#48: Michael Barber is an award-winning creative and marketing leader, and is widely recognized as a top email marketing expert.
In this episode, we cover how to turn your email list into a profitable business (even if your list is small), how to organically grow a list of highly engaged subscribers, and the biggest misconception people have about email marketing.
You’ll also get to listen in as I get some live coaching on how I can use my email list to grow Content Heroes into something more than just a podcast.
If you’re the type of person who wants to maximize your ROI with email marketing and grow your business into the stratosphere, you’ll definitely want to listen to this episode.
Podcast Episode Summary
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- his strategy to improve email deliverability;
- his email marketing engagement strategies;
- how to get the subject line right;
- the key things to get your subscribers to open your email and how to make content that they’ll actually love to read;
- how to grow your email list and how to use it to grow your business; and
- why organic growth is so much better than purchased list.
My personal philosophy on emails: you’ve got to make sure you’re delivering because everything that you do is for naught if you’re actually not getting into the inbox physically. (04:20)
One of the things that they (Publishers) do that most people and brands don’t do well is they make that subscription process really tangible to the user. They ask questions. (13:12)
The more subscribers you pay for in the sense of scraping and pulling a database in and purchasing those lists, the worst your metrics get. That’s just what the data suggests. (15:13)
I don’t ever want to shoot for averages inside of the inbox. So for me, every touchpoint that you can have with a customer is an opportunity to ask for their email address. (15:28)
Connect with Michael Barber
LinkedIn: Michael Barber
Ep. 48: Turn Your Small Email List Into a Big Business, with Michael Barber
There are brands that are being built on the back of the inbox these days, there are celebrities out there that you don't know, they're making millions of dollars off of their lists. And you can too, if you have a super-engaged subscription list about a topic, a niche topic, that you're very good at, it's in the benefit of you and your business to figure out ways to monetize that.
Welcome to Content Heroes, everyone we're back with another great conversation to help you build a profitable business on your own terms by creating content online. Our guest today is an award-winning creative and marketing leader, and is widely recognized as a top email marketing expert. We're going to cover how to turn your email list into a profitable business even if your list is small; how to organically grow a list of highly engaged subscribers; and the biggest misconception people have about email marketing. You'll also get to listen in as I get some live coaching on how I can use my email list to grow Content Heroes into something more than just a podcast. If you're the type of person who wants to maximize your ROI with email marketing and grow your business into the stratosphere, you'll definitely want to stick around for the rest of this episode. So let's jump in.
You're listening to the Content Heroes podcast, where entrepreneurs, marketers, and creatives share how they build profitable businesses on their own terms by creating content online. And now your host, Josiah Goff.
I'm here with Michael Barber, who's a Marketing Strategist and I'm super pumped for this conversation. Michael, thanks so much for being on the show.
Thanks Josiah. Happy to be here.
Awesome. So I'm excited to dig into your approach to email marketing and marketing in general. But before we do that, can you share with us your origin story and how you got into marketing?
Yeah, for sure. So like many marketers, I started on what we would affectionately refer to the side of the business, that's often referred to as the light side, I was on the publishing side of the business. And worked for our collegian student newspaper at the University of Arizona. It just so happened that 20 years prior to me being at the paper, another gentleman was there by the name of Jay Baer, who's been a guest on your show. And Jay started the student radio at Arizona back in the day. And we had just published what was our very first iteration of our website online, essentially our paper online, if you will. And very quickly started to get recognition for monetizing that site, figuring out how to do display ads, integrate into PPC ads for the site. And Jay took notice of that and sort of called down to Mark Williams, who is our director of media and said, Hey, who did this? And my name popped up. And the next thing I knew I was working for Jay and I've spent the last 15 years in some of the best agencies across the country, like Nomadic Agency, Sitewire, Jay's agency, Mighty Interactive, and just been really fortunate to be amongst some of the best agencies in the business.
That's amazing. What was it like working with Jay?
