that information to your mailing list, and then two, three, four months later, then you post it on your website so that you’re not doing the same work twice.
[04:59] But the fact of the matter is that you are providing them with valuable material that they can act on or they can use in their life or in their garden to be able to do the things that they want to do.
[05:12] Rob: Yeah. That’s a good suggestion. I think the tactics that I’ve heard about and that I’ve used myself to various degrees of success are basically what you’ve summarized — offering some type of reward. And that reward is typically not a discount. You don’t just want to advertise that you get a discount if you sign up for the mailing list, because then A, you’ll get a bunch of people on it who aren’t really that interested in anything but saving a few bucks, and B, you devalue your product.
[05:38] So often, you could give away either a small utility that you’ve written — a piece of software, or, as you said, information. And I think information is great, because it doesn’t tend to go out of date, you don’t need to support it or provide bug fixes for it as you might with a small utility. And if you can offer something that’s truly helpful, you can pretty quickly separate the visitors who are actually interested in the subject and visitors who are not. And those who are will give you their email.
[06:06] Mike: The other issue with providing a discount to people is the fact that the people who provide you their email address just to get that discount code, they’re not going to be sticky, and they’re not going to stay subscribed to your email list. Because the only reason that they even described to it was to get the discount.
[06:24] Rob: Well that brings up an interesting point. You mentioned that subscribers who are going for a discount won’t be sticky and they won’t stick around. What’s the purpose? Why should you build a list at all? What are you really looking for out of it?
[06:36] Mike: Well, the main purpose behind building a mailing list is to essentially create a relationship between you or your company, or however you want to look at your business, and your customer base or your prospective customer base.
[06:50] And I am going to kind of lump the two of them together, because customers and prospective customers, you treat them a little bit differently, but at the same time, if you are providing valuable content, valuable information to them that is not directly selling your product…I mean if it’s not add-on’s and things like that. I mean most people will sign up for a mailing list at certain retail stores just because they’ll see the discounts every week, and they’ll see the fliers, and coupons, that sort of stuff. And if they feel so inclined, they’ll go there.
[07:23] But for most products that people tend to sell online, that’s a little bit more difficult to convince people to sign on to a mailing list. Because essentially, what you’re getting is you are getting an advertisement every single week, and that’s not necessarily something that most people are interested in. I mean if you want that, just browse to the website and see what’s for sale on any given week.
[07:43] But if you’ve got that content there, that will help draw people in. And you can use that to start engaging them. You can start asking people questions and say, “Hey, what do you guys think of this? What do you think of this way,” back to the flower example, “growing flowers? What do you think of the types of foliage that you’re looking for in a garden?” Let’s run a survey and see how many people prefer waterfalls in their garden versus a pond.
[08:06] And once you start getting that information, then you can get that feedback from people and you can start to cater towards those people when you’re actually selling things. So if you have a flower store or a gardening store that’s online, you can gather information from your mailing list subscribers and use that effectively to figure out what people are at your website for.
[08:28] Because one of the big things that a lot of startups do is they will go out and they’ll build a product and they will have 50,000 or 100,000 people come to their website, and they’ll try it out, and they have no idea who those people are, where they came from, why they’re there — any of that tangible information that is actually really valuable to them. It is really valuable marketing information that you can find out.
[08:50] And if you don’t have that, you are basically just shooting blind in the dark when you’re trying to figure out what it is that these people want. So it helps you with your SEO efforts, your marketing efforts. You can figure out what types of things these people are interested in, what age groups, what websites they visit — that sort of information that’s, as I said, very valuable.
[09:08] Rob: Two most valuable parts in building a mailing list that I’ve experienced are being able to have something that converts more often than a sale and being able to capture some of the people who would otherwise visit your site once and then forget about it.
