Whenever I talk to writers who have not paid attention to building an email list, invariably I hear things like the following:
“I don’t want to spend time building an email list because it means I have to be a salesperson.”
“I know I should have one, but I don’t know what to say.”
“I’m already invested in social media, so I don’t need an email list.”
“I’m selling fine on Amazon. They can do a better job of getting to my readers than I can.”
“Come on, it’s the 21st century, no one uses email anymore!”
If there is no reason to spend time building an email list, why does every marketer worth their salt absolutely demand their customers have strong, vital email lists? It’s because they know it is the best way to build customers who come back again and again to buy products.
Control Your Reach
Today, you’re able to reach an average of 1–2% of your Facebook Fans. I have approximately 1,700 fans on my author page. These are people who purposefully chose to follow me. I post every day. Whenever I post anything, my average reach, without advertising, is only 35 people. That’s 2% of my fan base.
Twitter feeds are like being in the middle of the biggest city in the world and trying to catch a passing stranger’s attention. No matter how great your Twitter presence, a very small percentage of your Twitter following sees any one specific Tweet. I have a twitter following of over 14,000. Again, I tweet every day. My top tweet in the past three months had 769 impressions (5% of my followers). Most months I average closer to 500 impressions for my top tweet (3%).
No matter the platform you are on, your reach is limited. Email is not perfect either, according to most studies of large corporate emails, 22% of emails sent get lost in the junk or spam folders or are blocked by ISPs. But that still leaves you with an average of 78% messages delivered! No social media platform can promise that. I currently have an 83% delivery rate on a list of just under 12,000 people. My open rate is 23%. Approximately 2,760 people actually open and look at my email. That is more than any other platform where people see what I’ve posted. Even better, my click-through rate is about 2.6%. That means that more than 300 people actually take an action that requires clicking on a link. Usually, for me, that action is to get a book.
I know that compared to larger authors with huge mailing lists, 300 people taking action is nothing. However, when you compare that to all the other platforms I’m on and posting daily, this is the highest number of my fans to acknowledge I exist. Most important they are doing more than just viewing content.
Yes, there are ways to get more people to take action on social media platforms. That requires spending advertising money. But when comparing content delivery platforms, email still outperforms all of them.
Once that email is delivered to the recipient’s inbox, it is up to the recipient to decide how long it will “sit there” before being read or trashed. In other words, the recipient needs to at least acknowledge its existence. This is not the case in any social media.
This is the reason I continue to get clicks even several days after sending the campaign. The lifespan of a social media post can range between a few seconds to perhaps an hour at the most. Even beyond the basic acknowledgment of my email, the recipient also has the opportunity to save it, forward it, file it, refer to it again and again. Though some of that can be done in social media with shares, the finding-it-again part is much more difficult.
Keep Control Over Your Biggest Marketing Asset — Your Reader Data
An email list is critical because you can’t build your marketing on rented land and be able to count on it always being there or the rules being the same. If you’ve ever lived in a rented apartment or house, you already know that you are at the mercy of the landlord. The landlord can decide she is returning from her two-year stay in Scotland six months earlier than planned, and she wants to move back into her house. The apartment management company can decide they will charge significantly more rent because the market will bear it. News of rents going up 20–30% is not unheard of where I live. Even worse the landlord can decide they are going to tear down your house to but up more homes in the same space or remodel so they can appeal to a clientele that can afford to pay significantly more.
All the platforms you count on — social media, book distributors, and yes even the email hosting companies — are most interested in making money and increasing their own growth. This means they can change the rules at any time. They can decide to charge more, sell to another company, or go out of business. Do you want to trust all of your reader data to someone else?
Don’t think it happens all that often? Just look around at changes that have occurred in the past three years. Facebook is a free service. Yay! However, over the past three years, they decided to limit the reach you have with your fans. It used to be everyone on your fan page who had the opportunity to see your status posts in their feed. Now it is about 2% unless you pay to boost the post with advertising dollars. Some of that was legitimately to provide a better experience to their customers by curating their feeds to things they had already shown a continued interest in seeing. However, let’s admit it also increased their advertising business. If you pay for more reach — including to your own fans — they are suddenly not at all worried about putting your post in front of their users.
When you have permission to send content to a fan by email, no one can force you to pay advertising dollars for that. You own that data. Only the recipient can stop you from sending them emails by unsubscribing. You can change email providers by moving your list elsewhere. I’ve changed four times in my career. You could even decide to send the emails out yourself and not using a provider at all. I wouldn’t recommend it but it’s possibly because you are the owner of that data.
It is important to build your audiences on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Medium, or whatever platform your readers use. However, you don’t own those names or any information about those users and how they interact with you on the platform. Yes, platforms often provide analytics but none of it is identifiable by individuals and you cannot contact them except through the platform. You don’t know if it was Maggie who liked your fantasy video and David who liked your romance video or if one of them liked both videos. You don’t know if it was your long-time fan, Kathy, who clicked on your call-to-action to purchase your latest boxset or if it was a new customer you know nothing about.
