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Wandering Aimfully Through Building An Audience

The Ethical Guide To Building An Email List Without Sleazy Tactics

A comprehensive look at how to build an audience and why you don’t need as many email subscribers as you think you do.
Jason ZookJason Zook Jason ZookJason Zook

Written by

Jason Zook

Table of Contents



Intro. Why Does Building An Email List Matter?


Section One:

1. Where Do You Start With Building An Email List?


Section Two:

2. What The Heck Should You Even Email People About?


Section Three:

3. Email Providers, Subject Lines, and Other Email List Tips


Section Four:

4. Five Email List Building Mistakes To Avoid



5. A Few Final Tips To Keep Your Newsletter High-Quality And Authentic

Jump to a section!

The Ethical Guide To Building An Email List Without Sleazy Tactics


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Is it too late to build an email list? Do you need a big audience somewhere else to get email subscribers? Why do we think you should forgo any effort spent on social media and redirect it to email marketing?

Those are the questions we’re going to answer for you in this ethical guide to building an email list. Since 2009 my wife and I have seen the power of having a great email list, and by power we specifically mean building meaningful connections with other human beings AND getting some of those folks to purchase products or services from us.

Just to give you some social proof so you don’t think we’re copying and pasting the success of other people here, since 2009 our businesses have generated over $3,000,000 in total revenue and 90% of that money has come directly from our email lists.

You may or may not be focused on generating revenue with your email list, but we believe there is no better way to create a deep and strong connection with people online right now (yes, even in a time when social media seems to dominate the virtual landscape).

Let’s not waste another minute, here’s everything we know and have learned from our experience building email lists and growing our audiences.



Why Does Building An Email List Matter?

There are two main reasons why you should care about growing a great email list, and why you should focus on doing so before spending time growing a following on social media sites.

Reason #1: The way people interact with email

Think about it for a moment, people don’t quickly scroll through their email inbox, swiping past message after message, spending less than 3 seconds reading each email. Yet, this is the exact behavior when someone uses a social media application (scroll, scroll scroll, swipe, swipe, swipe) and they spend less than 3 seconds reading a Twitter or Facebook post. People open emails, they read them, and they spend quality time in their email inboxes every day.

Reason #2: Email is a playground you can mostly control

Social media sites, on the other hand, have fancy algorithms that change every few months. The audience you grow on Instagram, FB, etc, may have seen your content one month and then a month later you’re getting almost zero viewership. This doesn’t happen with email (often). I’ll talk more about how email service providers (ESPs) do hold some power, but it’s certainly nothing to worry about when you compare it to social media companies and how they can pick up their entire playground out from underneath you and you’re left holding your kickball and standing in a pile of (lonely) dirt.

Having an email list helps you create a genuine connection and trust

In Section 1 of this guide we’ll talk all about the nuts and bolts of starting to build your email list, but before that, let’s talk specifically about WHY building an email list is important.

Building an email list gives you the opportunity to create a value exchange with your subscribers. You deliver helpful or interesting content to their inboxes and they give you some form of patronage in return.

Trust is one of the most overlooked marketing tactics because it takes time. By showing up consistently in someone’s inbox and delivering them thoughtful content you will build trust. Your subscribers will come to appreciate the messages they receive from you, and in most cases will look forward to them and often times pass them on to friends (or save for reading again later).

Trust is what gets someone to go from curious onlooker to fan/customer. If you’re building an email list to generate revenue for an idea or business, building trust is something you simply cannot ignore.

My wife and I have been sending emails to our subscribers for years. We’ve honed our writing voices and we’ve found the niche topics we want to write about. You may feel like you’re completely in the dark with your writing voice and your topic, but have no fear, later on in this article, we’re going to help you discover those things too.

My 25,000 email subscriber mistake (incentivizing for list growth)

I put my first email signup form on a website (for my IWearYourShirt business) in 2009. I had no clue what I was doing, but several people had told me I needed to “grow an email list.” I had plenty of traffic coming to my website, so I started to get subscribers quickly. Actually, I started to get a lot of subscribers.

Over the course of a year, I racked up more than 25,000 email subscribers. There was only one big problem: I had no idea what to do with them.

I would send emails haphazardly. Sometimes on a Monday, sometimes on a Thursday, sometimes two emails on the same day if I felt like it. Whenever I thought I had an interesting thing to share, I sent an email to my growing list about it. This was problem number one, but not the biggest problem, by any means.

You see, after sending emails for a few weeks, I noticed a trend. The more emails I sent with giveaways, prize opportunities, or freebies, the higher the open and click-through rates. These two statistics were digital crack. I craved seeing them climb higher and higher. And the subscriber number? That was like, well, I don’t do drugs but whatever is better than crack. Super crack!

If you’re a veteran email marketer (or just marketer in general) you probably already know where this story is going. Either way, hold on tight because it’s about to be a bumpy ride.

The more giveaways and prizes I offered to this growing email list, the more interaction the emails garnered. An iPad giveaway here, a $100 visa card there, so on and so on. There were times when I could send an email to this list asking them to like a Facebook page, and more than 1,000 people would do it within an hour. That’s pretty damn powerful in the 2009-2011 era of social media.

