Using email lists to separate out potential customers from tyre-kickers

There’s been a huge amount of buzz in the online business world recently about using email as a marketing engine for online businesses. Very Smart People™ like Patrick McKenzie, Nathan Barry, Brennan Dunn, and the folks at CopyBlogger and Bootstrappist are all talking up the power of emails in various forms. Generally, when these folks talk about email marketing they are talking about one of three things

  • Lifecycle emails, where the goal is to engage with customers at various points in their use of your product in order to either increase conversion rates or lifetime value
  • Mailing lists, where the goal is to have an instant audience available to new products and content
  • Email courses, where the goal is to get potential customers to sign up for a series of emails which will educate them and build up your credibility to the point where you can pitch them on a product

It’s the last of these that I’m most interested in, and with which I’ve been experimenting for my site Dog Walking Web. In my case, the product is a site builder for non-technical folks who are setting up their own dog walking business. In exchange for a visitor’s email address, I offer a free two-week email course on various aspects of starting up a dog walking business (how to handle scheduling, what type of insurance you need, how to set prices, etc.), during which I pitch them the idea of using the site builder to host their website.

While experimenting with what sort of content to offer in exchange for an email address, I was struck by a point that I don’t think I’ve seen explicitly made anywhere else, so I want to talk about it here: you can design your incentive for signing up in a way that actively selects for good customer prospects.

In my case, I lots of organic search traffic for variation on the theme of “how to set up my own dog walking business”. Having traffic is nice, but the problem for me is that there’s no way to tell how serious potential visitors are about the prospect of setting up their own business. At one end of the scale, that search query might have come from somebody who has just quit their job and is going to start their own dog walking business first thing tomorrow, and is therefore an excellent prospect for my site builder. At the other end, that exact same query could have come from somebody who maybe daydreams about setting up their own dog walking business someday, and every few months does some idle Googling around to see what’s involved – a very bad prospect for a site builder product.

By offering an intensive dog walking business start-up course as my incentive for subscribing, I am actively selecting for the first type of visitor. Somebody who is serious about setting up a dog walking business will be far more likely to sign up than somebody who is just daydreaming. In other words, I have designed my sign-up incentive to appeal to type of visitor who is likely to be a good customer prospect. Consider the opposite situation – what if instead, I offered a free dog first-aid course as an incentive for signing up? Well, that’s the kind of thing that might be useful to anyone involved with dogs, so it would result in much less-targeted signups (though probably more of them). Ditto if I offered free dog photography tips, free doggy treat recipes, or any of dozens of other potential incentives.

Here’s another example from the other side of the equation. A while ago I was wasting time on Reddit (don’t judge me) and came across a post about a very impressive model rocket that somebody had built. I browsed over to the model rocket subreddit and became mildly curious about the hobby – rockets are cool, right? – so I did a bit of idle googling and ended up on a model rocket online store.

Now imagine that you’re the owner of that online store and you are trying to build up an email list of people likely to buy model rockets. I am a terrible prospect to have on that list – I have no intention of actually buying any rockets, I am just nosing around. So for the site owner, a good email incentive would be something along the lines of “tips for assembling model rockets” or “how to identify good launch sites using Google maps” – something that would appeal to an actual model-rocket-buyer, but not to me. On the other hand, a more generic rocket-themed incentive, like “a printable poster of the 10 biggest rockets in the world” would be less good – I might be tempted to sign up to get that, just because I think it would look cool on the wall in my office.

Bottom line: remember when you are designing incentives to get your visitors to sign up, that the type of incentive you provide will likely affect the type of people who sign up.

Caveat: I know that many people reading this will argue, “the marginal cost of having an extra email list subscriber is so low that it’s better to offer the incentive that will attract the most signups, regardless of quality”. It’s a valid point, but I’m no so sure that it’s really the case – discussion as to why will have to wait for a future post.