I have to start with this disclaimer…
I hesitate to write articles that include phrases like “how to make money with an email list” because a) money’s a crappy goal in and of itself and b) I don’t want my writing to get lumped in with thought-leader marketing bullshit.
Seriously, Google “how to make money from [insert any activity]…” and total crap fills the results.
Hopefully this will be a shining beacon of honesty for Google. Or at least, for you.
Disclaimers aside, most folks who make a living online including me, do so by revenue generated from mailing lists.
“The money is in the list” and all that.
In fact, year over year, more and more of my income is a direct result of my newsletter (90%+ now). I typically see, for $1 I spend on MailChimp’s services (the email service provider I use and that’s an affiliate link), $120 in revenue.
That kind of ROI doesn’t happen from ads (at least not for me, I’ve tried) or from posting on social media (luckily that’s free to use, mostly, because I make very little revenue from it).
Email marketing consistently outperforms every other channel, by a metric ton.
But, and there’s always a but…
How do you make money from your mailing list?!
Let’s dive into the specifics and examples of how paying for an email service provider translates into this magical money being deposited into your account.
1 / Money is made indirectly from your list.
It’s not enough to have a big list, you have to people on it that click your links, and then buy what you’re selling.
For example, if you have a list of 100,000 seasoned, professional Rails developers and you tell them you’re selling a basic training for how to learn Rails, you’ll generate zero revenue. (They already know Rails.)
Or you try to sell eco-friendly dog beauty products to a list of people interested in surfing in South Africa. (Ok, there might be a little cross-over between dogs and water sports).
The beauty of mailing lists is that you have direct access to the people on it. As in, you can email them. You can get to know them. You can find out who they are, what they want to know and what sorts of things they’d be interested in buying.
- Having a list is great.
- Having a list that’s full of people with the same interests, desires and needs is better.
- Having a list that’s full of people with the same interests, desires and needs that you speak to on a regular basis is the top rung of the email marketing money ladder.
Breaking that last bullet down a bit:
- You first need a mailing list to make money from it (duh).
- Your mailing list shouldn’t be for everyone, it should be for a specific type of person with specific interests and needs.
- You can’t just a build a list, however targeted, and be like “I’M NOW RICH!” – you’ve got to talk to them regularly and pitch them seldomly.
In order for people to click and then buy from the emails you send them, they need to trust you completely. This trust is built by communicating with them regularly. And it’s built because you’re giving them content even when you have nothing to sell (and not making these email mistakes).
I email my own list once a week, every Sunday morning. I never miss a Sunday and except for 2-3 times a year, I have nothing for sale in those emails – I’m just sharing an article I wrote.
So list subscribers don’t convert to buyers when/if you only blast them sales pitches. You’ve got to give them value, through regular content, and them pitch them.
2 / You don’t need a big list to make great money from it.
I only had a list of a few hundred people during my first year, when I was just doing web design. I generated 6-figures from it because I only needed 12 clients a year.
My list was focused on answering questions that the type of people who hired web designers wanted to know. And after each article I wrote, specifically for those types of people, I mentioned my current schedule.
For example: “I’m currently booked 3 months out and have room for 1 more client as of then. If you’d like to be that client, get in touch now, as I can only lock in projects when I have a downpayment and a signed contract.”
That was all I needed to create enough revenue to live off of. A few hundred people and 12 sales a year.
I only worked at growing my list to tens of thousands when I started selling products which cost a lot less than my services.
My favourite newsletter only goes out to a few dozen locals, because it’s from the farm down the road that has a tiny market on Saturdays. That one email, once a week, to 20 or 30 people, generates enough revenue for them to work their farm (and has led to connections to sell their produce elsewhere too).
3 / You need to figure out how you’ll make money from your list.
If there was a one-sized-fits-all solution to making money from a mailing list, then you wouldn’t need this article because you’d already know the answer.
There’s no easy answers when it comes to making money – otherwise we’d all be rich and having money fights on our private yachts.
There are however several general ways to generate income:
- Selling your own products. Making products is fun (I’ve done it for years). If people are on your list, you hopefully know enough about them and have been helpful to them that they’re asking you for something. Make that. Sell it to them. Since I primarily create courses, I spend most weeks writing free articles that relate to a course subject, and then once or twice a year, I give a pitch to buy it.
- Selling other people’s products. Affiliates take more work on the sales side, probably because you don’t create them yourself – you just link to them. Hence, it’s even more important that you provide a clear reason to your subscribers as to why you’re pitching them on these products. It’s also important (i.e. required by law) to disclose an affiliate link as an affiliate link. Like this: I use FlyWheel (affiliate link) as my web hosting company because they are reliable, secure and have friendly, human support.
- Selling sponsorships. Just like a podcast, your list, if it’s big enough and/or targeted enough, can have a sponsor. They get a link and possibly a small write up in your newsletter, seen by lots of people, and you get paid. My own podcast sponsor FreshBooks is also my mailing list sponsor (since they’re basically the same content in different formats).
- Selling patronage. If you want sponsors for your list but don’t want to go the sponsorship route, you can ask your audience to be micro-sponsors and kick in a bit of money. BrainPickings does this well (asking for $3-25/month for amazing content).
Those are the four main ways you can make money from your list, and they each have their own pros and cons.
4 / I would be remiss not to mention that there are also wrong ways to make money from your list.
Very, very wrong ways.
Like Darth Vader cutting off his own son’s hand wrong.(Sorry if that’s a spoiler!).
- Selling your mailing list to someone else – if your subscribers didn’t each give you explicit permission to do so – is wrong.
- Not disclosing affiliate links is wrong.
- This is a bit more of an opinion than fact/law, but I always feel totally betrayed if I buy something from someone and then start getting emails from them that aren’t related to the product.
That’s the dark side of the email marketing force. There’s also a side that’s not plain evil but just ineffective.
It’s hard or harder to make money from your mailing list if:
- You only email your list when you want something. Like a sale. Otherwise known as a ME-ME-ME list. Remember, your list isn’t to serve you alone, it’s also to serve your subscribers (or they’ll leave).
- Your emails aren’t mobile friendly, you’re missing 50% of the boat (and we all know boats don’t float if you cut half of it off – sorry Titanic).
- Your emails contain more information than your entire website combined. Focus is key. One email = one thought and one final action. If you only give people one thing to do in each email, they’re more likely to do it than if you give them 14,936 things and cross your fingers, hoping they pick the right one.
- Your emails are boring. BORING IS BORING. If you first give people a good reason to open your email (from a good subject line) and then a reason to read it (good content), then they’ll probably want to do that one thing you want them to do at the end of the email.
- Your emails are few and far between. And worse, the only emails you send are ones where you apologize for not emailing lately. Consistency’s reward is revenue. If you make no time for your list, they’re not going to make time for you or what you’re selling.
It’s possible to make a decent amount of money from your mailing list – if you put in the work and do it properly. There’s no gravy-train that takes you to BagsofMoneyVille station. (Also, can you tell me where BagsofMoneyVille is on Google Maps please?)
But if you build a list of people that have similar interests and needs, become a trustworthy and regular source of value for them, they’ll reward you with purchases.
No rocket science, no magic fairy dust, you just need to keep things above board and make your mailing list a priority in your business. I’ve done just that and that’s why I see a 120x return on my newsletter investment and why I teach a MailChimp training. Email marketing is a powerful tool.