[09:26] I’m going to actually start with the second one. What I mean by capturing the attention of someone who would visit your site and otherwise leave is, we talked a little bit before about conversion rates and about how you might have a half a percent or a 1% or 2% conversion rate of people who visit your site and purchase. So that means that 99 out of 100 or 99.5 out of 100 people who visit are just going to bail. And the odds that they’ll come back are very, very low, unless you somehow contact them and remind them to come back and check you out.
[09:58] And, of course, you don’t remind them by saying, “Hey, come back and check my site out.” Remind them by providing some type of valuable content, whether that is articles relating to technical topics, or, if it’s a hobby, relating to they’d be interested in doing in that hobby. But it’s some type of engaging content that shows that you know what you are talking about and you are an expert, and it’s something that people actually want to receive. Because if they don’t, then they’ll unsubscribe very quickly.
[10:25] But if you’re providing valuable information. …and think of like, if you read blogs, think of information you like to read. Some stuff is going to captivate your attention, and that’s exactly the kind of thing you want to include in your mailing list, and other stuff is going to be seen like corporate marketing junk, and that’s exactly the kind of stuff you do not want to include in your mailing list. Product announcements, new version announcements, you can do them. You really need to keep them infrequent. I mean if you do more than two or three a year, you are going to get a lot of people unsubscribing.
[10:53] So, as I was saying, the benefit of this is being able to capture a good chunk or a larger chunk of the people who visit your website. So instead of losing 99 out of 100 people, say you get one purchase, and then you may capture another nine or 10 people, either with an RSS reader or in your mailing list.
[11:12] So you could increase your credibility and trustworthiness with this group of people, and you essentially increase your conversion rate. Not your sales conversion rate, but your kind of influence conversion rate up to 10% or 12%. I’ve seen conversion rates upwards of 20% with a valuable prize or a valuable incentive for signing up for your mailing list.
[11:32] So with that said, that’s been a big thing that I’ve seen that I’ve benefited from, is just having the ear of a lot of people. The other huge benefit is having something that converts more often than sales. And the reason this is so good to have is that when you look at your Google Analytics or at your pay-per-click analytics, and I’ll use AdWords as the example because it’s what I use most often, if you only have a few sales a month, if you have an expensive product and you have maybe five or 10 sales a month, it’s really hard to tell which keywords are actually working for you, because there’s going to be a bunch of keywords with zero conversions. And there’s going to be a handful with one conversion a piece. And you don’t have really great data to work from.
[12:13] But if, instead, you start using email conversions as a metric, then suddenly, if you get 100 of those, then those will actually start to form a head and a long tail, and you can really get a better idea of which keywords are interesting to people, which keywords have the better potential to convert for you, and which keywords really do have zero email conversions. If you have zero email conversion over the course of six months, the odds are the keyword is just probably not going to convert for you.
[12:41] Mike: Something else to keep in mind, though, is that what we’re talking about here is a standard mailing list that you’ve put together to help kind of promote side by side along with your product. But there are other types of mailing lists that you can put together as well.
[12:55] So, for example, product launch mailing lists. One of the best times to put together a mailing list is before you even launch your product.
[13:03] Rob: That’s huge. Such a big deal. Yeah.
[13:05] Mike: Yeah. I mean we’ve talked about this a little bit before, but when you’re doing market research and trying to figure out whether a niche market is worth going into, putting up a signup page that just says, “Hey, is this something that you would be interested in?”, just put it on the “buy now” page, for example, instead of the actual price, or put the price there, and if somebody clicks on the “buy now”, you say, “This product isn’t available yet. Please sign up here to be notified when the product gets launched.”
[13:30] What that does is that starts providing you with a list of people who want to know when your product goes out the door so that they can come take a look at it and make a decision then whether they want to buy it or not.
[13:40] And those sorts of things will actually convert at a much higher rate than sales, and that’s good and bad, because it kind of gives you a mixed picture. Let’s say that if one out of 100 people would buy your product, if 10 out of 100 will sign up for this mailing list, then yeah, you’ve got 10% of those people who are going to come back and probably look at your product. But that’s a much more targeted group of people than that original one out of 100 would have been.
