I spent a lot of time working in and with startups in 2015. As it happens when you surround yourself with people who are constantly making things and coming up with ideas, I started to wonder what I could do to solve some problems and help people all on my own. Once I had an idea, I needed something to test it with: a minimum viable product.
What’s a Minimum Viable Product?
Even within the startup world, the term “minimum viable product” carries different meanings. It can refer to a prototype, an experiment or a feedback loop, but my favorite definition comes from LeanStack:
“A Minimum Viable Product is the smallest thing you can build that delivers customer value.”
My goal is to be able to reach more people and teach practical advice for marketing their ideas, because often the best solutions go unnoticed. When I started planning my website, I thought about creating interactive courses, learning-focused games and a large networking hub. Naturally, my site sat in cyberspace with a slick “coming soon” page for months while I waited for the time and resources to do all of these things.
My website idea certainly wasn’t viable for me to do all by myself, and it definitely wasn’t the “minimum.” It’s no surprise to me that I never started work on it beyond the planning phases… until I let all those bells and whistles go.
Why Create a Minimum Viable Product?
The purpose of an MVP is to provide value for and learn from your audience. Before you pour all of your time and resources into an idea, it’s smart to try it out in the real world on a small scale. If there’s something fundamentally wrong with your idea that you didn’t realize, you can correct a major mistake before pouring a lot of time and money into it.
An MVP is also an experiment. You have to go into the process with a hypothesis, such as “I think my idea will help people who need X to accomplish Y.” Then you test that hypothesis, measure it and decide what changes need to be made or features need to be added and why. You may start with one idea and leave with another, but you won’t figure out which changes need to be made until you send your MVP into the wild.
In short, you create an MVP to test whether or not your product or idea is as cool as you think it is… before you pour your life savings into it. It’s a way to validate your idea while minimizing risk.
MVP’s Aren’t Just for Startups
Whenever you decide to make a big change in your life, career or business, think about testing the impact on a smaller scale by starting with an MVP. If you think your business MUST be on Snapchat, for example, start a free account and post consistently for a month while measuring the impact. Just don’t start by hiring a team and pouring all of your ad dollars into the platform before you know you have an audience that will respond there.
What’s My Minimum Viable Product?
You’re looking at it. I decided to launch a website with the minimum amount of pages necessary to test my hypothesis: that there are people who need the advice I’m writing about. Rather than create a whole new interactive site, I am launching with a home page, a resources page, a blog and a weekly email newsletter.
I’m really excited to hear what you think, even if you hate it. I’m not afraid to fail because if I do, I’ll just learn how to do better next time. I’m also not a professional web designer and put this together with about $100 (template and hosting/domain/email tool costs) and spare hours on weekends over the last six weeks, so if you find anything buggy or broken, please let me know! It will only help me.
Thank you in advance, and if you’d like to read more about MVP’s check out Eric Reis’ book: The Lean Startup.
Once you’ve figured out how you’re going to build your list, the next step in The Email Marketing Strategy That Works is onboarding subscribers with a series of emails designed to provide value and get them hooked.
Onboarding Subscribers: The Basics
Habit-forming is crucial when onboarding subscribers, which is why most newsletters are sent out at the same time of day, week or month. First impressions will make all the difference in determining whether your readers will look forward to your emails or start building the habit of ignoring them.
To ensure everyone gets a high-quality first impression of your newsletter, you’ll send everyone the same introductory series of emails with your best content. If you remember where I left off in my post about opt-in forms, I encouraged you to automate an email asking users to confirm their subscription before officially signing them up. This is the next step.
But first, let’s write your onboarding emails!
These are the basic emails every onboarding series should have to build a subscriber habit of opening and reading your awesome emails.
After a user fills out an opt-in form, checks their email and confirms their subscription, that “confirm” click should trigger to things: first, it should take the reader to a welcome landing page that tells them their subscription has been confirmed, and second, it should trigger your welcome email to be sent.
