In 2015 I devoured Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek and fell so deeply in love with the idea of passive income that I created an online store for men’s fashion.
The task at hand—yours, too, if you’re reading this guide—became: how to sell? I blogged, ran giveaways and collected 27,000 Instagram followers in the first year.
But it was email marketing that became my star salesperson. The experts told me that this familiar tool was the most effective sales channel after word of mouth, and it’s as true today as it was then—even in a world where social media is everyone’s darling.
If you’re among the burgeoning millions of full-time solopreneurs or part-time side-hustlers, you’ll need to scale your own finite efforts, and there’s no better (and virtually free) way than email marketing.
What’s in This Email Marketing Guide?
This guide is for independent entrepreneurs who want to sell their product or service using email.
In it, you’ll learn:
This guide goes beyond “send campaigns at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays” and into practical strategies that are proven to work in the field.
If you are a coach, personal trainer, artist, real estate or insurance agent, or health practitioner…
Or you are looking to grow your ecommerce, speaking, wellness, or network marketing business…
Then bookmark this page right now because it’s the only guide you will need to build a pipeline of engaged, loyal customers for life.
Why Email Marketing?
Let’s review the statistics:
But seeing the results with my own eyes was all I needed. And when Facebook changed its algorithms, making it virtually impossible to reach followers without paying, this completed my conversion to email (where I control my own list).
I’m no email marketing expert; I don’t work for a marketing agency or MailChimp and didn’t study this stuff at business school. But I do have seven-plus years of hard-won experience from the front lines. The info and strategies in this article come from building four separate online businesses.
From one solopreneur to another I can tell you: email marketing is the most powerful way to build your business.
Let’s dive in.
Principles for Choosing an Email Platform
If you’re thinking about sending bulk email, you’ll need to choose an email marketing service. No, you can’t send email blasts from your Gmail or Outlook account without getting banned.
Most email marketing guides begin with a neat little comparison of the myriad providers you could choose: Constant Contact, Aweber, Klaviyo and so on.
Rather than rehash that exercise, let’s lay out some principles that will help you choose a service that suits YOU.
12 Principles for Choosing a New Email Marketing Service
Pro tip: Ask whether this is free indefinitely or is it a free trial?
Don’t let anyone tell you which service to pick, instead use the principles above to make the best decision for you. Keep in mind: switching EMS is a pain in the rear on the level of cleaning glitter out of a shag rug… so choose wisely.
Here’s a handy comparison of the free plans of some of the most popular email marketing services.
How to Set up Your Subscriber List
How often do you get “Like my page” requests on Facebook? It’s a friend’s boyfriend’s new real estate venture, bitcoin mining, etc… I have 60-plus requests collecting dust in my notifications tab.
Usually they come from estranged contacts who love their pet project so much that they took the painstaking effort to click a button, but not enough to reach out personally.
Yes, I’ve also made the mistake of thinking that, because this is important to me, it will be to my network, too. Wrong.
They are not all your tribe, and this is poor marketing.
When building your email subscriber list, remember those lonely, unanswered Facebook invites. Choose to go deep, instead of wide; curate your audience.
Choose Your Customer Archetype
How do we find our tribe—that group of people who will care deeply about our service or product, and who could become raving fans?
First, you need to know what they look like, and the best way to do that is to create a customer archetype. This is simply an imagined, but hopefully accurate, representation of your ideal client. Ask:
When you’ve answered these questions, give this imaginary avatar a name: Bob Loblaw from Wawa… Leeroy Jenkins from Accounting. Go on, play with it.
Write this on an index card and post it wherever you see it as you start to craft your marketing messages.
Segmentation: Not Just for Jocks Anymore
So you started developing your first customer archetype and found that this person has multiple personality disorder… sounds about right. That’s because it’s unlikely your business will serve only one need or person.
Pop quiz: do you remember your high school cliques? In my cafeteria there were tables for jocks, band kids, drama people, loners and on and on. The lines weren’t as clearly drawn as Hollywood portrays, but there were distinct tribes (or archetypes) who shared interests and needs. The same will hold true for your email list.
This is where segmentation comes in. I run a business that trains writers, but within that bucket there are clients who are writing young adult fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, magazine articles and short stories. If I were to send the same marketing email to all of them, they would unsubscribe in droves.
Most email marketing services allow you to segment your list using tags or groups. In this way, you can tailor your message to ever-more-granular groupings. Segmentation should be set up before you even send that first email blast, but if your email strategy is already underway, it’s never too late to segment. When you do, you’ll more closely match your offerings to your customer’s needs.