[14:06] Rob: Absolutely, and that conversion rate on that mailing list traffic, assuming it is targeted, you can easily get 5% conversion rate on that list; 5% of people will buy your product. And it’s completely within the realm of possibility to get 15% or 20%, if they’re interested in your product. You can have your best sales day ever on the very first day that you launch if you build a mailing list well.
[14:31] This is one of the most important recommendations I make to entrepreneurs, specifically software developers, who ask me, “What can I do to help my product succeed?” It’s to get started with a bang and don’t just launch your product by opening your website on day one and sell to one out of 100 people. Have a mailing list.
[14:51] I’ve known several micropreneurs who’ve launched with mailing lists of 500 or even 1,000 interested prospects. And no joke, you sell 100 copies of your product on the first day because you send out an email blast and you give them a little bit of a discount for being on the mailing list, you’ll have a very exciting launch, and it will give you a lot of mental momentum to continue improving the product and move forward with it.
[15:14] Mike: And that discount is actually different from what we talked about before where there’s a discount for signing up for a mailing list, which we think is probably a bad idea in general, but if you give people a discount that you have not told them about previously to entice them to get them to sign up for the mailing list, that’s a completely different story. There’s two entirely different ways of looking at that.
[15:35] Rob: Yeah, that’s a good point.
[15:37] Mike: So what about managing an email list? How have you gone about managing an email list in the past? I mean there’s a lot of different ways that it can be done. And I think as a developer, most developers are probably inclined to build those mailing lists themselves. A developer can build a mailing list. I mean it’s not very hard to start slapping email addresses into a database and then just sending email blasts by iterating over all those email addresses. What are your thoughts on that?
[16:03] Rob: The way I managed my first mailing list was in a SQL database, and I bought an Outlook plug-in. This is back probably five or six years ago when everybody used Outlook. And no joke…
[16:14] Mike: Are you serious?
[16:15] Rob: Yeah. I would just run a SQL script. It would give me a huge comma delimited list of the emails. These were customers who had purchased. And I would put them into the Outlook 2 field. It was made for this purpose, for like sending to multiple people without all of them noticing each other.
[16:32] So, basically, the plug-in in Outlook, you hit “send multi” or something, and it stripped out the 2’s and then it sent an individual one to each one. Well as the mailing list grew, my ISP, because I was running off of local ISP mail servers, they totally flipped out and they stopped my mail sending, and they called me, because they were kind of like, “Are you spamming? Like what are you doing?”
[16:54] And sure enough, this is not a scalable way at all, but I had no idea, and I didn’t want to pay $10 or $20 a month for an email service provider.
[17:05] Now, since then, I have learned a lot about mailing lists and about how to keep a list clean, and about how the dirtier your list gets, the lower your deliverability gets. What I mean by that is the more bounced emails, the more dead emails that you have in your list, as well as the more emails that get marked as spam, you know, when people click “Mark as spam” in Gmail and AOL and hotmail, that all goes back to central servers.
[17:34] And more people who do those things, it actually degrades the quality of your list. So if you don’t constantly keep your list maintained, your deliverability will plummet, and even people who have opted in will start not receiving your emails.
[17:48] So as a result, I made the decision that I only recommend…I certainly only use email service providers these days, and I absolutely recommend that you do not send email from your own server, even if you have…You know, you can buy software and you can put it on your own server, but you are just so much more likely to do something slightly wrong that you are not going to catch, or to let your list get out of date. And you are not focusing so much time on keeping your IP’s, and your domain name, and your server, everything clean in the eyes of the email world.
[18:21] There’s such a focus on spam these days, getting deliverability up is a huge issue. And for the tiny price of getting started, I recommend MailChimp. The beauty of Mail Chimp is you can get started for free and you can either do a pay as you go package where you pay like three cents per email, and you can do that when you are just getting started. And once you ramp up, you can then do a monthly fee. I like that because AWeber I think is $19 a month from the start. And if you have two emails on your list, it’s not worth it.
