Whether you're an author, publisher or book discovery startup, a mailing list might well be the most valuable asset in your toolbox. A bold statement, no doubt, but one which is rooted in digital reality. As acclaimed blogger Jeff Goins puts it: “At 4.9 billion email accounts worldwide, email outnumbers all the users on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and every other social media channel — combined. That makes it the world’s largest social network.”
Unlike a newsfeed, your mailing list belongs to you, and you alone. It future-proofs your content from the vagaries of social media. Your newsletter projects your voice, directly and intimately. It is exclusive. But building a critical mass of loyal subscribers — rich in both quantity and quality — demands certain prerequisites.
1) Truly unique content
In a sea of noise and a pervasive scarcity of attention, your core content must make an instant impression. It should attract and retain digital “eyeballs”. It should be compelling and memorable. It should be fresh. To paraphrase retail magnate, Harry Selfridge: “you must sit up and take notice of what makes people sit up and take notice.”
In a segmented mailing list, you should offer some degree of personalisation. After all, a book reviewer is unlikely to embrace the catch-all nature of your newsletter if the thing they really want — new books to review — is swamped by the stuff they don’t.
When your subscribers feel truly passionate about your content, they’ll make time to seek it out, actively and unconditionally. Word-of-mouth recommendations will soar. Unsubscriptions will stay mercifully low. But what if your newsletter should enter Google’s dreaded Promotions tab? Not a problem if your subscribers are hanging on your every email.
2) Value upfront
Why should prospective subscribers commit to sharing their email with you if your value proposition isn’t stated at the sign-up stage? No hint of the benefits of subscribing. No flavour of how their first newsletter might look. No database of existing newsletters to browse at their convenience.
Put simply, the list-building process is a quid pro quo. Subscribers trade their email addresses, perusal time and abiding loyalty in exchange for the promise of entertainment, deep insight, or both. Unless they get a slice of the action in advance, you’re asking them to take a gigantic leap of faith. Creating an irresistible offer — a free e-book, an enticing sample, insider marketing tips — available to users within seconds of subscribing, should go a long way to assuaging nagging doubts.
3) A seamless user experience
With their inbuilt analytics and user-friendly dashboards, email clients such as MailChimp, AWeber, Infusionsoft, ConvertKit make things glitchless; but do ensure the same can be said of your self-hosted sign-up forms. This is the earliest stage of the conversion funnel; the email-capture stage. We live in a culture of instant gratification. Customer patience is thinner than ever, so failing to mobile-optimise your sign-up form will deter subscribers en masse.
Let’s suppose your newsletter is segmented — readers subscribing to multiple genres, or authors subscribing to specific brand-building tips. Here, an intuitive interface, with an easy-to-swipe-and-tap boxlist is paramount. But be selective in the number of fields. A paradox of choice will create an unwelcome barrier to entry. How do users know they’ve subscribed correctly? Set up an auto-responder to welcome them aboard!
4) Free acquisition channels
Free channels are your staple; your bread-and-butter. More than that, they are your benchmark against which future bursts of paid marketing can be measured. What can you accomplish for free? Quite a lot, provided you’re cunning. Be sure to harness your existing social media network if you have one. Share every instalment of every newsletter on relevant platforms using niche, well-researched hashtags to expand your reach further. Try embedding your sign-up form into your blog, bringing the point of subscription nearer the point of discovery.
If your newsletter is to buttress your business model, make it the most prominent item on all your social media pages. In the case of Facebook and Twitter, the strategy is simple: pin the post to the top of your page’s timeline. If it’s eye-catching and hyperlinks to your sign-up form, the pinned post will act as a trusted silent salesperson.
5) Paid acquisition channels
To supplement your repertoire of free channels, native adverts have the potential to yield maximum return with minimal budget. Whether they take the form of promoted posts on Facebook, promoted tweets on Twitter or promoted pins on Pinterest, native ads make your potential subscribers both the journey and the destination. The ads appear in-feed, so unlike intrusive, third-party banner ads, native ads inherently feel like in-house content. A visually appealing, split-tested, royalty-free image is a must, but only when used alongside a clear call-to-action. Generic ads, aimed at raising brand-awareness but without a link to your newsletter’s landing page, will exhaust your budget faster than you can imagine. You’ll also miss your central campaign goal: to draw targeted subscribers to your newsletter.
Say you want to re-engage Facebook users who’ve shown interest in your newsletter, but didn’t take concrete action. By installing a Facebook pixel on your website, you’ll be able to retarget lapsed visitors based on the URLs they visited. Warm prospects can be converted into hot prospects; and you’ll have created a potentially valuable “custom audience” in the process. Delving deeper still, it’s now easy to import your mailing list subscribers into Facebook. If that mailing list is large enough, you can subsequently create a “lookalike” audience — a new audience mirroring your most avid existing subscribers. Not only will this multi-pronged strategy generate leads of a higher quality than interest-based targeting alone; it will remove some of the costly guesswork inherent in ill-conceived Pay-Per-Click advertising campaigns.
6) Consistent send intervals
Your newsletter’s content will inform its regularity. Monthly emails might work for long-form, scholarly articles. A curated book newsletter, complete with pithy blurbs and excerpts, lends itself well to weekly or bi-weekly intervals. Daily is rarely realistic, and risks subscriber fatigue if the content isn’t laser-targeted. Whatever frequency you opt for, you’re duty-bound to stick to that schedule. After all, deviating from subscribers’ expectations sends two damaging messages: you lack the resources to cope, and you don’t care whether your users subscribed on a false prospectus.
More practically, a lack of consistency will cost you subscribers. If you’ve decided to email them on a Monday and Friday, but Friday inadvertently becomes Sunday, subscribers will have insufficient time to digest Sunday’s content before Monday’s newsletter hits their inbox. Scheduling tools exist for a reason. The more sophisticated ones cater for multiple time-zones, ensuring your subscribers receive their newsletter at peak attention-time, wherever they may be.
7) Watertight ethics
In giving you their email addresses and committing to a regular newsletter, subscribers have implicitly placed their trust in you. In the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) era, the consequences for transgressors have never been clearer. Now more than ever, trust is the ultimate “Cinderella asset”: you don’t know it’s there until it’s lost.
Never abuse your subscribers’ trust by mailing content outside of your core offering. Cross-selling under the guise of “you-might-also-be-interested-in” should be used sparingly, or not at all. Never compromise your integrity by selling your mailing list to a data farm or email harvester, no matter how eye-watering the sums offered. We've seen how "selling out" can alienate voters from their parties. The same behaviour can alienate subscribers from your brand. Permanently.