The Solopreneur’s Guide to Email Marketing
Originally published at success.com on May 20, 2021.
In 2015 I devoured Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek and fell so deeply in love with the idea of passive income that I created an online store for men’s fashion.
The task at hand—yours, too, if you’re reading this guide—became: how to sell? I blogged, ran giveaways, and collected 27,000 Instagram followers in the first year.
But it was email marketing that became my star salesperson. The experts told me that this familiar tool was the most effective sales channel after word of mouth, and it’s as true today as it was then—even in a world where social media is everyone’s darling.
If you’re among the burgeoning millions of full-time solopreneurs or part-time side-hustlers, you’ll need to scale your own finite efforts, and there’s no better (and virtually free) way than email marketing.
What’s in This Guide?
This is a new & comprehensive guide for independent entrepreneurs (solopreneurs) who want to sell their product or service with the #1 most effective online marketing tool in 2021: email.
In it, you’ll learn:
Why email marketing is your most persuasive marketing tool, beating out every social media platform (yes, even TikTok and Clubhouse).
Not just the basics of how to start, but tactics for capturing subscribers and growing your list.
What an effective email marketing strategy looks like, with real-world examples.
How to write great copy, segment your list, and automate your messages so that you make money while you sleep.
This advanced guide goes WAY beyond “send campaigns at 11am on Tuesdays” and into practical strategies that are proven to work in the field.
If you are a coach, personal trainer, artist, real estate or insurance agent, or health practitioner… Or you are looking to grow your ecommerce, speaking, wellness, or network marketing business…
Then bookmark this page right now because it’s the only guide you will need to build a pipeline of engaged, loyal customers for life.
Why Email Marketing?
OK class, let’s review the statistics:
“The average email open rate is between 15-25%... Conversely, on Facebook you can expect a click-through rate of a measly 0.07%.” (Agency Analytics)
“The average order value of an email is at least 3x higher than that of social media.” (Optinmonster)
“For every $1 you spend on email marketing, you can expect an average return of $42.” (Oberlo)
But seeing the results with my own eyes was all I needed to become an email evangelist. And when Facebook changed their algorithms, making it virtually impossible to reach followers without paying, this completed my conversion to email (where I control own my list).
I’m no email marketing expert; I don’t work for a marketing agency or Mailchimp, and didn’t study this stuff at business school. But I do have 7+ years of hard-won experience from the front lines. The info and strategies in this article come from building 4 separate online businesses.
From one solopreneur to another I can tell you: email marketing is the most powerful way to build your business.
Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
As a comprehensive guide, you should feel free to tackle this one bite at a time.
Part I: Principles for Choosing an Email Platform
Part II: How to Set up Your Subscriber List
Part III: 8 Tools For Growing Your List
Part IV: Sending Your First Email
Part V: Automate Everything!
Part VI: Email Marketing Mistakes to Avoid
Part I: Principles for Choosing an Email Platform
If you’re thinking about sending bulk email, you’ll need to choose an Email Marketing Service (EMS). No, you can’t send email blasts from your Gmail or Outlook account without getting banned.
Most email marketing guides begin with a neat little comparison of the myriad providers you could choose: Constant Contact, Aweber, Klaviyo, and so on.
Rather than rehash that exercise, let’s lay out some principles that will help you choose a service that suits YOU.
12 Principles For Choosing Your New Email Marketing Service
1. Is it FREE? Whether established or starting out, you’re probably on a budget, and so free software is a staple in any solopreneur’s bag of tricks. Most EMS do offer a free plan that will handle basic tasks like... sending email (you expected a better punchline?) Ask: is this free indefinitely, or is it a free trial only?
2. What’s the subscriber cap? That handy free plan is only free until you collect a certain number of subscribers. Is that number 250 (Klaviyo), or 2,000 (Mailchimp)? You’ll want to choose a service that gives you runway to grow before paying—especially if you plan to build your list quickly. Also: find out how many emails you’re allowed to send in a month.
