It's REALLY time to build your email list
A guide to getting started, and some thoughts on where we should focus for 2023
It’s an unsettled time online.
With Instagram’s flailing mid-life crisis and now Twitter suddenly circling the drain, there’s one question on everybody’s digital lips:
Where can we go and be together and just see each other’s posts in the way that we want?
It really shouldn’t be such a head-scratcher, given all of the platforms and apps that exist ostensibly to offer us exactly that.
There’s talk about BlueSky, Jack Dorsey’s upcoming new platform; people are trying on Mastadon and BeReal for size. The Tumblr crowd are in a panic in case we all decide to show up there again (unlikely, I think). And for what it’s worth, my money is firmly here on Substack - especially with the launch of their new Chat feature earlier this week. (Kind of like a private WhatsApp group just for your subscriber community. Download the app and come and chat with me!)
What the last 12 months of own-goals and blunders from social media’s biggest players has really shown us is that no digital basket is safe enough to hold all of our eggs.
And that’s where the email list comes in.
We need ownership of our communities. We need flexible ways to connect.
If your internet community is important to you. If you thrive on creating and sharing and hearing a response. If you have an online business and depend on being seen and heard in order to make sales, then you need to build your email list.
- Scroll down for my Email List FAQ -
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Social platforms decay. It’s happened countless times before - RIP to my beloved BB forum, to Chictopia, to Google Reader and LiveJournal and Tumblr. Platforms where I, and so many others, spent time and energy building social capital - relationships, followers, numbers, words.
It’s always a painful time. More than anything, these platforms are a place where we turn for connection and losing them is like watching the last pub in the village board up its doors.
But humans are tenacious. We squirm and we struggle and innovate.
For all the lofty tweets suggesting we “all just spend less time online” if the blue bird snuffs it, our desire for that online connection is not going away.
Social media platforms are just packaging for our thoughts and ideas. My days working in Speech Therapy taught me this better than anything; just because the default means of communication isn’t available doesn’t mean you have to be quiet. I took great delight in hearing that disabled teens I’d helped get electric communication aids were using them to shout out in class because it meant they were truly using their voice. (One teacher’s solution to this was to lock a communication aid away in a drawer. I heatedly told him this was akin to gagging a verbal student, and a couple of years later, he married me.) Just like my flailing GCSE french, trying to explain to an angry old lady that I don’t want to buy towels from the boot of her car, or the non-verbal teenage boy signing to me that his sparkling water was too “spicy”, we always find a way. Because communication is never really about the method or the packaging - it’s just a means of transmitting an idea or expression out of one brain to another.
Everything you have to share and say is transferable. Your skills, your voice, your talent for concise and impactful tweets or scroll-stopping Instagram visuals - all of it is transferable. And most importantly of all, your audience is transferable. You just have to give them the chance.
I’ve been harping on about this since the very start of my podcast but it’s as true now as ever. And while inbox algorithms by the likes of gmail and hotmail mean it’s not quite the direct line of communication it once used to be, holding somebody’s email address is still pretty much the gold standard for connection in the digital age.
(There are phone numbers, too, but in the UK and EU it’s still unaffordable and unwieldy for most of us to send mass marketing messages.)
It doesn’t matter what comes next online if you have your audience’s email address. You can just invite them along to whatever platform you next end up on, and if that ends up in a fizzle or fail, you can move on again. An email list means never having to start from scratch again. It’s a future-proof asset that is entirely yours to own.
It’s also consistently profitable. Even now, years after the above podcast episode, I still find that nothing converts to sales as well as emails do. I suspect many people look at my business and assume its success is down to my Instagram following or podcast stats but I’ve been building my email list as long as I’ve been growing my other platforms, and I consider the latter to be my most profitable asset.
Whether you’ve already got a smattering of subscribers somewhere or a healthy list; whether you’re technophobic or just have never got around to it.
Let’s make 2023 the year of the email list revival.
And if you need it, I’m happy to hold your hand.
HOW TO BUILD YOUR EMAIL LIST
Where do I even start?
You really just begin.
You can do that here on Substack, or use a mailing list provider like Flodesk (the simplest and prettiest, IMO, and what I use for all of my non-Substack emails). Most platforms are free until you hit several thousand subscribers or start sending large volumes of emails; Substack is free until you decide to offer paid options.
The easiest way to kick things off is to create a sign-up page that is hosted by your provider, meaning you don’t even need a website of your own. Just fill in the page template, grab the link and go out and share!