[18:53] So, as a result, I recommend Mail Chimp. And in my opinion, there’s no good reason not to use them. I just think it’s a bad idea…It’s kind of like hosting your own website. Well of course, we’re all developers, we can buy a server and put it in our basement, and I have cable Internet that can probably serve it. But the first time you make it to the homepage of Hacker News, your website’s going to go down.
[19:14] Mike, that was at you!
[19:16] Rob: You’re supposed to laugh at that!
[19:17] Mike: [laughs] I did laugh!
[19:18] Rob: Yeah, so listeners, for anyone who doesn’t know, Mikes blog, Singlefounder.com, was on the front page of Hacker News today and his…
[19:26] Mike: No, I think it was Y Combinator News.
[19:29] Rob: So it went to the front page of that. And did just your Word Press install go down or did your whole Apache installer, your whole web server? What was the deal?
[19:37] Mike: It would start dropping requests. Like some requests wouldn’t get through. I mean the server didn’t go down. I mean it’s not like the whole thing crashed and burned. I mean I was wondering about whether the processor was on fire. You know that “the printer’s on fire” message? I was expecting to try and SSH into this machine and find this thing pop up and say the processor is on fire. But I couldn’t even SSH into the machine it was so bogged down.
[20:02] Rob: And then on the flipside, of course, my blog’s hosted on like super cheap Dream Host. And I do have a private server with them, but I’ve been on the front page of Digg and got 40,000 visits in a day, and I didn’t have issues.
[20:16] Mike: I think it was just like at the very, very beginning. And plus, my machine, I think it only has like 256 Megs of RAM allocated to it.
[20:24] Rob: Oh, OK. That’s the issue right there. Yeah, OK. Well, cool. So anyways, sorry. We got a little off track there.
[20:31] Mike: You just wanted to rag on me.
[20:33] Rob: Well, it’s just funny. [laughs] I’m adamantly against it. I just haven’t heard a compelling argument for self hosting your own email list. So if someone presented it with me, I’d love to dialogue about it. But that the cost of an email service provider these days and the value that they provide for that minimal amount of money, I think it’s the way to go. But what do you think Mike? You and I have never actually discussed this.
[20:54] Mike: Well, I think, for the most part, I think most people would look at it and say, “Well, I can do that myself. Why should I pay somebody else to do it?” And it’s just like everything else. I mean why should you bother to pay somebody else to do something that you can do yourself?
[21:07] And the problem isn’t so much when the mailing list is small, because you can certainly get away with it when you’re less than 50 or 100 emails or something like that. But I mean I ran an online game at one point and there were like thousands of email addresses that were actually going out from my server. The game reset every four months.
[21:27] So four times a year my server would start dumping out emails to everybody all over the place and say, “Hey, the game’s starting up in a couple days. Sign up here.” It was kind of a nightmare, to be honest.
[21:39] So I think that in the early stages, people look at it and say, “Well, I could do that.” But they don’t necessarily think about how many people are actually going to sign up for it. And I think one of the other things is the startup cost. I mean people look at it, and just the example you gave is perfect. They say, “Why should I pay $20 a month to have two email addresses on this list?” There’s really no reason to do it. There’s two email addresses. Big deal. Just throw them in Outlook. And no spam control system on the planet is going to look twice at that, because that’s no big deal.
[22:11] But once you get up from two, to 20, to 50, to 100, 300, it starts to get out control. And the migrating from whatever system you’re using to an actual email service provider can be a little bit of a pain in the neck. And it’s not something most people really want to do.
[22:28] The other part of the issue is that most people really don’t know what to do with an email list at the very beginning. I mean realistically, what are you going to start publishing? What are you going to send out to people? How often are you going to send it out? Is it actually going to contribute to your bottom line. And I think that kind of goes back to the idea of, why don’t people build mailing lists? And it’s because they don’t necessarily know what they should be doing with a mailing list. I mean the benefits, we talked about them. They are pretty clear what they are and what they can be. But what to put in your mailing list, what sort of information to send, it’s all kind of context specific around what your product is and what market it is that you are targeting.