Your standard cafeteria cliques
A key rule of any successful email strategy is that your audience opts in of their own accord. Tribe building does not involve importing your personal contacts or scattershot Facebook page “Like” requests.
Opting in is not only the law in most jurisdictions, but it makes good business sense; why waste resources marketing to people who don’t want to hear from you? Instead, let your customers self-select as adoring fans. Ask yourself these questions about opting in:
Single or double, what’ll it be?
Single opt-in means that a client can subscribe with just an email address and one click. It’s fine if you want to let any lost wanderer into the club.
Double opt-in means that when someone enters their email address in your sign-up form, it triggers a confirmation email, inside which they need to click a button to make absolutely sure they want to be on your list.
No need to overthink the double opt-in
The latter is a helpful client screening. If a person can’t click a simple “confirm” button, how likely are they to open their wallet? This simple test can reel in more big fish, instead of “old boots and tin cans” to your list.
Tell me about yourself?
How much do you want to know about your customers? In an ideal world you would collect each person’s age, weight, eye color, shoe size, and Zodiac sign. But with every field you add to your email sign-up form, there is a large corresponding audience that will up and leave.
Killer value proposition and social proof, anyone?
To ensure the maximum conversion rate on your sign-up forms, collect only the user’s email address. But, there is an argument for collecting the subscriber’s first name as well, even if the effort of filling in another text box will thwart some people.
The reason is this: most EMS let you insert a small bit of code, called a merge tag, anywhere in your email that displays customized text for each recipient. For example, inserting *|FNAME|* will display “Ricky” or “Johanna”. Yes, exactly like a mail merge in Microsoft Word.
According to the email marketing experts at Optinmonster, personalized emails are opened at a rate six times that of emails that are not personalized. One study showed that personalizing your subject line can lift open rates by up to 20% (but this effect seems to be waning).
It makes perfect sense that your subscribers are more likely to engage with your content if you tailor it to them—even if that’s as simple as addressing them by first name.
8 Tools for Growing Your List
You’ve zeroed in on your ideal customers, segmented them into groups, and started collecting precious email addresses. But how do you actually entice the right people to subscribe, besides that simple “Subscribe” box on your homepage? Clever solopreneurs have these tools in their kit.
The man, the legend, the free guide
A user normally requests the magnet from a landing page, which is then pushed to their inbox using email automation. Work hard to ensure your “free brownies” are the kind your ideal client can’t resist. Don’t give away a generic Amazon gift card—lest you reel in the professional giveaway enterers instead of your desired customer.
Don’t let the pop-up miss you on the way out.
Pop-ups are also a great way to serve up content upgrades. These can subtly say “hey look at me” when a visitor finishes a blog post, for example. Pop-ups can be customized based on what site the visitor arrived from, where they are on your site and for how long, country, and on and on. It’s a powerful way to grow your email list. Capturing 2-5% of your visitors is typical, but some of my pop-ups convert at 17%. Constantly A/B test your pop-ups to make them better.
Pay For it?
Paid ads merit this separate section because they are not free. If you don’t have at minimum $5 per day to line the pockets of Google or Facebook, skip ahead. But if you can reinvest 5 or 10% of your coaching fees or real estate commissions into ads, you will supercharge your list growth. Should you advertise a product? Probably not.
“But Mike, why would I pay if not to generate immediate, positive return on investment?”
Because this strategy works better:
Subscribers captured like this will stay subscribed for years, and you can communicate with them hundreds of times. With an ad for a paid service, you only get to pitch them once.
A Word on Lead Funnels
Remember Business 101 class? Lead funnels are a graphical representation of your clients’ journey to the promised land, aka the ranks of your customers. From top to bottom, it goes like this:
Just your friendly awareness ad
As subscribers move through this process, many will drop off at each stage, hence the funnel analogy. But if you apply these concepts well, you’ll enjoy a steady stream of dollars pouring out the bottom, right into your bank account.
Funnels in Practice
If you’re an insurance agent, for example, you may start by writing blog posts about the different types of life insurance (awareness), and offer a content upgrade on that page (lead capture).
Subscribers then receive a series of three emails with free content (prospecting), followed by three emails regaling them with the merits of this particular product you sell (marketing).
Your EMS can tell you who opened all or most of these emails, and you can start contacting these hot leads individually to work your sales magic.
Sending Your First Email
Wow, we’ve spent half the article preparing to start, and you’re still here… congrats! But as Abe Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Your axe is sharp; let’s start swinging.
But, um, what should you put in your emails?
