How do I start and grow a qualified email list?

I got this question via my post opt-in form:

How to start and grow a qualified email list?

Let's lay out a systematic way of thinking about this, then some recipes for doing it, and finish by talking about important real-world considerations.

People can't be on an email list without subscribing to the email list, so let's start there. Why do people subscribe to email lists in the first place? Here's every reason I've seen:

Curation: The list reduces the volume or complexity of information the subscriber is interested in and highlights what's important, or assembles disparate pieces into a coherent whole.

Current-ness: The list offers a way to stay current on fast-changing, interesting information.

"Background music": A variation of the current-ness/curation motives, except the level of interest is lower, so joining the list is sort of like playing "background music".

Problem-solving: The list offers a way to get pumped up, informed, or otherwise equipped to solve a problem.

Doing a favor: Sometimes people will join a list to do the list publisher (usually someone they know) a favor.

Exclusive information: This is a variation of the curation motive, but it's possible the list provides information that is available nowhere else, making it exclusive and, possibly, desirable for that reason.

Herd instinct: Some subscribes are caused by herd-following, or a recommendation from an authoritative source (a variation of herd-following).

Curiosity: A new subscriber may not be convinced the list is valuable for them, but they are curious enough to join and find out for themselves.

Personal invitation: The list owner might have connected with someone (or many someones) via social media and invited them to join.

Accidental/malicious: You might end up on a list accidentally or via someone else's malicious action (mailbombing, etc.).

Added by list owner: The list owner may have added you to the list without your explicit opt-in.

It's possible the reason why someone joins a list remains the reason why they stay subscribed. But why do people stay subscribed to email lists after the operative reason-to-join has faded or gone away?

I like $PERSON: Someone might start with one or more of the above reasons, and then transition to "I just like having this person in my inbox" and so stay subscribed even after the initial reason-to-subscribe has faded.

Inertia: Someone might start with one or more of the above reasons, and then transition to ignoring the content but never really unsubscribe for whatever reason.

Our question, again, is how do we start and grow a qualified email list? The "just draw two circles, then draw an owl" answer is: create an email list that potential buyers of your services want to subscribe and stay subscribed to. Simple!

We can do better than that, though. Let's sketch out some "recipes" that you could choose from among. Sometimes that's easier than working from fundamental principles when we're facing a task we've never done before.

List Recipes

I'll probably leave out a few good options here, but by keeping it short I'll avoid overwhelming you.

1: Problem-focused beachhead

The entry point to your list is focused on a specific problem. This usually looks like an email course, though it could be something else (I ended up on an email list after I enrolled in this free video course: PDF downloads are another potential entry point to your list (subscribers trade their email address for access to the PDF), but seem a bit less popular than email courses these days.

After new subscribers complete the email course, they're added to your main list where they might get a less focused mix of content.

2: Valuable janitorial work

I'm overplaying things a bit here with the term "janitorial work", and yet, one of the weekly emails I most look forward to reading is the Obsidian Roundup. Yes, it's valuable. Yes, it's a labor of love for the publisher. But mechanically, it's a sort of janitorial work to notice what's happened in a product ecosystem and highlight the newsworthy parts. It's valuable curation work.

Corey Quinn does something similar with Last Week in AWS and, combined with his cutting sense of humor, this makes for a high-value list.

This recipe might be especially well-suited to horizontal specializations.

3: Advocate for the vertical

With this recipe, your list creates value by advocating (in some specific way) for the wellbeing of the vertical you're focused on.

With Kyle Bowen's list, it's helping museums and cultural institutions apply research in a more effective way.

With Bob Lalasz's list, it's helping scientists use thought leadership in a more effective way.

With Kevin Hillstrom's list, it's helping the retail vertical use a data-centric perspective to make sense of change and vendor BS.

This recipe is, naturally, well-suited to those with a vertical focus.

