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020 - How to build-up your mailing list

How do you build up a mailing list? How do you get people to give up their email address? One of the big problems we see with vegan businesses is that they are just not talking to a big enough audience. In this episode, David looks at how you can take a mailing list from a couple of hundred subscribers to several thousand, and what strategies you can put in place to make sure your list keeps growing.

Do ‘lead magnets’ work? Do sign-up forms on your website actually get sign-ups? Should you just buy new contacts? And if you have thousands of followers on social media, how do you get those people off your Instagram page and into your email list so that you can actually start having conversations with them?

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Full episode transcript

Hello and welcome to episode twenty of The Vegan Business Tribe Podcast with myself David Pannell, co-founder of Vegan Business Tribe.  If you have a vegan business, or are thinking of starting one, then Vegan Business Tribe is here to support and inspire you not just to build a vegan business, but to build a SUCCESSFUL vegan business.
And if you want to go beyond the podcast and connect with our community of like-minded vegan entrepreneurs then head over to Vegan Business Tribe .com where you can get new free content, interviews and articles every week – or if you want more support, and at the same time support us, then you can also join our paid Vegan Business Tribe membership so you can attend our online networking events, get support in our forums and just be part of our wonderful community of vegan business people. And we’re always really grateful to our paid members because they are the people who mean we can keep recording this podcast every week and putting out all our content and just generally doing everything we can to support vegan businesses.
A lot of the topics I cover in these podcasts come from questions asked by our Vegan Business Tribe members – and one that’s come up twice in as many weeks in our business clinics is about building a mailing list.  Now, YOU might not even have a mailing list, or even be sure what one is.  Or you might already have a mailing list but you’ve found it’s shrinking instead of growing – more people are unsubscribing than are joining.  But your mailing list is the lifeblood of your business, and I’m speaking as someone who has built up businesses in the past almost entirely through email marketing.  Now, just to give you fair warning – in this episode I’m not really going to be talking about WHY you need a mailing list and how to use it to get more customers.  I’m going to mention a few things but THAT really needs a podcast of its own – so I’ll save all that good stuff for a future episode.  In this episode, I’m going to be mainly talking about HOW to build up a mailing list: how to set up systems and strategies to make sure you are collecting the names and email addresses of EVERYONE who shows an interest in your business so that you have a channel to speak to them.
Because that’s at the heart of digital marketing – identifying people who have shown an interest in your business (through all sorts of different ways) and then getting them to give up their email address and their permission for you to keep talking to them.  And having a list of people who you can put your message out to is really the foundation of a business. In one of my previous companies, we built up our mailing list to over 20 thousand people.  And let me tell you, when you have that kind of audience, things get a whole lot easier.  I used to run marketing bootcamps four times a year in a huge converted mill, and all I had to do was send out an email to our mailing list every time we put on a new date and by the end of the day it would be booked out.  If we launched a new product, I already had a whole lot of people lined up ready to tell about it. But that list took us years to grow to that size.  And one of the biggest problems we see in vegan businesses is just not having a big enough audience.  Your product is great.  Your mission is great.  But you just don’t have any people you can get your message out to.
I’ll talk to companies who have sent an email to the 100 people who make up their email list and they didn’t get a response and so think that it’s their message that isn’t working – or that their product or their price is wrong. When in reality, it’s just their numbers.  The audience they are working with is just too small to test out any of these theories.  Every year, a company called Campaign Monitor publish the latest statistics about email marketing.  Their latest round-up revealed that the average ‘click-through’ rate in email marketing is 2.6%. So what that means is if you send out an email to 100 people then, on average, you can expect around two and a half people to click on any link you’ve put in it.  So that means if you’re sending an email out to a small email list, it’sjust not enough to learn anything from or to expect to get much back.  If you’re sending an email with a link to your website to a list of only 200 people, then you can only expect 5 of them – ON AVERAGE – to actually click through and visit your website.  And out of those 5 people, one will probably be your mum.  So THIS is why mailing lists don’t start to become powerful tools for your business until you get into THOUSANDS of subscribers.  At a 2.6% click-through rate, if you send an email out to four thousand people then you can expect to send 100 people through to whatever you are wanting them to go take a look at.