Your Content Strategy
Alright, you’ve tinkered with all of the software’s settings and you’re ready to light the fuse on your first blast. What’s in that email? You have a few familiar options here:
“This [strategy] makes a surprisingly big difference when it comes to open rates. Most solopreneurs position their newsletter as a way for subscribers to hear your thoughts… The issue is that many of these newsletters are all over the place,” Dean says.
Tim Ferriss’ 5-Bullet Friday is an exceptional model that I’ve shamelessly hijacked for my company’s own Writer High Five. Why reinvent the wheel? This works and hasn’t been done to death yet.
A newsletter that doesn’t bore
It’s forceful, but I’ve had decent results with variations on his theme.
A Word on Value
You know your business best, but regardless of the content strategy you choose, the rule of thumb is this: ABAV. Always Be Adding Value. Value, not money, is the currency upon which the free market runs. Value can be a piece of information or a piece of cake. It’s subjective, which means that what I like is not necessarily what you like.
Here’s a business secret: offer someone more value than they think it’s worth in dollars and they will throw their money at you.
ABAV in email marketing means sending out incredibly valuable emails. The specifics will vary: an entertaining story, useful tips, discount codes or your exercise plan.
As the saying goes, content is king. Send high-quality email content every time and your business will enjoy:
The Subject Line
The subject line of your email is arguably the most critical tactic in your email marketing strategy. Combined with the preview snippet—that short line of text that shows up after the subject line in some inboxes—this 100% determines whether your subscriber opens your message.
A boring subject line like “Update” will lead to abysmal open rates, but something spicy like, “I made the biggest mistake today…” will put that number closer to 30, 4 or, even 50 percent. A few key triggers are useful in subject lines:
Dean swears by short subject lines: they are less likely to contain words that trigger spam filters, and his research shows they perform well.
There are many subject line testers out there if you want to tinker, including Coshedule (note their own brilliant lead capture strategy).
To Template or Not to Template?
An email template is a pre-built container for sending beautiful updates to your fans. Whether you’re selling kitchenware or skin care, your speaking services or that silent meditation retreat, there’s a template that fits your aesthetic.
Figure 12.3: standard email template
But should you use them?
That depends on your brand’s personality. If your product is primarily visual—for example, jewelry—then your customers will look forward to an email full of graphics.
However, there’s a compelling case for using emails that look like a regular email from a friend. Flashy emails say “I’m about to sell to you.” Research from ecommerce platform Jilt shows that text-only emails enjoy higher click rates—17 percent higher, in fact. The stats are similarly rosy for generating website visitors and revenue.
Why does simple win? Because we’re all overwhelmed with marketing messages (even those we signed up for) and looking for any easy excuse to delete. Plain emails look more like the ones we get from friends and colleagues so they fly under the radar.
How to Write Great Email Copy
Writing great copy is an art learned over time. If you’re not a wordsmith, here are some tips to get started:
Neil Patel doesn’t want you to miss out.
How Often Should I Hit Send?
Frequency depends on your purpose and your audience, but avoid overkill. One survey asked people point-blank why they unsubscribe from email lists. The No.. 1 reason is no surprise: 46% said it’s because they get emailed too often from an organization.
At the other extreme, people have notoriously short memories, and if you don’t email often enough, they will forget they subscribed to your list. Long silences are an excellent way to rack up those spam complaints that will quickly make your email address, or entire domain, persona non grata with Gmail or Outlook’s servers.
No matter how often you ping those inboxes, stick to a regular schedule.
Email is an exceptional way to 10X your marketing efforts. Talking to leads individually may be more convincing, but as a solopreneur, it’s a scheme that doesn’t scale.
However, if you’ve dabbled with email marketing, you already know that even basic email marketing strategies also fail to scale. You can quickly find yourself spending all seven days of your week creating lead magnets, tweaking popups, writing copy and obsessing over analytics—instead of actually doing what you do best: the mindset coaching, Acroyoga workshops or cheese-making.
There is deliverance and its name is automation.
How Automation Works
Picture this: While you’re sleeping, someone from Japan discovers your blog post and, as he’s about to leave, enters his email address in your exit intent popup.
This triggers the email with a link to download your bungee-jumping safety checklist, which he just loves, by the way.
Three days later a second email is delivered with related content—all free, with no strings attached. This process repeats, building authority and trust in your new friend.
Because his download behaviour identified him as your thrill-seeker archetype, this email automation series now begins to deliver him marketing messages about your monthly (paid) bungie retreats.
He’s intrigued and becoming a fan. Once the final urgency email hits his inbox, he completes the sale.
