The Journey From 121 to 1,016 List Subscribers

My email list just crossed the 1,000 subscriber mark, and I thought I’d use this occasion to share with you my experience of growing my list from 100 to 1,000 subscribers (actual numbers are 121 to 1,016, but I’ll go with round numbers for ease of typing), what I’ve learned along the way, and what you can do to avoid the mistakes I’ve made.

Getting from 100 to 1000 subscribers took almost exactly a year. The first 6 months were a completely unimpressive climb from 121 to 250 subscribers. Around that 6 month mark, I figured out something that worked, and membership grew from 250 to 1016 over the next 6 months.

If you’re interested in growing an email list in order to help you sell more high priced consulting services or mid-priced educational products like e-books, then this article will be particularly interesting to you. At ~4,500 words it’s long as hell, so get comfy!

The N00b Months

For quite a while, I bumbled along. I knew quite a bit about what works for other people for list building because I’d read a lot of great articles online about how you do it. But as I found out, there’s a big difference between knowing how something is done and actually doing it yourself.

I think about that a lot with my mentoring program. Why is that seemingly tiny gap between knowing how something is done by others and doing it yourself so huge in practice? Is it fear? The unknown? Muscle memory that hasn’t been developed yet? Is it something else?

Anyway… during the n00b months, I had two different sitewide opt-ins[1] I tried. The first one was the Drip toaster widget (have I told you how much I love Drip?) with an invitation to “join my list for tips on building your authority”. That delivered a roughly 1.5% opt-in rate.

Opt-in Rate Realtalk

Quick story time. Have you seen Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise? In that movie, a kid needs a job and so he starts selling vacuum cleaners door to door. He apprentices under the most coked out, sweaty, slimy character I’ve ever seen Timothy Spall play. It’s an wonderful film if you’re in to dark comedies.

I actually had an experience like that. A wanted a job during a high school summer break, and so I hit up the classified ads. (This was the early ’90s, and classified ads on newsprint was just how you found out about jobs if you didn’t have IRL connections, which I did not.)

One job promised the ability to make like $500/day, and so I was there the next morning to check it out. It turned out to be this sleazy-feeling door to door sales gig. Every morning they would give you a black velvet roll of jewelry, and you’d hit the bricks to sell them any way you could. I rode along on day one with this more experienced sales rep(tile) to learn the ropes.

There was no day two of that job for me. I’ve since come to embrace selling, but only on my terms, and in a way that fits my introverted personality.

All that to say, the world of conversion rate optimization can feel to me a bit like the slimy world of door to door sales. “What persuasion tactic or button color can we use to get more opt-ins?”

With my efforts to grow my list, there was always this devil-angel dynamic happening. What I really wanted was a super high quality list with subscribers who:

  • Were interested in what I have to say
  • Open emails and stay subscribed at a healthy rate
  • And most importantly…. become subscribers who have paid me money for something

I researched a lot into conversion rate optimization tricks. That is one way to get a bigger list, but I was never sure it was the best way to achieve my high quality list goal.

Opt-in rate is a number worth paying attention to, but it’s not the only number worth caring about. That said, I wasn’t very happy with my 1.5% sitewide opt-in rate for “tips on building your authority”, so I looked around for ideas on what would perform better.

The Opt-In Paradox

One of the ideas I took as gospel (and still do) is that your list opt-in should offer no-strings-attached value. This suggests that piling on more value into your opt-in offer will increase opt-in rates. Paradoxically, that’s not the case.

I was struggling at this time with finding an answer to this question:

What list opt-in offer will deliver a lot of value without requiring a lot of work to unlock that value and will appeal to people who would make good consulting clients?

I found a better answer than I’d previously had when I came across this podcast episode with Clay Collins from LeadPages. Here’s the TL;DR: LeadPages has a lot of data about how various opt-in offers perform. They found a somewhat paradoxical thing…

Large, impressive opt-in offers–like a free 100-page e-book–performed worse than opt-in offers for things that offered good value but were small and easy to digest. Things like 2-page PDF checklists or lists of useful tools were performing way better than things like big impressive free e-books.

The reason why is that the big, impressive e-book comes with an implied workload. To unlock the value, you have to read 100 pages of stuff! That’s not a small amount of work. A smaller, easier-to-consume opt-in offer has a better return on time invested, and makes it easier for a site visitor to say “yes” to your offer.

What’s amazing is that the smaller, easier-to-consume opt-in offer is also easier to build!

