Why My Email List Is like a Cactus

I have a confession: I built an email list, but I didn’t do it on purpose. Like many of my marketing endeavours it happened almost by accident. Growing my email list was a bit like raising a cactus – I stuck it in a virtual pot, left it to fend for itself and it turned into something beautiful. Here’s how it happened.

Why My Email List Is like a Cactus

Birth of an Email List

The strange thing is that I’ve had an email list for years. Well, if you count the earliest subscribers to this blog as a list. Way back when this blog was in a different place and didn’t even have a name, I learned about RSS and Feedburner and set things up so people could sign up for blog updates. I did nothing with the email addresses I collected, having no idea that I COULD do anything.

What I’ve learned since: If you’re going to market to people, have a purpose in mind, otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s time.

Step 2: The Newsletter

In a parallel but in my mind completely unrelated move, I decided to start a newsletter to bring additional value to my audience.

I used the newsletter to:

  • highlight articles I had written on other blogs
  • link to blog content readers might have missed
  • promote other writers
  • give some insight into my life as a writer
  • mention resources I’d found useful, with a couple of affiliate links which I didn’t promote particularly heavily (heck, if I’m honest, I just put them there and hoped a couple of people might click).

Between you and me, I still didn’t really know what I was doing. At first, only my blog subscribers got the newsletter, but I soon realized it needed to go wider. That’s when I started experimenting with online email marketing applications. I started with Constant Contact, but didn’t like the interface and clunkiness (maybe it was just me, but I found creating a newsletter hard work, despite – or maybe because of – my background in creating magazine layouts.) Then I went to EzEzine, which had a free version, but where you had to add all the bells and whistles yourself even with a paid version.

The Right Tools for the Job

People liked the newsletter, which I published monthly for the first five years. But I STILL wasn’t doing anything with the email addresses I’d collected. But my list kept growing and then it was time to move to a more robust platform that actually told me something about the people who had signed up for my updates. A couple of years ago, I moved to Aweber, and it was a revelation. All the data on opens and clicks was golden because I could see what people liked and what they didn’t. OK, so I had to pay for the tool, but it was definitely worth it.

What I learned from that process was that using the right tools makes a world of difference. If you’re going to market to people (whatever your definition of or comfort level with that term) get a tool that gives you measurable data.

A Growing List

Despite my benign neglect of the list, people kept signing up, replying to me and even occasionally buying a product. Once I started using Aweber and digging into the stats (yes, I’m a stats junkie), I started taking it more seriously. In particular I wanted to know what people found useful and what turned them off. I also wanted to know how to keep the list alive (as an aside, I don’t think of my newsletter subscribers as a list; I think of them as people I’m connected with who deserve to get good value even from a free newsletter). One of the most useful posts I’ve ever read comes from Ana Hoffman on cutting the dead weight from your list. I’ve taken most of her advice.

What I learned from Ana is that if people are not opening your emails or clicking on a couple of links, then they aren’t really part of your list at all.

There’s something quite liberating about pruning my list, which now stands around 700 members, who may or may not overlap with a couple of thousand Twitter, Facebook and Google+ connections. I publish the link to my newsletter on those sites too so that everyone I’m connected with has the chance to see it.

Email List Changes

About a year ago I stopped sending my newsletter monthly – instead I send it about every 6-8 weeks. It was a reflection of my own dissatisfaction with those types of emails. When I do send it, I try to pack it full of value. Strangely, this has made no major difference to the amount of feedback I get from newsletter subscribers, though if anything I get a bit more interaction than before. So here’s what I’ve learned from the process as a whole:

  • If you provide value and are genuine with people, they will respond.
  • If you email regularly, your list will grow, but fast growth isn’t always a good thing unless your subscribers are really engaged.
  • If you experiment, you will find out things about your list. For example, on my last newsletter, I used the title of the first article as a subject line. That resulted in a 73% open rate, which is pretty good.

I’m still learning about what to do with email lists. So far, my subscribers seem pretty happy with the value they get – and that’s the most important aspect of it for me. It’s a work in progress, though, because there’s always something to learn – got any tips or resources to share?