But then I noticed another trend with my email list. When I sent an email without a giveaway or prize, the open and click-through rates were abysmally low. Even worse than that, those emails usually came back with negative responses and high numbers of unsubscribes. I’m not sure which hurt my ego more, but it’s silly to look back and think that I let any of that dictate my decisions so much.

Nevertheless, I kept the email list going for years. I reduced the giveaways and sent fewer emails.

I hated feeling like I built a sizable email list of people who only cared about giveaways.

I tried lots of different content in the emails. I varied the sending schedule and even tried a set day and time for a while. I tried segmenting the list. I tried deleting huge chunks of subscribers (we’re talking 5,000+ at a time). I took a break from sending any emails to this list for nearly a year (never a good idea by the way). I even tried changing the name and email address of who the email came from. Unfortunately, the damage was already done and the list was essentially worthless. In fact, it was costing me a couple thousand dollars every year.

After two years of trying everything I could think of to cater to this large list of subscribers, I finally gave up. I realized I had fallen into a sunk cost trap, and just needed to let go and move on (which as we all know, is never easy).

So I sent three final emails:

One announcing the list was closing down.
One letting people know they could get on a new email list I was passionate about that wouldn’t feature any giveaways. I was very clear about the type of content the new list would receive.
And the last email simply thanked them for being subscribers and said goodbye.

Then I deleted the entire list. I didn’t back it up. I didn’t save it. I just deleted it. 25,000 subscribers gone.

After all was said and done, only about 200–300 people moved from my 25,000+ person email list. And that made me happy.

You still might be wondering why I would walk away from 25,000 subscribers. It’s simple. They were the wrong subscribers for me. They weren’t my “Rat People,” as my friend Paul Jarvis says. They weren’t my “Tribe,” as Seth Godin says. It was simply a list of people who wanted something from me that I wasn’t happy giving them.

To recap: Do not build an email list based on giveaways and incentives. Build an email list of people who want to read your emails and are interested in you and what you have to say.

My thoughts on email marketing have changed drastically over the years. You might assume I loathe email marketing and list building because of this story and my not-so-great-experience. But it’s actually the contrary. My second email list, the Action Army (for my previous JasonDoesStuff website), brought me a ton of value and dollars in my bank account from 2014-2018. I made a mistake and failed with my first email list, but I also learned a lot from the experience too.



Where Do You Start With Building An Email List?

Many people want to start by picking an email service provider (ESP). Or they want to throw some email signup forms on their site. But these two steps are way lower on the list of important decisions and steps you need to take.

If you can stick with me, follow the upcoming advice from loads of firsthand experience, you will be building a highly engaged audience in no time.

Step 1: Before building an email list you must tame your ego

Have you heard the term “vanity metrics” before? If not, that’s okay, and probably for the best. However, we’re all guilty of getting sucked into vanity metrics. Vanity metrics are the little numbers associated with website traffic, social media followers, notifications of likes, amount of email subscribers you have, and many other things. Sometimes these metrics can be helpful, but the majority of the time they’re nothing more than a distraction from what really matters.

To avoid getting sucked into the vanity metrics of email list building (read: how many email subscribers you have) you must tame your ego.

When it comes to anything that can be quantified, our egos quickly become our worst enemies. And boy-oh-boy, do we live in a time with numbers being shoved in our face at every turn. Almost every platform puts some sort of vanity metric front and center any chance it gets. The more numbers you see the more numbers your ego craves.

I wish I could tell you there was a magical way to tame your ego. Some ego-taming app you could download that would save you from the itches we get to check all our metrics. YOU simply have to be that ego-taming app.

I told you about the 25,000 email subscribers I deleted. During that time I was heavily focused on building an email list with lots of subscribers (quantity). What I should have focused on, and what I only focus on nowadays, is building a highly engaged list of subscribers who want to read my emails and who look forward to having my name show up in their inbox (quality). Don’t worry, I’m going to help you define your ideal subscribers in a moment.

Whenever you find yourself getting stuck worrying about how many email subscribers you have (or don’t have), take a step back and ask yourself if your email list is helping you build the connections and trust you seek. That could be with only 10 people or 100 people. That’s okay! And if you’re just getting started, give yourself the time and space to build a quality email list. It may take you a year or two to have enough email subscribers to help you reach whatever goals you’re setting for yourself/your business.

TIP: Instead of worrying about the amount of email subscribers you need, define a goal for your business that your email subscribers can help you reach. Then, focus on the goal of your business not the vanity metric of how many subscribers you have.

I remember that it took me an entire year to go from 400 email subscribers to 1,000 email subscribers. That was less than 2 new subscribers per day, and in the beginning, it was 0 new subscribers per day for quite a while. I constantly told myself not to check how many subscribers I had and to simply keep going on my mission of writing helpful and interesting emails no matter the amount of subscribers.

Learning to tame your ego can help you sift through the numbers and find the people who give you the most value.

Step 2: Define the type of audience you want to reach

The easiest way to attract the right people to join your email list is to be crystal clear about who the heck you want to talk to (and most likely who you can help).

Let’s look at an example and say that you’re a freelance web designer who has been doing design for years and wants to help up-and-coming designers learn the ropes of working for yourself, honing your craft, and staying up on design trends.

A fun way to always have this person in your mind is to give them a name. Let’s say your ideal subscriber’s name is Linda (everyone say, “Hi Linda!”).