That IS just an average rate though.  If everyone who is currently on your mailing list really wants to be on it, or if the email you’re sending out is REALLY targetted then you can get better percentages.  Looking down the reports from our weekly Vegan Business Tribe email, we’ve got some that only got a click-through of 0.9% and others that got 12%.  I think our record is 24% – so nearly one in 4 people who received the email clicked on a link in that email, and as someone who’s done email marketing for a long LONG time, I’m especially proud of that one!  But, if you are regularly getting a click-through rate on your emails of more than two and a half per cent, you are doing well.
Just this revelation alone might have already explained to you why you’re not getting anything out of your current mailing list: you’ve just not got enough people on it. In marketing, we talk about ‘funnels’ – and getting people into the top of your marketing funnel is an important part of a marketing strategy.  It’s not about just making people aware that you exist and then crossing your fingers that they will remember you later and buy from you, you need to get them to accept an open channel that you can keep talking to them – for example, if someone is aware of you and has shown some interest in your company, you need to get them on your mailing list so you can keep that conversation going. Now, I said I wasn’t really going to go into the detail of how email marketing works, but think about how long it takes you to decide on buying something.  How many times will you got to someone’s website, or you met someone at a vegan fair, absolutely loved the company, loved what they do, really love what they are selling … and … that’s where it ends.  You get distracted by the next company you love.  You forgot you met the one before.  You end up spending the money somewhere else.  And if you recognise this as something you do, then why do you think your customers think and act any differently?  One of the biggest revelations I ever had was early on in my career when I realised that a potential customer saying ‘no’ didn’t usually actually mean no.  It meant ‘not yet’.  It meant something else had to happen in their world before they became a customer, or I needed to build a relationship with them before they would buy, or they needed more time and information before they were convinced.  They just needed to get to know the company and the product.  Again, think of your own buying behaviour.  How often are you presented with something and you just buy it?  Almost never. You need to see it several times, you go through a buying decision, and you need that company to really try and keep your attention because there are so many other new shiny things that will distract you.  And the more money a product or service costs, the longer that decision-making process is and the longer you need to nurture someone to become a customer.
And that’s how email marketing works.  And it’s why having a good mailing list is so important: all the people who show an interest in your product or service – and that might be at a trade show, a vegan fair, on LinkedIn or Facebook, or who just visited your website a couple of times – if you can keep their attention and keep talking to them until the time is right, that’s where your future customers are going to come from.
I could do a whole podcast AND MORE on nurturing customers through email marketing and building a marketing funnel, and to be honest I probably will, but for now if you want to know more about this kind of stuff – and trust me, once you take the jargon away it’s all really common sense stuff that’s easy to do – then go take a look at the marketing course on the Vegan Business Tribe website.  The whole reason we wrote the course was to help business JUST LIKE YOU to learn some of the fundamentals of marketing that really make a huge difference to how you go about finding customers.  The more successful I can help your vegan business be, the quicker we all move towards that vegan world, and the marketing course has got an entire section on email marketing and another entire section on building marketing funnels – so go learn everything you need to learn.
OK, so what I really want to focus on in this session however is HOW you’re going to build that mailing list. And this isn’t always as easy at it seems.  People think they just put a sign-up form on their website, or they offer a 10%-off code and people just put their email address in.  But in my experience, sign-up forms on your website actually rarely give you much. How many websites have you visited over this last month? Twenty, thirty – maybe even more than a hundred?  And how many did you put your email address into? One, two – maybe even none?  It just doesn’t work like that.  Getting someone’s email address out of them is HARD.  It is still a transaction, and although they are not giving you money – it’s a precursor to that. Someone will only put an email address into your website if they are getting something of genuine value in return.
This is why you will see so many websites offering guides and PDF downloads for free, and all you have to provide is your email address to get it. In industry speak they are called ‘lead magnets’ – you offer a download, usually a PDF, or a video or a template of some kind, and all the visitors to your website have to enter is their name and email address to get it for free.  They get something useful, and you get another email address (or a ‘lead’) of someone showing an interest in what you do.  And these downloads or lead magnets CAN work exceptionally well, but the reality for many people is they put in a lot of work to create a download on their website and it gives them nothing in return because they forget about the ‘transaction’ element.