What should I email them about?
You don’t have to know that right now. I mean, obviously it helps if you can state what people are getting up front, but if you’re still figuring that out at the moment, it’s no excuse to delay. Maybe you’ll send them nothing; maybe you’ll become a passionate writer on a niche interest topic and delight them with newsletters two or three times a week. You’ve got time to figure that out.
People won’t mind. If your future emails aren’t right for them, they’ll unsubscribe, and if you send them nothing for three years then suddenly reappear, the most anyone will think is “oh, that’s nice. I wondered where she’d gone.” Plus, there’s something to be said for tailoring your offering to the audience you grow.
How do I get people to sign up?
Mostly, you just ask them to, repeatedly, and in multiple ways.
Ask across your social media and anywhere else you are seen - be it online or IRL. Lay out a paper sign-up sheet on your market stall with a pen and clipboard. Add a pop up box to your website, if you have one to use.
Then, write emails that make it worth their while.
Some sort of freebie or ‘lead magnet’ can sweeten the deal for people like me who need an incentive to fill in yet another online form. Think added value rather than discounts: a printable calendar with your photographs; a cheat-sheet for a topic you’re super-knowledgable on. A playlist, or a recipe card, or a wallpaper for their Macbook and phone. Anything can be a lead magnet, really, but it’s best to make it digital and relevant to your area of focus. If you’ve grown an audience on Instagram or Twitter etc then you should already have a rough idea of the kinds of topics your audience likes to hear from you about, so think about the questions you are most frequently asked.
You can make beautiful PDFs, printables, workbooks and planners in Canva and use simple automations on Flodesk etc to send them directly to everybody who signs up to your list. Then, you just go out and promote it a lot.
Can I add people I know? Past customers etc?
No - you need people’s consent before you can add them and have to handle their data responsibly. If you plan to sell things in your emails then make sure you are getting explicit consent for that too and are familiar with your legal obligations under GDPR.
That said, there’s no reason you cannot contact people directly and simply ask if they’d like to subscribe. Make your lead magnet good enough and it should be impossible to refuse!
I’ve already got a list that I’ve neglected for a long time. How do I start it again?
Begin as above, by simply promoting it again. Make a new lead magnet, host a giveaway, spread it across your social media channels.
Then write a new email to your existing subscribers - no need to apologise or explain, unless you particularly want. It’s ok to just dive back in and share something of interest or note.
Beware of your brain wanting all of the right answers up front before you decide to take action - it’s a perfectionist trap. The only way to know what your audience wants to hear from you right now is to throw a ton of different things at the wall, and pay attention to what sticks.
Isn’t this just another platform to grow?
An email list is entirely yours. You can import it to multiple places, switch providers, go underground for six years, completely change your brand and name and identity and still get in touch with your audience whenever you like. Post not getting seen on Instagram? Email it to your audience. Need to make a quick £10k to fund a French house purchase (ahem)? Make offers to the people on your list. If you’re frustrated by the way the big platforms constrain your creative expression or have any desire to share longer-form content then there’s really nothing outside of an email list (or a Substack) that can offer you more.
So are emails a way to connect with people algorithm-free?
Eh, not exactly. There are algorithms that determine whether your email lands in ‘promos’ or ‘spam’ or somebody’s actual visible inbox. There’s an art to writing subjects and preview lines that get your email opened, just as there’s an art to writing tweets that people like, or instagram posts that people engage with.
But the good news is that those things fall back under the heading of transferable skills. I lost my LiveJournal and Chictopia and my first, forgotten blog, but the skills I developed on those platforms set me up for apparent ‘overnight’ Instagram success. The real skills for the Internet are not in gaming the algorithms or following the right dancing trends.
It’s about making things people want to read or look at or talk about.
It’s about community and value and listening and responsiveness.
It’s about deeply, inimitably human skills - and it’s that insuppressible humanness that means that, Twitter or no, and whatever Instagram becomes, we’ll always find ways to be together online.
I will read fully and dig into this later, but just to say that I only started my newsletter recently, then moved it to Substack when I heard your podcast about it, and I absolutely love it ❤️ the connection and response has been amazing.
What a great read Sara, thank you! I've been lurching around Substack for a few months now and feel very drawn to creating something here, it seems like just what I've been looking for in a social platform, less shouty. My perfectionist tendencies are screaming about not being a writer, but I dove in and discovered there are some photographers doing great stuff on here too. I don't know where to begin, but I guess I just have to - like you suggested in your email.