3. Can I schedule my email campaigns? Maybe as a side-hustler you’re writing marketing copy after the kids are in bed, or before you Zoom into the 9-5 job. Admirable hustle, my friend, but midnight may not be the best time to reach your customers. As simple as it may seem, not all free EMS plans let you schedule your campaigns for later. Watch out for this.
Don’t wake your list at 2am
4. Does it play well with others? The beauty of pursuing an email marketing strategy is that it works well with many other tools & strategies. Find out if your EMS integrates with your ecommerce store, landing pages, preferred popup service, or your customer relationship management (CRM) system. The lesser-known EMS might not speak the same language as the rest of your business, which can be a costly headache in the long-term.
5. Is it automatic? Email marketing is powerful not only because you get to speak directly to customers who have opted-in, but because with automation, you can sell to customers at the appropriate time in their buying journey, even while you sleep. Some guides place automation in the domain of the advanced marketer, but today it ought to be the core of your email marketing strategy.
6. Can I segment my list? As a coach, your potential clients might be looking for help with their business, career, relationship, finances, or emotions. Don’t market to these groups in the same way. That’s why the ability to “segment” your email list is crucial. Pair this tactic with automation, and you essentially hire half a dozen salespeople—for free. More on automation and segmentation later.
7. Do they offer great templates? There are excellent reasons for steering clear of flashy emails in favor of plain-text (we’ll talk later). But, if you choose the graphics-heavy route, then pre-built templates can save you hours and ensure the end product looks great. Ask: “Do I need a service that offers stunning email templates?”
8. Am I a Luddite? Awkward question, but… do you have a knack for breaking computers? If the thought of tinkering with HTML or poring over analytics data makes you weak in the knees, pick a service with limited features and a dead simple user interface, like SendFox.
9. Does it do landing pages? Growing your subscriber list is a key goal of any strategy, and one way to do that is to offer something valuable (e.g. an e-book) in exchange for an email address. Enter: the landing (or squeeze) page, a basic webpage that encourages a user to make this very trade. Choose an EMS that can also create landing pages easily.
10. What about A/B Testing? In practice this simply means to send an email to 2 test groups—while changing one variable, like the subject line—in order to choose the more effective email that the rest will receive. True A/B testing is only reliable when you have a minimum sample size—in other words, a list at minimum in the thousands of subscribers. Luckily, Optimizely has a handy calculator to tell you if your experiments will be meaningful.
11. Yeah, but how are their analytics? You can send emails all day and still be shouting into the void. A critical part of any email marketing strategy is to monitor campaign performance and adjust as you go. An EMS with robust analytics is helpful. Some providers make you pay for this. Speaking of which…
12. How much is this going to cost me? If you’re doing email marketing right, eventually you will outgrow even the most generous free EMS plan. At that point, you either stop growing your business, or pay, often handsomely. Understand what features are included in your free plan, and how much you’ll spend for features like automation or those additional 500 subscribers.
Don’t let anyone tell you which service to pick, instead use the principles above to make the best decision for you. Keep in mind: switching EMS is a pain in the rear on the level of cleaning glitter out of a shag rug… so choose wisely!
Here’s a handy comparison of the free plans of some of the most popular email marketing services.
Part II: How to Set up Your Subscriber List
How often do you get “Like my page” requests on Facebook? It’s a friend’s boyfriend’s new real estate venture, bitcoin mining, etc… I have 60+ requests collecting dust in my notifications tab.
Usually they come from estranged contacts who love their pet project SO MUCH that they took the painstaking effort to click a button, but not enough to reach out personally.
Yes, I’ve also made the mistake of thinking that, because this is important to me, it will be to my network, too. Wrong.
They are not all your tribe, and this is poor marketing.
When building your email subscriber list, remember those lonely, unanswered Facebook invites. Choose to go deep, instead of wide; curate your audience.