[23:05] So I think those are some of the things that people kind of think about and why they tend to do the self hosted route. I can’t think of a compelling reason to do it yourself, other than this one, and it’s that if you are doing everything in the mailing list, you have complete and utter control over the entire process. And once the email goes out, you know that it went out. And if somebody comes to you and says, “Hey, I didn’t get this email,” you at least have some way to go about debugging it.
[23:34] Whereas if it’s hosted with an email service provider, or an ESP, you have no way to debug it. I mean somebody comes to your website, they maybe sign up for your list, you basically throw it over the walls of the service provider and hopefully that person ends up on your mailing list. But if they don’t, then what? It can be very, very difficult to troubleshoot.
[23:54] And that’s actually one of the problems I was working through over the past several days, trying to figure out why certain people who are signing up for my mailing list were going to the mailing list, saying they signed up for it, and they’re not getting email confirmations. And if everything is based off of my servers, I know I can troubleshoot that. I can figure out what’s going on.
[24:14] But because it’s an email service provider, I basically have to go through their tech support.
[24:19] Rob: Yeah, that’s a good point. That’s actually a good reason against an email service provider. And I think the other one is that there’s a potential for vendor lock-in, that once you sign up for one, if you’re not happy with them, moving can be a challenge.
[24:33] However, you and I have recently moved email service providers, and I just moved all my businesses from AWeber to Mail Chimp. Truthfully, it was surprisingly easy, because you can just export and then import. The part that was hard is that I have a ton of follow-up sequences that are kind of already in place, and I had to manually copy those. So that was a bit of lock-in.
[24:55] But realistically, with the number of email lists I have, because, you know, I have a list for pretty much every product I own, which, at this point, is, I think, 10. And for the number of mailing lists I have, it took maybe three hours total. So I mean that’s not much lock-in, in my opinion. It was a bit of a hassle. I was bummed, but easy enough to deal with.
[25:15] Mike: Yeah, I mean three hours of your time is not a huge deal. I mean it could have been much, much worse. I mean you could have had to do it all by hand. [laughs]
[25:23] Rob: Yeah, exactly.
[25:25] Mike: I mean I think that those are really the big things — the vendor lock-in and not being able to explicitly have ultimate control over everything in the process. But again, I mean once you send an email out, it’s out of your control anyway.
[25:38] Rob: Right. And the issues that you’ve basically been having trouble troubleshooting, I don’t experience. I’ve been using email service providers for almost, well, almost five years, and I’ve used AWeber, Campaign Monitor, and Mail Chimp. And I haven’t run into any of the issues that you are facing. So it’s interesting. Like, in my experience, that just hasn’t been a big deal.
[25:59] In addition, actually, Mail Chimp and AWeber, well, all three of them, their customer service is surprisingly good, and they’re surprisingly knowledgeable. Especially Mail Chimp and Campaign Monitor. Because there kind of Web 2.0 companies and I think the people who built them are…the developers might handle some of the support, because, man, you ask them some questions and they know way too much about their system, in a good way.
[26:22] Like, you ask something and you are like, “There’s no way this guy is going to know.” And then they’ll answer you with a really in-depth email that shows that they know their business and that they know their own code base.
[26:31] Mike: I have no qualms about using an email service provider. And I would not undertake it myself again. I mean not since I was running an online game. It gets to be a nightmare after a while. Plus, I mean with an email service provider they give you a lot of other tools that you can use to, for example, see how your emails that are going to be sent out are going to look in various email clients so that if you want to pay attention to a lot of the formatting, you can do that. If you want to pay attention to specifically which links within a particular email that gets sent out, and maybe if you have a very nicely formatted HTML email that gets sent out, they can tell you exactly who clicked on which links within their. And they can show you all sorts of statistics about what links converted the best within that particular email, which ones didn’t, where the placement was better.