Now, describe Linda. Answer these questions about your fictitious person to help you understand how to speak to her, how to be helpful to her, and how to make sure she’s the right person to join your email list:

  1. Why is Linda a designer in the first place? Was she creative growing up? Does she love art?
  2. Where does Linda spend her time online? What sites inspire her?
  3. Where does Linda shop? What things does Linda like? What things does she dislike?
  4. What is Linda struggling with that you can help her accomplish (because you’ve accomplished those things or are trying to)?

These questions may seem silly, but we’ve seen the value of them and how much easier it becomes to attract the RIGHT subscribers and detract the tire-kicker subscribers who are just going to waste your time and money (because, you pay for subscribers!).

Here are some example answers to those questions, just so you have an idea of how to build this avatar of Linda:

  1. Linda loves art and has been creative her entire life. She grew up painting on walls with crayons and then found web design and fell in love with designing websites for other people.
  2. Linda visits Site Inspire, Awwwards, and loves creating inspiration boards on Pinterest. She also enjoys sharing her work on Dribbble, but doesn’t spend too much time there.
  3. Linda stays low budget by shopping at Target, but has been known to splurge on high-quality items at Madewell. She loves supporting creative business owners and has dreams of making food truck websites full-time because she’s a foodie. Linda doesn’t like arguing about design principles and isn’t a fan of traditional furniture.
  4. Linda wants to get more clients, but also wants to get clients in the food industry. She’s been using Photoshop her entire life, but wants to transition to Adobe XD and learn some new skills.

Once you’ve defined who Linda is and answered all the questions about Linda, keep this persona in a safe place. This is your audience definition filter. Constantly remind yourself of the traits that make Linda who she is, and get ready to speak directly to Linda in every piece of your content, especially in your email signup forms on your website*.

One of the biggest mistakes most people make when it comes to building an email list is using generic copy on email signup forms. “Subscribe to get my updates” barely speaks to anyone and certainly doesn’t help qualify a good subscriber.

*Again, we’ll get into the weeds of what email service provider to use and some tips and tricks to help improve your subscriber conversion rates on your website. Just hold on tight, we’ll get to that.

So, the wrong way to entice Linda to signup to get your emails on your website is by having the text, “Subscribe to get my updates” next to the email signup form.

The right way to speak to Linda and help her understand how your emails are going to help her is to write something like:

“If you’re a freelance designer who lives in Adobe Photoshop or XD and you want to get more quality design clients, my weekly emails will help you!”

In the answers to the questions about Linda, you should have found things to add to this copy you’re putting on your website. Remember, you created this little fictitious persona to have as an audience filter.

Going forward, whenever you finish writing an email or article (or creating any piece of content) ask yourself, “Will this help or resonate with Linda?” If it doesn’t, make it helpful.

Don’t be afraid to be polarizing when it comes to defining your audience. The best audience you can build is a small, highly-focused one. It will reward you for many years.

Your audience connects with you because you share strong values. And the only way they’ll know how you think and what you value is if you’re outspoken and clear about it.

Step 3: Where do your initial subscribers come from?

If you’re starting with ZERO subscribers I’m not going to sugarcoat this: Getting your first subscribers can be hard work.

But before you throw up your hands and give up, think about getting your first subscribers like getting your first… anything. It’s always the hardest in the beginning! Replace getting subscribers with any new thing you’re trying to do. Going on dates, learning a new skill, building a new business, etc, it’s always the hardest in the beginning. KNOW THIS. Mentally opt-in for it and your journey to getting your first subscribers will be easier.

Go where you already have an audience

I know this subscriber tip sounds super obvious but if you’re reading this section of this article it might not actually be obvious to you.

The BIG key to going where you already have an audience is going to be aligned with the next section. Do NOT just say “subscribe to my new email list.” People need a compelling reason to sign up. They need to know what your emails will do to help them. (Read the next section for more on this.)

Lean on other people’s existing audiences that are the right fit for you

📥 Do you have a friend with an email list? Can you write a guest email for them?

🗣 Do you know someone in your industry who hosts webinars? Can you be a guest teacher on one of their webinars?

📝 Do you know someone who has a blog/site that’s right in your wheelhouse? Can you be a guest writer?

🎙 Do you listen to podcasts in your industry that have guests? Pitch yourself to them!

The super-important part of any of those existing audiences to ensure you’re offering value to their audience. There has to be a reason they let you get in front of their audience.

If you have the budget, paid advertising can build your list quickly

I offer up this piece of list-building advice with an important caveat: If you don’t know how to use paid ads to build an email list you absolutely should find someone who does and pay them to help you.

Paid ads are great if you do them correctly. Over the years we’ve dabbled with paid ads and a good cost per email address (or “lead”) is $1.00 per subscriber. Now, there’s a ton of gray area with that number, so take it with a BIG grain of salt.

Step 4: Let’s talk technically, how can you convert people to email subscribers?

Email forms on your website

I cannot imagine you’re reading this guide and that you don’t have a website, or at least have a plan to create a website. But here’s the thing, there are some dos and don’ts when it comes to converting websites visitors into email subscribers.

DO: Clearly explain on your email signup forms why someone should subscribe and what they will get from your emails.

DONT: Use vague generic messaging on your emails forms, like: “Sign up to get my weekly newsletter.” Instead, say something like: “Sign up to get my best advice about running a graphic design company (new helpful emails every Tuesday!)”