Choose Your Customer Archetype
How do we find our tribe—that group of people who will care deeply about our service or product, and who could become raving fans?
First, you need to know what they look like, and the best way to do that is to create a customer archetype. This is simply an imagined, but hopefully accurate, representation of your ideal client. Ask:
What is their age, gender, income bracket, profession? (I.e. demographics)
What do they do in a typical day?
What challenges are they trying to solve?
How do they want to feel?
What beliefs do they have about themselves?
What is their communication style?
When you’ve answered these questions, feel free to give this imaginary avatar a name: Bob Loblaw from Wawa… Leeroy Jenkins from Accounting. Go on, play with it.
Write this on an index card and post it wherever you see it as you start to craft your marketing messages.
Segmentation: Not Just for Jocks Anymore
So, you started developing your first customer archetype and found that this person has multiple personality disorder… sounds about right. That’s because it’s unlikely your business will serve only one need or person.
Pop quiz: do you remember your high school cliques? In my cafeteria there were tables for jocks, band kids, drama people, loners, and on and on. The lines weren’t as clearly drawn as Hollywood portrays, but there were distinct tribes (or archetypes) who shared interests and needs. The same will hold true for your email list.
This is where segmentation comes in. I run a business that trains writers, but within that bucket there are clients who are writing young adult fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, magazine articles, and short stories. If I were to send the same marketing email to all of them, they would unsubscribe in droves.
Most email marketing services allow you to easily segment your list using tags or groups. In this way, you can tailor your message to ever-more-granular groupings. Segmentation should be set up before you even send that first email blast… but if your email strategy is already underway, it’s never too late to start segmenting. When you do, you’ll more closely match your offerings to your customer’s needs.
Your standard cafeteria cliques
A key rule of any successful email strategy is that your audience opts-in of their own accord. Tribe building does not involve importing your personal contacts or scattershot Facebook page “Like” requests.
Opting-in is not only the law in most jurisdictions, but it makes good business sense: why waste resources market to people who don’t want to hear from you? Instead, let your customers self-select as adoring fans. Ask yourself these questions about opting-in:
Single or double, what’ll it be?
Single opt-in means that a client can subscribe with just an email address and one click. It’s fine if you want to let any lost wanderer into the club.
Double opt-in means that, when someone enters their email address in your signup form, this triggers a confirmation email, inside which they need to click a button to make absolutely sure they want to be on your list.
No need to overthink the double opt-in
The latter is a helpful client screening. If a person can’t click a simple “confirm” button, how likely are they to open their wallet? This simple test can reel in more big fish, instead of “old boots and tin cans” to your list.
Tell me about yourself?
How much do you want to know about your customers? In an ideal world you would collect each person’s age, weight, eye color, shoe size, and Zodiac sign. But with every field you add to your email signup form, there is a LARGE corresponding audience that will hissy-fit & leave.
Killer value proposition & social proof, anyone?
To ensure the maximum conversion rate on your signup forms, collect only the user’s email address. BUT!—there is an argument for collecting the subscriber’s first name as well, even if some people will be thwarted by the Herculean effort of filling in another text box.
The reason is this: most EMS let you insert a small bit of code, called a “merge tag”, anywhere in your email that display text that is customized to each recipient. For example, inserting *|FNAME|* will display “Ricky” or “Johanna”. Yes, exactly like a mail merge in Microsoft Word.
According to the email marketing experts at Optinmonster, personalized emails are opened at a rate six times emails that are not personalized. One study showed that personalizing your subject line can lift open rates by up to 20% (but this effect seems to be waning).
It makes perfect sense that your subscribers are more likely to engage with your content if you tailor it to them—even if that’s as simple as addressing them by first name.
Part III: 8 Tools for Growing Your List
You’ve zeroed in on your ideal customers, segmented them into groups, and started collecting precious email addresses. But how do you actually entice the right people to subscribe, besides that simple “Subscribe” box on your homepage? Clever solopreneurs have these tools in their kit.