The welcome email’s mission is to set a subscriber’s expectations for what’s to come. It’s kind of like the appetizer to the main course: it should be small and satisfying, but make them look forward to the entree (your first newsletter email). Here’s a template you can use:
Hi [first name of subscriber],
Thank you so much for signing up for my newsletter. It means a lot to me that you’re letting me into your inbox [insert frequency of newsletter, I recommend “every week”].
[This part is optional, but if you offered an incentive like an ebook, this is where you’d link to it or tell them it’s attached to the email, for example, “As promised, here’s your free guide to gaining 100 new subscribers in 30 days. I can’t wait to hear how it works for you.”]
I’m looking forward to providing you with [here’s where you’ll restate the unique value proposition and benefits of your newsletter]. If you ever have questions or topics you’d like me to cover in the newsletter, please contact me [this would link to your contact page] anytime.
You’ll receive your first newsletter tomorrow, and I’m really excited for you to read it!
PS. [If you have a blog post with an awesome tip, you could link to it here. You’d be surprised how many people read the PS. more than the body of emails!]
Don’t be nervous… but this first newsletter is important! The best way to prove the value you’ve been promising is to deliver, but what does that look like?
My favorite strategy comes from Pat Flynn* who talks about the importance of nabbing a “5 minute win” for your readers in the first email. If you can give them a small task that will give them immediate results (within five minutes of starting the task), that’s a 5 minute win. Links to free resources that will save them time? 5 minute win. Templates they can use right away? 5 minute win.
You get the picture. The important thing is to think up a 5 minute win that’s related to your niche and the reason they signed up for your newsletter in the first place.
Here’s a 5 minute win I’ll give you right now. When you pick your newsletter topic, you can test your awesome subject line using these three free tools:
- Co.Schedule Headline Analyzer helps you optimize your headlines for clickability. And they’re free!
- SubjectLine.com grades your email subject lines to optimize your open rates. For free.
- Adestra was a pretty cool find. It’s a keyword checker to give you email data for your specific industry and estimates the email open rate and click rate based on the keyword and industry selected. Also: free!
These count as a 5 minute win because if you’re reading this post, you’re probably interested in ways to write the best subject lines for your email marketing efforts. We just haven’t gotten to that part yet. 😉 Try to think about your audience the same way: what do they read on your site? what problems are they trying to solve? how can you make their lives a little easier?
The more you brainstorm those questions, the more “5 minute win” ideas you’ll have.
Just to be absolutely sure, this email should also deliver a second 5 minute win for the reader. That way, in the first two emails your readers have been delighted with a valuable tool or piece of advice to help them toward their goals and were able to see it work.
Again, remember to keep this 5 minute win related to the overall goal of your newsletter and the type of value you want to provide for readers.
Newsletter #3 (and 4 and 5 if needed)
Not every email will have a 5 minute win, and that’s okay! Sometimes your emails will need to address the latest news or big current events happening in your niche, and if your readers see you as an expert in that topic, they’ll want to read what you think. Newsletters 3, 4 and 5 are an important part of showing foundational knowledge in your niche or topic of expertise. For example:
- Create a brief “state of the union” style email that focuses on your niche or topic area. You’ll need to keep a close eye on an email like this and occasionally update it when things shift in your industry.
- Answer the “biggest question” people had about your niche/topic for the previous calendar year. Be sure to point to the research that proved this was the biggest question. Update this type of automated email on an annual basis.
- Present a “reframe” or a new way of looking at your industry to show that your newsletter offers a fresh take on at old topic.
Many businesses offer more than one big service, so if you’re using email marketing for your business, you may need a few of these foundational emails to share knowledge in these different areas while onboarding subscribers. For example, if you’re an agency that offers inbound marketing and web design services, you should probably touch on the foundation of those topics in separate emails.
Foundation emails sound big, but generally you can cut them down by linking to relevant blog posts or ebook guides for further reading. Try to keep your emails under 500 words as a rule.
The Feedback Newsletter
By now you’ve delivered quick wins and built some credibility in your niche or topic area while onboarding subscribers. Now it’s time to give the mic back to your subscribers to gather a little feedback. There may be questions that have popped up for them when they were reading one of your foundational emails that they’d like you to cover, and if you respond to let them know you’ll address their question soon, they’ll eagerly keep reading.
