Why I Deleted My 10,000 Subscriber Email List
At the beginning of 2017, I had managed to grow my email list to 10,000 subscribers.
It felt like a huge achievement! With all the articles and webinars all around the web all singing the same song ('Grow your email list if you want to be successful! Here's how to do it...'), I looked at my email marketing software one day and thought - I'VE DONE IT!
First of all… how did I do it?
I created what's called an 'opt-in freebie'; a free downloadable 'gift' (in my case, a Marketing Plan template for small businesses that I created myself, because my main target audience are small business owners) that people receive only when they've signed up to your email list. I've written in more detail about examples of these and how to do it before, and it really does work as a way to grow your list quickly!
To get people to hear about this great free gift, I used mainly Pinterest to share eye-catching graphics that linked through to my sign up page. Turns out, a LOT of people search on Pinterest for 'marketing plan' and my pin graphics ended up coming up top of the list (and still does!!).
Thanks to this, I saw my list grow from 1,000 to 10,000 in about 4 months.
I'd been sending out email newsletters to my list once a week or once every two weeks since the beginning. They were short and sweet 'quick tip' style emails that were easy to digest and gave my readers something to think about with their businesses, and people loved them! The open rates were good and I had plenty of sweet messages from people saying how refreshing it was to get short, non-salesy emails that were actually useful.
But whenever I did the occasional promotional email about my services and new portfolio pieces, they BOMBED.
Click-through rates were non-existent, and subscribers dropped like flies every time I sent one out. I tried different types of promotional email, from really soft and subtle, even to doing a flash sale! But my subscribers really didn't like it.
So many people had been added to the list purely because they wanted the free template download; many weren’t interested in what I had to say or sell. They just wanted me for the 'free stuff’ - which is fine, because I realise now that it’s my own fault for my choice of opt-in.
At the time I knew that (as with every marketing activity) I shouldn't expect results straight away. My email marketing was one piece of my whole 'marketing mix'; designed to reach people at multiple different touchpoints to make them remember my name.
But as my list grew, my email marketing software costs grew too.
I started out on Mailchimp, which is free up to 2,000 subscribers. Once I'd reached that, I started paying for Mailchimp for about £30p/m, but soon realised it didn't have all the capabilities I wanted, so moved to Convertkit. By the time I'd got to 10,000 subscribers, Convertkit was costing me around £150 a month!
I could no longer afford NOT to make money from my email list. I needed a 'Return on Investment', but it was a huge struggle getting any at all. And yes, I tried ways of 'pruning' the list so that I only had super engaged subscribers, but by this time it was growing so fast it was hard to keep up.
Why I deleted the list
After months of attempting to monetise my list, I exported my subscriber list and shut down my Convertkit account. I thought, 'I can always start up again and import my subscribers back in if I change my mind'. But time went by and I didn't change my mind, so a few months ago, I deleted the list for good.
The Cost of Email Marketing Software
The cost was a huge factor. £150 per month = nearly £2,000 a year in email marketing costs, which is a HUGE amount for a freelancer! I simply couldn't afford it if I wasn't making any money back from it. A lot of people don't ever mention what it costs to host a big email list and use decent email marketing software in their articles online, even though for me it ended up being my biggest monthly expense by miles!
The Time Required to Nurture the List
The cost above doesn't even include the (wo)man hours I put in myself each week to manage the list, craft engaging emails and research how to monetise it. That is time that I could have spent doing billable work for clients, or actually, time I could have spent with my family and friends because I usually ended up doing it in the evenings or weekends.
When you are a freelancer or small business owner, there are so many admin and marketing activities you have to do yourself to grow your business that take away from the time you should be spending on your actual work. You might as well prioritise working on the ones that have been proven to make you money!
The New GDPR Laws
GDPR caused quite a stir back in April, and it meant that we all had to take extra care making sure our email lists were full of subscribers who really wanted to be there, by giving express permission via checking a box or double opt-in confirmations.
My list would have been fine, as I've always made sure to do double opt-in (where the person has to confirm their subscription by email once signed up) and been clear about what they were signing up for. However, after a couple months of silence when I 'paused' my Convertkit account, for me to reappear in someone's inbox after all the news around GDPR, it felt wrong.
I didn’t have a monetisation plan when I started
I’d done plenty of research about building a list, which clearly had paid off, but I hadn’t really prepared myself with what I would actually be sending to these people once they were on my list. I didn’t have a strategic plan on how I would be monetising the list, so I’d put out a more promotional-style email every now and again and obviously people didn’t engage with it.