Remember, getting someone to give you their email address is hard, email addresses have real value to the person handing it over.  Which is why they have to consider the thing they are getting in return to be of equal value – OR it has to be something they need to complete their research.  You need to understand your customers and the process they go through when they buy, what research they are doing, what information would they be willing to give up their email address for in order to help them make a decision on what product will solve their problem. Maybe it’s simply just your catalogue you need to offer as a PDF download so someone can get all the information they need about your products in one go.  Maybe it’s just your company brochure so people can download it and keep it on their desktop as a reminder.  OR… maybe it’s a guide related to a specific problem that you KNOW your customer has, and being offered information about the solution to that problem has real value to them.  If you sell vegan skincare products you might offer a guide to improving your skin condition through better eating.  If you’re a vegan nutritionist, you might provide a sample one week meal plan.  If you are a vegan virtual assistant, you might have a guide to the best productivity tools.  And these are all examples related to the problem that you know is the REASON the person has come to your website in the first place.  Because it’s not just about building up your mailing list with anyone and everyone, it’s about building up your mailing list with people who you know have an interest in what you do, or who have a problem that you know you can help them solve. These are the people who are not ready to buy – just yet.  They are doing their research at the moment, and if you don’t have some way to connect with these people when they are in this researching phase, they will likely get distracted and forget which company they were looking at and you will never have known they were even ever on your website.
If you can’t get a sale, or someone to send you an enquiry, then getting their email address is the next best thing.  We call this a secondary or ‘soft’ call to action.  So a ‘hard’ call to action is getting someone to buy, or to pick up the phone or fill out your contact form.  A ‘soft’ or passive call to action is getting someone to leave their email address so that you can continue the conversation through your ongoing email marketing.  And this also means making sure your website is fully integrated with your email marketing software.  You should be using something like MailChimp to run your email marketing – partially because it manages all the admin of email marketing for you (like allowing people to unsubscribe), partially because it will give you all those stats so that you can see how many people are opening and clicking on your emails, but also because if you try and send out even a hundred emails through your own email provider you will probably end up getting suspended!  There are lots of people offering email marketing platforms, but the reason to use one of the big popular ones is they will have integrations for every part of your website already built-in, and you should use them.  Someone sends a submission through your contact form: make sure they automatically get added to your mailing list.  Someone places an order on your website: make sure your website sends that persons’ details to your email marketing platform and tags them as a customer. And if you don’t know how to do this, well, you do realise we live in the information age don’t you?  Simply Google ‘Integrate MailChimp with WooCommerce’ for example and see the step by step guides that come up, with screenshots, and with not a single line of code you need to write to make it work.
And building your mailing list this way does genuinely work, but again – don’t let me fool you into thinking it works JUST LIKE THAT.  It all comes back to numbers again.  If you put some really valuable and useful information on your website that people can download in return for an email address, but your website gets no visitors, then you are going to get exactly zero downloads and email addresses.  So once you’ve put all this hard time into creating this amazing, valuable content – go out there and shout about it.  Feature it on your social media and use it as a tool to get your followers off Instagram and on to your mailing list.  Perhaps your valuable content is a series of videos; upload the first one to LinkedIn for people to watch and then put a link to the rest on your website where people have to leave their email address to get full access.  Get some postcards printed with the cover of your download on one side and the link where they can find it on your website on the other – hand these out at the trade shows you visit or include it in the packaging when you send your product out to customers. If it’s a lead ‘magnet’, then you have to get it out amongst people to attract them with it.  You should even send a link to your new download to all the people ALREADY on your mailing list.  Doing so will give you a really good idea of who’s already on your list that is showing the most interest.  If you can see that someone on your mailing list that you’ve not heard from for ages goes and downloads a new guide, then that gives you an opportunity to re-engage – send them a follow-up email, ask them what they thought, ask them if it’s something they are looking for help with… start a conversation.
At some point though, you will need to reach out beyond your inbox and your website if you’re going to really build up your mailing list.  What we’ve spoken about so far are just strategies to convert people who are already going to your website, but your problem might be that you don’t have enough people going to your site yet. I mentioned earlier about making sure that everything is integrated – so make sure that all your current customers and contacts are added to your mailing list and have a strategy in place to make sure the list is constantly updated.  Even if that’s a manual export and upload from your CRM system or your address book at the start of every week.  Everyone you have a meeting with or a Zoom call, make sure they are on your list.  And before you start shouting GDPR at me, under the General Data Protection Regulations that we have in Europe, companies are still allowed to market to people who they believe have a legitimate interest in what they sell.  If someone has reached out to you commercially, if they have interacted with your company or provided their email address to you through your website, in MOST cases there is an expectation from that person that you will then communicate with them about your product or service.  And it’s fine for you to do that, as long as you are respecting their interests.
