Email marketing and list building myths

Email lists are the hottest hot in marketing these days. At least they are amongst online entrepreneurs, bloggers, coaches and such. It seems like a must to build an email list, in order to find leads, sell goods and build traffic. It's no wonder. With social media services having turned into megaphones for the loudest, and the constant mess of everyone fighting about something with each other, there's something soothing about sending your message straight into someone's inbox.

I have an email list too. It's a small one, and my open rates are high. The latest email I sent was opened within two days by half of the list members. No, the list doesn't consist of my best friends and family members. Some friends have subscribed, family hasn't. So an open rate of 50% is a seriously cool thing. However, I rather don't like to stare at the numbers, because they can be misleading.

Emails have an intimate nature, being more direct and personal than many other means of contact these days. Which is why they also stir up some strong emotions. Here are some persistent myths and things to know, whether you are building an email list or joining one.

"It's all spam, really."

Spam refers to unsolicited electronic messaging, used in marketing or scamming. It's been named after a brand of cooked meat, due to a Monty Python sketch. In this sketch a couple of customers end up in a greasy little café and try to order something from their breakfast menu, in which almost all the dishes contain Spam.

There are multiple laws against spamming, and it's also against the terms and policies of Internet service providers as well as email marketing services. A huge amount, if not most, of emails sent and received are spam. The amount was growing fast, but the growth has appeared to have stunted in recent years.

These days it's common to call all the email marketing as spam, without caring if it was unsolicited or not. Sometimes the line between unsolicited and solicited is blurred, because people give their email addresses to brands and companies without checking if it will be used for marketing purposes. This happens especially when there's a free gift of some sort being offered as an incentive to join the list. The person subscribing only wants the gift, but doesn't like having to "pay" for it in the form of receiving the emails.

Due to all the spam, many people who would like to do email marketing get a bit shaky about it. They don't want to be called spammers, and aren't interested in getting into trouble if being accused of spamming. It's also preventing you from receiving some great emails, since you believe all the list owners are spammers.

Not all email marketing is spam. Calling it that is not helping the real spam problem.

"You 100% own your email list."

One of the biggest selling points for email lists is that you 100% own your list. On Facebook or Twitter or any other such platform, you have eventually very little control over your marketing. The platforms have their own terms and policies, which makes them often quite complicated. You aren't allowed to do this, and that, and the terms change all the time. Your update, profile, or page could be closed at any time, and it would effectively mean you'd lose the contact with your fans and followers.

With email lists you have some control over things. You have a direct access to people's email addresses, which means that losing your account in an email marketing service, you might not lose the contact. This is only true if you remember to keep a backup of your list.

Email marketing services have their own terms and policies, and there are many laws regarding spam. Thus email marketing services can be pretty strict about spam. For example, if many people unsubscribe from your list, your email marketing service may suspend your account to investigate your possible spam activities.

As a matter of a fact, unsubscribe rate of 1% is considered high. Obviously, if you have a small list, only one or two people unsubscribing is already 1%. I assume that email marketing services understand this, and don't punish small lists for it.

In case your account gets suspended for any reasons, you will again have no access to your list, and will lose the contact. It can be a problem, if the investigation to your activities takes a long time. Plus it's a hassle, I assume. Only if you have backed your list up, you 100% own your list.

"Always use opt-in freebies."

Opt-in freebies are different types of gifts you can offer as an incentive for subscribing to your list. Often these gifts are called as lead magnets. The idea is to offer something valuable or otherwise alluring for potential subscribers, in order for them to feel more compelled to give their email address to you.

You can offer different kinds of subscriber incentives, depending on what kind of list you have and who you want to join in. Popular lead magnets include checklists and planners, workbooks and other e-books, video series, mini-courses as drip campaigns or otherwise, design templates and resource libraries, and other such content. It may be a good idea to create multiple incentives, or create new ones after a while.

Unfortunately opt-in freebies also allure those who just want freebies, but don't want to pay for them in the form of giving their email address to you. After receiving a gift they often become either completely unengaged with your emails, or they unsubscribe as soon as possible.

There are many lists that are built without any additional incentives. Sometimes people just want to get your emails, with or without gifts. Using a lead magnet does help with building a list, but it comes with some issues as well. You must decide, and probably test it yourself, if using a lead magnet is the way to go for you.

