I Tried to Build an Email List in 2020

Pete Ross


The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. You missed it by 100+ years, just like you’ve already missed the email land rush. Source: Public Domain

The email list has always been the gold standard of marketing since the Internet began. You have a captive audience of followers who hang on your every word because after all, they signed up for it, so they must be interested. You can share your life with them, sell to them, there are literally no downsides and no reason not to do it.

Sounds a little bit good to be true, no?

Let me take you back a decade ago, maybe a little bit longer. The Internet was like the great land rush of 1889 — huge, open swaths of potential subscribers just waiting to put their email addresses into opt-in forms for anyone who was sharp enough to see that it was going to be a thing. Those people now have tens, even hundreds of thousands of subscribers to their credit who have stuck around, bought their stuff and made them rich.

It’s the early adopter phenomenon, and it happens on every social media platform, including this one. Those first adopters to jump on the trend reap outsized rewards from it — rewards that just aren’t possible for those following at the other end of the bell curve of saturation.

The reality on the ground now is of course very different. The Internet, just like those wide open spaces waiting to be claimed, is now like trying to buy real estate in the most expensive cities in the world. An article like “Easy Tips to Grow an Email List in 2020” honestly has about as much credit as “Easy Tips to Buy an Apartment in Manhattan in 2020.”

Not only is it not easy, it’s one of the hardest freaking things you can try to do in the current state of play.

But back in April, I wanted to give Medium and my writing a really red hot go. You know, treat it like a second job. So I started trying to build an email list, using the knowledge I’d had from previous attempts over the years. Here’s what I found out.

Gaining followers

It’s slow. Like, really slow. Why? Because like I said, this ain’t the Internet land rush of 2010. People are over subscribed as it is. Any website that is selling anything is going to get people signed up to it and thanks to people who have no idea what they’re doing, most email lists spam their followers to the point that they don’t want to sign up for anything anymore.

Nonetheless, I figured since I’m a reasonably popular writer here with almost 10k followers, I could at least get some kind of momentum. Unfortunately, the results were abysmal. I almost punched the air in victory each time I got a follower, because they trickled in so slowly. That surprised me, because my proposition was a form at the bottom of my articles with a very simple message:

Subscribe to get a once per week digest of all my articles.

I think it was worded slightly differently, but you get the point. I made it very clear that it was only so they could get my work delivered to their inbox, because until a month ago, following someone on Medium didn’t mean that you’d see their work, thanks to that pesky algorithm.

The result? A grand total of 35 subscribers after 4 months.

A fly in the ointment

Now to be fair, most of those subscribers came in the first month or two. I was pretty damn happy with that progress. But then, as happens if you’re trying to build a following on the Internet, things change. Medium decided that if you’re going to put an opt-in form in your articles, then they aren’t eligible for curation.

Well, about 60–70% of my work gets curated and that’s how my stuff gets good read numbers, so wtf am I supposed to do now huh?

I didn’t have a back-up plan. I didn’t want to just put a link down the bottom that took readers offsite, because that’s introducing friction into a process that needs to be as fast and easy as possible. In terms of where I was at, it was a pretty catastrophic development.

Subscriber behaviour

This was the real nail in the coffin for my attempts, and was actually quite unexpected. I was honest from the outset about what I was offering — my articles from Medium, in your inbox once a week. No attempts to sell or anything like that. You like my work, you get it, guaranteed.

Now, you’d figure that someone would really have to like your work to sign up for that on Medium. That in this manner, you’re building Kevin Kelly’s “thousand true fans.” That wasn’t the case at all though, because from the outset I was analysing my stats and finding things that really surprised me.

The first was open rates. At the height of my popularity (that gigantic 35 subscribers), my highest number of clicks was half that. The average was actually much worse, somewhere between 6 and 10 clicks. Now, consider that almost every email had links to 3 pieces I’d written that week plus another from the archive — stuff I’d published on Medium all the way back to 2015.

If all my subscribers were really engaged and really loved my work, that should equal upwards of 135 clicks each email.

So despite the fact that these people clearly liked my work enough to subscribe to an email list in a climate where everyone is already over subscribed, despite the fact that I sent those emails on the same day at roughly the same time once a week, the average was that only 2–3 people were actually clicking through to read my work.

Just like the opt-in, I kept the emails simple. A short paragraph at the start, then links to my articles. Occasionally I’d ask a feedback question, but I never, not once, got a response.

The big question

So naturally for me, the big question was “why the hell did you even bother subscribing in the first place?” I mean, if you’re already subscribed to a bunch of things and your inbox is at overflowing, why add yet another one that you’re not even going to read?

I think it’s all about intentions. For me, you’re going to have to work really damn hard to get me to opt in. I’m ruthless when it comes to what I let into my life. But if I like it enough to do that, I’m going to read everything, because you’ve earned your way into my inbox.

I think a lot of people maybe just get caught up in the moment though. They put their address in without thinking it through too much and then when those first few emails come, they just don’t bother because they’re not interested anymore. Which still seems odd to me, given how specific my proposition was.

So, should you try to grow an email list in 2020?

As this was more of an experiment than a burning desire to grow a list, I realised after about 3 months that it just wasn’t worth my time. I figured if the Medium read time from the list could cover the $5 per month subscription fee it would be worth it, but I’m not sure if I ever actually hit that mark.

I think the reality is that if you want to grow a list to the point that you can actually make decent money off of it, you’re going to be working at it for years. Remember, with any list, your open rates are going to be a fraction of your actual following. That means the rate that people will buy at will be even lower — I’d guess 10% of your list if they’re really engaged and you have a really good product.

That means to find that “thousand true fans”, you’re going to need at least 10,000 subscribers. But like I said above, that 10% figure is probably a pipe dream, meaning the reality is more like 20,000 to 30,000 subscribers. I got 35 subscribers in a couple of months despite a fairly decent readership on Medium.

That translates to either a really long time, possibly never.

So my advice, for what it’s worth, is instead of trying to do the Internet equivalent of buy an apartment in Manhattan, look for the cheap land in an area that’s about to grow. I don’t know what the next big social media channel is, but I’d wager you have a far higher chance of success there than over email.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.


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