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6 Tips to Build (or Reboot) Your  Email List

Posted by Lisa Mullis on

This is the next in our still relatively new series called Experienced Newbies, by and about creative professionals who are making mid-career transitions and building a new career on the foundation of their past experience and expertise. Here's the next blog post by Lisa Mullis, who is in the first year of her new firm, Paraphrase Communications. (Listen to the first podcast interview with Lisa to hear her whole story.)

Now that my new business is up and running, a key strategy I’ll be using to build awareness and cultivate trust is regular email marketing.

Why? Even with all the other communication channels available, I still think email is one of the most powerful ways to build relationships after I connect with people in real time in person and over the phone.  

That’s why rebuilding my email list has been a priority. But I want to do this the right way—quality trumps quantity. There’s no point in growing a list for the sake of trying to get a big list. Would I like to have 10,000+ people who’ve said “yes, Lisa, I want to hear from you”? Of course! And maybe I’ll get there someday. But I know the number really doesn’t matter. What I care about is cultivating a list of people that I know I can help and who appreciate the kind of information I share. 

Five-figure-list fantasies aside, as I was preparing to send out my first email from my new company there were a number of things I had to take care of before hitting “send.”

Launder the list manually

The first step was to look at who I had could legally and ethically send an email to without coming off as spammy or irrelevant. Between clients I’d carried over from my former company and prospects who at some point in time had agreed to hear from me, I had about 185 names.

But of those names, there were a number I knew were no longer valid because that person had moved on. This meant my starting list was somewhat stale and needed to be manually cleaned. After culling the obvious duds and bounces, I was down to 139 names.

Create a simple and single ask

Even after that first sweep, I couldn’t assume that all 139 people would want to keep hearing from me after my first email went out. My goal was to get an even cleaner list by verifying that these people were, in fact, cool with staying on it. I had to get their permission.

So I drafted a brief message with a simple ask: Would you like to hear from me again? As for their answer, I offered three clear options:

  1. if yes, then they didn’t need to do anything.
  2. if no, then here’s the unsubscribe link.
  3. if they know of anyone else who might want to hear about what I have to offer, then here’s the forward link

In context it looked like this: 

In my original draft of the email, I had the order of the first two options reversed so that "unsubscribe" was listed first. I realized this came from my fear of being a pest and assuming that most people would want to unsubscribe, so why not make it easy for them? But after another read-through and mental pep talk, I derailed that negative train of thought and put the “yes, I’d like to stay on your list” option first.

I purposefully didn’t include anything about my upcoming webinars or projects I was working on or any sort of advertisement of services. While some might see this as a missed marketing opportunity, I don’t think communications with your clients and prospects should always include self promotion.

Be a real person

Even though it was being sent from email marketing software, I wanted this first email to feel especially personal. For one, because I’d changed companies, they might not recognize an email from me coming via the new company name.

Secondly, it’s no small request to ask people for permission to be a part of their digital lives when everyone’s already grappling with overloaded inboxes. Intuitively, I felt that if they perceived my email as a sincere and considerate question, I’d get a better response.

Though my message was brief, it was heartfelt. I reminded them about my transition, presented my ask, and closed with a few words about my enthusiasm for the coming year despite the upheaval in the world.

To make this email feel more like a one-to-one missive, I minimized the design and branding. Instead of using any visuals that would potentially distract, simple formatting of the text kept the message front and center. I used the First Name merge tag so that the salutation was personalized. And I made sure to put my name in the “from” field along with my company name so they could immediately see that this email was coming from a real person and not just a company.

The results

The open rate was 58.8% (industry average is 43.8%) and the click rate was 4.4% (industry average is 3.8%).

I got 6 unsubscribes, while another six people responded to me with a hello and congrats on my transition. (This was actually a higher response than from the email sent from my former company about my departure which had gone out weeks prior.)

The best part: of these 6 responses, 4 were new project requests! Now two of those projects are already under contract with the other two in scoping phases. This was an unexpected yet pleasant outcome since I had made no explicit mention of being available for work in this email.

This proves the power of getting in front of people regularly and unobtrusively. You never know when seeing your name will trigger a connection between you and a project in a customer’s mind.

Where I’m really starting from

Now I have a total of 133 highly qualified people on my list, plus  it’s fresh and clean and ready to start growing!

My next step will be to segment my list so that future emails can be more personalized and relevant. I am still learning the intricacies of list segmentation, but I’m quite keen to grow my knowledge both for my own marketing purposes and for that of my clients.

If you are just getting your email list going or looking to reboot a stale one, here are 6 tips:

  1. Clean your list manually first. Don’t assume every address you have is deliverable or relevant.
  2. Be real and personable and succinct with your message. Keep it to a single ask or a single idea.
  3. Use the First Name merge tag to personalize the salutation. Consider including your name in the From field along with your company name.
  4. Forgo branding or minimize the design. Don’t get so hung up on trying to design a fancy email that you don’t send one out at all.
  5. Offer no more than 3 options and make it easy for people to act on them. The “do nothing” option was the easiest. The unsubscribe and forward email options were hyperlinked rather than directing the reader to another location (i.e. “click the link at the bottom”).
  6. Turn off notifications of unsubscribes. No matter how healthy you may be, unsubscribes can often feel like  mini-rejections and can sting just a bit. Wait a few days after the campaign has run its course to review the report -- that way you rip off the band-aid only once!

Whether you’re transitioning from one career to the next like me, or just getting your career started, there are undoubtedly people in your life whom you can help and who wouldn’t mind hearing from you from time to time. With thoughtfulness and a sincere invitation to join you, you can be well on your way to building a viable email marketing channel to share your work and your expertise.

And if you need help making the transition, take advantage of Ilise's free 30 minute mentoring session to get some guidance. 


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