Jay is the type person who practices everything he preaches. I mean, he has extremely high expectations, but Jay's core philosophy for us was always keep learning, keep your eyes down, keep doing the work and the rewards and the dollars and the recognition will come. And I've used that, the mantra for years, that's guided me from the beginning. He is again, someone who holds the bar extremely high, but does so because he instills a teacher mindset, someone that gets you to do the right type of work for the right clients. And I'm so thankful for that guy for giving me my first shot and certainly putting me in a position to take my career where I wanted it to be.
Oh, that's fantastic. Yeah. Jay is so awesome. So let's talk about your approach to email marketing. Can we dig into that?
Yeah, for sure. I've been fortunate enough. I mean the first marketing tactic that I got to work on at Jay's agency was email. And we were doing, we were utilizing, I should say a platform back in the day that was this tiny little email service provider called Exact Target. And as you well know, Exact Target went on to be a behemoth and gobbled up by another, became at Salesforce and is now largely the backbone of their marketing cloud. And so really fortunate that that was sort of the first tactic that I got to know as a strategist early on in my career. And I think what is intriguing to me is that many of the things I learned from Jay and the team that was built at Mighty, have been stewards and guides for what I've done in email since day one, which I, my personal philosophy in emails, you've got to make sure you're delivering because everything that you do is for naught, if you're actually not getting into the inbox physically. You've got to make sure you're engaging once you're there. And there are strategic and tactical ways that you can do that. And then you sort of put the jets in motion and go for growth. And so by doing a framework, by architecting a framework around your email, that's about making sure you get in the inbox, making sure you're engaged once you're there. It really allows brands and thought leaders and authors alike and content heroes, if you will, to help fuel their growth.
Yeah, that's great. So the one thing that I'm curious about, you know, you talk about focusing on delivery to deliver, engage and growth. Can we, first of all, dive into the deliver side, because I think that that's something that most people, when they're in this mindset, they completely skip over of how to actually land in the inbox. So can we talk about that and what some of your strategies are for that?
Yeah, for sure. So when I started my career 15 years ago, the thing you did as an email marketer was you press send and it almost guaranteed that you were going to get into the inbox if you are a legitimate domain. Like that's just how it worked. And then of course, we had these things called spammers happen and hackers and fishers, and that ruined it for everyone. And so the ISP is the internet service providers and the ESP is the email service providers, have slowly worked to ensure that the inbox is a more safe place than it was. And they've done that in very specific ways. And so for us as marketers and for us as business owners, the thing we have to realize is there is a very specific path to the inbox that's guided by essentially two things: Authentication. Right? Having those authentication protocols in place that gives you step one to get past and into the ISP. And then it's about how you're engaging with your individual subscribers, because these days, Gmail, Hotmail, Verizon, Yahoo, and all the behemoths, they're looking at how your campaigns are engaging with an individual subscriber, they're scoring those campaigns. And then they're doing things like, Hey, does it go into the promotions tab or does it look like a certain type of campaigns? We're going to put it in the updates tab, things of that nature. Outlook is doing this now too with a Featured and other inbox. So all of these things add up and determine number one, if you even get through the threshold to be delivered into that individual or that subscriber's inbox. And then based on how that subscriber has engaged with you in the past, they're determining, Hey, is this something that we should put in front of their eyeballs? So delivery just becomes so important these days, because we know based on any number of studies, that somewhere between only 80 to 85% of the email we send as promotional campaigns is actually getting to the inbox. And then after that, it's a crap shoot because it's not as if Gmail and the like are pulling back the veil and saying, Hey, here's what we're doing with you. They give you some ideas of what they're looking for, but then it's about ensuring that you're doing the best you can to engage with that subscribers so that they show up in the right places and that they continue to engage with your content.
Yeah. I'm so glad you touched on that. I think that most people don't realize that there is this path that goes from when you hit send as an email marketer to actually like someone getting the email and opening it. And there are so many places in that path where it could go wrong and then you can ever actually get into someone's inbox. So I'm glad that we touched on that. So once you get into someone's inbox, so that you've done all that stuff, right? How do you go about getting them to engage? Like obviously your subject line is the most important thing to get them to open. What are some tips to get them to open and get them to engage with?