After I learned this, I spent–no joke–3 hours putting together a PDF guide to the tools I use to quickly create blog articles. I called it the Education-Based Content Marketing Resource Guide, and I made it my new sitewide opt-in offer (aka lead magnet) for my site. I’ve since retired this lead magnet, but you can still see it here.

My opt-in rate immediately doubled to ~3%. Much better!

In off-the-record conversations I’ve had with big names in the world of online education & marketing, I’ve learned that a really well-tuned, optimized sitewide opt-in can achieve an opt-in rate of ~10%. I haven’t heard anyone claim better performance than that, though targeted non-sitewide opt-ins are a whole different animal with much better performance potential, as I’ll explain in a bit.

The Third Opt-In Offer

In December 2014, I released a book called The Positioning Manual for Technical Firms (TPM). To be honest, I wrote the book kind of on a lark, after reading Amy Hoy’s excellent book JFS. But now that it was out there, I wanted to promote it.

So going into 2015, I had a thing to promote–a product that was separate from my services. Something I could talk about in the third person.

I had heard amazing things about the power of podcast guesting. In fact, I had been on one podcast myself (my friend Nathan Powell’s podcast) and had enjoyed the experience. I think I must just like hearing myself talk :). I also knew a few podcast hosts via online connections, and so I decided to try promoting TPM via podcast guesting.

As usual, my first attempts were a bit clumsy. Podcast hosts always end the interview with “so, Philip, how can listeners find out more about you?” and my first few times “at bat” I directly pitched my book, which is a high-friction offer at $49. In other words, a podcast listener has got to be pretty darn excited about what they just heard me say to dash off and drop $50 on a book. That’s what I mean by “high-friction offer”.

Of course, while I was starting to set up more podcast guest spots for myself (yeah, it’s a thing you do for yourself. You don’t sit around and wait for someone to invite you on their podcast, though that sometimes does happen, it’s mostly a thing you make happen for yourself through outreach to show hosts), I was looking into the best way to create a compelling end-of-show call to action (CTA). I heard that podcast-specific landing pages as your end-of-podcast CTA is the bomb, so I tried that on my appearance on Brennan Dunn’s Business of Freelancing podcast and my appearance on the Web Agency Podcast.

This worked better, though I don’t have great numbers to share because I suck at doing analytics on my site.

Then…

I Struck Gold

In March, 2015, I had become convinced that I could create a better opt-in offer than the PDF tools guide (the Education-Based Content Marketing Resource Guide) I had been using. I had this e-book that was starting to sell, and people seemed to be interested in learning more about positioning. It made sense to extract some content from TPM and use that content to create an email crash course. So I did just that.

I also got a vanity domain name (http://positioningcrashcourse.com) for the crash course because I knew I’d be verbally telling people about it and needed a memorable, easy place to send them. I created a quick and dirty LeadPages landing page there and started getting a consistent 34% opt-in rate on that page.

If I was into linkbait-ey headlines, I’d title this article “How I Got a 1,133.33% Improvement In My List Opt-In Rate, Even Though I’m a Complete List-Building N00b and Suck at Analytics”.

I’m pretty sure the magic here is not in using an email course instead of a PDF lead magnet, though I think email courses have a lot going for them as a list opt-in offer. Rather, as I’ll explain in a bit, I think the magic is in the alignment of the opt-in offer with the CTA. Again, more on that in a bit…

Ever since March, 2015, The Positioning Crash Course has been the mouth of my marketing funnel. About that time, I replaced the Drip toaster widget I was using with a bunch of visually loud, intrusive Thrive Leads opt-ins and popups for the crash course. So you’d go to pretty much any page of https://philipmorganconsulting.com and a big, visually loud slide-in would cover a big part of the screen and ask you to opt in to the Positioning Crash Course. There was a bottom-of-screen ribbon opt-in as well. Overall, those opt-ins got about the same 3% opt-in rate I’d seen on every other site-wide opt-in I’d tried. Meanwhile, my targeted opt-in at http://positioningcrashcourse.com got a steady 34% opt-in rate.

Then, after feeling sorry for my site visitors getting interrupted all the time by opt-in forms (and getting sick of my slow site load time and going on a WordPress plugin killing spree which you might have read about in your news feed–“Dozens slain as frustrated consultant goes on WordPress slow plugin killing spree! Consultant still at large, plugin developers grieving their dead…”), I removed all the slide ins and pop-ups except for a reasonably subtle SumoMe ribbon bar with a simple button that sends people to http://positioningcrashcourse.com. I also retained a few exit intent popups and button-triggered modal popups on key pages.