4: The tips list

This is sending out a daily or weekly tip. Something helpful or educational or useful. This is particularly well-suited to those with a platform specialization, which is why you see folks like Chris Ferdinandi using it with the Vanilla JS "platform", Paul Swail using it with the serverless tech stack, Dave Haeffner using it with the Selenium framework, and Eric Davis using it with the Shopify platform.

A tips list can be like an "IV drip" of useful information for someone who is interested but not absolutely on fire to fix a problem.

List Promotion

Setting up the infrastructure for an email list and publishing to said list is the start, but you'll also want to consider how you promote that list. Here's a quick overview of usable methods:

  1. You can use LinkedIn automation tools to connect with people in the vertical you're focused on, connect with them, and auto-follow up with an invitation to join your email list. Kyle Bowen (see link above) recruited over 1,000 people to his email list using that method.
  2. You can guest on podcasts and at the end when the host asks you where listeners can find out more, you can invite them to visit a landing page that invites them to opt in to an email course. I recruited over 1,000 people to my email list using this method.
  3. Twitter threads work for some people. Here's an example where you'll notice 2 things: First, this person seems to be revealing that they have no idea why actual people pay money for entertainment. Aside from that, you will notice that they have a large-ish email list, and they use Twitter threads like this to recruit list members.
  4. ABC. Not "Always Be Closing", but "Always Be Calling people to join your email list". Use every visibility-earning asset you've got to feature one or more calls to action to join your email list.
  5. If you have or are good at writing articles that your target audience enjoys reading, use those to promote the list. You promote the articles heavily and those have one or more direct CTAs to join your list. (This is like #3 above but with articles instead of Twitter threads.)
  6. Cross-promote the above to others who have an email list that reaches the audience you want to reach.

There are numerous other ways to promote an email list, but these 6 are a good starting point.

Confounding Complexities

The basic formula for a successful email list is: create subscriber value in a relatively unique way. Simple, right?

(By the way, this is an excellent lecture on creating reader value: It is relevant to the following discussion, and I thank Stephen Kuenzli for my first exposure to this lecture.)

The real world introduces multiple forms of complexity that confound our efforts to adhere to this simple value-creation formula:

  1. We don't have deep experience creating subscriber value, so every time we hit the Publish button, we face uncertainty about whether we are creating subscriber value, how much subscriber value we're creating, and whether we could create more subscriber value.
  2. Our email list (hopefully!) has more than 1 subscriber, and so each time we hit Publish, we unavoidably create varying levels of value for each subscriber. An email that might have positive value for 9 out of 10 subscribers might have negative value for the tenth, leading to, gasp, unsubscribes.

  1. As subscribers to other people's email lists, we have early, formative experiences of what created value for us. This often leads to us trying to re-create somebody else's approach to subscriber value creation in our list, and we may be missing our own best uniquely powerful (and different) approach to creating subscriber value.
  2. When we are in a situation that features high perceived uncertainty, many of us will use behaviors that make us feel safer. For those new to emailing a list of subscribers, that will be sharing thinking and content that is superficial because that's the stuff we have the easiest time explaining. Unfortunately, this is also content that is very likely to be "me-too", un-differentiated stuff.

Some of you will feel that I am ending this article on a huge bummer note when I say the following. Sorry, but I owe you this part of the truth of starting and growing a qualified email list.

Because of the aforementioned real-world complexity, an unavoidable part of starting and growing an email list is experimentation. You're gonna have to try some things, and some of them will feel uncomfortable. Some of them will fail, at real emotional or financial cost to you. Some will work but the fact that they worked will create temporary cognitive dissonance for you. And some will just work in an uncomplicated way and make you feel smart. If you avoid experimenting with your email list, you will deprive yourself of the possibility of running a truly great email list.

Please don't let the necessity of experimentation keep you from starting. There's a huge likelihood that if you can embrace this discomfort, you will add value to a lot of people's lives, improve your business, and have some fun along the way.

I hope you give it a try.