"Send emails on Thursdays."

There's really no perfect time or weekday for sending your emails. Nor there's perfect schedule. Of course, sending the emails too infrequently is a sure way to get people to unsubscribe. They forget they have ever subscribed to your list in the first place. Or their interest have changed during that time. Additionally sending too many emails is considered annoying. There are other emails landing in our inboxes than yours. When you start to email every day or multiple times a day, be sure to lose a bunch of subscribers.

The different services often allow scheduling emails. Just make sure all the links and other things like that will work when the email is sent. Broken links are highly usual in scheduled emails. In case you happen to use scheduling, be sure to at least check the email as soon as possible after it's been sent. This way you can at least send a new, fixed version (and an apology) in case there's something amiss with the first try.

The best time, date and schedule for your email can be only found by testing. Testing when your subscribers are most interested in reading emails. Testing how frequent emails work best for them. And testing how often you can email. You might be surprised!

"Unsubscribers are a good thing."

Yes, there are always people who unsubscribe for various reasons. I'm sure the list owners hate me at this point. I may subscribe, and after a little while, when my inbox feels too noisy and busy, I unsubscribe. It's nothing personal.

A person who unsubscribes from your list is sort of doing you a favour. Since email marketing services tend to charge you based on the amount of subscribers you have and/or emails you send each month, having uninterested people on your list is bad. They'll only cost you more, but hardly ever return your investment in any way. People who unsubscribe keep your list clean.

However, having lots of people unsubscribing from your list is also bad. As I stated earlier, a high unsubscribe rate is seen suspicious. Spammy emails, and lists that were built by buying email addresses or otherwise adding people to your list without their explicit permission are often a reason for mass unsubscribes. If your list has a high unsubscribe rate, it may cause you trouble with your email marketing service.

The best situation, of course, would be if only those who really are interested in your list would subscribe. This is why I highly recommend using double opt-in. It is where people who, after filling their email address and whatever else data you ask in a form, receive an confirmation email. The email contains a link or button which they must click in order to be confirmed as joining your email list. The extra step may seem like torturing your potential list members, but it really protects their emails from getting subscribed to just any lists out there, and protects your list too.

Obviously, the double opt-in doesn't protect you from those who join your lists for freebies (in case you have a subscription incentive gift) or who just get bored with receiving your emails.

"Open and unsubscribe rates are really important."

As with any metrics and analytics, it is easy to get obsessed with open rates, amount of subscribers and unsubscibers, clicks, and all those other highly addictive numbers and percentages.

I urge you to always treat the metrics and analytics first as "good to know". It's good to know that this particular email, with this particular title, content and design was opened by that and that many subscribers. It's good to know that and that many unsubscribed. It's good to know this form on this page has attracted this and this many subscribers. It's good to know that link was clicked that many times, but this other link wasn't clicked at all.

These numbers aren't always completely accurate. A subscriber may have, in a way or another, prevented being tracked. Generally speaking, email marketing services track email opens by images been shown and links being clicked. In case the recipient hasn't approved images to be shown in your emails or doesn't click a link, they won't appear in your open rates. They may still have opened and read the email, just not being tracked.

Also, as with any analytics, there are many variables which can affect these rates. Many variables, on which you have no control whatsoever. Your email may reach a person at a wrong time in their life. They may have subscribed to so many email lists, that they are just unsubscribing from any to clean their inboxes. Or they may have lost control to their email inbox, due to hacking or just by having quit their job at that old place (in case they were using that work email). The numbers, as good as they are to know, are often only half the truth what's going on. One unsubscriber doesn't mean your email list is doomed. Not even if it's a small list to start with.

"You have to use an email marketing service."

No, you don't need an email marketing service to send emails to your list. Email services and apps often allow creating different types of lists and groups, to which you can email without using any other service. For bigger lists this may cause problems, because your email service or app or Internet connection may not be equipped to handle sending a huge amount of emails in bulk. Also this sort of emailing can be appear spammy.

But I highly recommending using one. Email marketing services provide you with many ways to build your list, add incentives, track the emails and their open rates, and to do all sorts of maintenance to your list. Also, any good email marketing service will provide an easy, and automated way for people to subscribe to and unsubscribe from your list. No need for manual updating or keeping your lists up to date.