A Formula That Worked

Finally I had something that was actually working to build my list in a way that felt really good to me. Even better, some of those list members were giving me money by buying my book or hiring me to consult for them.

I was educating anonymous people via my podcast guest appearances (11 of those to date) and if they liked what I had to say or were curious to learn more, I had a perfectly aligned offer on a landing page inviting them to sign up for an email course where they could learn more about the exact topic I was discussing on the podcast–no strings attached.

This formula was the primary engine that pushed my list membership from 250 to 1000 over 6 months between the end of March and now. It’s not the only thing I’ve done to send people to http://positioningcrashcourse.com, but it’s the thing that’s been the most reliable and effective. (I should tell you about the time I spent $42 to acquire a single new list subscriber via Facebook ads…)

A few other things have contributed to the subscriber growth I’ve seen since March. For example, I got a very nice mention of my now-retired service My Content Sherpa on the Smart Passive Income podcast by my friend Brian Casel, and that drove a fair bit of traffic to http://mycontentsherpa.com and added perhaps 50 or 75 members to my list.

I Like My List-Building Formula

I really like this teaching-based list-building method. I enjoy teaching, and I enjoy teaching from my cozy little home office, especially when someone else does all the hard work of building an audience, asking good interview questions, and editing and publishing the resulting content. That’s essentially what podcast guesting is, and again, it’s the single biggest driver of my climb from 100 to 1000 list members.

If I’ve spent 30 or 45 minutes talking about positioning with a podcast host, there is simply no more perfect call to action than to send listeners to a free email course at an easy-to-remember domain name with a reasonably well-designed 1-action landing page. The CTA is 100% aligned with the thing it follows, and it extends (adds value to) the podcast guest spot perfectly.

All The Numbers

Here are some numbers for ya:

  • Subscriber growth: As previously mentioned, my list grew from 121 to 1,016 subscribers over the last year.
  • Unsubscribes: During that time, there were 124 unsubscribes, giving an 11.71% global unsubscribe rate.
  • Open rates: My open rate ranges from 40% to almost 70% across a number of campaigns.
  • % of subscribers who have paid me money for something: 369 subscribers have given me money for something, which is a 29.1% free -> paid conversion rate according to Drip.[2]
  • Of the people who join the Positioning Crash Course, about 11.5% become TPM customers (the rest of that 29.1% global free -> paid conversion rate is from people who purchased TPM without going through the Positioning Crash Course first).

Sidebar: It Ain’t All About Gettin’ New Subscribers

I know in this article I’m going on and on (and on, and ON…) about new subscribers, but I just want to say: that’s just the beginning. There’s the first date, and there’s the ensuing relationship, and you gotta focus on both.

To be honest, I (and a lot of my clients) struggle with this. No, not my real relationship. My wife is very happy with our relationship thankyouverymuch :).

What I and every “list person” I know wants to do is send out original, new 5-star content every week. Articles where where the natural response is “woah, where’s that Instapaper button?” or “You’re going right into my Evernote archive for useful stuff! Thanks Philip!”.

I think this is a good goal, but I don’t think it’s 100% necessary. You’re certainly not a failure if you can’t reach this bar, and I often wonder if sending 3,000 words of content every week wouldn’t get rather fatiguing. In a way, it puts a lot of pressure on list members, doesn’t it? I’m convinced that frequent shorter emails can work just as well. I’d love your thoughts if you want to tap REPLY and weigh in on this.

Either way, you do need to think through what’s next after a new list member has completed your email course or downloaded your lead magnet. For my list, you get an email at the end of the Positioning Crash Course asking if you’d like to go deeper and inviting you to join one of three other crash courses by clicking on an opt-in link, and moving you to a “list warming” campaign where I send out emails like this article.

I’m also “working on” (meaning it’s pretty far down my TODO list, but it’s there) repurposing episodes of my podcast, The Consulting Pipeline Podcast as list warming emails, but I think there’s more to doing that right than just pasting in transcripts of podcast episodes and hitting publish.

In general, I like the “more crash courses” strategy. After someone has completed your lead magnet or crash course, what else can you teach them that they might be interested in? Or after they’ve bought your book, how can you add more value through periodic emails? It sure makes it easier to sell your next book if your list has been hearing from you periodically post-purchase.

Ultimately, the “what next” question comes down to your own personal answer to whether you will try to produce epic content on an irregular schedule vs. easier-to-produce content on a regular schedule vs. putting real time or money resources in to creating (or paying someone to create) epic content on a regular schedule. In general, though, put every damn thing you create for your list into an autoresponder sequence (a Campaign in Drip) instead of using one-time broadcasts (unless it’s time-sensitive like a webinar reminder) so that whatever you do create gets leveraged as much as possible.