DO: Put email signup forms on more than one page of your website. On our site you’ll see email forms on the Homepage, About page, Newsletter page, the bottom of every article/guide, and a few other places.

DONT: Just put an email signup form on your homepage and call it a day. People may need to see your email signup form a few times and learn more about you via your website to decide if they want to subscribe. Don’t shoot yourself in the email-list-growth-foot by using only one or two email forms.

Pop ups and exit intent windows on your website

DO: Treat your website visitors like YOU want to be treated. Do you like landing on a website and immediately getting a pop-up message to enter your email?

DONT: Try to convert every website visitor into a subscriber by smacking them in the face with pop-ups and exit intent windows at every turn. Sure, maybe try using an exit intent email signup form on a page or two on your website. The key word is “try,” because you want to test the results of using that tactic (don’t just blindly do it).

Picreel and OptinMonster have great tools for helping you grow an email list. Just be careful and remember to treat your website visitors how you want to be treated when you land on a site.

Free downloads or free email courses

DO: Remember what I said earlier about building an email list based on incentives. It can lead to an email list of people who only want free crap. If you’re going to offer free downloads make sure they’re in direct alignment with what you’ll be sending your subscribers emails about.

DONT: Use crappy “lead magnets” (free downloads) just because it’s a tactic you can use. Create a really helpful email course that actually solves a problem for your potential subscriber.

Constantly remind people that you have an email list

DO: Talk about your email list on social media or any other places you create and share content of any kind (yes, tweets are “content”). Just because you’re tired of asking people to join your email list doesn’t mean they’ve heard you or even know you have an email list.

DONT: Spam every other platform with asks to join your email list. Lead with value. Remind people what they can get from your emails. Get create and try to have fun infusing the ask of subscribing in with your other content.

Write REALLY great emails to your subscribers

DO: Focus on sending valuable emails that people will want to share. When you’re crafting your email content ask yourself, “is this something worth talking about?” If the answer is No, that’s okay, just realize your emails aren’t helping you grow your audience.

DONT: Take the opportunity of visiting someone’s inbox lightly. I’m not saying put pressure on yourself and psyche yourself out, I’m just saying that you should be thoughtful and spend time and effort crafting quality content for your subscribers.

This Audience Guide started out as a simple email to my subscribers about the things I’d learned building an email list. My subscribers found it quite helpful and shared it for me by forwarding it to their friends.

Step 5: Commit to Consistency

We’ll get to WHAT you should send emails about in Section 2 of this guide, but there’s an important mindset that my wife and I strongly adhere to:

Creating great content can attract your audience members but creating consistent content keeps them.

No matter what sending schedule you intend to use for your email list, staying consistent and giving your subscribers a schedule they can look forward is important.

Are you worried that you don’t have any subscribers at all right now and that thinking about sending consistency isn’t important for email list growth?

My wife sent her first newsletter to just 4 subscribers, 2 of which were her and me. She stayed consistent and two years later had a list of more than 10,000 subscribers!

Are you worried that if you commit to a weekly email sending schedule you’ll run out of things to email about after a few weeks?

I keep a running list of topics I want to email my list based on things that interest me but also regularly get inspiration from questions I get from my audience. Out of the 400 articles I’ve written over half of them (200+) have come from questions people emailed me about.

Are you not getting emailed any questions at all right now? Then you need to start creating and sharing your work! You need to make stuff. You need to be known for something. It won’t be perfect when you start and that’s 100% normal.

The beauty of building an email list and sending an email newsletter is that YOU determine the schedule at which you publish, and you can rest assured that your audience is going to actually have a chance to read that content. On Facebook, you could post every day and those that have liked your page (or you’re friends with) might never even see your posts. On Twitter or Instagram, your followers have to come across your post at the right time to see it, or it’ll likely never enter their consciousness.

An email, on the other hand? An email patiently waits in someone’s inbox to be opened. They may or may not read your newsletter that week, but just by hitting send you’re subconsciously communicating to them that you’re reliable and that you continue to care about how you can provide valuable content to them.

Consistency is an email growth tactic, whether you want to believe it or not. Think about the people you subscribe to, listen to, read stuff from, watch on YouTube, etc. You come back to those folks time and time again because they create and share things consistently. You can do the exact same thing and be in a similar position as them when it comes to having an engaged audience. Commit to consistency, right here and now.



What The Heck Should You Even Email People About?

I remember back in 2013 when I was transitioning from a failed business to not knowing what the hell I was going to do with my life, I felt like I needed something concrete to build an email list around. I needed a focus, a niche, something that people could latch onto!

But I had nothing… Hah!

Probably not what you were expecting, right? Well, it happens to all of us.

I did what any scrappy entrepreneur does and decided to start ugly. I decided to not have the perfect focus or niche and instead just get my email list going and use these next two mindsets to guide me.

Thing #1 to email people about: Something helpful

Let me give you two example scenarios, one of which was my own email strategy back in 2013 when I had no focus at all. But before I do that, here’s one important mindset shift to make: No one starts out as an expert. You don’t have to get to some arbitrary level to be “good enough” to help other people.

Example A: You’re a photographer who wants to help other photographers

You don’t have to be Ansel Adams to give advice on photography. Odds are if you’re making money by taking photos, you have a LOT you can help aspiring photographers with.