Yeah, for sure. Subject line is always going to be one of the factors that they're looking at, if not the most important factor that they're looking at. And what we've learned over a decade of research in this topic is essentially it comes down to four key things: Sentiment. So what words are you using in that subject line? What emotions are you conveying? How authoritative do you come across? Are you using the right trigger words that make sense for the subscriber on the other end? Diversity - is another key point, right? We have to understand that a lot of us, especially on the agency side, do these things called personas, right? We build these ideas about who our perfect customers are. And this is something that anybody has to do, right as a business owner, an author, a thought leader, a person online, you have to figure out who are your fish, and then determine what are the things that resonate with them. And we've got to do that as email marketers. So let me give this a very concrete example. If my 65 year old mother is going to say, she surprised at something, she's going to say, Michael, I'm surprised at X, Y, Z, or whatever it is, but someone that's maybe 14, 15 and 16, maybe of a different background might say I'm shook up, right? So, we communicate in very different. We use specific language inside of our subgroups, how I communicate with my college buddies, how I communicate with you, how I communicate with my partner. We have words that make sense to us. We have a shared language. We have a shared nomenclature. And your clients are no different. So you need to be able to understand what the words are that they're utilizing. So you got sentiment, you got some diversity. Sophistication is next. So this is about ensuring that you get the point across that you're trying to get across in as least amount of time as possible, not the least amount of characters. Not going to say that subject line length has any impact on open rates, because what we know is it doesn't, but the more simple the message often the better your open rates will get or improve, I should say. And then the last one comes down to context, and this can be a combination of things like using emojis. If you're got a persona or a certain demographics, certain age range of subscriber that is in tuned with emoji language, it's understanding that a subject line might be different when it's right in mobile versus desktop, right? It might also under be understanding the context of where your subscriber is at certain times of day. If they're opening your campaign, what are they going to think about this topic at this moment at 8:00 AM versus noon, versus 5:00 PM or midnight, if they're burning the midnight oil, right? So understanding those nuances between sophistication, diversity, sentiment and context, I think is really important these days to get that subject line, right? And then you look at things like from name and we see mistakes all the time. They're right, right after subject line, it's gotta be from name. And these two subject line from name are equally important in terms of getting people to open. So you think about, if you're going to build your brand around a brand name, then your from name needs to be very specific to that brand name. But if you're an individual like yourself or myself who has their own newsletter, right, it's ensuring that your firm name is your name and not something quirky because you're setting expectations for what that subscriber is going to look for in the future. So those things are really important from an engagement perspective right off the top. And then as you dive into the actual content of the email, it's again, making sure you're understanding context right. We know that more than 50% of opens are happening within a mobile context. So we've got to make sure that things can look and scroll and work with a thumb and finger more than anything, more than any time they have before the inbox. You know, gone are the days where we have multi column layouts, you know, Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and take talk, have all taught us to scroll and the inbox is no different. So we've got to leverage that context as much as we can. And then I think it comes down to two last things: and that's Consistency. So if you promise to deliver on a certain date and time, you're always delivering. So if that's Sunday at 9:00 AM, so that people expect you to be there Sunday at 9:00 AM. If that's once a day in the case of some of the publishing groups and brands that are out there. If that's a brand that you're a huge advocate of, it's that brand's responsibility to understand that that subscriber, that customer wants to see when they can the inbox regularly. And then for me, it comes down to this idea of humanity. So respecting people's time, right? You get to know how much time your subscribers are willing to give you. And then you deliver content that respects that boundary. Could be two seconds, could be 25 minutes, depending upon what sort of shorter, long form content you're delivering. It's understanding one of my favorite people in the world, Ann Handley who runs MarketingProfs always says, if the logo falls off, would you recognize the brand or the person that's behind it? So it's writing, it's the tone. It's the humanity that comes through and what you're delivering in that content to ensure that if your logo did fall off, they'd still know it's you. And they'd still want to get that content. So it's a lot of things from an engagement perspective, but those are some of the key things to get the open and then keep people reading as they're getting through your content.
So Michael, there's so much good stuff there and engage and so many great tips and strategies for getting people engaged. I'm curious, how do you go about actually figuring out what content is engaging for your audience?