As a writer, the feedback email allows you to perpetually learn about new questions that your readers care about, and will keep your emails relevant and useful to them.
Now let’s plug your emails into automation!
In one of my previous posts, I talked about setting up opt-in forms and email automation using ConvertKit. Automation tools like that one, (or Aweber, MailChimp, Hubspot, etc. there are many to choose from), are necessary for creating a smart system for onboarding subscribers. This system is sometimes referred to as an “email drip,” “automation series” or “email course” which all mean a number of emails presented in order over a predetermined period of time.
Below is an email tutorial for how to do this with ConvertKit. There are also videos available online for Aweber, MailChimp and Hubspot.
How to Create an Email Course for Onboarding Subscribers with ConvertKit
Back to the Regularly Scheduled Newsletter
After the onboarding series has ended, your automation tools should funnel those subscribers into your main newsletter database. By this point they will have built a habit of opening and reading your emails and will be less likely to lose interest if the first email they encounter in the current stream doesn’t speak to them.
Congratulations! By onboarding subscribers, you’ve taken the first step toward building loyalty with your readers. Now keep up the good work and continue sending outstanding emails on a consistent basis. If you need help with that, it’s the topic of my next post. Go ahead and read “Email Content Ideas That Reader Love” right now!
*Note: An excellent guide for creating an onboarding series was penned by Pat Flynn a few years ago. After trying out his strategy a few times for different clients over the years, I found myself making quite a few modifications to it, which is why I decided to write this entry rather than only linking to his. You are more than welcome to compare and contrast, though!
Note: This post on how to recruit subscribers is part 3 of a 3 part section on List-Building Strategies in “The Email Marketing Strategy That Works” series. Read part 1 “Email Marketing: Build Your Subscriber List” and part 2, “Attract Subscribers with Inbound Marketing.”
Recruit Subscribers with Outreach Strategies
Outreach Strategies qualify as Outbound Marketing, where you are actively asking people to visit your site or subscribe to your newsletter. Inbound marketing strategies help you attract subscribers in a sustainable way over a long period of time. Outbound or outreach strategies can help you recruit subscribers more quickly during a shorter period of time. Most of us need to use both.
Here are a few outreach strategies you can use to recruit subscribers:
- Blog Distribution (with a twist!)
- Guest Posting
- Answering questions on Quora
- Answering Questions in the most popular forums in your niche
- Emailing Individual Followers
- Trading email endorsements with another blogger in your niche
- Digital Advertising
Blog Distribution as Outreach
We talked about blog distriubtion on websites like Medium and LinkedIn Pulse in the last post, but there’s a lot more to it! Often you can submit articles to social bookmarking sites like reddit and StumbleUpon, but your content typically will perform better if you participate in the communities themselves. Here are some nifty guides to do just that:
The most important thing to remember for this tactic is that every blog post you submit as a link to these sites must have a call to action for readers to sign up for your email list.
Social bookmarking sites are just one part of blog distribution, however. It’s also important to look for popular sites within your niche/topic area that accept submissions. A google search for “best sites to submit articles on ____” can help you narrow down the list. If you’re submitting links, it’s pretty similar to strategies used in social bookmarking, and don’t forget to link to your email newsletter sign up page. If you’re sending adapted versions of your original posts that link back to your site, this starts to cross over into the realm of guest posting… our next tactic!
Guest Posting can often be thought of as a sub category of blog distribution, where you write a slightly different post on a 3rd party site that links back to related content on your site. There often are guidelines for guest posts that call for original content, meaning you haven’t just re-written an old post but are creating something exclusively for their site. However, it appears that these stricter guidelines are falling by the wayside, and even sites like Huffington post will consider re-publishing your blog posts. Here’s how they recommend making that happen.
Similar to Huffington Post, magazine sites like Forbes, Inc and Entrepreneur are always looking for great writers. Here’s a step-by-step guide from Quick Sprout to make the best impression on any of them.