Now, About the SELLIN’ Part of Things

Having a list of over 1,000 subscribers is nice. It’s now how I introduce myself in social settings.

“I’m Philip Morgan, and I periodically email my 1k-person list.”

Kidding… But that does bring up a big question…

Why build a list at all?

I think there are two reasons for a professional services provider to have an email list:

  1. Your list helps you become a name. You become familiar to the engaged list members, who learn about your philosophy and approach to things. This makes you referrable by them. They may never need your services or never have hired you, but when they are talking to someone who does, they’ll actually refer you because they feel like they know you! This is actually one good reason to sprinkle in more personally-revealing, relationship-building content and not have every single article you send your list be epic educational content. Your list also helps keep you near the top of your list members’ mind, recruiting the availability heuristic as a member of your sales team.
  2. Your list helps you sell stuff. Products, services, events, and so on.

On my list I don’t sell hard at all, with the exception of quarterly-or-so launches and new product announcements. Mostly I just link from relevant email content to a sales page or ask people to tap REPLY so I can start a conversation with them.

A launch sequence is usually a week’s worth of emails leading up to a full on pitch. Basically they’re a sales page dripped out over a week’s worth of emails (and OMG does Drip make it so easy to create smart, flexible launch sequences!). I usually segment launches so they don’t go to all 1,016 subscribers–just to a segment I think will dig the offer.

Becoming a Client

When someone moves from free list member to paying client (not customer of an ebook, but consulting client), it happens real fast or reeeeal slow.

Here’s what it looks like when it happens fast:

30 days seems to be about the “magic number” that divides those who are gonna hire me soon and those who won’t ever, or will require a lot of nurturing before they hire me. I call this the “30 day club”–people who have joined my list and then gone on to hire me less than 30 days later. There are only a few of these people so far, but see below for my ideas of hatching more of them.

I’ve also personally experienced the “referrability” effect I described above. I have a list member who periodically replies to emails with a short verbal thank you and a “this rocks” kind of message, and he’s recently referred me to what may turn out to be my biggest client yet.

I use Drip’s Lead Scoring feature. This looks at subscriber activity like email opens, link clicks, and page visits, and when enough of those happen, Drip tags the subscriber as a lead and I use automation to send out a “checking in” email.

Right now my Lead Scoring setup is aimed at encouraging subscribers who look like they’re interested in what I’m doing to contact me, so I can explore via email whether there might be a fit for consulting services. But I think I’m going to change that so that Lead Scoring encourages subscribers who have not purchased a low-priced book from me to do that. I’ll send a discount code or something like that, preferably with a built-in time limit to create scarcity.

I think Seth Godin is right when he says that the biggest price barrier in the world is the chasm between FREE and ONE PENNY. In other words, the move from free to “paid you something, anything at all” is the highest point of friction for list subscribers, and it stands to reason that offering a $9 or $19 e-book is an easier way to get more people over that free to paid threshold than offering $thousands of consulting services.

Just recently I started writing a book called The Positioning Strategy Guide that is a lower-priced offer that will change my funnel from “Positioning Crash Course –> offer The Positioning Manual” to “Positioning Crash Course –> offer Positioning Strategy Guide –> offer The Positioning Manual”. I hope that increases the number of list members who pay me money for something, and with that change I’ve also added Brandon Hilker’s conditional CTA widget to show people who’ve opted in for The Positioning Crash Course a different CTA at key places on my site.

Getting To The Next 1,000 in 3 Months Instead of 12

Having a list has been a pure, unmitigated good thing for my business.

I now have the somewhat audacious goal of attracting 1,000 more people to join my list in the next 3 months. That means I’ll have to do some things differently, and some things I’ll just have to do a better job of.

Here are my ideas for accomplishing that goal:

