An Honest Approach to Email Marketing

Your email list is the lifeblood of your blogging business. Your email list will likely be the most valuable asset that you have. Whilst there are so many other volatile factors that determine the success of your website, your email list is the one thing that grows steadily over time and is at almost no risk of vanishing on you one day (make sure you have backups!). You don’t have to worry about losing that overnight to something like a Google algorithm update, or Facebook deciding to charge you more to access your audience. It is your direct line of communication to people who are interested in what you are doing.

“Email marketers” are often seen in a pretty negative light. There is a lot of shady marketers out there who have no qualms about using whatever tactics necessary to get an email address and abuse it in the ways that will make them the most money. Although it may seem to some people that anybody who asks for your email address is out to leech money from you, email as a medium can facilitate a mutually beneficial relationship between you and your readers.

Email is a huge part of my business, and I don’t feel in any way that I am attempting to use deceptive marketing tactics to trick people into giving me their email address. It’s like attempting to trick someone into being your friend – that is in no way going to lead to any kind of productive relationship. I use email to build relationships with my audience, deliver them valuable content, and promote my paid products. I do this in a way that I feel is entirely honest and transparent.

I am going to discuss my approach in detail, but one of the most important parts of that is to give way more than you take. Deliver valuable content to your audience before you tell them about your paid products. Give (x10), then ask.

Gather Email Addresses Honestly

Building a valuable email list means building good relationships, and the way in which you start that relationship is important. The goal is not to get an email address, it is to build a mutually beneficial relationship. It is therefore important that you communicate effectively when asking for a readers email address. The following are important points to keep in mind:

  • Tell the reader how you intend to communicate with them (what will you send them? how often?)
  • Use a double opt-in form. This requires that the reader clicks a confirmation link in an email in order to subscribe. This prevents people from using somebody else’s email address to sign up and also helps to make it clear to the reader that they are signing up to a mailing list.
  • Offer an easy and obvious way to unsubscribe – Again, this is a relationship, not a trap. Most email services required this by default (you can face serious penalties for not adhering to spam laws).

To give an example of what I currently do on my main blog, my main/generic signup form consists of the following message:

Subscribe to the weekly newsletter and you will have the option to sign up for the free BEGINNER or ADVANCED email course. You will also gain instant access to all the bonus content on the site.

This message needs to be kept relatively short because of space requirements, but also because I don’t want to bombard the reader with information at this stage. I use this to get the following points across:

  • I want to send you a weekly email update
  • I can send you more content via email if you like
  • I’ll give you access to all of the bonus content for the site

I provide an incentive to provide their email address and start to set their expectations in terms of what they might expect me to email. After the reader has subscribed, I send them a follow-up email. I won’t post the entire contents here, but the main points are:

  • I explain that I will be delivering mobile development content to them
  • I let them know I will generally send one email a week
  • I offer an option to receive a free course delivered via email
  • I offer an option to be notified about every tutorial I release if they wish
  • I encourage them to email me back if they have any questions

The goal here is to very clearly obtain the reader’s permission to communicate with them, and let them know how you intend to communicate so that they don’t receive unexpected emails. The approach above allows me to send a lot more content to people who want it, but for those who don’t like receiving many emails, they won’t.

Create Incentives to Subscribe

People on the Internet are apathetic. Everything is fighting for your attention, and we’ve been fine-tuned to block out anything that seems remotely promotional. Even if a reader would happily subscribe to your email list, a lot of the time they probably aren’t going to bother to click that button in the top-right and enter their email address. Even if you plan on sending nothing but free valuable content to your readers, and ask absolutely nothing in return, you are still going to need to fight for their attention.

If you want to start growing your email list faster, then you are going to need to offer some kind of incentive. You need something that is going to overcome that apathy. As you have read above, one incentive I have for signing up is getting access to a free course delivered via email – this course is a sequence of emails that get sent out over the span of a week.

One of the most successful incentives I have used is “bonus content” or “content upgrades” as they are also known. Basically, you have your content that you are providing to the user for free (a tutorial, for example), and inside of that content, you offer some kind of “bonus” for subscribing. For my tutorials, this is typically access to the source code for the application in the tutorial. But there are plenty of other ways you could do this. You could provide an additional PDF guide related to the post, a checklist, some kind of resources/graphical assets, and so on.

This might feel a little shady – holding free content back in exchange for an email address, but I think it is absolutely necessary. This is a little incentive to get people through the door, not to trick or trap them. Remember that you are trying to build a relationship with your readers, and that means acting in your own interest as well. In the end, it is your content and you are allowed to dictate how that content is accessed.

What about modal popups?

I feel popups deserve a special mention here. Some people hate these with a passion, and it’s not hard to see where that hate comes from. Some email subscription modals can be extensively annoying and obnoxious. Some pop up when you are in the middle of reading, some move the scroll position, some make it difficult to close, and some are just worded kind of annoyingly…

Do you want to receive this free guide?

  • Yes!
  • No, I enjoy being unsuccessful (in tiny, grayed out text)

Despite their bad reputation, I think modals can be done tastefully and create a net positive effect for you and your readers. I do use a modal email subscription form, and to be as unobtrusive as possible I have it set up as follows:

  • It will only display on desktop
  • It only displays once every 15 days
  • It has a clear and obvious message
  • It is easily dismissable
  • It only displays on exit intent. This attempts to detect when the user appears to be leaving the page, and will trigger it then (which means you hopefully won’t be interrupting their reading). This does not prevent them exiting, though, if they aren’t interested then they just continue their course of action and leave.

No matter how unobtrusive you try to be, you will piss some people off, but it is generally worth it. Again, if you are delivering free content then ultimately it is up to you to dictate how you deliver that content.