This post is part of the June 2012 Word Carnival β€” a monthly group blogging event specifically for small business owners started by Tea Silvestre, the Word Chef. Check out the rest of this month’s excellent lineup here. (Image: Auntie P/Flickr)

About Sharon Hurley Hall

Sharon Hurley Hall has been mentoring writers here at Get Paid To Write Online since 2005 to help them improve and build sustainable and successful writing careers. Check me out on sharonhh.com. Feel free to connect with me online on Google+.


  1. Good information Sharon. I feel like I’m piggy backing on your learning curve. I have no idea what to do with a list. But I’m going to be patient with myself and see what happens.

    • Piggyback away, Wade. πŸ™‚ I’m still exploring this whole list thing, but by the time I’ve read all the Word Carnival posts, I’m sure I’ll have a few more ideas.

  2. I admit, I have done nothing to create an email list. *Gasp* I know, I know. I need to do it. I have subscribers to my blog, but have had Aweber on my to-do list for a while.

    But, it’s finding the right thing of value to offer. Like you, Sharon, I so hate newsletters clogging my Inbox that appear to be sent just because it’s the thing to do. Thanks for sharing your experience. Maybe it will be the kick in the rear I need. πŸ™‚

    • Having something to offer is important, Cathy, though I think your brand of simple business advice has a lot of value for others.

      • Thanks, Sharon. Coming from you, I take that as a great compliment. πŸ™‚

        I have ideas for products, which would be my something to offer if I could just get off my derriere and finish them. Come to thnk of it, I guess I’d better stay on said derriere and finish them. πŸ˜€

  3. I’m in the early stages of a new blog and studying up on how to do things ‘right’. The list collection and use is one of those things I’m looking at, so I appreciate your story about that. Somehow it intimidates me a little, as if I would be too bold to assume that people would want that kind of communication from me. Need to get over that self-conscious hurdle NOW.

    • You know, Walker, I felt the same way, but once people started responding, I realized that the information I provided had value for at least a few people. I’m sure that will happen for you, too, especially if you actively encourage feedback.

  4. I love how you give us the history of your list, Sharon and how seeing some of the statistics got YOU more engaged with it. Email marketing (and most of what we do online marketing-wise) is pretty revolutionary compared to just 15 years ago. That old adage of “I know half my advertising budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half,” can be a thing of the past IF we take the time to understand what’s happening. Opens, click-thrus, etc. have much to teach us!

  5. I’ve been self-employed for 12 years, online consistently the last two of those and until recently I pretty much ignored my list, mostly because I hate thinking of it as a list. But also like you, it grew in spite of me!

    Makes me wonder what would happen if I focused on it? πŸ˜‰

    • I often wonder that, Sandi. I get all these emails from the people whose lists I subscribe to, but I just don’t know that I want to send out multiple updates a week.

  6. EXCELLENT post, Sharon. I had to chuckle at the “between you and me, I still had no idea what I was doing” thing because, oh honey, WORD. It’s one of those things that really does require “on the job training,” so to speak, which is why I encourage folks to dive in and just see what it’s about – but not blindly, of course. You still need a plan. And I can also echo the AWeber love – having seen some of the other solutions, including a different freebie service than the one you mention, but one that also required a metric crap-ton of work to make it look decent, I am more firmly in love with AWeber than ever.

    • OTJ training is the best, Annie, and it’s ongoing. I next need to dive into split testing and tweak the headlines for my post updates and see what happens. I love experimenting, don’t you? I love Aweber, but for those who want another option, MailChimp is beautiful too.

  7. I love your analogy, Sharon, and the idea of planting a list and letting it grow! You’re pretty lucky to have those emails considering how many people would kill and die to get people to subscribe to their list. You are absolutely right in saying that you need a plan so you can send people valuable info. There is such an overwhelming mess of junk email – and I’m not even talking about spam. Even real newsletters start to blend into the junk because they get boring or bland or just too noisy. Like you, I obsess about stats and wrack my brain trying to figure out what people want and why. I think it would be less painful to sit on a cactus πŸ˜‰

    • LOL, Carol Lynn πŸ˜€ One thing I learned when I worked in magazines is that most people only talk to you when something is wrong, so I am grateful whenever I get a personal response and don’t take it personally if I don’t. The question is, how do I put together a newsletter that makes hundreds of people want to respond – and am I prepared to deal with the email volume if I do?

  8. “If you provide value and are genuine with people, they will respond.” Yes! It really is that simple, not always easy, but simple.