When you submit an article, and aren’t getting paid for it, remember to be sure you include a call to action asking readers to sign up for your newsletter.
Quora is an internet question and answer forum disguised as a social network, and it’s fantastic for smart people like you who have great answers to specific questions. If you’ve written a blog post that answers a specific question, the odds are that it’s the perfect answer to submit on Quora. Here’s a handy guide for setting up your profile and finding questions that are being followed by a large audience. Remember: the best answer wins!
When including your answer, if your newsletter is tackling the same topic, be sure to plug it with a link to a sign up page right on Quora.
Use the Forums, Luke
Depending on your niche/topic, there are many additional Q&A and forum sites besides Quora that you can use! This is an excellent way to find out the top questions in your area of expertise and for you to link back to your content. When you provide value to readers on these sites and then mention your newsletter, you’ll have a much better chance of recruiting new subscribers. Here’s a nice guide on how to find and use forums in your niche.
Trading Email Endorsements
Somewhat within the realm of co-marketing, if you know other bloggers in your area of expertise (or a related area) and they happen to have a newsletter as well, it can be beneficial to trade email endorsements. In this agreement, you endorse and link to the other blogger’s site in your email newsletter, and they do the same for you. It can be a pretty easy way for both of you to recruit new subscribers and quickly expand your audience. You’ll find the most success trading with bloggers who have email lists of a similar size to yours, otherwise they may not be interested.
It’s possible to recruit new subscribers straight from your digital ads. Facebook recently rolled out Lead Ads which is a fantastic way to get email newsletter sign ups without making users leave Facebook. Here’s how it works.
Google AdWords once ran a beta test to collect email addresses directly in search results, but they performed so poorly that they were removed. The reason was largely because users searching for answers didn’t get a chance to experience the content first (by reading a blog post or following the brand on social media) before being asked to give up their email. This is why when you use Digital Ads, you may want to make sure you only ask people who are already familiar with you (like your site visitors or Facebook followers) to sign up for your newsletter. Luckily, Facebook ads make this kind of targeting easy. GoogleAdWords may be better at just driving traffic to your site to have users sign up all on their own.
One-to-One Outreach Strategies
Sometimes, when you’re just starting out, nothing beats personal invitations to recruit subscribers. A thoughtful email to a contact explaining why you started the newsletter and how you think it may help them will have a lot more impact and success with that individual than any other tactic.
Reaching out to your contacts through email, or your LinkedIn contacts through personal messages, or your Facebook contacts through messenger can be a great way to grow your list. Giving extra care to your first 100 subscribers may just earn you more referrals as they start spreading the word to their friends and colleagues about your newsletter.
You can also use this tactic to reach out to important influencers in your niche. Always be sure to do some research about them to determine whether your newsletter really will help them or their followers before making contact.
This was a brief overview of how to use outreach strategies to recruit subscribers. While I tried to link as many helpful resources as possible, I plan to examine each of these strategies in greater depth on my blog and report how they worked for me. They’ll be categorized under the “Outbound Marketing” tag so you can find them easily, and I’ll link them to this page as they’re added. Be sure to come back for more!
Next in The Email Marketing Strategy That Works we’ll dive into the email newsletter content itself. The first thing you’ll need to write before you start building your lists is a fabulous onboarding series! Start reading the guide to Onboarding Subscribers to Build the Habit now!
Note: This post is part 1 of a 3 part section on List-Building Strategies in The Email Marketing Strategy That Works series.
Email Marketing 101: Mindset
Fundamentally, the most important part of email marketing is to bring value to your audience. To be allowed into a user’s inbox alongside emails from their boss and their mom is still a privileged place to be. So before we begin, make sure you answer these two questions:
1. Who do I want to help?
2. How will I help them through email?
Try to reaffirm your answers before every email you send. There may be another medium that is better suited to the message that you’re trying to spread, so I’m going to have you answer one more question:
3. Does this *need* to be an email?
Often, the answer is no, at which point it may be better to communicate in another way. But if you know your message needs to be in a subscriber’s inbox because you are sending them something they need to read to feel better/be equipped with the tools they need to succeed in an area of their lives, by all means: send that puppy!
