The Lean Startup Guide to Email Marketing
By Brandon Olson February 1, 2016
This is a guest post from Adam Costa and his wife Darcie Connell, who run KeepInspiring.me, a blog dedicated to inspiration and motivation, as well as 10xtoday.com, where you can access free e-courses on how to become 10 times better at life.
“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” —Bruce Lee
The truth is, email marketing is simple—and extremely effective—if done correctly. But the problem is, there’s way too much information that can get you stuck.
This is especially true with startups, when you’re burning through cash and need to produce results as quickly as possible.
Fortunately, the Lean Startup methodology works just as well with email marketing. (And even Fortune 500 companies can benefit from this approach.)
In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know, distilled into four simple steps. These four steps allow you to learn from your audience and iterate quickly based on feedback.
Let’s start with the first step: asking your audience what they want.
Step 1: Ask your audience what they want
Whether you have an existing newsletter or are looking to launch one, get feedback from your audience before writing any more emails.
This may seem counterintuitive, but it allows you to gather feedback about your audience’s challenges—and how you can help. For example, if your audience tells you their biggest challenge is increasing their conversion rate, then you can create a free email course about conversion optimization.
Asking your audience first ensures your emails hit the mark.
So how do you get feedback? The simplest way is to use a free tool called Hotjar. Hotjar answers two vital questions about your audience:
- Why would people subscribe to my newsletter?
- What would subscribers like or dislike about my newsletter?
We’ll use two Hotjar tools to answer these questions. The first tool, called a Poll, appears on the bottom right of your page. Here’s what it looks like on our list of inspirational quotes:
Polls help you discover what people like about your page—and what you need to improve.
These insights serve two purposes:
- We can improve this page on a bi-weekly basis. It’s as simple as improve, get more feedback, and improve some more. Iteration for the win!
- Once we know how to improve the page, we know what people really want. In the above example, if people mention they want quotes with pictures, we would test a free set of 50 high-quality images with quotes.
Armed with these insights, we create a simple opt-in form that speaks directly to our audience.
Here’s what our opt-in form looks like:
We’ll continue to test this form, which is really easy thanks to Sumome.com, based on feedback from the Hotjar polls.
Step 2: Create feedback loops so you can iterate and improve
A big part of The Lean Startup (and 7 Day Startup) movement is to move quickly, gather feedback, and iterate.
“Done is better than perfect.” —Facebook slogan
The simplest way to gather feedback about your emails is to ask your subscribers. (I know. Revolutionary, right?) When somebody signs up for your email list, ask what they’re struggling with.
Here’s an email we send to our subscribers:
Notice the survey link? We created a simple survey—again using Hotjar—to learn about our subscribers.
Here’s the survey we show them:
Pro-tip: Put this email in your autoresponder series, to ensure you’re always getting feedback. This feedback helps you create new emails, posts, products and services.
Please don’t overthink this. Ask your subscribers what they want, then give it to them.
Step 3: Write only 3 to 5 emails at first
Write 3–5 emails, then ask for feedback. This ensures you speak directly to your market and see what’s working—and what’s not.
Why only 3–5? Because it’s long enough for your audience to get a feel for your newsletter—including your topics, timing, and writing style—and give you accurate feedback. And based on that feedback, you can rewrite your existing 3–5 emails and course-correct going forward. Imagine writing 25–35 emails and finding out people aren’t interested in the topic—this is something you want to avoid!
Please read the above section again—it’s deceptively simple, but effective.
Once you’ve written your first 3–5 emails, include one email at the end asking for feedback.
Here’s a quick diagram to illustrate my point:
Your last email should ask them:
what they thought of the emails so far, and
how they would improve them
This is incredibly useful because you build your email campaign based on feedback from your prospects and customers—instead of dreamt up in your next board meeting.
So what next? After you’ve gathered some feedback, you:
change the first set of emails based on user feedback;
write another 3–5 emails based on user feedback; and
ask for more user feedback.
Are you starting to see a pattern? 🙂
Now your series looks like this:
Build out your email list 3–5 emails at a time and iterate based on your customers’ feedback.
Step 4: Create a master calendar of your emails
Your next step is to create a master calendar of your emails. Create a spreadsheet and include the headlines (Column A), when emails will be sent (Column B), and any additional goals or notes for that particular email (Columns C and D).
You can download this spreadsheet I use to plan our campaigns. (And for a more detailed explanation of this schedule, please see this article.)
This approach forces you to use a disciplined, strategic approach, instead of blindly shooting off emails. You can map out dozens, even hundreds, of emails before committing the time and resources to writing.
Don’t skip this step. Otherwise, you may need to rewrite several emails because it doesn’t fit your overall strategy.
As for the total number you send, that’s up to you. Pat Flynn sends ~15 emails, each roughly 7 days apart; Sean Ogle sends a 6-part series; Groupon emails people every day. In the end, let your audience dictate; if people tell you it’s too much, scale back; if they want more, give ‘em more!
How to write emails that get read
The simplest thing: write an email to a person. Don’t think like a marketer; just picture someone you know who closely resembles your market persona and write to them.
Follow up or broadcast emails?
The simplest method—which I always prefer!—is to create an autoresponder series responsible for ~90% of your emails sent. The other 10 percent can be used for broadcast emails.
Leveraging autoresponders frees your time up to work on other parts of your business. Broadcasts help you promote new content, and time-sensitive offers.
Now it’s your turn
So there you have it: a high-level email strategy based on—and built with—intense user feedback.
Speaking of which, what’d you think of this article? 🙂
Anna Corbett2/4/2016 6:12 pm
This article was excellent! I am just beginning with AWEber and re-awakening my emails following a stellar sabbatical. I really appreciated the specific steps for finding out what my community wants, and creating feedback loops. I especially found value with only writing 3 – 5 emails at first, then asking for feedback. This is different information than I have received from others who essentially encourage ‘flooding’ my audience, which never felt organic to me. I really want to offer what the women in my community want. Thank You!!!
Brandon Olson2/5/2016 3:51 pm
You’re welcome, Anna! Happy you liked the article. Let us know if there’s anything in particular we can write about that would help you in your email marketing.
Wendy Tebbutt2/5/2016 3:27 pm
Thank you, Brandon! That was a great post – very helpful in terms of timelines for emailing. I love the idea of a spreadsheet with columns for specific goals, headlines, date to send, etc. You’re talking my kind of language. This will let me plan out (or at least partly plan) a year’s worth of emails, giving my clients information on a single theme over a short series of emails, then moving on to another theme. All the best Wendyht
Brandon Olson2/5/2016 3:51 pm
Glad you found the article useful, Wendy! Best of luck with your planning.
dhanush2/13/2016 11:49 pm
a very good start up guide I have ever seen
thank you for the info
Benjamin Brandall2/14/2016 4:31 am
This is great! I’m just preparing to build a new, smaller list for a campaign on customer success strategy, and this has got me excited to start and given me some real guidance. Thanks