[27:21] And you can kind of get a sense, after a while, of what your emails are going to do before you even send them out. And by using those tools, which may or may not cost a little bit extra, but it could be well worth it, especially if you have hundreds or thousands of email addresses that you are going to be sending these to. I mean you want to make sure that those things are right. You don’t want to take chances on your emails going out there and then being terribly malformed when people view them.
[27:48] Rob: OK. Well let’s take a look at another topic that you brought up earlier. You brought up a good point, and it’s that most developers, and most entrepreneurs, when they start building a mailing list, the first question is, “Well, what do I do with these email addresses? What do I send them and how often do I contact them?”
[28:06] The answer that I’ve learned over the years is that it really does depend. It’s kind of a cop-out, but what I’ve learned is that if you are in a vertical niche, so if you’re in like a hobby niche such as fly-fishing, or weddings, or winemaking, you are going to have decent luck if you get in touch with people every couple of weeks, every two to four weeks.
[28:27] And typically, interviews work really well, as well as just interesting short stories or articles, helpful information regarding that hobby. Maybe a new technique or tip on how to plan your wedding or something like that.
[28:41] And you can definitely write that yourself. I recommend hiring a writer. I rarely that kind of article for these emails. I have writers that I have found on Elance that I use. Two to four weeks is reasonable. You can space it out to six weeks, but the key is to provide really relevant and good information, because if it’s junk, people are going to unsubscribe. And the idea is that you don’t want to sit here and spam people. I mean you really don’t want to contact them too much.
[29:06] So what I’ve found in horizontal markets, like DotNet Invoice, man, the more we contact them, they just do not want to hear from us. And the problem is that it’s very, very difficult to be relevant to an entire horizontal niche, because people buying DotNet Invoice range all across these different vertical segments. And so there’s really not much information we can provide them. Right? I mean we can’t just send them an article like, “Hey, being an entrepreneur means this and that, and here’s stuff about invoicing.” It’s just not interesting to them.
[29:34] So, as a result, we contact our customer base and our prospect list very, very infrequently. And we keep it pretty much to business issues, such as, “Hey, we are running a promotion right now. We have done a new release.” It’s much less like a blog; there’s much less entertainment, and it really is stuff that either benefits them directly, like, “Here’s a discount,” or, “Here’s a new feature release.”
[29:57] Mike: Well I think a lot of that just kind of leads right into what I was about to say, which was the content that you send has to be directly relevant to the reason why the list exists. So if you are putting together lists because you want to tell people about new updates for the products, then that’s what you’re going to send, and you’re not going to send out very many of those. You’re going to send them out about the time that you are having a new release, or maybe if you are looking for Beta testers.
[30:24] The problem you discussed regarding a horizontal market, that sort of thing, for example, in Mail Chimp, what you can do is you can segment your mailing list and ask them specifically on the signup form, “Hey, what is it that you’re interested in? Are you interested in accounting for small business? Are you interested in financials for a consulting company? Are you interested in recurring billing?” Those sorts of things. And then by segmenting that list, you can send out relevant content across that horizontal market.
[30:55] Rob: Yeah. That’s a good tip, actually. So I don’t feel like there’s a definite answer that you can just toss out and say, “How often should you contact people, and exactly what information should you provide?” I think that, in general, the less contact the better, to a point. If you only contact them every six months, people forget they are on your list and you have to tell them why they are on your list, and you don’t build much of a relationship with them.
[31:19] And like Mike said, that’s perfectly acceptable if you are only specifying that you are providing updates and new releases. But if the goal of your list is to be more information and you tell them that upfront when they give you their email, then people are perfectly open to being contacted every two to six weeks.
[31:38] Saying that, a lot of developers cringe because they think, “I get so much email I don’ t want any more.” But they are not you. If someone is planning their wedding and they give you their email and they say, “Yes, I’d like to hear from you. I’d like to hear about tips for planning my wedding,” or whatever, then, you know, you send them an email every few weeks, the odds are pretty high they are actually going to read it.
