Well well well... look at the subject line of this newsletter, will you?
It's Total Annarchy #99. It's the eve before the big centennial celebration of TA #100.
Two things are knocking inside my noggin today:
1. A relentless refrain
sung to the tune of the World's Most Annoying Song, 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.
("99-issues-of-mail in the box... 99 issues of mail! You take one down.... Pass it around... 98 issues of mail in the box!
2. A reflective analysis of what has truly triggered growth and engagement in this newsletter over the past 99 issues. And what you might learn from it, too.
(Pro tip: #2 is the side of me you'd find less annoying to be around than the side of me that is belting out the adapted 99 Bottles refrain. Invite this side of me to your party. Tell her to leave the 99 Bottles gal home.)
* * *
TA #1 was born on January 28, 2018 to 2,111 of you. This morning, 41,640 got this letter from me.
(Those 2,111 people were subscribed to blog post triggers at AnnHandley.com. I can't even really call you "subscribers" in the same sense I would now—because an email alert and a newsletter are not the same thing. The former is auto-generated. Soulless. Bloodless. More like a ping that it's time to change the batteries in your smoke detector.)
Anyhooooo... let's do the math: 2K to 42K is a 2,000% increase. Yet I've grown the list with a focus on engagement, not size.
Size is a byproduct, not a goal.
Here is my approach... and what you can steal from it.
How I Grew an Engaged Newsletter List
What worked, what didn't
▶️ Create what you wish existed. For years I searched for a marketing newsletter that focused on writing and storytelling. That walked the walk—meaning, the writing was writing I wanted to read.
Why doesn't it exist? I used to muse, stroking my metaphorical ascot. More musing: How can Marketing see the power in writing?
Like... duh. Do it then, dummy. Be your own best fan.
▶️ Feed yourself first. I get as much joy out of writing this newsletter as I hope you get reading it.
No good writing is created at gunpoint. If I hated writing this... you'd feel that. Weird metric I use: I try to make myself laugh in every issue.
▶️ Say no. What don't you write about? is as important a question to answer as what you do write about. Marketing is big, broad, complex. I leave Rev Ops to the people who are passionate about that kind of thing.
▶️ Purpose defines goals. My purpose here is to nurture and have fun. That keeps me focused on what matters. What I do/don't look at:
> Do: Open rates (30-40% of you open each issue, as far as I can tell).
> Don't: Click-through rates.
> Weird metric I use: Open-to-Write-Back-Rate (OWBR: I made this up). Roughly 100 of you write me personally after each send. If it's less than that... I think about why.
▶️ Do unscalable things. A better header might be Think Small and Grow Big. But that feels like a book you'd see in an airport Hudson News.
The point is: Slow down. Invest where it matters.
Weird metric I use: If someone asks me how much time I spend on X and their face registers WUT that's too much time... I know I'm on the right track. So:
> Spend a lot of time on craft. This newsletter takes me 8 hours, on average. Crazy? To some maybe. Worth it? Yes.
> Obsess about the writing. I write 4 drafts over those 8 hours, over 2-3 days. I want to make each paragraph, sentence, word earn its keep. If it's not adding anything, I cut it from the team and encourage it to try again during next week's tryouts. I'm not trying to crush their spirit, you know?
> Spend time on building subscriber relationships. Connecting with subscribers individually matters. More on this in a second.
> Spend time on building influencer relationships. I hate using the word "influencer" here because it feels transactional. But it's good shorthand for other newsletters, companies, marketers, writers.
Call out the good work of others. Share the love. Don't expect and ask for reciprocity—that's not friendship, that's coercion.
("Actually it's quid pro quo," some pedant shouted from the back. Whatever, Pedant. No one likes it.)
▶️ Ditch the forced opt-in, lead magnets, popovers. Yes, they work. No, they aren't for everyone.
If you use them, make sure you're clear on your goals vs. you just read a Best Practices article on how to grow your newsletter list. (I guarantee *THAT* was behind a popover.)
For a hot minute I once implemented an email signup popover on my site. I took it down a hot minute later. It wasn't me. I'm more interested in the quality of the list than the size of the list.
I want a reader's relationship with me to be, ultimately, the trigger than would grow the list.
I bolded that because it was a revelation to me. And it's important.
▶️ Obsess over onboarding. You'll never get a second chance to make a first impression, as the great Greek god Pinterest sells as a frameable poster in his Etsy store.
Pay attention to that first touch. What does a subscriber get when they sign up for your list? What's the vibe you're giving off? The tone you set?
> High-five! They should get an immediate, friendly, human Welcome high-five message from a real person.
Write it in your voice and tone. Do not use your email provider's default. "That's a wasted opportunity," Greek god Pinterest warns.
> Set expectations. When will you mail? What will you promise to deliver?
I learned this by realizing what didn't work (again): One woman unsubscribed via hate-mail when she received her first issue of this newsletter early on a Sunday morning. "I don't want to think about work on the weekend!!!!!" she said.
Yes! With 5! Exclamation! Points!
A little aggressive with the punctuation. But fair enough.
Now I make sure new subscribers know exactly what they'll get. And when. Pro tip for Marketing (and Life): Setting expectations neuters rage.
> Create an easy ask. Invite subscribers to write back and tell you a bit about themselves. When they do, you get great information about who is on your list—and also help ensure future deliverability.
A weird metric I use: I aim for 50% response rate to this specific Welcome email—in other words, I want half the people who get it to answer me. About 30% tend to hit reply and answer. Working on that.
▶️ Prompt sharing. In each issue, subtly invite your current subscribers to share your newsletter easily with others. I say subtly because if you sell too hard you'll come off like you care more about your next subscriber vs. the one right in front of you. Nuance is your comrade here.
▶️ Create reading momentum. White space is oxygen.
Let your words breathe.
I love long sentences. But newsletters need short sentences. Short paragraphs. Short sections. Don't make 1,000 words feel like 1,000 words.
▶️ Promote on social, but... Important: Share the value, not the event. (Another mistake I've made.)
NO: "The latest issue of my newsletter just dropped > LINK." (Who cares?)
YES: "How I learned to avoid writing by committee > LINK."
▶️ Other list growth tactics. There are lots of trickling feeder tributaries that together flow into a steady stream. Like:
- Direct referrals from current subscribers who pass it along to friends
- Social referrals from current subscribers who share it on social channels
- Soft sell in speeches, podcasts, etc. ("If you've liked what I've had to say... please subscribe...")
- Referrals from people whose work I celebrate
- The most unlikely places. My favorite example came a few weeks ago from new subscriber Avi:
I actually first heard about you from, of all people, my chiropractor, who, when I hinted at the possibility of writing for him told me he does all his own copywriting and no way was he gonna spend money or time on someone to write for him! His source of writing knowledge? Everybody Writes by Ann Handley!
But! The biggest trigger to growth, happiness, joy all around:
Make something no one else does.
Thank you for being here. I appreciate it.
Let me know if you find this advice useful. Onward to #100!