I could go on for hours because I’d sign up for those emails! I don’t even want to make money from photography, I just want to read helpful content about it from someone who isn’t stuck up or boring.

One pro-tip on finding content for well-known niches (like photography): Head to YouTube and search “photography tips.” Find the 10 most viewed videos and write articles/emails that put your spin or take on those things. Boom. Rinse and repeat for many additional content ideas.

For this example feel free to replace photographer with whatever craft or talent you focus on. That could be videography, cooking, running, writing, etc. Just remember to be helpful and focus on giving tons of value to your subscribers!

Example B: You’re like me and you don’t really know what to write about, so you just write!

Here’s my non-example, example! So, what the heck do you create helpful email content about if you don’t know what you can help with?? Great question. This is exactly what I did, broken down into three content types:

1 – Help people avoid your mistakes. At the time in 2013 people would email me asking for marketing or business advice. Even though I felt like a fraud answering them (because my million dollar business tanked, I realized I could share all my mistakes and lessons learned and THAT was helpful). What lessons have you learned from your mistakes? How can you help someone avoid the pain you ran into?

2 – Help people by sharing your journey with them. A big part of my success building an email list in 2013 while not having a specific focus was that I brought people along with me. In my weekly email newsletters, I’d share something I tried or a book I read or anything that was helpful to me on my own journey. What journey are you on that people can relate to? What things are you trying that folks may find interesting? Don’t sell yourself short, people love watching/reading about other people doing stuff!

3 – Try latching onto something. For me, as vague as it was, I tried latching on to the idea of “taking action.” I told you it was vague! But, it helped. Even though taking action doesn’t excite everyone, there are people out there that align with it. Having something for people to resonate with is better than having nothing at all (no matter how vague). What is ONE thing you can have people latch onto? What’s something you believe that’s slightly unique to you that you can talk about?

Thing #2 to email your subscribers about: Something entertaining

My favorite email newsletter I’m currently subscribed to breaks every email marketing rule in the book. It’s insanely inconsistent in the delivery schedule. The formatting of the email is not great. The thought and effort that goes into the email itself is sad. BUT… the actual content I receive is worth dealing with all that stuff.

The Oatmeal Email Newsletter

Yep, the comics from The Oatmeal are my favorite email newsletter. The content is so fun and entertaining that I look past everything else.

Would I love and appreciate The Oatmeal even more if I received consistent emails? Absolutely! But, the cartoons are so good that when they do finally arrive I love them to death and am so glad I’m subscribed.

There’s a ton of value in being entertaining. There’s a lot to be said for bringing joy and happiness into people’s lives.

We live in a culture dominated by entertainment. Look around and you’ll see entertainment at every turn, on every billboard, it’s nearly impossible to escape. Sure, there’s good and bad entertainment, my point is that people love to be entertained, so find a way to authentically entertain them if you can!

I’m nowhere near as talented as Matthew Inman (creator of The Oatmeal), but I do my best to infuse my own humor and try to entertain my email subscribers when I can. A couple simple ideas that go a long way:

  1. Humor! You don’t have to be a standup comedian to be funny. Just be you and let your freak flag fly.
  2. Uniqueness. I looove when I get emails from people who are pushing boundaries and trying to do things in new ways.
  3. Boundary-pushing and rule-breaking. It’s fun to watch other people buck the system (whatever system that may be).

Don’t be afraid to entertain and build an audience around your personality. I wouldn’t say try to be the next Jersey Shore contestant (woof), but embrace who you are and what people say stands out about you.

Pro-Tip: Ask people a question in your welcome email

Obviously, you need a few email subscribers knocking on your door for this tip to work, but even if you have 15 new subscribers a month, this strategy can work for you.

Your Welcome Email, aka the email that a new subscriber gets right after they sign up is going to be the email with the HIGHEST open percentage… ever.

Take advantage of that opportunity and ask your new subscribers a question in that email. A couple questions I’ve asked in my Welcome Email over the years:

You’d be shocked at how willing people are to answer a question after they receive your Welcome Email. You have to remember the mindset they’re in: They just signed up and they’re probably never going to be more engaged with your email content.

In 2014 I used the “…struggling with right now?” question in my Welcome Email and amassed over 600 responses in one year. About half of the replies I received led to creating an email, blog post, or product I could sell. The great thing about asking something of your subscribers is you get to learn what they want/need and then you can help them with that thing!

Don’t forget to focus on sending people emails that you’d want to receive.

It can be easy to get caught up in the monotony of writing emails, staying consistent, keeping up with your business, and letting the quality of your email content dip.

A simple way to make sure you aren’t letting your content get stale or boring is to ask yourself: Would I be excited to open and read this email?

If your honest answer is No, then you need to write a better email. If you send your subscribers mediocre content, you shouldn’t be surprised when they unsubscribe or start ignoring your emails. Send emails you’d want to read!



Email Providers, Subject Lines, and Other Email List Tips

At this point, I have to assume you already have an email list or you’re on your way to creating one. Yay you! Having been in the email marketing game for over a decade I can safely say that I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and learned plenty of lessons. I’m guessing you caught wind of that already, huh? Let’s dive into a few of those things now!

The $1,000,000 question: What email service provider is best? MailChimp? ConvertKit? InfusionSoft?

