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Everyone Grows an Email List. Here’s Why We Stopped Growing Ours.

Feb 3, 2016 8 min readEmail Marketing
Photo of Kevan Lee
Kevan Lee

Former VP of Marketing @ Buffer

Awhile back, we were fortunate to try some neat email tactics that helped double our email list growth in just one month’s time.

Then we stopped growing our list altogether.

We shifted our learnings from growing an email list into growing Buffer signups. And we’ve yet to go back.

Odd? Strange? Counterintuitive? Yep, probably all those things. Most online marketing advice today will advise you to build an email list, first and foremost. We aren’t. We’ve had the same amount of email subscribers to the Buffer blog since June 2015. There are only three places on the whole of the Internet anymore to signup for our list (buried deep within the Buffer app, at the footer of this blog, and at this URL, which we link to from nowhere that I can remember).

How come?

And will we ever go back?

I’d love to share some thoughts.

(I thought I’d try a quick audio version of this blog post, in case that might be easier at all for some folks. Would love to hear how it feels!)

Almost literally everyone builds an email list

I have a list of favorite blogs in my Feedly, and quite nearly every single one of them has an email capture form of some sort on their home page.

(The only one I couldn’t find one for was Lifehacker, which I think has its own proprietary method of gaining signups/users.)


Here’s one for Zen Habits:

zen habits email

For Brain Pickings:

brain pickings email

For Tim Ferriss’s Four Hour Workweek:

four hour work week email

Etc. Etc.

All these amazing blogs and amazing bloggers are building an email list and growing their audience, and I find it really incredible and inspiring to see all the many unique ways they go about it.

So why aren’t we? Here’re some thoughts.

What do you even do with an email list?

We reached the point where we were growing an email list bigger and bigger and bigger with no real end game in sight.

What did we plan to do with all these email addresses once we had them?

Good question.

We didn’t have an answer, so we stopped trying to add more.

We had lots of different ideas, and people have been so gracious to share their thoughts on what we could be doing (I’d love to hear from you in the comments, too, if anything comes to mind).

Here’re a few suggestions we thought over:

1. Lead nurturing

We’ve not quite made much progress into lead nurturing just yet—and to be honest, it could partly be because I don’t fully understand the term!

Here’s what I imagine the definition to be:

Lead nurturing is the process of taking a lead (another term that gives me pause – is a lead just an email?) and slowly but surely turning them into a customer by keeping in close touch and building a strong case, over time, for why they might like to use your product.

You’ve maybe heard that email is 40x more effective at acquiring new customers than Facebook or Twitter? Lead nurturing is a big reason why.

(More on this below.)

2. Webinar signups

One thing many marketers do with a newsletter list is occasionally send out invitations to webinars. The webinars, then, became the gateway into the product where people get to know more about what you do, ask questions, get support, and eventually become customers.

Wait a minute. This is lead nurturing!

3. Merge into a CRM tool

I’ve heard others who take their newsletter list and slip them into the pipeline with the rest of the CRM (customer relationship management) folks that come to the company from any which direction.

4. Leave them be

This has been our chosen path for the past several years. We built an email list (currently at 44,000 subscribers), we share articles with the list, and we don’t do anything else.

What this essentially amounts to is a long-term, customer-driven sales cycle: essentially a soft sell or, in some ways, a zero sell.

The three different kinds of marketing sells

  1. Hard sell
  2. Soft sell
  3. Zero sell

The hard sell is when you make a direct pitch for your product. This can take many forms, but you’ll often see it in an email or a mailer or an ad: anything where the overall goal and action for the user is to sign up, join, or start with a product.

The soft sell is a bit more of a slow play: The connection with the product or service is there, but it’s subtle, understated, and in some ways a bit behind-the-scenes. Social media can sometimes be a soft-sell channel, where you’re delivering value for the audience without necessarily seeking a direct signup.

And then there’s the zero sell, where there’s no mention of a product or service, just good vibes and positive interactions. The goal here is that people will come to trust and like your brand in such a way that future connections and sales will happen organically, with the customer reaching out. You’re building a bias for your brand, whenever (if ever) your audience is in need of your type of product.