To test how effective my modal popup was, I created a segment to see how many people who initially signed up using my popup modal went on to buy something. The result was 290 people. I haven’t drilled down into enough detail to see exactly how much those people paid, but it would be somewhere in the region of $35,000. Those same people may have still bought one of my products if I didn’t have the popup, but these are big numbers we are dealing with.

There is a line between not being too pushy, and not being pushy enough. Popups are pushy, but I think if they are done well they are perfectly reasonable. If you feel that a modal popup is worthwhile, then you should use it even if you do get an angry email once in a while.

Treat Your Email List with Respect

If your email list is the most valuable asset you have, you certainly don’t want to do anything to jeopardise that. When a reader signs up to your list, they are trusting you to treat their email address with respect. If you aren’t considerate of the way in which you email, and what you do with your email list, you can easily jeapordise this important asset. Some things that might run you into some trouble are:

  • Getting your domain blacklisted for spamming/scamming – Domains that facilitate the sending of spam/scam/phishing emails can find themselves on a blacklist. If you are on this blacklist, then most email providers (GMail etc.) won’t deliver your emails. Even if you aren’t intentionally spamming, you could still end up getting blacklisted.
  • Selling your list – This is about as shady as you can get. I can’t speak to the legality of it, but at best it is a complete betrayal of trust and extremely short-sighted.
  • Use heavy promotional language/tactics – this can get your emails flagged as spam, and even if your emails are opened you will likely lose respect from your readers if you are being too heavy handed in your promotions
  • Clickbait – I think attention-grabbing or even cheeky subjects are fine, but don’t do anything that is going to leave your audience feeling like they have been deceived when they open your emails, or click on links in your emails.

Onboard New Subscribers

When you are first starting to grow your blog and audience, I think a simple weekly email newsletter is completely adequate. As time goes on, though, you can start to get more sophisticated with the way you initially communicate with your readers.

I have been blogging for somewhere around 5 years, and there is a lot of older content on my blog that is still quite valuable. Somebody who has just recently discovered my website and subscribed will likely not have been exposed to a lot of this content.

As I mentioned previously, when a reader subscribes to my mailing list I provide them with the option to sign up for additional email sequences that will send them some hand-picked content. This will trigger a sequence of emails, and at the end of that sequence, they will have the option to sign up to even more specialised sequences. This introduces the reader to the content they are interested in, and it also helps segment my email list so I know more accurately what kinds of content people are interested in.

I will create another blog post at some point that details this strategy and how to set it up in more depth.

Deliver Value Consistently

You don’t want to send too many emails, but at the other end of the spectrum, sending too few emails can be just as detrimental. If a reader signs up to your mailing list, but they don’t receive anything from you for an entire month, they may have forgotten even signing up in the first place. By consistently releasing fresh content and sending emails, you will be able to remain in your readers “headspace”. They will recognise emails from you and will be more likely to visit your website on their own accord.

Promote Your Products!

I’ve spent a lot of time saying that you should be careful not to promote too heavily, and to deliver value to your subscribers. This doesn’t mean that you should be scared to promote your products, this is what allows your business to thrive. Offering paid products is still providing value to your readers (generally, paid products provide more value than free content). You just need to aim to get to the point where the majority of your audience is happy to hear about your paid product because they know it is going to be valuable to them.

You should be giving a lot more than you are asking, but you do need to ask at some point. Here is an example of what I think is a good example of balance between providing value for free, and promoting paid products:

  • free valuable content
  • free valuable content
  • free valuable content (with a soft pitch for your product)
  • free valuable content
  • free valuable content
  • hard pitch for your product
  • free valuable content
  • free valuable content
  • free valuable content

Most of the emails being sent are just genuinely free and helpful to the reader. By delivering so much value for free you will be building a lot of goodwill with your readers, and they generally won’t be annoyed to receive a sales email from you (assuming that it is relevant to them).

On the other hand, this is what I would consider to be an example of a bad email sequence:

  • free valuable content
  • hard pitch for your product
  • free valuable content (with soft pitch)
  • free valuable content
  • hard pitch for your product
  • hard pitch for your product

This sequence of emails is more likely to give out the vibe that you are desperate to squeeze some money out of them. I like to imagine this like the difference between a good neighbour and a bad one. If your neighbour is generally a pleasant person, great to talk to and happy to help you out with things, when they ask to borrow something you probably aren’t going to be annoyed or have any negative feelings towards that person. If that same person comes to your house everyday asking for things and is providing zero value to your life, you’ll probably get sick of their shit pretty quickly and stop answering your door.

Even if you do take this approach, of ensuring that you are delivering a lot of value for free, some people will still object to being sold to and you will likely bleed some subscribers when you do a focused marketing push (I generally send more promotional emails when I am launching a new product). Don’t let it stop you, though, these people would likely never have bought anything from you anyway.

Don’t be afraid to sell to your audience.


The approach to email marketing that I have described in this article allows me to run my business in a way that I feel is honorable and honest. I don’t consider myself to be much of a salesman, and generally, dislike a lot of “sales tactics”, but if you want to run an online business like this then you need to do sales. Sales do not have to be about tricks and deception, if you have a solid value proposition then you can sell completely honestly.

Despite how honest you may attempt to be in your marketing, you will still get people who will be irrationally angry at you. I’ve had people go as far as to say that I should take a walk off a bridge for the way I conduct my email marketing. Those people are in far fewer numbers than the people with positive reactions, but the negative comments are usually the ones that stick in your head. You just need to learn to ignore unconstructive negative comments and realise that it says more about them than it does about you (advice that is often given to 6-year-olds, but true nonetheless!).