Great question. And this comes down to really two things for me. And the things that I've seen done well are one, ask and you shall receive. So ask your subscribers as either part of the subscription process. What do you want to hear from us? Is it promotions? Is it information? Is it thought leadership? Is it, you know, exclusive things that I can only get from you? What do you care about? If anybody that's doing email wants to look at an example of a brand that does this well, look at all the publishers, right? Look at the Times, look at Fox, look at Wall Street Journal, look at everyone in publishing. They are killing it inside of the inbox. And one of the things that they do that most people and brands don't do well is they make that subscription process really tangible to the user. They ask questions. How often do you want to hear from us? And what do you want to hear from us? Is it news? Is it recipes? Is it onetime interviews? What are those things that matter to you? And then they deliver it. So it's asking you shall receive. The next is, as you look at that content inside of your campaign, that's generating traction, that's generating engagement, either through clicks or through other measurements that you're looking at down the funnel is double down on that content, right? If you keep pushing a piece of content that's clearly not getting engagement. It's time to drop it. Your audience is telling you that that just doesn't work. But if on the opposite side of that, if you keep delivering a consistent content theme or consistent thing inside of that particular email campaign regularly, and you consistently see the engagement with it, then double down on that opportunity. So either tangibly ask or watch the metrics, follow where your subscribers are telling them that they care about the content that you're sharing.
Oh, that's great advice. Cool. So now that I've got my emails being delivered into the inbox and I've started to increase my engagement, I'm getting people to tell me what they want and I'm tailoring my content to what it is that they're engaging with, how then do I start to grow that email list and continue to use it to grow my business?
Growth really for me as a, if you will, I am a purist when it comes to talking about growth and that is making sure that growth is as organic as possible, especially in the inbox. That's not to say that in my career or no moment, I have never bought a list or worked with a brand that has purchased lists because anyone can do that these days, right? We can go mine data from places. But the fact of the matter remains that all the research tells us that the more subscribers that you generate from paid acquisition, and this is just purchasing less, we'll get to other ways that you can do paid acquisition, but the more subscribers you pay for in the sense of scraping and pulling a database in and purchasing those lists, the worst your metrics get, that's just what the data suggests. Does it work? Sure, but it often works for those brands that are shooting for averages. And I don't ever want to shoot for averages inside of the inbox. And so for me, every touch point that you can have with a customer is an opportunity to ask for their email address. So there are any number of touch points on our websites that often we don't think about inside our navigation fixed at the top mid roll inside of content, bottom of role of site of content, right? Rail left rail, depending upon what your structure and the UI of your site looks like. The footer doing mega rollovers because they work, especially when they're tuned and you've looked at how often those conversions happen. Do they happen after two or three pages of someone being on your site or a minute or two of people being on your site. So get to know what that sort of mega roll over or toaster unit that pop up, if you will, what are the things that actually drive that subscription? There's any number of ways you can do this inside. If you've got an app you can ask for the opt in there in an offline environment is a great opportunity to ask for email address, to survey cards at point of sale at your register to get that information. So at any touchpoint you have with a customer becomes an opportunity to organically grow that list as much as you can. The reason why organic growth is just so much better than purchases is because typically what we see where the organic growth is, you will have a much more engaged subscriber over the longterm. And so looking for those organic opportunities is always more tangible, always more impactful on the longterm health of your email list, then paying for them.
Yeah. I, a hundred percent agree with that. I've experienced that as well. When I first launched the podcast, I did a big giveaway and it was really successful. You know, I went from nothing to over 800 subscribers on my email list within just a matter of a couple of weeks. I was like, man, this is amazing. And very quickly that engagement just like really dropped off because they were there for the giveaway. Which is totally fine. But they weren't there to really engage with the brand. Most of them weren't. But I did get a smaller core group of people out of that, but I spent a lot to acquire, you know, all of these people that just aren't even opening emails, you know, afterwards.