It is that kind of data that you can get from well-developed and segmented email lists that you control. Having that data does two important things: 1) It allows you to deliver content to a segmented list of users (e.g., information about your fantasy books to the people who have shown an interest in fantasy, and information about your romance books only to people who have identified they want to hear more about romance); and 2) It helps you to make decisions about your business — how fast it is growing, what types of people are most likely to follow you, and what are their expectations.
Knowing exactly who your fans are also gives you opportunities to get targeted feedback from them around what they like or don’t like, who else they follow, and how happy they are with your content. For example, I do surveys of my fans once a year just to see what they are reading and talking about the most. It provides me insights into where my books might fit or what’s important to them in books. No other medium can do that.
Protect Your Second Biggest Asset — Your Audience Data
As an author, your biggest asset is your actual intellectual property —your articles, books, short stories. Your second biggest asset is your readers. Why would you allow someone else to be the only one to have all the information on your readers? Why would you allow another company — I’m looking at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Apple and Kobo and Google Play — to be the only one who tells you what your reader wants and if your books are delivering that experience to them?
As much as I love my distributors, I don’t actually trust that they have MY best interests at heart in terms of getting content to my readers. Their first interest is to meet their own company goals and needs. If it happens that my goals and needs intersect in exactly the way they want, then we may find a nice collaboration. However, it is also possible — even likely — that our goals and interests will diverge as the months and years go by.
But Isn’t Email Dead? What About Texting?
A lot of authors tell me they don’t use email to communicate with their friends and family anymore. They are texting instead. They wonder if maybe the should be collecting phone numbers instead of email. One part of this is actually viable but it is very much like email. But it doesn’t have to do with phone numbers.
First, phone numbers are very hard to get from customers. With all the robocalls and spam calls these days, people are reluctant to provide a phone number except to someone they know pretty well. Outside of providing my phone for two-factor account authentication security, the phone number I give to any company that requires me to fill it out online is 503-555–1212. Needless to say, they will never reach me by phone.
Why would I want to give permission for strangers to interrupt my peaceful day with a phone call? I’m much more willing to give out my email address because I can schedule it at a time I want to pay attention to it. I can also ignore it, delete it, or unsubscribe if I don’t like the content I’m receiving.
When you first get to your desk in the morning what is one of the first things you do? I know I check my email. Invariably, all kinds of communication has been piling up while I was asleep — fans sending me questions or thanks for writing my books, my bank telling me they’ve just deposited my social security check, my mother letting me know what she’s planning to do today, and lots of email from a variety of companies trying to tell me about their products.
How about at the end of the day? Checking email one last time before I go to bed is a habit of mine. Why? Because there are a lot of one-on-one communications I’m expecting. These range from income opportunities, ongoing coordination on projects I’m doing with my teams, requests for me to join in fun events, and of course personal communications with friends and family. I don’t want to miss any of them. None of those come to me via social media.
Yes, there are some annoying emails. As I’m writing this article I am already sick, and ignoring, all the early Christmas sales, extensions of Black Friday and Cyber Monday that actually started before Halloween and will likely continue to be extended through the end of the year. But that doesn’t make me stop opening my email. I continue to open an email from people and companies I look forward to hearing from. In fact, I count on those emails to uplift me, challenge me intellectually, and teach me something new. I don’t necessarily have that expectation of social media status updates — though it is nice when they do that too.
The “texting” exception to this is a messenger or what’s app platforms. I have dabbled in setting up an automated messenger bot for my books, and I’ve run a couple of campaigns with it.It operates similar to email and the open and click rates are much higher than email (closer to 60% for me). However, it also takes a lot more technical know-how and time to set up the sequences and run the campaigns. I’m still testing it out. However, I still don’t own the information unless the person agrees to give me their email.
Email is Intimate Whereas Social Media is Primarily Public
Email is still the preferred method of effective communication now and, I believe, well into the future. Email is more intimate than any social media platform because it is one-to-one communication. Your email is more than a “status update.” The inbox is the place where you receive important communication from people you actually know and care about.
When you send an email to a reader, no one else sees that email unless the recipient purposefully shares it. Because of that intimacy, email is the most scalable way to make sales with new customers and to build deeper relationships with steadfast customers. When I send out a newsletter, I will often have at least one call-to-action that requires the recipient to send me an email. I did that recently with an audiobook giveaway.
It’s one thing to have a person give you their email address and agree to get your newsletters. It’s quite different for them to actually take the time to send you an email and request something. It builds an entirely different relationship. My most fervent fans email me regularly about my stories. In the case of the audiobook, it allows me to send them a unique download link and I now have information that those fans listen to audiobooks. That is not something I’ve been able to easily get with a quick survey or asking on social media.
In another post, I’ll tackle choosing an email hosting service. There are lots of them with prices from free to hundreds of dollars per month. Deciding on what fits you best is something that usually changes over a career as you build your list.