3 different types of selling

Which one of these three resonates most strongly with email marketing?

In our experience it’s been the case that a soft sell or hard sell makes the most sense for getting the most of an email list. Yet our approach, to date, has been zero sell.

Which is why we chose to switch things up a bit.

What we’ve done instead: Turning email lessons into Buffer signups

Our cofounders Joel and Leo had an awesome observation while we were in the midst of thinking through this email conundrum:

What if we could take what we learned from doubling an email list and apply it to getting more Buffer signups?

And so we did!

We replaced all of the email CTAs on the blog with signup CTAs — from top to bottom, from HelloBar to slideup, everything all of a sudden started being about Buffer and Buffer’s benefits for social media marketers.

And things have gone well — well enough that we’ve yet to change things back.

We gain 348 Buffer signups per week from the blog.

In the last month, the blog sent 1,479 signups, which represented the lion’s share of marketing’s contribution to Buffer’s bottom line.

Things have been good.

… and still …

I wonder how things might look if we were to really double down on nurturing our email subscribers. Here’s a bit more context.

The blog currently has a 2.27% conversion rate for Buffer signups.

Our email courses convert at 2.81% — with certain courses as high as 7% or 9%!

The email dataset is quite a bit less substantial than the Social blog’s, yet the slight uptick in conversions — with a zero-sell mindset in place to boot — is definitely intriguing!

Our perfect world for email communication

Here’s what our email list contains:

  • Buffer users and non-Buffer users
  • Buffer users on free plans and those on paid plans
  • Buffer users on paid plans and Buffer users on the highest of paid plans
  • Active subscribers and inactive subscribers

That’s a lot of different folks!

What would feel great is if we could customize our messages for each different group. The Buffer users would receive a message of thanks for being cool customers, the non-Buffer users would get a message about trying Buffer for free or something showing the benefits of joining up with us.

And the customization goes on and on.

How cool would it be if an Awesome user received the occasional upgrade message, specifically about the Business plan’s features?

How neat would it be if an active subscriber saw a message saying thanks for all the opens and clicks?

Further customization and segmentation of the list feels like the next frontier for us. If we can solve all this in an easy and intuitive way, then maybe we’d go back to the way things were: growing a list with a goal in mind.

Why we haven’t built a lead nurture campaign (and why others might not have either)

A lead nurture campaign makes a ton of sense for helping us take the best care of our wonderful new subscribers.

And yet, in my two years at Buffer, I’ve not even started building one.

A lead nurture campaign, as I’ve built it up in my mind, seems like it would take a ton of time to create!

I’d love to hear in the comments from those of you who’ve built one already. Was it a big undertaking? How much time did you spend? What did you push down the priority list to make it happen?

Those are the big questions on my mind. To be quite transparent, I’ve yet to build a lead nurture campaign because I’ve simply chosen other tasks that felt equally as important.

I wrote blog posts and made email courses and tested CTAs.

In other words, I prioritized other things.

I found it hard to place uber-importance on a lead nurture campaign when everything else on the blog was going okay. Which I guess leads to a slightly bigger question (that I definitely do not have the answer to):

How does a small marketing team know how best to use its time?

I’d love for someone to tap me on the shoulder or shoot me a text or hire a skywriter to say: “Lead nurture is the most important thing you can do for your site!” That sure would make prioritization easy. I have a hunch it’s important; I have hunches that lots of things are important.

How do you decide?

Summary (& a kind of ironic conclusion)

So we got good at growing email signups, then we stopped growing email signups. We put all our learnings into gaining new Buffer users, and the plan has worked quite well so far.

What’s next?

Well, we might start growing email signups again!

Ironically enough, I’ve added a personal goal to get a lead nurture campaign in place so that we can see exactly how well subscribers convert to Buffer users. I’m not quite sure the question of prioritization with lead nurture, but I’ll be happy to report back with what we find to be true for us!

I’d love to learn how this idea of email signups, lead nurture, and signups feels to you. Have you experienced anything similar? Any advice for how we’re doing things?

Excited to get your thoughts in the comments!

Image sources: Pablo, Unsplash

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