I’m going to give you an abridged version of my answer to this question because I wrote a separate article that does an in-depth breakdown of my top three email service providers (you can find that here).

Instead of answering this question by reviewing every email service provider (ESP) in existence, I’m going to instead give you my choices based on where you might be on your email marketing journey. You know, focus on your actual needs and not just focus on features or price!

If you’re an email marketing beginner, don’t need much email automation, and/or want to save money: Use MailChimp

MailChimp is probably the most well-known ESP and it’s for good reason. They’ve built an amazing email platform and it’s continually getting better.

These are the three best things about MailChimp:

  1. Free until you hit 2,000 subscribers (amazing!)
  2. Fantastic email campaign builder that anyone can use
  3. Recently added subscriber tagging and better automation!

Two not-so-great things about MailChimp:

I don’t think those two items are deal-breakers though. MailChimp is a FANTASTIC option and you’d probably be super stoked to use it.

If you sell digital products or want to do some behavior-based subscriber actions: Use ConvertKit

I was a happy ConvertKit customer for two years. The only reason my wife and I left was that we wanted to get into some much deeper email automation and at the time ConvertKit’s automation builder was very ho-hum (spoiler: that’s changed).

Three great things about ConvertKit:

  1. Subscriber tagging and automation rules based on various actions are really well done
  2. Their new automation builder is suuuper slick and easy to use
  3. They do a great job with email analytics (form analytics, and much more)

My only (personal) drawback for ConvertKit at this point:

I had a really crappy experience with the company Mailgun back in 2012 and haven’t felt like letting go of that grudge (nor do I think I need to #sorrynotsorry). That being said, I also saw quite a dip in my email open rates over time with ConvertKit, even after doing email list pruning. This may not be an actual problem for you and maybe Mailgun is run by better people now?

If you do a lot with email automation: Use Drip

Drip is the current email provider we use for Wandering Aimfully and we’ve been pretty happy with it. There have been a few blips in the road, which I’ll share, but overall I’d recommend Drip over extremely complicated solutions like InfusionSoft, Ontraport, AWeber, etc.

Three things we love about Drip:

  1. The interface is really solid, especially for a complex automation-focused platform
  2. Customer support has always been top-notch (both live chat and email)
  3. They seem to be constantly improving the platform (being owned by Leadpages helps!)

Two things we wish Drip would do better:

I’m all for paying for great products, which I believe Drip is, but MailChimp is inching closer and closer when it comes to features and they charge half the price for the same amount of subscribers (for our ~15,000 subscribers we pay almost $300 on Drip and would pay $150 with MailChimp).

When it comes to picking the right email service provider the good news is that it’s not that difficult to switch.

Since 2013 we’ve moved from MailChimp to ConvertKit to ActiveCampaign and finally to Drip. The process is actually fairly painless to switch and each service has offered a hands-on migration to help make the process smooth.

Let’s talk about those pesky email subject lines and how you can write better ones!

There are a plethora of articles you can read on the topic of writing great subject lines. I’ll link to a few at the end of this section, but I do want to share a few simple principles with you.

Don’t play the clickbait game: It’s super easy to get caught up in the open rate success of “you’ll be shocked to read this!” style subject lines. The problem and I’ve witnessed this firsthand, is that the shock value wears off and so does the attention of your subscribers. Instead of playing the clickbait game, just be straightforward with your subscribers and let them decide if they want to read your content.

Your best subject lines are almost always going to be the simplest: The email with the highest open rate I’ve ever sent (outside of the Welcome Email) had the subject line “can you help me out with this?” Just a simple question that piqued people’s interest. K.I.S.S. applies to writing subject lines too!

Don’t over emoji it: Listen, I adore emojis. I use them constantly. However, you can overdo it with emojis in subject lines, especially when you understand that not all email inboxes interpret emojis the same way (Gmail, for instance, has it’s own emoji library that sometimes conflicts with Apple’s emoji library – ugh, so dumb). I’m not saying don’t use emojis, just don’t go 🦍💩.

As I mentioned, I have a few additional resources you can check out that can help with your subject line writing:

And while all these tips I’ve shared and linked to are great, the most important thing you can do to write better subject lines is just to write and share them. Let your own data educate you on what YOUR audience resonates with (and what entices them to open your emails).

Unpopular opinion alert: If you’re selling something via your emails, remove your social media links

This may seem a weird topic to have an entire section dedicated to it, but that’s how strongly I believe that people need to stop including social media links, share buttons, etc in sales emails.

Let me paint a picture for you, ready?

Jeremy is a photographer and he’s created an awesome online course that can teach other photographers how to book more clients and create a more streamlined photo editing process. His photography course is wonderfully helpful and people are going to love it!

Jeremy sends out a weekly email to his list and is about to queue up a sales email for his course. He meticulously writes his sales copy, addressing all the necessary pain-points and highlights around his new course. He’s happy with his email and he schedules it to be sent. Go fictitious Jeremy!

His loyal subscribers start opening the email and reading about his course. They’re excited! They know this course will help them. But then, they get to the bottom of the sales email, ready to learn more and potentially purchase his photography course when they see a Facebook icon. “Hmmmm…” the subscribers’ brain perks up. “We love mindlessly scrolling through baby photos on Facebook, let’s go do that, it makes us feel good!”

