This is the story of the little email list that could – and by “could,” we mean “did.” In fact, it just keeps going… and growing. Here’s how it all happened.
Joan Garry is the “Dear Abby” of nonprofit leadership. She’s the troubleshooter that nonprofit leaders call when they need help solving tough problems.
In the past few years, we’ve helped Joan grow both her online audience and her consulting business well beyond her (or even our) initial expectations. A huge part of Joan’s success has been the absolutely stellar growth of her email list.
And we mean stellar.
When we first started working together, she had just a few hundred email subscribers. As of the end of August 2015, she’s rapidly approaching 10,000 subscribers – and it’ll probably be even larger by the time you read this, because over the past few months it’s been growing by about 1,000 subscribers per month. What’s equally impressive is that very few people have unsubscribed along the way. This means Joan has found the magic mix all email list builders seek: the right content matched with the right audience.
Nearly all of Joan’s subscribers are leaders in the nonprofit sector – board members, Executive Directors, Development Directors, and other senior staff. In other words, this is a high-quality list filled with Joan’s prospective clients. Or, as Seth Godin might say, Joan found her tribe.
So how exactly did she do it?
What An Insanely Good Open Rate Looks Like
First, let’s take a look at just how impressive her list’s performance really is.
Each week, Joan sends her tribe a weekly email with a link to her latest content (which is usually brilliant, personable, and super-helpful advice for nonprofit leaders).
Think about that for a moment.
Every time Joan sends out an email, it’s like she gets to deliver a personal presentation to 8,500 people in her industry all at once. As you can imagine, this does wonders for growing her business.
Not only that, but her average email open rate, which is the percentage of people who receive the email and actually open it (and presumably read it), is significantly more than double the industry average (as per MailChimp’s data). She typically sees open rates in the 40 – 50% range.
Perhaps most impressively, Joan’s click rate, which represents how many people actually click on a link in the email and go to her website, is roughly the same as the industry’s open rate.
Let me repeat that, because it’s kind of astounding.
If 30% of a list’s subscribers open their emails, only a portion of those people will click on the links inside that email – maybe 8%, give or take.
But Joan is getting as many clicks as the industry average is getting opens.
Believe me, that’s a really good conversion rate.
And you can do it too if you follow these five steps.
1) Understand Your Audience
Every time Joan writes a blog post or crafts an email, her first thought is, “How will this benefit my tribe?” She puts herself in their shoes.
She doesn’t preach or pontificate or promote herself. She asks her tribe what they’re struggling with. She even started a “Dear Joan” advice column to answer specific questions from her readers.
Each article tackles a specific pain point or provides inspiration. Joan doesn’t care so much about growing her audience as much as she wants to make sure that the right people are in the audience. Because she’s so helpful to nonprofit leaders, her content attracts the right people for her own business goals.
And equally as important, it doesn’t attract the wrong people. If you’re not a leader in a nonprofit organization, you may not fully appreciate her advice. You’re also not going to sign up for her email list.
2) Target Your Advertising
To get in front of the right people in the first place, we advertise some of Joan’s posts on Facebook. We use Facebook’s strong targeting capabilities so that her ads are only seen by those who are likely to benefit from her insights and advice.
Whom do we target?
- Her existing Facebook fans that haven’t yet signed up for her email list. (Yes, these days Facebook makes you pay to reach many of your own fans.)
- People who have visited Joan’s website in the last 30 days but have not subscribed (yet).
- “Lookalike” audiences of Joan’s email list and recent website visitors. (Facebook can automatically create such a list.)
- People who already like the pages of major nonprofit media. (This shows they have a strong interest in the topic.)
We filter further based on what we know of the demographics who traditionally respond best to these ads. For example, Joan’s advice resonates most strongly with educated women over 35, so we don’t serve Joan’s ads to 22-year old men even if they’ve been to her website recently.
Before you decide to pay for Facebook advertising, have a sense of what you can afford. Facebook allows you to track your cost per acquisition. When we run a new ad, we’ll test its effectiveness by keeping the initial budget low. If we see the ad can drive a new email subscriber for less than $3, we usually increase the budget. (Your experience and budgets may differ, but having a baseline is key.)
3) Don’t Be Shy
Sometimes you just need to ask for what you want.
For example, you know those “Subscribe to Our Email List” pop-ups you increasingly see on blogs on media websites? I know you’re rolling your eyes right now, but they work. Big time.
This might be controversial, but it shouldn’t be. The data makes it crystal clear.
We always had a simple email signup box on every page of Joan’s website. But when we added a pop-up subscription box, the percentage of website visitors who became subscribers tripled.
That’s so amazing I’ll repeat it. By adding a pop-up box we tripled the conversion rate.
What we didn’t see was an increased bounce rate. In other words, people didn’t leave the site because of the pop-up. Maybe it’s slightly annoying, but not to the point where it affects the site negatively.
But we don’t just make the ask on the website itself. Every time Joan sends out a new email she gets additional subscribers. Why? Because Joan explicitly asks her subscribers to share her content with others who might benefit.
And they do, on social media and through email. It all ads up.
4) Double Opt-In
One of the best ways to keep your click rates high and your bounce rates low is double opt-in. This means that when somebody signs up for your email list, before they are really on the list, they must first confirm their intention to join by clicking a button in a confirmation email.
Won’t you lose some people if you make them take this extra step? Perhaps.
But the people who don’t confirm either a) didn’t really want to be on the list in the first place or b) entered an incorrect email address.
Email marketing platform vendor Get Response strongly recommends double opt-in, stating, “Double opt-in lists have been shown to get up to double the clicks and double the opens of single opt-in lists. They also get half the hard bounces and half the unsubscribes of single opt-in. Double opt-in lists keep you from adding a spam trap to your list. They tend to reduce spam complaints, too.”
5) Keep Your List Clean
Every now and then you should run a report of people who haven’t opened any emails at all from you in the last 6 months.
These people are lowering your open and click rates. Why aren’t they opening your emails? There could be lots of reasons – which we’ll discuss in another post.
Send these folks a re-engagement email. Tell them you miss them. You’ve noticed they haven’t been reading your emails lately. Was it something you said? Try to have a sense of humor about it.
But keep it short and, in the end, ask the person to confirm s/he still wants to be on the list. Make them click a link or button to confirm, so your email system registers their interest as a definitive action.
But if they don’t click or respond, it’s time to let them go. Give them a week and then manually unsubscribe them from your list.
Don’t be sad about it. Successful marketing is about not attracting those who are not your ideal target just as much as it’s about attracting those who are. Your old subscriber is no longer your ideal target. And that’s fine.
The best news of all — your old subscriber isn’t holding down your click rates anymore.
How Have YOU Built Your Quality Email List?
Let us know in the comments your own tips for building a high-quality email list. What have you done that’s worked well? Do you disagree with anything on our list?
And if you’d like our personal guidance in improving and growing your organization’s email list, we’d love to help. You can connect with us here.