In case you don't know how to build HTML emails, but want to send those to your list, email marketing services usually provide different templates and other means to create attractive emails to be sent to your list.

"You must use this popular email marketing service."

You ask anyone with an email list, and they will be happy to tell you which is the best of the best email marketing services. However, you may notice that each person will give you a bit different story.

I, for one, think that MailChimp has the worst customer service. That's my experience. There are those who think it's the best of the email marketing services out there. But no, it's not for me. Others will tell you that you should use AWeber, ConvertKit, Active Campaign, Mad Mimi, Campaign Monitor, or any of the other options out there.

Whatever my choice is, it may not be the best of the best for you. There are multiple other options, which work in different ways. Choose a service based on your technical needs, the amount of subscribers you have, and so forth. You can also hire someone to assist you with choosing a service and setting everything up. I'd be happy to help.

"You must have an email list. (You shouldn't have an email list.)"

Trust me, some people will happily tell you that without an email list, you will never see any traffic to your blog or sales to your products and services. This isn't true. As a matter of a fact, some people prefer not to ever get any sort of email list emails. Not the kind that "sells" stuff, not the kind that only tells stories or shares notes, nor the kind that tells about when a blog they love has been updated. People have different preferences.

In case you happen to be targeting the sort of people who just hate getting emails of any sort, then building an email list isn't for you. Nor it is for you, if you really really (really) hate sending emails to your list, or building the list in the first place.

Some people will tell you never ever have an email list. They either hate themselves being on email lists, or they hate sending the emails. Or perhaps they have had bad experiences with email list building and maintenance. I get it. As with any marketing or other stuff in the world, it's not for everyone.

However, if it doesn't seem like the most awful thing to do, I recommend at least trying building an email list. You may notice it works, or you may notice it doesn't work at all. You won't find this out, unless you try it yourself.

"You should email only this certain kind of content."

Some emails are purely for creating sales. Others are for spreading information, sending gifts, or pure fun. Often the email lists you join all over the web are for both. They contain promotional content, fun stuff, information, and anything in between. The best emails, in my very valid opinion, are the ones that get personal.

Emails are, in their essence, quite personal to the point of intimate. They are a direct route to contact a person, which is why general sales emails feel cold and passionless. When you can bring your personality in your email marketing, it will strike deeper with your list members. I don't just mean personalising emails, but making them feel more personal.

Of course, this doesn't mean one particular style works for everyone. There are email subscribers who just hate hearing any personal stuff. There are those who love all that. It really depends who you are trying to reach, and what you want to send to them. Sometimes personal is the way to go. Other times you need to be strictly business with your emails.

You can choose which kind of emails you send. No, don't listen to that guru who told you to be always very informative. Nor listen to me, who says the personal emails are the thing. Don't even trust those who say you need to send very little marketing content and very much other stuff. That may be true in some cases. And that may be untrue other times. Choose yourself, test it out, be wild and ask your subscribers.

How I do it

I have moved my list from MailChimp to Mad Mimi and, most recently, to MailerLite. My list is small, I haven't been the most active in promoting it. I always use double opt-in, to keep my list clean from spam email addresses, and to keep other people's emails safe. You must have access to the email address you use to subscribe to my list, otherwise you won't be able to confirm the address and will never receive any of my emails.

I currently offer an incentive, a free SEO checklist. This may change soon, I have a new subscriber gift in works. I have had multiple other gifts and incentives, some working better than others. They have included email mini-courses, e-books and workbooks, and other stuff. I notice when people subscribe to my list for the gift and then unsubscribe as soon as they receive other emails. It is unfortunate.

I have tried several different times and dates of sending the emails. Funny enough, for my list weekends appear to be the best time for emails. At least, that's when I get the best open and click rates. Perhaps weekends give my subscribers more time to read my strange ramblings.

As I mentioned there, personal style works for me the best. I do that with my list too. My emails are exclusive thoughts, notes and tips about subjects that interest me. I don't publish the content elsewhere, and you must subscribe to find out what kind of stuff I email.

Mervi Eskelinen

Hello, I'm Mervi!

An artist, nerd and business sorcerer, dedicated to make world more beautiful and strange with art, illustrations and logos + to help you figure your sustainable business out.

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