Yeah. The trick is with those types of opportunities, right. Is figure out if they want to be a part of your list or are they just, are those promo people? 'Cause there's always going to be just those promo people. And co-branding and promotions or co-branded promotions that are great ways to generate organic opt-ins to your list. But you've got to make sure it's structured things like a quick welcome campaign to see if they're engaged, if they don't even engage with your welcome, toss them, get them out of the list. Right? Just let them go because they're clearly not going to be interested in the longterm content that you're sharing. Be very careful with offers, especially like right off of the gate. Cause then you're sort of training your list to expect that they're going to get an offer, right? So there are really like tangible ways that we can use even paid growth to our advantage, but get those unactive, unengaged subscribers out as quickly as possible 'cause it just drops your numbers. And if you're on a platform that's out there that you pay by subscriber threshold, it would benefit you in the health of your balance sheet to reduce those expenses as much as possible. So get them off, it'll increase your averages and it'll drive savings for your business too.
Yeah. A hundred percent agree. There is this little piece inside wWhen you go to do what you're talking about and sanitize your list and clear out all the people who aren't engaged that just like a little piece is like, no, because oftentimes you go from your list. I did it with a client and this list was completely cut in half.
Yeah, It happens all the time. It's devastating.
Yeah. There's this sort of, I don't know if it's like an ego thing or something about having those larger numbers, but his engagement rates, all of them doubled at least from doing that.
What that told us was we didn't get rid of any substantial amount of people who were actually engaged in reading. We just got rid of all of the dead weight.
You know, the opportunity for a business. I mean there are brands that are being built on the back of the inbox these days. I mean, you look at The Skimm, Morning Brew, Katie Couric's newsletter, right? There are celebrities out there that you don't know they're making millions of dollars off of their lists. And you can too, if you have a super engaged subscription list about a topic, a niche topic that you're very good at, it is well within your right. It's in the benefit of you and your business to figure out ways to monetize that. And when you go to a brand to potentially work with, and you don't have to have a ton of subscribers to go have a conversation about monetizing your list. But if you could go to a brand and say, Hey, I can give you a dedicated group of people that matches the same type of target audience you're going after and they open my list 50% to 80% of the time versus yeah, you're going to get access to a million subscribers, but only 5% of them open that becomes a much more powerful conversation. So as you're building your business through content. And building other opportunities around how do you deliver that content? And in this case, we're talking about delivering it in the inbox, right? Just think of how much more powerful it is to have those conversations when you do think about monetizing your content inside the inbox, to be able to say, I'm not only got X number of subscribers, but those subscribers opened my emails 60% to 70% of the time, because that matters way more these days. I think for the marketers that are looking and the people that are looking to do these sorts of monetization opportunities than does a sheer reach number. It's not everyone certainly. There are always going to be a group of brands out there that are looking for reach over impact. But I think there's a good set of companies out there that are certainly looking for those engagement metrics and they will go up if you reduce that weight out of the list.
Yeah, definitely. So Michael, I would love to, if you're up for this, taking all the concepts that we've talked about and putting it into something a little more concrete and like a specific example, selfishly, I would love some free coaching here. So if you're up for that, I'm wanting to grow Ccontent Heroes into something more than just a podcast. And I'm working on some things, some offerings that will help my audience. And so I'm curious one, if you've seen some successful examples of people starting with a podcasting and translating that over to an email list and other platforms and growing a business off of that, and then two, like what advice you would have for me to start to organically grow my audience in a way that I can leverage to put this offer in front of them and help them with what they're doing.