When you have a small list, you have good intentions about just providing constant awesome free content, but realistically once your list has grown to the point where it’s starting to cost you hundreds a month you really have to start considering a return-on-investment.
There was too much ‘noise’ on the list
At the end of the say, the main problem was that my list was full of the wrong people. By creating a ‘marketing plan template’ as an opt-in freebie, I’d attracted basically anyone who owns a business. It wasn’t specific enough, and therefore (while the numbers I was racking up looked great!), I’d ended up with a lot of subscribers who weren’t my right target audience, who weren’t interested in my business, and who were costing me money.
What am I doing now?
I did consider having no email list whatsoever, but my marketing brain KNOWS how valuable a good quality, engaged list can be for an online business. It can literally be your most valuable asset if done right!
Choosing the right opt-ins
So I started my list again from scratch, and created a couple more opt-in freebies that this time I knew were more specific and were going to attract people that would actually be interested in my services - my ‘Website Audit’ and ‘Brand Audit’ workbooks, for example.
I personally love creating freebies and useful resources for my audience, and it’s a good challenge for me to always make sure what I’m creating is specific enough. One thing that really helps is having my Target Customer CV pinned up in front of me at my desk, so I can always make sure I have them at the forefront of my mind when creating.
Not making it ALL about opt-ins!
On pretty much every single article online about ‘growing your email list’, people say that you should always have an opt-in freebie on your sign up forms. “Give people a reason to sign up - no one will give away their email address to you unless you give them something in return!”.
It’s fair enough advice, but I don’t think it’s always 100% true. I personally sign up to newsletters without an incentive if I follow the person and am really interested in their business and what they have to say - sometimes I’m just nosy and I’m happy to receive updates from those who inspire me or who share meaningful content!
I actually think you are more likely to build a list of people who TRULY want to engage with your business if there isn’t some free template incentive for them. The people who will seriously respond to your newsletters are probably the ones who don’t need an incentive to sign up in the first place!
So on my home page and on the pages of my website, I haven’t included any mention of free downloads etc. I’ve just been clear about what they can expect from my emails, and I’ve left the opt-in stuff to my individual blog posts instead.
This might be a super slow way of growing a list, but at least I know that each of those people really want to receive my newsletters, and aren’t just on my list because they downloaded a free template this one time.
Having a clear strategy for monetisation
This is something I’m still working on; I’ve created a welcome sequence for new subscribers and I actually have newsletters planned in advance to coincide with lead ups to launches etc., but I’m still experimenting with the content to see what works. It’s all a learning curve but at least I know that the people who have signed up are a much better fit for what I have to offer now!
Meanwhile, I have left the Marketing Plan template and other less specific freebies on my website for people to just download at the click of a button, with no need to sign up…
creating 'Non-opt-in freebies' still does a great job!
Having downloadable PDFs or useful freebies on your website that people will be scrambling for still has massive value even if you don't take peoples' email addresses in return.
If you get the word out there (via social media or other platforms) and start getting people flocking to your website, this is a fantastic opportunity for you to grab the attention of the right people and market to them right there on your site.
They still act as a tool for raising awareness of your brand, and getting your name in peoples' heads.
Another option: ask for something that Isn't an email address?
Something I have tried with another business, is asking for website visitors to follow you on social media before they can access your freebie! It means you can grow a following on a (free) platform you were using already, so no extra effort is required on your part, but you're still gaining something in return.
In my example, the 'opt-in freebie' is a Free Shipping discount code on a shop, but people can only get the code when they follow the brand on Facebook or Instagram. An awesome way to utilise a freebie if you don't think you have time to nurture an email list.
And I'm sure this could work with service businesses too! "Follow me on Facebook to download your FREE ebook", or "Like us on Instagram too access the full guide" etc. I used a tool called Better Coupon Box to install this on my Shopify store, but I'm sure there are plugins for this on WordPress and Squarespace too.
A final note
It really depends on what your goals are (ie. do you want to grow a large newsletter subscriber list or do you want to grow your social media following?). It’s worth pointing out of course that you actually OWN all the emails on your newsletter list, whereas you do not OWN your followers on Facebook and Instagram. Those companies could take them away at any moment, and that is why most people choose to try and build an email list instead.
But the moral of this story is really that having a big email list doesn’t mean you’ll be successful. If they’re not the right people, they won’t engage with your offerings and you’ll end up wasting time and money on a list that won’t buy from you. Make sure you’re strategic with you’re opt-ins, and that you have a clear monetisation plan in mind!