And identifying people who are interested in what you do and getting them into your marketing funnel should make up a big part of your marketing strategy.  I’ve known companies who had tens of thousands of followers on Instagram but only a couple of hundred people on their mailing list. They have never worked out the strategy to take people from passively following to a point of interaction that moves them into direct communication. I’ll give you an example:
When we first launched Vegan Business Tribe, we launched with a free evening event in Bristol in the UK (which is a city with a large vegan community). I ran a workshop about how to run a successful vegan business.  We used Facebook advertising to promote the event to people who were vegan, had their own business and lived in the area – and set up an Eventbrite page for people to register for the event.  We had about 50 people register for a free ticket, and that gave us the very start of our mailing list – even before we’d run the event.  Even if the people didn’t actually turn up on the day they had still declared themselves as having an interest in what we were doing. You don’t need to set up a big in-person event to do something like this – you can set-up a live online product demonstration on Zoom, or Facebook Live and get people to register for it through a ticketing system like Eventbrite so that you can get their names and email addresses.  Promote these events to your social followings and see how many people you can convert from passively following you to actually interacting with you and declaring themselves as interested.  Or maybe you can piggyback someone else’s audience?  Can you set up a seminar or online demo with someone who’s got an audience that would be sympathetic to what you sell?  Make it sign-up only and make sure you can get the emails of everyone who signs up so you can follow-up and add them to your list. 
And if you are doing in-person events, like fairs and trade shows, don’t forget that these are great for building up your mailing list. When you are planning out your event strategy, one of your major goals should be how many new people can you get on your mailing list from the event?  Everyone who stops on your stall, everyone you have a conversation with, have a system in place to get them to leave their email address.  The bigger the event, then the easier this actually is.  The big trade shows now usually provide barcode scanners where you just scan the badge of anyone who stops on your stand and you get their details.  But you can also have lots of other strategies for smaller shows and fairs: have an iPad or tablet on the stand for people to enter their details into to receive a discount code or a PDF of your brochure or a link to your website – people end up carrying so much stuff around these live shows that they will be glad for you to email them a link instead of having to carry another catalogue around with them.  Or put on a competition: everyone who leaves their name and email address gets entered into a draw for some free product or a prize.  If someone buys a product from you on your stand, collect their email address at the same time so that you can send them a link to your site so they can re-order at a later date.  If they love your product, and they connect with you, they will be happy for you to do this.  There are so many ways that you can creatively get someone to give you their email address at live shows, and if you do it right every show you do should swell your email list by another couple of hundred people – make it a KPI, or a key performance indicator, of how well the show went.  Don’t just value a show or fair by how many sales you made on the day, judge it in how many future customers you got onto your mailing list and how much you’ve managed to increase your audience.
And finally, there is one big kale salad in the room that we’ve not spoken about yet, and that is buying mailing lists.  Now, for some companies, this is, actually, a viable option – you can just PAY for new contacts.  The GDPR data regulations that we talked about earlier has changed how data-list resellers operate, but you can still, legitimately, pay an amount of money and in return get the contact details of either business in a specific sector or people who have particular interests. And I’m going to be honest and say in my past businesses I’ve worked with data companies to do just this.  I’ve bought lists of tens of thousands of cold contacts for campaigns, and it does just become a numbers game.  If someone hasn’t had any dealings with your company and they start getting email from you out of the blue, it’s not really THAT indistinguishable from spam. In fact, you could say it is just spamming.  But, if you’ve done your targeting right, and if you’ve worked with a really good data reseller that has spent time verifying the data is up to date and accurate, then hopefully, with your fingers crossed, the people you are spamming might at least be in your target market and by sheer numbers alone you might get some results. But the interaction you will get will be really, really low in comparison to a list you have built organically from people who have shown interest in your business. There are times when it can work, but it really is the very top of the top of the funnel activity, it’s the equivalent of cold calling.  You might be able to convert some of the people from a bought list, but don’t expect any instant results and expect a lot of bounce-backs, unsubscribes and even people reporting your messages as spam that might get you suspended by your email marketing platform.  If you do buy a list though – then as with everything, test first.  A data house will try to sell you tens of thousands of contacts, even hundreds of thousands, but go back to them and say how much for just a thousand first.  Test out emailing them and see what response you get. Do you get that 2.6% click-through rate?  But if you do go down this route, then only deal with a reputable data broker where you can get someone on the phone to talk to them about the kind of people you are trying to target and where they take accountability for the quality of the data.  Don’t just dump a bought list into your own mailing list, keep the data separate so that you can filter it out again at a later date.  So, I’m not going to whole-heartedly recommend buying your mailing list, but if you’re selling business to business for example – so you might be selling a service to food manufacturers – then purchasing a list of the contacts at the biggest food manufacturers in the country might be a useful shortcut to get you started.  But again, expect to have to put in twice the work to get anything back from a bought list compared to an organically grown one.
