I want to take you on a behind-the-scenes look at this list. Transparency and all that.
The Sunday Dispatches has been my weekly newsletter since November of 2013. The goal has never been growth, sales, or some sort of world domination scheme involving robots (or to a lesser extent, aliens). My focus has always been telling stories to the folks that might enjoy them, and hearing their stories, too.
I do a lot of research, listening, and communicating with this list because I like to know what you’re all working on, thinking about, and even struggling with. It informs the topics I write about, and sometimes even the products I create.
MailChimp is what runs this list. It has always been what runs this list. I get lots of emails about why I choose MailChimp over Infusionsoft, Aweber, Campaign Monitor, robotic carrier pigeons, etc. For me it comes down to three things: it’s easy to use and maintain each week, it looks gorgeous to work with, and the company has my back.
This list is my biggest “service” expense for running my company. More than my licence to Adobe’s Creative Cloud ($420/yr), and much more than hosting (which is around $350/yr). And technically, it doesn’t generate any direct revenue because it’s completely free to join.
What this list does do, and why I continue to spend money on it, is promote my work in a way that I feel comfortable with. Curious about my writing but don’t want to buy a book or course? Read my list for a while to get a taste. Aren’t sure about if a $400 consult with me is right for you? Get a sense of my style, focus, and knowledge for free. Don’t know who won the Super Bowl? Well, for that this list probably can’t help…
Sure, once or twice a year I have something available for sale here, but mostly I focus on telling a new story every week. The footer always links to what I’m working on and that drives enough sales to cover the costs.
Now onto the nitty-gritty of expenses per year. These are approximates since some costs change due to list size and some aren’t always constant (like illustrations).
- $1,800 — MailChimp
- $1,000 — copyediting
- $500 — illustrations/art
- $3,300 total per year
That doesn’t include my time either, which if I billed out at my normal rate of $150/hr would be around $15,000 (two hours a week for writing at minimum). And that doesn’t include conversations and replies to subscribers, which is typically two hours a week (because I get 60+ emails a week from subscribers).
Growth & numbers
- First month: 46 subscribers
- First year: 2,360 subscribers
- Second year: 10,860 subscribers
- Currently: 12,596 subscribers (Feb 2015)
- My open rate for emails hovers around 60%.
- The average subscribe rate is currently 513 subscribers a month.
- The total unsubscribes so far is 3,141.
The number of people I’ve deleted from my list is 6,487. That’s about half what my list is currently. Every few months I run a report to see who hasn’t opened the last 10 emails and I delete them. Sure, I could keep them to pad my numbers, but I pay for each subscriber, so I’m not going to pay for people that aren’t paying attention.
I also delete people who are mean or rude. On average I get 3–4 nasty/mean unsubscribes a week and typically one person complaining about how awful of a writer or person I am. Or how I’m a narcissistic robot/alien who’s mean to carrier pigeons. I need them on my list as much as a fish needs a bicycle.
Top subscription sources
- Archive links on newsletters I send (like this one)
- The dedicated signup page on my site (see it here)
- The on-exit modal on my site (see screenshot of it here)
Oddly, the best place for me to gain new subscribers is when I send out newsletters. This is because people share links to those newsletters, and I’ve got a bit of writing that only non-subscribers see at the top and bottom of each newsletter asking them to sign up .
In my consulting and design business, I’m a huge advocate of a dedicated page for a newsletter sign-up for all my clients. That’s because I see it work so well for myself and my clients who do it. We use that link in our social media profiles, in bylines for articles we write for other publications, and even in our email signatures.
I know, I know, everyone hates pop-ups. That’s fine, I get it. But they work. I wish they didn’t, but they work so well it’s scary. Mine only fires off once per person and only when you move your mouse to close the window or tab. It uses this script called OuiBounce. It also has some humour, “No thanks, I hate creativity,” because if you don’t get my silly sense of humour, this list is probably not for you. People who sign up through the pop-up are no less likely to unsubscribe and sometimes (because I track where people sign up from) they go on to be the folks who share my newsletters the most.
Top list building tools
- Guest writing
- Linking to dedicated signup page from everywhere
- Offering targeted incentives
In the beginning, the biggest bumps in signups came from writing articles for other publications. The first piece I published in Fast Company got me close to 500 signups. My first piece for Smashing Magazine got around 300. What I’ve noticed is that the first time you write for a new publication is the best chance to gain signups. After that, their audience has already heard of you and signed up if they were interested.
Anytime I write, get interviewed, or create a profile somewhere, I always put my URL as pjrvs.com/signup (the dedicated signup page). I get as many page views on that as I do my homepage. I’d much rather people test the waters with my style before buying something, so I promote my list more than my paid products on my own website.
I’ve kept a pretty hard line about incentives and my own mailing list. I always figured the only reason I want someone on this list is because they want to read my writing and not just get some ephemeral PDF download they may not even read. That said, I have tried two incentives that did drive a lot of signups (but then, as I figured, a lot of unsubscribes as well).
Most people forget that they can customize the messaging a new subscriber sees. The form, the confirmation email, the thank you page and the final welcome email are all editable for both design and content in most newsletter systems. I’ve spent hours and hours tweaking how people are onboarded to my list because I want it to reflect the list and my personality.
My welcome message (if you’ve forgot or signed up in the first few months before I had it) talks about me being so pleased you joined the list I went out and got your name tattooed on my inner, left arm. It’s more fun than “Welcome to my list!” I also like it more than, “You’ve got 5 minutes to buy my products at a tiny discount, STARTING… NOW!!”
Sure, I have an offer to get my books at 50% off (pro tip: that link never expires) and a few PDFs, but the main focus of the first email is to show people that while this might be a list about working for yourself, creativity, and freelancing, I’m still going to have fun with it.
Out of all the products I’ve launched over the years, this list has been my favourite. It’s also the only one I come back to week after week to build on.
I enjoy writing new articles each week because it helps me be a better writer. I don’t know how else to do that except to write more, and write publicly. It also helps me connect directly with you—the type of folks I enjoy connecting with.
We’ve all heard that mailing lists drive revenue and all that, but for me it’s a little more. I feel like after years of searching, I’ve somehow managed to gather up all my rat people in one place.