And boom, now Jeremy’s potential customers have scurried off to the catacombs of social media, never to be seen again.

So yeah, that story is a bit silly, but it illustrates my point. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc, have created immensely strong mental connections and if you give someone’s brain a chance to, it will run off any scrollable feed possible.

If you’re going to sell something in an email, remove any chance that someone could get distracted from making a purchase.

If you have data to back up that your subscribers use your social media sharing icons and links when you aren’t sending a sales email, then leave those links/icons in place. But if you’re trying to sell your product, you better believe that your subscribers need ONE clear focus (and it’s not baby photos!).

A couple of advanced email marketing tips and tricks

These are by no means mandatory, but I wanted to share a few of the more advanced email-related things I’ve learned over the years.

Email marketing trick #1: Use to test your emails

For quite a while I used every single week when I was queuing up my newsletters. This 100% free service is a great way to see if your emails are going to run into any trouble when you send them. Mail-tester will grade your subject line, email content, let you know if there are any issues with your from email address being on any sort of sending blacklist, and they even have some super-nerdy trickery you can do to help your email deliverability (setting up DKIM and dmarc stuff).


Email marketing trick #2: Survey your subscribers using Typeform

I was super hesitant to ever survey my subscribers because I don’t ever fill out surveys when people send them to me. But then, on a whim in 2015, I decided to send my very first survey. Out of the 2,000 people that opened my first survey email, over 500 of them filled it out! WHAAAT?? This wasn’t a simple score-based survey, I asked folks to leave long-form answers (and they did). Those email survey replies led to the creation of multiple products, a podcast, and loads of content topic ideas. Plus, some subscribers asked simple questions that I could answer, which helped increase trust, and made me feel like I was over-delivering on value.

Here are some questions that are great to include in a survey:

Typeform Surveys

Email marketing trick #3: If you send a survey, have a unique offer after completion

Once I got the taste of sending a survey and see how people actually enjoyed responding, I decided to put another task to the test. I’d heard of people sending surveys to their audience and offering a unique product after survey completion, but it seemed weird to me. Why would these people A. take a survey and then B. buy something right after!? But if you think about it, the subscribers that are willing to fill out a survey, are your BEST and most interested subscribers. Of course, they might want to buy something from you! So, in 2016 I sent out a survey to a segment of my audience (the folks who opened my emails the most) and at the end of the survey, there was an opportunity to buy a $1,000 product discounted to $500 (with only 15 purchases available). Just a few short hours after sending out the survey all 15 purchases had been made and I had $7,500 sitting in my bank account. Crazy!

I can’t guarantee you the same success, but by all means, give this a chance or two, and start sending those surveys!

Email marketing trick #4: A/B test, but keep your tests simple

I feel like A/B testing is really great when you’re first gaining some email list growth (around 1,000 subscribers). You do need enough people to have the data help you make decisions, because let’s be honest, having only 50 subscribers and knowing what 25 of them want versus the other 25 may not prove too helpful. When you do start to get some traction, A/B testing your subject lines, or the first or last paragraph with a call-to-action, or other small tweaks, are great things to test… just not all at the same time! Pick one thing to A/B test each week. Learn from the data and then test something else. The idea behind A/B testing is really to understand how you can speak directly to your audience and have them stay thoroughly interested.

Mailchimp A/B Testing

Do you have any awesome email marketing tricks you think I should include in this section? I’d love to know what’s worked for you! Shoot me an email and let me know.



5 Email List Building Mistakes To Avoid

At this point, you know why having an email list matters and you’re starting to build a plan of attack to grow that email list and send your subscribers consistent valuable content. But hold the phone, how can you avoid a bunch of common pitfalls during that process?

Let’s look at the five most common email list building mistakes I’ve seen (and even committed myself) over the years and how to avoid them:

Mistake #1: Being unclear about what a subscriber will get from your emails

Be crystal clear about what your subscribers are going to get if they sign up for your email list. Let them know the schedule, the type of content, and what kind of value you are providing them. Put this information right next to your signup form on your website and remind them of it in a Welcome Email.

Note: When/if you sign up for our Wandering Weekly emails (at the bottom of this page) it should be very clear what we’re going to send you. Once you sign up we have a very thorough “what to expect” page that leaves no stone unturned so there are zero unwanted surprises.

Mistake #2: Focusing only on the number of email subscribers

Do not worry about the numbers. I know this is a very difficult task as a human being as we’re simply wired to pay attention to the numbers. The number of subscribers you have isn’t going to grow because you refresh your subscriber analytics on a daily (or maybe hourly) basis. Instead, spend all that time and energy on creating great content for your readers. If you only have 15 subscribers, that’s totally fine. Pamper the heck out of them, engage with them, but make sure you’re doing it with the content you want to be sending.

Fun fact: I launched my BuyMyLastName idea to an email list of just 600 people. That project had $30,000+ in revenue in the first 24 hours because of that small email list. Quality, not quantity!

Mistake #3: Making it difficult for people to unsubscribe

Don’t hide the unsubscribe button or unsubscribe link in your emails. I know you don’t want people to unsubscribe, especially in the beginning. But as weird as it sounds you WANT people to unsubscribe as soon as possible. If what you are emailing isn’t in alignment with a subscriber why would you want to pay to keep them on your list (paying in time or money)? I’d advocate that you should make the unsubscribe option prominent in your emails and easy for people to find. I promise you, if someone wants to leave your list, you should let them go and wish them well on their way.