  9. Sharon you crack me up. You are the only person I know who would admit you didn’t plan to grow your list. I think the fact it wasn’t a purely Machevelian (sp?) exercise is why it worked so well. Thanks for sharing all the lessons learned.

    • I have no problem admitting my mistakes, Nicole, I just try not to make too many of them and learn from them quickly when I do. πŸ˜‰ Machiavellian plots (I had to look up the spelling, I admit) aren’t my style – I’m too busy to contemplate world domination..

  10. Awesome article, Sharon! I love the story structure of it , and the differently colored takeaways every so often…all so clear and easy to absorb! Great tips, and a tribute to the hardiness of lists…they’ll tolerate both neglect and experimentation, thank goodness!

    • Phew! That’s lucky, isn’t it, Evan? I’m very lucky in having a few people on my list who love helping me test new things and will provide feedback – it’s a mini brain trust which is very useful.

  11. Love this post! It’s informative, insightful and it feels to me like we are sitting in person, sharing a cup of coffee as you tell me about your experience. I don’t have much of an email list built up at this point, and I’ve been hesitating a bit for a list of reasons. I think all of your suggestions sound easy and simple, which makes the whole process seem a lot less overwhelming. You might have even semi-restored my faith in the value of newsletters. Ha! Thanks for sharing your experience so artfully.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post, Katina. I can say one thing about benign neglect: it doesn’t tend to get overwhelming. Good luck with your list building. πŸ™‚

  12. Love the story Sharon…I can relate…but I did not have the success you had. I have seen the success others have when they put effort in their newsletters. I get so many that it really turned me off for a long time. Since we were writing on this topic I figured it was time to start again and have a plan of action this time. Your post was very inspirational!

    • I think part of the reason that it has worked, Michelle, is that I’m a writer writing for other writers. I think doing a newsletter for my clients would need me to put another hat on and might be more challenging.

  13. Sharon, absolutely spot-on when it comes to the tools question. When you’re facing the types of time constraints that small business owners have to face, organizing and maintaining stats becomes a heck of a lot easier if you have a good system. Whether that’s Aweber or Constant Contact or MailChimp, having those at your disposal and making good sense of what’s working is key.

    I think it’s fascinating that you can grow a better list by killing off the dead weight (but also not totally surprising, I suppose!)

    Thanks for the link to Ana, I’ll have a new blog to read now! πŸ˜›

  14. First, the title is absolutely irresistible! Thanks for giving me and others permission to experiment with our lists. I think that we get into routines that as Carol Lynn pointed out turn our lists brain dead. Then if we start seeing a little bit of success, we are afraid to touch it. I will certainly be experimenting more with my list! Thanks Sharon!

  15. Hey Sharon,

    Thanks for sharing. I still struggle with the whole email list thing. It’s not the building the list, but the keeping in touch with the list that I always have a problem with.

    Just about every list I’ve been on is offer after offer after offer. Not an email goes by that doesn’t want you to click a link to go buy something. I guess that’s what works because everyone seems to be doing it. Or people are getting enough new subscribers that they don’t really care if old subscribers get annoyed or drop off as long as they are making some money for the list owner along the way.

    I can’t remember the last time I got an email from someone that was just helpful advice or tips that didn’t want me to go to a website and join or buy something. I get on a lot of lists through people at warriorforum and every single email I receive just wants me to go buy the next new thing released for the day. Ugh.

    • That’s exactly my problem with most of the lists I’m on, Derek, and I personally don’t want to send those emails. There must be a way to find a balance, though.

  16. Love this post! It’s so cool that your list grew without giving it much attention (the cactus metaphor made me giggle πŸ˜‰ ). I really think the key to a happy, healthy list is being willing to experiment – I thought it was interesting that you’ve had better results with less emails, because when I switched from emailing once every 6-8 weeks to emailing biweekly and then weekly, it made a huge positive impact for me. And of course, focusing on value is ALWAYS the way to go. Thanks for a great post πŸ™‚

  17. I definitely know what you mean, Sharon.

    We all have been told that we need email lists, but it’s hard to see why or what to do with them when you are first starting.

    So many bloggers who do follow that advice find themselves with a healthy sized list before they ever learn what to do with it.

    And thanks for the mention!

    • It’s definitely important to have a sense of purpose, Ana. I absolutely loved the no-nonsense advice in your post and was happy to quote it. πŸ™‚