Sure. The best example that I can give you is someone that I follow. And then I've been watching for years and that's David Parral. If you're not familiar with him, he's got a podcast called North Star. And Dave talks about writing in North Star and how to make writing your North star. And what Dave's done is taken that podcast and built low friction conversion opportunities all around it to generate email subscribers over the past three to four years, to the point that he's got a list of about 30,000 people, at least published of what he says on his, on his website of subscribers. Again, I'm not the guy that goes after the subscribers number that I'd rather have that engagement, but he's built that model to generate those email subscribers because the monetization angle is less likely on the podcast opportunity. It's way more likely on the eyeballs on the email newsletters right now. And five years ago that wasn't the case. But now that is very much the case. And so think about all the opportunities that you have of getting people to the podcast. You could be doing things like exclusive content opportunities that maybe you release the first five to 10 minutes of the podcast with your expert series that you've got at your disposal. And then to get access to the last five to 10 minutes, you've got to register your email address to get access to that particular recording, right? And you know, your first five, 10 minutes can be distributed across all the major platforms. And then that exclusive piece can be distributed in a SoundCloud or your own media player that you're hosting on your site. Right? So any of those low friction opportunities to take an engaged listener and convert them into something that you can monetize is a really good structure for thinking about how do you build the business, a model around the podcast? Again, it's not just about the podcast itself, right? It's taking the podcast and then figuring out, okay, what did I learn from that podcast? And I'm going to create snippets of content that I'll share on Twitter. And then I'm going to post on Instagram in a quote form and that's going to drive. And all of those points are generating back to my site. And that site is generating back down to the email subscription opportunity. And that subscription opportunity is what generates my business and my monetization. So think about that model, right, is the exclusivity you can build around of knowledge that you can build around the podcast, then deeper access to you and more information through the email and then continuing to deliver that exclusivity back to your email subscribers. And you basically of kind of see a funnel that really starts to turn itself in with some forward momentum.
Great idea. I'm also curious to know how you might recommend going through a transition of like right now, and this is mostly just a bandwidth issue for me is I've just been sending out like recent episodes to my list and that's kind of been the expectation. How can I start to reshape that, to deliver something different, something more engaging?
For sure. Take the content that we're all talking about, your guests and the insights that you even you talk through as we're having this conversation and bring that into a long form content idea, right? Make an essay out of it, right? Start experimenting with taking it from a short form announcement to here's the five things I learned. And then here's the episode, right? That starts to increase your engagement opportunity with your subscribers. It also means that if they don't listen, they're still getting the value from the knowledge that you've gained in that podcast. And then once you've allowed your subscribers to have that knowledge, then each little snippet, those five tips or those five things, or the six frameworks or whatever your guests talked about, right? Become quotes that you can do across social media or pieces that you can share. Hey, I learned this from I've implemented this, all these ideas, right, become content opportunities that go well beyond the four walls of the podcast and the email opportunity. And then the last thing is, is take it once it's had, its sort of had its bandwidth, your subscribers it's on your website so that it can generate some SEO and organic value for you. And again, fill the top of the funnel with people that are looking for this sort of content, right? So it's this cyclical nature of exclusivity that starts in the format that you like, which in this case is the podcast. You deliver opportunities from those learnings inside of the inbox in creative ways, in video, in gifts, in longform content, whatever that may be. And then you start to spread that beyond your email subscribers, after they've had that exclusive access.
Oh, that's great. I love it. So for everyone out there, who's listening who now realizes that they need to either really start focusing on email marketing or refocus on email marketing. What are some tips that you would give them to get that off the ground again?
Just start, don't think about, Hey, I need to have one subscriber or a hundred or 10,000 or a hundred thousand to think that it's actually worth my time to be doing this. Put a stake in the ground. Tell people what you're going to deliver and do it because there are people building businesses around lists that are smaller than what you would think. And as long as you've got eyeballs that want your content delivered in the context that they're looking for, the inboxes happens to be one of the best places to do that. But just start, don't worry about the subscriber number initially. Worry about making sure that you're getting into their inbox. You're engaging with them in that inbox and the growth will happen.
I love it. Michael, this has been a fantastic conversation before we hop off. Can you share with everyone where they connect with you online?
Fantastic. And we'll make sure that all that's linked up in the show notes for everyone out there listening until next time go be a hero.
Hey everyone. Thank you for listening to the Content Heroes podcast. I just wanted to take a second and let you know that we have some amazing guests planned for the coming weeks. So if you haven't already go ahead and hit subscribe so you can make sure to catch every episode. And if you enjoyed today's episode, go ahead and leave a five-star review to help make it easier for other content creators to find and enjoy the show. Lastly, I'd like to invite you to join our Content Heroes Facebook community, where you can connect with other online content creators to share, learn, grow, and have fun to join the group. Just visit ContentHeroes.com/Facebook. Once again, that is ContentHeroes.com/Facebook.