Mistake #4: Don’t build an email list with giveaways or incentives

You remember my 25,000 email subscriber story from Section 1, ya? Unless you’re Groupon, do not create an email list with giveaways, deals, and prizes. Trust me on this one—you’ll build a list of people who only want those things. It’s not worth the extra subscribers because they won’t bring you any value in the long run. They’ll actually end up costing you time and money.

Mistake #5: Overdoing the formatting of your emails

The majority of emails I love getting in my inbox barely have any formatting. Good content creators know to let the content do the talking and to avoid distracting the reader with too much extra fluff. Should you include an image or two in your emails? Absolutely! Might you want a nice header image that shows some of your personality and branding? Yep. But do you need to use all the fancy email templates, designs, background images, blah blah blah? Nope. Make your content great and easy to read. That’s your goal.

Mistake #6: Delivering mediocre content via your emails

Your main goal with your email marketing strategy should be to deliver unique value to your subscribers with every email. Don’t copy someone else’s strategies. Don’t copy subject lines. Just pour your uniqueness into every email you write. If you want to figure out what your subscribers want you to send them, ask a question in the Welcome Email they get after signing up for your email list. Something like, “what’s your biggest struggle right now?” or “what can I help you with?” Those replies will become perfect topics to send emails about going forward.

Don’t over-automate too early and focus on consistency

This mistake is so egregious I had to give it its own section. I’ve watched too many creative business owners waste countless hours of time by trying to build slick email automations too early on. The thinking goes something like this:

“I need someone to get my free email course, then after they finish my course get bridged into an automated sales pitch, and then that sales pitch needs a countdown timer and all of that needs to update stuff on my website too.”

No. No. No. No. You may think you need this type of “email sales funnel” so you can make passive income, but you absolutely want to skip this in the beginning.

Getting caught in the weeds of automation too early can cause way more headaches than it can generate revenue for you. Instead, just send simple email broadcasts to your subscribers. Deliver value to their inboxes and establish trust with them. Then, by okay with selling via emails that don’t have any automation and don’t have any bells and whistles.

If what you are creating is unique and helpful, you don’t need slick automations, you just need consistency.

Consistency is sooooooo underrated when it comes to online business and email marketing strategies. You’d be shocked at how few people can stick with a consistent content schedule, even if that schedule is just one email a week (a tactic I’ve used since 2014 and I’ve generated plenty of revenue with it).

When you feel yourself starting to go down the automation path ask yourself a simple question: Am I selling enough stuff with manual effort right now that I need to automate?

That’s the only time to start thinking about automation. Not in the beginning. Not when you’re just getting started and figured everything out and trying to build good consistent creation habits. Automation too early on will rob you of your creativity and derail you.



A Few Final Tips To Keep Your Newsletter High-Quality And Authentic

Tip #1: Come up with a format that feels suited to you

Work with your strengths! My wife and I loooove to write and tell stories about our lives so our emails tend to be longer and that’s perfectly okay with us. If you don’t love writing but you love talking, try filming a short video and sending that out to your subscribers instead. Remember, going with something that feels natural to you will make it easier to keep up with consistently because you’ll enjoy the process.

Tip # 2: Tailor your content to your email list specifically

You can include links to posts on your blog, but save some content that feels tailored and specific to just your email subscribers. In other words, give them a reason to subscribe and not just to visit your blog. My wife and I tend to always write for our email list first, then we decide if that content should go on this website or not. This is something you can highlight on your email signup forms and when you talk about your email list. Something like: “Every Monday I send out my best writing exclusively to my email list on what it takes to run a creative online business.” Sounds enticing, right? Don’t you want to get exclusive writing? I know I do.

Tip #3: Don’t write in anyone else’s voice but your own

Finding your unique creative voice is hard. It’s tempting to simply go with what you see works for other people, or sometimes it’s just hard to get other people’s voices out of your head if you often consume more content than you create. But, similar to the point above about finding a structure that works for you, you’re only going to want to stick to your newsletter consistently if you write in a way that is natural and unique to you. When I started writing my email newsletter I had all kinds of self-doubt that my writing wasn’t very “good” and that I didn’t know all the proper writing “rules.” But who cares!? You and I aren’t trying to win a Pulitzer Prize with our words, we’re simply trying to build a passionate audience and run a profitable business. People will be able to tell when your personality comes through so do yourself a favor and let it shine!

The best email strategy is the one you can stick with and the one you enjoy pouring effort and energy into.

If you focus on delivering valuable content to your subscribers on a consistent basis you will build an audience in an authentic way. The key is to start, stick with it, avoid getting caught up in the numbers and continue to create and share things with your subscribers.

The Ethical Guide To Building An Email List Without Sleazy Tactics

(Big Fat Takeaway)

Building an email list or growing an audience is a simple set of steps executed consistently over time. You can build a passionate following if you're helpful, entertaining, and you avoid the trappings of focusing only on growth.


This article written by

Jason Zook

I'm all about that Cinnamon Roll life (that just seemed like a "cool" way to say I love baking and eating cinnamon rolls). Also, I co-run this WAIM thing as well as Teachery. Currently, 75ish% completion of Tears of the Kingdom 🧝‍♀️⚔️.

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