But First, Know Your Email Law
There are a few more rules you’ll need to learn about starting an email newsletter, so be sure to read about the CAN-SPAM Act which put several email best practices into actual law. Not obeying CAN-SPAM guidelines carries a hefty fine from the FTC. It’s worth the five minute study.
Build Your List: Opt-in Forms
For the purposes of this tutorial, I’m going to assume you already have a website. Whether you have a company or personal website, if you want to do email marketing, you’re going to need a place for subscribers to sign up. These are called “opt-in forms.”
Opt-in Forms (aka “sign-up forms”) are where visitors fill out information to subscribe to your newsletter. The placement of these forms on your website as well as their structure can heavily influence how many new subscribers you recruit per day. While opt-in forms should balance the design aesthetic of your site, ( meaning: if your site is simple, the opt-in form should also be simple) the best places for opt-in forms typically are:
- On the top of your sidebar of your blog page.
- After a single blog post (meaning, after every blog post)
- In the footer of the site
- In the About page
- In a bar across the top of the site
- In a lightbox pop-up on select pages (but not on pages that already have the option or have other forms)
The content of the opt-in form should have at least one sentence telling the reader what to expect, including the delivery frequency (will they get emails every Tuesday morning? once a month?) and common topics of the newsletter. When you set the reader’s expectations going in, they’ll be less likely to unsubscribe.
The Double Opt-in Rule
Have you ever received an email newsletter that you *really* can’t remember signing up for? It feels pretty weird and, at the very least, makes you a bit suspicious of the sender. This is why the double opt-in rule is a best practice in email marketing: it asks a subscriber to confirm that they indeed want to subscribe, from the email they listed. That way, no one else can enter your email address and sign you up for a zillion newsletters: you have to log in to your email and confirm your decision to subscribe all on your own. It’s a good thing for your subscribers to say “yes” twice to subscribing, and ultimately it’s good for you too. After all, you only want to email people who really want to hear from you.
Here’s how it works. When a user first signs up using one of your opt-in forms, you can:
- Redirect them to what I like to call the “almost there” landing page. This explains to the reader that they only have one more step to complete to subscribe: they just need to check their email to find and click the link you just sent them that will confirm their subscription.
- Have a message appear at the bottom of the opt-in form telling them to check their email for the link to confirm their subscription. This is a great option if you want the user to stay on the webpage they signed up on, perhaps because it has products listed on it!
- You may have guessed, but next you should be sending the user that confirmation email automatically when they click “subscribe” on that opt-in form. This email will have the link that confirms their subscription. When they click the link two things need to happen.
- First, the user will be taken to a “subscription confirmed!” landing page. This is where you thank them for subscribing and maybe write a nice welcome message.
- Second you automatically send them a “Welcome” email to thank them for subscribing and letting them know when they’ll be receiving their first newsletter.
What I’ve just gone through is a marketing automation process for getting a user signed up for your email marketing newsletter the right way. Automation is when you use tools to automatically accomplish tasks when certain triggers are set, like when a user clicks “subscribe” a confirmation email is “triggered” to be sent to that user. To set this up, you’ll need a tool to help you create the:
- Opt-in forms
- Landing Pages (“Almost There” and “Subscription Confirmed”)
- Automated Emails (“Please Confirm Your Subscription” and “Welcome”)
There are a few tools out there that can help you with this, but I personally use and recommend ConvertKit. It’s a really simple and beautiful way to do everything you’ll need in an email marketing strategy that works.
The rest of this post will take you through video tutorials for creating opt-in forms and automated confirmation emails in ConvertKit. If videos aren’t your thing or you’re pretty sure you have this part down, you can access parts two and three of the list-building strategies, below:
How to Create and Embed Opt-in Forms with ConvertKit
If you’re interested in trying out ConvertKit, you can sign up here.
