How To Make Money Via Email

Last week’s traffic generation lesson was about measurement; an extremely important topic, but admittedly not really capable of directly generating traffic on its own. Today’s lesson is different. In fact, experience tells me that for many established traditional small and medium businesses it is the single most valuable avenue for immediate qualified web traffic growth. That’s not an exaggeration; I would put money on it more often than not. (My bet would change depending on the industry, because certain industries are already almost leveraging it to its full potential.)

Today’s magical topic is email lists. The starting points on this vary greatly; many businesses already maintain a somewhat active mailing list, some collect addresses but don’t do anything valuable with them, and some don’t collect any email addresses at all. I’m going to assume the latter and start from the ground floor; if your business is past that then just keep reading—we’ll get to your case shortly.

For businesses that don’t collect email addresses, they need to start. The only possible exception I can think of is businesses with an average sale value of under $20—low cost retailers or restaurants, perhaps. (Those businesses are probably better served with a different subscription channel—more on that next week.) Any other business—trades, professional services, high end retailers and restaurants, health care, anything—should be building a mailing list and sending content to it regularly. The reason mailing lists print money is very simple: anyone who was once interested enough in your company to sign up for a mailing list (or signed up when purchasing from you) is far more likely to be interested in your company again as long as you don’t let them forget about you. Those people are also the ones who will be spreading that word of mouth you’re so fond of—again, as long as they don’t forget about you. Mailing lists should not be thought of as a way to coerce sales—they are a channel for gently reminding people you exist, ideally in a way which makes them glad they allowed you to do that.

If your business doesn’t have an email list yet (or if you want to grow your list), there are three things you should be doing:

  1. Immediately start asking your new customers for their email addresses, and prominently display an email list signup form on your website.
  2. If you have contact information (ie. phone numbers) for previous customers, and any reason to call them, ask for their email address.
  3. Offer your customers and potential customers something of value in exchange for their email address. Of course, this very course is an example of that (I originally created it for Black Chair to use with the email signup form on our site). Besides information products (email courses, e-books, whitepapers, etc) you might want to consider offering discounts, gift cards, entry in a draw, etc. The idea is to encourage your target demographic to give you the means and permission to contact them directly.

Certain industries use tools which encourage the collection of email addresses, often through mandatory customer information forms. Established businesses in those industries will therefore already have access to a large list of email addresses, even if they aren’t currently using them productively. One of our clients had such a database, but their email service provider (ESP—in this case the same company as their internet service provider) didn’t allow more than a few thousand outbound messages per month, so they had simply stopped sending emails to their entire list once it got too big. Don’t ever do that! Email lists are fertile fields; they must be tended to regularly. In that client’s case we switched them over to a different ESP, and despite the high number of email addresses which were no longer in use after years(!) of inactivity, being able to revive the email list was a key factor in growing their web traffic by well over 30% in six months. (I don’t have specific sales numbers for that client, but I know for a fact that they saw a significant increase that year.)

Of course, if your company already runs an active email list you’re ahead of the game. Do you know what percentage of people open your emails? How many people click on the links in your emails? (Remember, measurement is crucial! If you don’t know the answer to those questions, your current email list might be a waste of time.) These numbers vary quite a bit across industries (and regions, in fact), but a good open rate is usually between 25-55% and a good click-through rate is typically in the 3-8% range. If your metrics are much better than that in the long term, we could probably stand to learn a lot from you. (In fact, optimising email list engagement is a job for very good copywriters—we’d be happy to get you in touch with a few if you’re interested.) For anyone with metrics which fall short of those numbers, here are a few things to try:

  • Optimise your subject lines: Books have been written (literally) about how to increase email open rates based on the subject line. It’s a very subjective (err… pardon the pun) art, and will be unique to your audience. Two tips which I have found useful without seeming pushy are using a question as a subject line (particularly “Can you do me a quick favour?” although that is obviously only relevant in certain situations) and beginning your subject lines with a verb, eg. “learn” or “save”. It might not be necessary to read books on the topic—either hire a skilled copywriter to do it for you (again, we’d be happy to point you in the right direction) or simply pay attention to which subject lines work. Ultimately, you should be running tests where you send two different subject lines with the same email and see which one converts better, but for now just paying attention to the effect of your subject lines will probably help a lot.
  • HTML emails vs. plain text: Almost all marketing emails nowadays are HTML-based, with coloured text and images. In certain industries, plain text emails (like the one you’re reading now) perform better—probably because they feel more personal. Try sending out a few plain styled emails without special fonts or images to see if your audience responds more to that style of communication.
  • Informational vs. promotional: Not all of your marketing emails need to be selling something—in fact, maybe none of them do. It all depends on your industry, your company, and your customers. You might want to send out a newsletter to your list, or have some short informative articles written related to your industry. Keep track of which emails get opened, and which emails people interact with by clicking the links in them or replying to. (Your emailing system must use an active return address—your company should never send emails that people can’t reply to with a single click.) The emails that get a lot of attention are the style that you should repeat—if that ends up meaning that your audience appreciates promotional emails more than anything else, that’s fine too! Remember, though: the point of an email list is not to sell things, it’s to keep your company at the top of mind for when your audience is ready to buy.


Software developer, book writer, beer brewer :)

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