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No Unicorns: The Right Way to Grow Your Personal Mailing List

No Unicorns: The Right Way to Grow Your Personal Mailing List
Published July 1, 2014 by Paul Jarvis
The email said: “No one is signing up for my mailing list. I’ve got 46 people on it, and every time I send out an email, one of them unsubscribes. I’m fairly sure my own mother just unsubscribed (but wrote ‘no hard feelings kiddo’ in the reason box).”

I hear some version of this story often. A mailing list is the preferred method of communication for smart creatives and entrepreneurs. Email newsletters outperform social media by miles in terms of getting something read by an audience and more importantly, having that audience take action (like attending an event, buying your book, or just checking out your work). People might miss tweets or status updates (especially those that aren’t “boosted” or paid for) but according to the McKinsey Global Institute in 2013, we spend about 28 percent of our workday in our inbox — and those emails don’t whiz by in an ever-updating stream of content.

We spend about 28 percent of our workday in our inbox — and those emails don’t whiz by in an ever-updating stream of content.

Email also converts much, much higher than any social media. For both reads and clicks, email obliterates every social media platform. Monetate Ecommerce Quarterly in 2012 found that email converts at 3.2 percent, whereas social media hovers around 0.6 percent. Mileage here varies though by industry, for example my own list converts at 55 percent for opens and 23 percent for clicks, whereas my tweets only convert at 1 percent for clicks.

For these reasons, articles about maximizing email signups articles are abundant on the web. The “experts” say you’ve got to offer freebies, discounts, value-value-value, and other double-horned unicorns. In all this marketing hype and posturing, the fact that there are actual human beings on the other end of every email list is mostly lost. When someone signs up for an email newsletter, they trust us with their inbox, but more importantly they trust us with their time and attention. We must treat this we the utmost respect.

There are actual human beings on the other end of every email list.

So how can you foster and grow your own mailing list like a human being and not some email marketing robot guru? 

Listen (and learn) from your subscribers

Most people consider newsletters to be one-way broadcasts. The best way to avoid falling into the trap of talking at your audience is to use the power of the reply button to encourage reader engagement. Newsletters (even if they are sent to a lot of people) should come from a frequently checked email address, not a “” At the bottom of every email, encourage interaction with lines like, “If you want to say Hi, tell me how much you love/hate what I wrote or share a story of your own, hit reply." 

Focusing on two-way communication, I’ve talked to three-dozen subscribers on the phone to offer advice/help and listen to what they’re working on. I’ve asked for submission of stories from people on my list, receiving over 120 stories in a few days, and then sharing the best stories the following week. There are no direct sales from these actions. But it builds trust and is just plain fun.

The more you listen to what people on your list are working on, having problems with and thinking about, the better able you will be at catering your products or services to them. Listening is a win-win and can make your list feel more like a community than a one-way broadcast.

Bake your email into your (and your reader’s) routine 

In the mailing list expertise world, you’ll also find a lot of advice on the frequency and timing of mailing list send-outs. Marketing types are always trying to optimize for the best click-through rates. 

Blogger James Clear follows a Tuesday/Thursday routine for his own mailing list (over 70,000 subscribers). If he’s ever a few hours late on sending it, he gets emails from people asking where the newsletter is. Being on the mind of your audience to the point where they check in on you is a place most creatives and businesses would love to be in.

I send out an email every Sunday at 6 a.m., no exceptions, no missed days. There’s not a tactical reason for this, other than the fact that I like to have time to reply to everyone quickly, and I tend to have time in the morning on Sundays when I get up. Work can wait, coffee is brewed first, and then I get to answering replies. It’s part of my routine and I enjoy it. I think that enjoyment shines through (or, at least, I hope it does). It keeps me constantly in contact with my community and target audience, fueling future work. This is less about consistency and more about how you’ve built into your work routine so it doesn't slip though the cracks.

Being consistent means that your audience expects to hear from you on a certain date. This also builds community and interaction with them. They want to know what’s going on, and the more often you’re on their minds, the more likely they’ll be to support you.

Make email your default call to action

If growing your mailing list is important, and it should be, then there needs to a focus on it on your website. After everything you write (blog posts, articles, etc), is there a signup form? Is the signup message more interesting than “Sign up for my free mailing list”? Give people a unique and valid reason they should give you access to their inboxes, some examples are:

  • Gregory Ciotti uses, “Where I share those things I’d rather my competitors never know.”
  • Marie Forleo’s uses, “You deserve a business & life you love. We can help.”
  • Brennan Dunn uses, “Learn how to get more clients, raise your rates, perfect your sales website, and so much more.”

Notice that they don’t mention “FREE” or even “newsletter” – you can tell from the form what you’re getting, and they’d rather talk about the value than the specific medium.

Any serious mailing list software allows you to customize the sign up experience. Most lists require a double-optin (i.e. fill in the form AND click the confirmation email) and so your “please confirm” message needs to be just as compelling as your opt-in text, otherwise subscribers will slip through the net

Welcome messages often include the corporate, or royal, “we”, which only works if your blog is written by more than one person. You can certainly make your messages more interesting that: “Your subscription to our list has been confirmed.”

My own welcome email gets at least a few replies a week telling me how much someone enjoyed it: 

Upon receiving notice that you signed up, I was immediately pleased! 

So pleased, that I went straight to the local tattoo parlor and got the first available artist to tattoo your name on my inner left arm, in a thin but beautiful typeface. I had been agonizing over what tattoo to get next and then it hit me: your name!

It’s bandaged up now, otherwise I’d send you a photo of it. I’ll wear it with pride and every time I raise my hands over my head, in front of the mirror (happens more than you’d expect), I’ll think of you and of today—the day you joined my mailing list.

You’ll be hearing from me every Sunday, and now that we’re bonded in ink, I cannot wait to appear in your inbox. Anytime you read one of my emails and find it interesting, of value, horribly offensive or anything else—just hit reply. I’d love to hear from my ink’s namesake. 

Aside from the embedded form, make sure to have a dedicated landing page to focus a user on taking one specific action. Use your landing page to extol the virtues of your list. Offer social proof about how good it is by showcase some user testimonials. Link to your top five best (or highest performing) newsletters to show the type of content people will receive.


It took a little over a year to build my list to where it’s currently at (over 10,000 subscribers) and figure out what worked and what didn’t for me. My list now accounts for over 70 percent of sales for the books I write. And beyond the ideas above about what worked for my specific style, personality and reasons, that’s probably the most important point:

“Best of” practices and “Guaranteed tips” seldom are, because they force you into a spot that might not be right for you. Conventional email marketing advice is meant for large companies, but as an independent creative you must take a most empathetic and unique-to-you approach.

How about you?

What are some of your favorite email newsletters? Why?

More about Paul Jarvis

Paul is a Gentleman of Adventure. He's also a web designer and author. If he's not in nature on some Thoreau-esque tangent (but with wifi), you can find him on twitter at @pjrvs.

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