I love when experiments work. Back in December I made a resolution to curate as much content as possible. After all, Guy Kawasaki claims that one key to social media success is largely (80%) curation. At the end of the 30 day period (today), I discovered that my new method has helped me grow twitter followers by 100+ every single week. I don’t use ads. I didn’t buy followers. I just tweeted a lot more.
And it takes me 5-10 minutes per day.
So I challenge you to try this method, and let me know how far you’ve grown in 30 days.
How I Grow Twitter Followers Each Week
The first thing I did was identify the keywords and hashtags that I wanted to be known for. This isn’t a required step, but if you’re looking to build credibility as someone knowledgeable about certain topics, it’s an important one. The topics that interest me are: entrepreneurship, social media, content marketing, SEO, personal branding and design-thinking.
I then decided to check for hashtags around those topics, so I went to RiteTag’s Hashtag Checker to see if they were popular tags. It turned out #branding was more popular than #personalbranding and #design was more popular than #designthinking, so I changed those two in my list.
Next it was time to set up my content sources. My favorite tool for this is feedly, and I went ahead and spoiled myself with an annual Pro membership for $45 (which works out to be $3.75 per month, or “less than one trip to my favorite coffee shop” per month). You can use the free version of feedly for this, it will just about five minutes to this method each day.
Once in feedly, I searched for sources related to the hashtag topics I had decided upon. Often feedly offers curated lists around more common topics, so I made sure to add those to save time. I also looked up some experts (like Guy Kawasaki himself) so I could add his lists for certain topics. He had one for science and research that I liked a lot, so I added it! In no time at all, I had over 100 article sources in my feedly. Nice.
In feedly Pro, I’m able to share articles straight from feedly. In the free version you’ll need to click through to the original source of the article in order to share it.
Curating Content to Grow Twitter Followers
While you can absolutely do this step with free tools, I decided to try Buffer’s “awesome plan” this month for $10. This allows me to buffer up to 200 posts at a time so I don’t need to worry about scheduling Tweets every day. To be honest this really comes in handy on Monday mornings when most of the biggest stories of the week tend to break and my feedly is filled with incredible content to share. You can use a free plan with Buffer, but it limits you to ten posts per day. This is all you’ll need for Twitter, so you really could do all of this without spending a dime.
SO. For January, whenever I saw an article I liked, I read it in my feedly and then buffered it. I set up ten different posting times a day for Twitter within the buffer app, and then five for LinkedIn. It has been a pretty easy way to grow Twitter followers and I noticed that while I didn’t gain more LinkedIn followers using this method, I certainly received more profile views and post engagement.
I also set it up within feedly Pro that whenever I shared within the app, it would automatically append the topic as a hashtag. You can do this by clicking on “More” at the bottom of the left sidebar, then clicking on “Preferences.” After that, you’ll see the option to “append hashtags” and should select “Yes.” That means any tweets from articles in my “Design” topic feed ended with #design. This also means everything gets a #feedly added, but I tend to delete that since I already paid them and don’t always have the space for both tags.
The “append tweets” preference saves me a step, but if you’re using free plans, remember to add the topic as a hashtag for the posts you share. This is crucial, because hashtags are how new followers find you.
The last thing I did was follow back anyone who followed me. I believe in reciprocity on Twitter, so as long as you’re not a spambot, you can connect with me follow-for-follow.
A Daily Habit
That’s it! For 5-10 minutes each morning I visit my feedly to read and share the 10 best articles of the day on Twitter to grow Twitter followers. I’m not as on top of LinkedIn right now, but every now and then I find a really top notch article I’ll share on both networks. Since my LinkedIn feed isn’t as crowded as Twitter, I’m a lot more selective about how much I post.
I began with 1297 followers, and clocked in at 1918 after six weeks. Average gain: 103 net new followers per week!
I wonder if my gain in followers may be higher than average because people who follow those hashtags are more prone to follow others. This isn’t something I’ve done regularly yet, but you could also stack the odds in your favor by following other people who are tweeting about the topics you enjoy, thereby initiating the Twitter reciprocity (follow back) principle. Try it if you don’t see results after the first three days.