  • I’m going bigger with my podcast guesting ambitions. I’ve been on some awesome podcasts so far, and I plan to build on that success by targeting bigger podcasts with bigger audiences. I haven’t really started even the research for this yet, so I’m not sure it’ll yield results within 3 months[3], but I’m confident it will pay off over the next year.
  • Guest blog article writing. I gotta be honest here–I’m not sure this works as well as it used to or as well as some people would have you believe it does (I’m lookin’ at you, Jon Morrow). I just don’t hear the kind of success stories from my peer group that I’d need to be hearing to continue to believe in guest posting. When it does work, I think the key is alignment. (There’s that word again!) If your end-of-guest-post call to action is 100% aligned with your post, then I think a prominent guest blog placement can pay off in list subscribers, but I think the payoff pales in comparison to a higher-fidelity educational experience like a podcast guest spot.
  • I’m planning to do more e-bombing. That’s Amy Hoy’s word for going out into the online world and finding opportunities to answer questions people have. I’ll probably automate looking for new results to these searches and look for opportunities to point people back to http://positioningcrashcourse.com via hand-crafted, artisanal answers to people’s questions about positioning.
  • Content upgrades on blog articles on https://philipmorganconsulting.com. I think I’ll start with the top 25% by traffic. Here’s a great example of a content upgrade.
  • I’m going to start thinking of the “30 day club” like emergency room doctors think of the golden hour–the first hour after a traumatic injury when the effect of prompt medical treatment is most likely to save a life. I think if I focus more on doing some smart selling to new subscribers during that 30-day window I might get more people into the 30-day club. I know this isn’t a list growth goal per-se, but more of a list leveraging goal.
  • Content syndication. Paul Jarvis has written the best article there is on doing content syndication, so I won’t re-hash what he’s already explained so well, but I do think that content like this very article would do well if I cross-posted to Medium and other outlets. Maybe I’ll even go with that linkbaitey article title from above. 🙂
  • Better CTAs and an overall better show structure on my podcast. Almost 1000 people a week download episodes of The Consulting Pipeline Podcast, and I think some of those may not be list subscribers. With some slight tweaks to my show format I think I can better leverage this marketing channel to drive list growth.
  • A local IRL educational blitzkrieg. I will be the #1 expert on positioning professional services firms in the Bay Area of California in a year or two. I have zero doubt in my mind about that. I plan to achieve this goal–which will have a beneficial spillover into my list size–through local workshops and classes. I’m in discussions with General Assembly at the time of this writing about my first local class on positioning, and I plan to do a lot more of these in the coming months.
  • Webinars. This will simply be an online extension of the local IRL educational blitz.

So there you have it–my ideas for attracting 1,000 more list subscribers in the next 90 days.

Takeaways For You, Gentle Reader And Future Custodian of a 1,000-Person List

What about you? What if you too would like to have an email list of 1,000 people? After all, I don’t spend 4 to 6 hours writing an article like this to feel better about myself. I do it to share what I hope is an interesting journey and pull out some things you can apply to your business.

So here are my two simple takeaways for you if you want to grow your list:

  1. You do have an email list, don’t you? If not, start NOW. In fact, if you happen to have a time machine, go back a few years and start THEN. But absent a time machine, start NOW–like TODAY. Sign up for a MailChimp or Drip account, build a lead magnet some time this week (no matter how basic it seems to you), and STOP bleeding the opportunity cost of not having a list.
  2. At the end of the day, there are really just two ways to get new list members. You can earn that attention, or you can buy it (by paying advertisers to show your message to their ad audience(s)). I suspect that the better list members–ones that pay more attention to you and spend more as a whole–come from earning it. Teaching them something then providing a free, no-strings-attached way to learn more by joining your list. And if you’re doing that, it makes no sense for your “learn more” CTA to be “visit my site”. Instead, take the extra few hours of time to set up a landing page to send people to. This, BTW, is exactly one of the lead generation techniques Brennan Dunn teaches in his Double Your Freelancing Clients class. Go out in the world somehow–in a way that suits your personality–and TEACH. And have a CTA that extends the value of your teaching event. So that could be podcast guesting, to a certain extent podcast hosting, giving talks, hosting free workshops using a borrowed audience, or hosting/co-hosting webinars.

Now For Some Sellin’ Of My Own!

I can help you with this stuff. If you have the time to DIY it but not the know-how or the support, I have a pretty great group mentoring program. If you don’t even have the time to implement yourself, I can do it for you.

As you can see from this article, I’m not a born list-building genius, but I have learned a thing or two from my own experience, and that might be worth hiring me to gain direct access to. Or maybe not. You decide. 🙂


  1. A sitewide opt-in is where you have the same opt-in offer, maybe even the same from, displayed on every page throughout the site.  ↩
  2. To be completely accurate it’s somewhat lower than that because I’ve given away some copies of TPM that still count as conversions even though no money changed hands. I don’t know exactly how much lower because see the above about me sucking at analytics.  ↩
  3. The more professionally-run podcasts have a month or three worth of shows in the can ready to publish, so even if I recorded a huge podcast guest spot tomorrow it might take 2 or 3 months to air.  ↩

Want to stop competing against every other developer?

"This is by far the most valuable email I have ever received from an email list." - Timothy Voice

x