[31:56] And if you are providing information that is really valuable for them, then they are going to start thinking in their mind, “Oh, these people know what they are talking about,” and you do build a relationship with them.
[32:05] Much like in the developer world you would start a blog to build relationships with software developers. The problem is, is the whole world doesn’t read blogs. A very small percentage of us in the world read blogs. Whereas, a lot more people will actually read email newsletters, even though most technical people have, I think, and I’m making an assumption here, have kind of moved away from email newsletters. Like, I don’t subscribe to any, well, very many email newsletters anymore. I’ve gone to RSS.
[32:33] But the rest of the online population is not necessarily like us. So you really have to keep that in mind, to keep your own biases out of this process.
[32:41] Mike: I’ll go out on a limb and say that I think that, at most, you should probably email your list probably once a month, at most. At the very least, you do it at least once every three months or so. I mean part of it is just because of the size of your business. I mean unless you have somebody who is dedicated to doing email newsletters, you really can’t be publishing something every week, because it’s going to take up a lot of time to put something that’s good together. And if you don’t spend the time to do it right, it’s going to be obvious on the other end. And people are going to look at it and they are going to start unsubscribing just because it looks terrible, it’s just not enjoyable to read, and maybe it’s riddled with bugs, or they click on a link and it doesn’t work. There’s all sorts of problems that you can run into.
[33:25] And in addition, if it’s coming at them every single week, unless it something that really demands those updates, they’re going to say, “Oh, here’s another email from so and so. I don’t really care to read this one this week. I’ll get another one next week.” And if you over saturate the mailing list, people are just going to stop listening.
[33:44] So I think that, at most, you want to aim for once a month, but don’t wait, as Rob said, any more than three or four months, because people are going to start to forget that they signed up for your list. So that’s kind of my recommendation, is the one to three month time frame.
[33:58] Rob: Yeah, I have a list where I’ve actually had people ask for a little more frequent updates. That’s why I said two to six weeks. I typically do once a month, and I have a hobby niche where people want information more often than that.
[34:11] So yeah, I think one to three months is a decent general rule. But these are general rules and you can certainly break them in either direction as warranted.
[34:18] I wanted to lend a couple other ideas on how to find content for your list. One thing is to monitor current events. And whether you do that with Google Alerts, or monitoring Digg or YouTube, or the popular blogs in your niche, the odds are that you are way more well informed that the vast majority of people signed up to your list. So even if something seems like fairly common knowledge, you can just pass on kind of the happenings in the industry or in the niche. And a lot of people will be interested in that.
[34:48] Again, if you are marketing to developers, then these rules kind of don’t apply, because developers, a lot of them tend to be really well informed. But in the non-development niches, you are likely going to be the most well informed person.
[35:00] The other good source of content is questions that you receive from customers or prospects. So you’ll get an email question, and as long as it doesn’t contain some proprietary information or ideas, you can answer that in the email and then include that in a future mailing to your list. And it helps kind of solidify yourself as an expert in the industry, hopefully, and it helps generate some content.
[35:24] You obviously have to use some judgment. I mean you’re going to get a bunch of questions that don’t apply that you are not going to want to put in your list. Keep an open mind to the questions you get because they can actually provide reasonably valuable content that you’ve already created, because you have to answer the question once, so why not reuse that content if you think it could provide value to everyone on the list?
[35:43] Mike: Good suggestion. So the basics of all this are when you’re putting together a mailing list, start as early as possible, use an email service provider for it, and then as you’re building your mailing list, try and think about it as if you were a customer. I mean why would a customer even want to be on your mailing list? And as long as you can offer something for those customers that is valuable to them to get them on the list and keep them on the list, then your list is going to be valuable to them.
[36:09] And that will help you to establish a community and a relationship between the people that are in your target market and you.
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