It’s only when you receive the order confirmation that you even know about this customer’s journey. You didn’t have to lift a finger to make the sale—except initially, to set up the email automation.
Automation works, even when you don’t
How effective is this, exactly?
Deana Thornton, director of commerce marketing at Mailchimp told me:
“Entrepreneurs and solopreneurs who use marketing automations instead of sending bulk emails can, on average, experience 167 percent higher click-through rates and 95 percent higher open rates. And for our e-commerce solo vendors, automated emails can elicit up to five times more orders—per email—than bulk emails.
Can you see how this tactic might enormously multiply your effectiveness as a solopreneur?
The Welcome Series
The most basic email automation is the welcome (or onboarding) series, and yes, you should use it. This series is often three-to-seven emails long, and it’s usually sent to each subscriber that joins your list. As such, it will be somewhat generic. But that’s OK, especially if your list of customer archetypes is one item long. It might look like this:
Welcome to Google, in your Gmail inbox. Very meta.
You’ll want to trigger the Day 1 email immediately when someone joins (or, right after they do the double opt-in dance). They will be expecting you. For the remainder, set them up to go out at a time of day when people are opening emails, like right before or after lunch.
Advanced email marketers will go beyond the generic welcome series into automations that are painstakingly handcrafted for each of your segments (customer archetypes).
It’s easy to tag subscribers by interest at the time of signup by offering a lead magnet with niche appeal: one for first-time homebuyers, one for downsizers, one for those looking for commercial real estate.
It’s simple—but requires a great deal of care—to set up separate automations (aka lead funnels) for each segment.
You can also segment your list not just by their interests, but by where they are in their journey: new subscribers, one-time buyers, repeat customers, your raving fans, those who are disengaged and those who started the checkout process but got distracted by cake.
Which segments should you prioritize? If you have a website, then with help from your friend Google Analytics, find out which pages (e.g., a blog post) see the most visitors, and deduce visitors’ interests.
Transactional emails are the bookkeeping-level-unsexy emails that include order confirmations, shipping notifications, event reminders and the like.
Often, they are rarely unchanged from their default templates.
But they represent another unusual and untapped opportunity to wow your clients and upsell. The textbook example is CD Baby’s shipping confirmation, which started like this:
“Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow. A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing. Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.”
You get the idea. That email tickled customers, who turned the company into a $200 million player. Don’t let your transactional emails fall flat.
Email Marketing Mistakes to Avoid
You’re on a roll, solopreneur. Your automated email robots are toiling away in the background, you’re sending special marketing campaigns and have even settled into the perfect monthly newsletter groove. A steady stream of new subscribers walk through your virtual front door each week.
Careful, it’s not time to celebrate. Your fine words may be landing in inboxes across the globe, but this doesn’t guarantee anyone is listening or buying. Do not mistake activity for achievement. Avoid these common email marketing mistakes and your campaigns will start to deliver steak, not just sizzle.
Gmail’s tabs: stay primary—you’re worth it
Your emails can avoid this purgatory but steering clear of pseudo-spammy words and phrases (especially in the subject line) like: buy now, discount, free, offer or prize. You can’t guarantee a spotless record, but you can improve your chances by speaking like a human, not an infomercial guy from the ’80s.
Dean swears by short subject lines to reduce your chances of unwittingly including a word deemed spammy. His are often two words long, and he boasts exceptional open rates.
Just a regular Tuesday
Tracking is half of victory, but then do something about it. Rewrite emails in automation series that fall flat. Hypothesize about improvements for each campaign sent and always be pushing your KPIs.
If they click “confirm,” they get to stay on the island. If not, buh-bye. This is crucia, because if your open rates drop too low, email service providers will flag you as an unwanted messenger.
Will You Try It?
I interviewed a handful of business owners for this article, expecting that at least a few would be leveraging email marketing, but 100% were not.
Comments ranged from “I tried it a long time ago but didn’t invest time in it” to “I hate getting marketing emails, so why would I do it to anyone else?”
Most solopreneurs will jump on social media several times per day to chase a few more followers, but don’t put in the modest one or two hours per week required to do email marketing well.
What a huge missed opportunity. In my case, email marketing brings in a full 26% of my orders, but probably closer to 90% by dollar value. Organic search is a distant second. And social media? Only 8% of orders, despite paying someone for three years to run my social accounts.
The research shows that my anecdotal evidence is not unusual.
The question now is, will you leverage this tool and apply what you learned in this guide?
Photo by Vadym Pastukh/Shutterstock
This content was originally published here.