Right, so that’s a lot of information that we’ve been through today on this session, so let’s round it up with a quick reminder of some of the nuggets:
  1. Your mailing list can be the lifeblood of your business. One of the biggest problems vegan business have is not their product or their price, but the number of people they are getting that product in front of.
  2. A mailing list of a couple of hundred people is not enough to give you any meaningful feedback on if what you are doing is working.  The average click-through rate for email marketing is 2.6% so if you send an email to 500 people, you can only expect five to click on a link.  Email lists don’t get powerful until they get into the thousands.
  3. Someone saying ‘no’ to your product right now is often actually saying ‘not yet’.  Something else needs to happen in their world, or they just need to get more familiar with you and your product. That’s why it’s important to get people onto your mailing list so that you can keep that conversation going until the time is right. And if you want to learn more about this, go take a look at the marketing course on the Vegan Business Tribe website.
  4. Actually getting someone’s email address IS HARD.  Think about your own behaviour.   How often do you actively join someone else’s mailing list and why do you think your customers will act any different?  Someone giving you their email address is still a transaction, and although they are not giving you money – it’s a precursor to that.
  5. This is why people develop more creative ways to get email addresses from potential customers. Understand the journey your customer is going through, think about the journey that YOU go through when buying a product or service.  Can you offer something that is going to help someone come to a decision or find out the information they need to make their mind up in return for their email address?
  6. No matter how good your ‘lead magnet’, if you don’t have anyone coming to your site then no-one is going to download it!  Once you have a guide, or a download, or a free video series, shout about it.  Both online and offline.
  7. Make sure all your systems are connected.  If someone orders from your website, make sure they go into your mailing list so you can keep talking to them.  And there is NO excuse for not knowing how to do this, as I said – welcome to the information age.
  8. Reach out beyond your website and inbox. Put on events – either online or in-person – where the goal is simply to increase your mailing list from the people who are showing an interest – even if they never turn up. Link up with other people who have similar audiences.  Come up with a strategy to move your social followers onto your mailing list.
  9. Remember that you CAN buy mailing lists, but it’s a numbers game. You won’t get the same kind of interaction and if you’re not careful with how you get your data and knowing how you can legally use it, you could actually get into trouble.
If you’re really focused, then it’s not unreasonable to expect you might increase your mailing list by a thousand people over the course of a year.  If you’re more established, or you’re regularly doing events that yearly increase might be a lot higher, but you also have to have some patience and tenacity. Don’t expect to go from a mailing list of a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand overnight, you will really need to put some hard work into building your audience. Spend time planning a strategy of how you’re going to PURPOSELY build up your mailing list, not just leave it to a sign-up form on your website.  But over time, the more channels you set up and the more activity you have funnelled people into your mailing list, the more you start to build up momentum and the easier it gets.
As I said, I am sure we’ll come back to email marketing in a future episode – especially what you can do when you HAVE built up your mailing list because that’s when all the fun stuff starts, that’s when you can start to use your mailing list to speed up those people who are saying ‘not yet’ and nurture people into becoming customers.  But if you can’t wait for that, again, that’s why we’ve got the vegan business marketing course on the website so make sure you go check that out.
And that’s it for this episode.  As always I really appreciate you giving me your time – because this isn’t just about helping YOUR business, this is about helping ALL vegan businesses skill up and scale up so that we can change the business landscape.  And you can help us do that – simply by tapping the subscribe button, or leaving a review if your platform lets you do that, or by sharing this episode with other vegan businesses who you think would find this information invaluable.  Just use the links on the website to send them a link direct to this episode.
I know I’m lucky to have you guys, and together we’re really making a difference.  Thank you for listening, and I will see you on the next one.

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