1. Put that subscribe box everywhere: At a minimum, your website visitors should see a subscribe box at the top & bottom of your homepage and every blog post, on your “About” page, and in your navigation menu. Of course, to bear fruit, you need healthy website traffic, which rests on a strong foundation of content marketing. And the best content? That’s usually high-quality blog posts (whether you call it a blog or not) that will attract the attention of Google Search.
2. The landing page: The sole purpose of this specialized webpage is to get people to take a single action: give us your email address! They typically include your logo, a compelling headline (that is also your value proposition—the reason to sign up), a short list of what you’ll get, maybe some social proof, and finally the call to action (CTA): the email signup box itself. What this page should not include is any kind of distracting menu, links to other sites, or multiple CTAs. Keep it simple.
3. Lead magnets are any valuable gift that your prospects will trade in exchange for their closely-guarded email address. Think: e-books, checklists, free trials, proprietary research, image packs, templates, apps, quizzes, webinars, or free brownies.
The man, the legend, the free guide
A user normally requests the magnet from a landing page, which is then pushed to their inbox using an email automation. Work hard to ensure that your “free brownies” are the kind that your ideal client can’t resist. Don’t give away a generic Amazon gift card—lest you reel in the “professional giveaway enterers” instead of your desired customer.
4. The content upgrade: This type of lead magnet is hyper-targeted to a specific interest. Let’s say that you are a wellness coach, and you published a blog post about eating right to manage diabetes. On that page you may want to offer a free, downloadable cookbook for diabetes-friendly dishes. This is an “upgrade” over the content that your blog visitor is already interest in. Content upgrades convert much better than generic lead magnets. To get started, use Google Analytics to find out which of your pages see the most traffic, then offer content upgrades there (popups, anyone?)
5. Surveys: People get the warm & fuzzies when you ask for their opinion. It’s easy to host surveys free through SurveyMonkey, Typeform, or even some EMS platforms. In addition to gaining incredible insight about your prospects, you can make the last question on your survey “What’s your email address” and add them to your list (with an opt-in disclaimer, of course), automatically segmented into their proper categories.
6. The giveaway is a type of contest in which you promise a chance to win a valuable prize(s) in exchange for the entrant’s email address. Before Harry’s launched their men’s shaving brand in 2013, the founders said, “We can’t launch to crickets!” They devised a simple, 2-page website that captured email addresses AND (like all great giveaways) encouraged virality: the more friends you referred, the better the prizes. This campaign collected 100,000 hot leads in 1 week. Your mileage will vary, but the quality of your leads will be better if you offer freebies that your ideal clients crave.
7. Popups—these are a nuisance reviled by everybody… except smart marketers. If you have a website, you should consider at minimum running an exit-intent popup, triggered when a user’s mouse icon moves to close the browser tab. Hey, you’re about to lose this person forever anyway, you might as well make a last Hail Mary attempt to sign-‘em-up.
Don’t let the popup miss you on the way out…
Popups are also a great way to serve up content upgrades. These can subtly say “hey look at me” when a visitor finishes a blog post, for example. Popups can be customized based on what site he arrived from, where she is on your site & for how long, country, and on and on. It’s a powerful way to grow your email list. Capturing 2 to 5 percent of your visitors is typical, but some of my popups convert at 17%. Constantly A/B test your popups to make them better.
8. Referral & loyalty rewards programs: What’s more effective than email marketing? Word of mouth. Combine the two and you’ve basically won the internet. The best referral traffic is from zealous, raving fans, but those who aren’t yet can be incentivized to tell their friends through shameless bribery. It works. When PayPal launched, they gave new users $20 cash, plus $20 to refer a friend. This cost them a modest $60 mil, so I don’t recommend it for you, but you can replace cash with store credit, discount codes, or cheap freebies to encourage viral email list growth. This strategy can be especially effective for ecommerce solopreneurs; platforms like Shopify offer hundreds of referral program plugins.