28 March 2022 |

Email, email, email

By Adam Ryan

Whether you’re in B2C or B2B, you’re a startup with a few thousand subscribers or a creator doing it on your own — email is (or will be) the driving force of your business.  

This isn’t a secret to most of you reading, but email has a few obvious advantages:

  • Direct relationship to your audience (forego algo’s) 
  • Capture data to make audience engagement more efficient
  • Predictable and effective way to grow your audience 

The problem? Most operators don’t have a clue how to execute in a way that will enable them to reap the benefits of these advantages.

Having a wonderful email strategy is kind of like having a wonderful exercise strategy. It seems easy and obvious, but you need two things: the equipment and the motivation.

The goal of today’s deep dive is to help you understand which equipment you should use to develop a great email strategy — and, hopefully, give you the motivation to execute it.

Note: Today’s newsletter is sponsored by Sailthru, who I’ll recommend as one of the potential providers below. Even though they’re a sponsor, I assure you everything below is what I believe based on my own experience. 

Now, let’s get into how to build and execute a great data-driven email strategy

Buy, don’t build

Industry Dive is a business newsletter media co on pace to break $100M in revenue this year. 

Last week, Industry Dive’s Founder and CEO, Sean Griffey, came on my podcast to share how they’re building such an incredible business. We ended up talking a lot about 2 things that have been critical to their success: 

Data and tech.

When Industry Dive was founded back in 2012, they knew data would be hugely important, but there weren’t any tech solutions on the market that fit their email-driven needs. They tried to build their own email service provider (ESP) and customer data platform (CDP), but the in-house strategy wasn’t panning out.

I had a similar experience at The Hustle. The daily newsletter launched in 2016, and we invested tons of time and resources — including hiring 2 full-time engineers — to build both front- and back-end tech in-house. 

These tools enabled us to take advantage of some of the benefits of email, but we always felt like things were missing no matter what we built.

By 2018, out-of-the-box email tools were exploding. We scrapped most of our home-grown tools in favor of more robust no-code solutions, like Sailthru.

Today, there are more tech options available to media operators than ever before — including a plethora of amazing ESPs. Yet, I’m constantly asked by folks if I recommend building in-house. My answer is always, definitively, no. Please don’t! You’ll waste tons of time and resources all while straying from the core competency of your business.

Instead, focus your time on your content and audience. Which brings me to my next point…

Data, data, data

At Workweek, we aggressively collect zero-party data. 

Every time you subscribe to a Workweek Creator’s newsletter, you’re asked to answer a few questions about yourself specific to that newsletter’s topic and audience. On average, these surveys have 5 questions and 60%+ completion rate.

When Sean Griffey founded Industry Dive, his original goal (which he mentioned in his podcast) was to make $20M with 100K newsletter subscribers, or $200 ARPU — which is incredibly high. To accomplish this, their team focused on building systems that would enable Industry Dive to efficiently collect — and use — audience data.

The key here? Efficiency.

Data is tricky. Everyone wants more of it, but few people know how to… well, actually use it. 

One way to maximize efficiency and utility of your data: Create a unified user profile, AKA a single, centralized place where you can view all of a user’s data. 

Having an ESP that has a unified profile for each member of your audience is like having a super-power — especially when it comes to email — because it enables you to send hyper-personalized content to individual users.That’s why businesses like Industry Dive and The Hustle dedicated so much time, energy, and cash into building custom tech stacks.

So, when thinking about capturing data for your business, remember these 3 inevitable truths:

  • The more you ask of your audience, the less asks you have left 
  • 5% of your audience will drive most of the value of your audience 
  • Sending irrelevant content to your audience has consequences 

Some other tips… 

  • The more uniform the answers in your dataset, the better.
  • Don’t include free response fields in surveys — they’re not really helpful. It’s better to include a big list of specific answer options and, if you must, an “Other” option that provides free response at the end.
  • If you do include an “Other” option, dedicate time each month to reviewing responses. If you see common answers, add them back into the list of specific answer options.

Content to commerce

Why is all of this important?

Because most of us are working towards a greater goal of increasing our revenue per user — which is, often, executing a “content to commerce” strategy.

And the key to “content to commerce”? Efficient capture and use of your data. The more efficient you are, the more opportunities you have to monetize your audience’s affinity. Just look at Buzzfeed — they make $16M a year in commerce. That’s more than 95% of Shopify stores. 

So, how can you execute “content to commerce”? Let’s walk through an example:

Texas Monthly publishes a wide variety of content, from investigative journalism to local restaurant guides. One of their most popular topics? Barbecue. 

Let’s say Texas Monthly publishes a BBQ cookbook. How do they get their audience to buy it? 

First and most obvious, they could send a dedicated email to anyone who has subscribed to their BBQ newsletter. Second, they could send a dedicated email to everyone who has subscribed to any of their food-related channels. 

This is what most people do — but a powerful ESP can take you to the next level.

If you have the right tools, you can see who in your audience:

  1. Opens 75%+ of your BBQ newsletters
  2. Follows your BBQ Facebook page
  3. Visits your online shop

Now, you can send a targeted email to that specific segment of your audience promoting your cookbook and encouraging them to buy it. Then, you can create an automated email sequence that’s triggered to immediately send to anyone who crosses the threshold of intent outlined above.

The conversion of this segment will be drastically higher than blasting email marketing to a more general group. More importantly, you won’t annoy a big group of people who have no interest in the BBQ cookbook (who just might unsubscribe from your emails).

Seems so obvious, but it changes the economics of your audience ARPU. 

Every media business — both B2C and B2B — needs to be looking to go deeper with their audience, raising ARPU, and diversifying their business. 

No, I’m not encouraging a bunch of B2B companies to sell candles and hot plates. I’m encouraging you to explore the millions of commerce opportunities out there, from event tickets to paid industry reports and beyond.

So, how do you choose an ESP?

There are dozens of ESPs out there, from MailChimp and Campaign Monitor to Substack to Sailthru. Thing is, all of the ESPs on the market have different strengths suited to different purposes — which make choosing the right ESP hard.

So, I wrote a guide on how to do it. 

This guide gives the most in-depth take on the landscape of ESPs I’ve seen, and walks you through how I would choose one. Give it a read and let me know what you think.Get the guide →

 If you don’t have time to read the guide, here are my quick picks:

  • If you’re an individual creator, go with beehiiv. They’re nearly matched with Substack in terms of product offerings and have a way better vision to support creators.
  • If you’re a small-to-medium sized publisher, go with Campaign Monitor. This is what Workweek started with because it’s easy to use, allows for segmenting, and includes some nice features for a growing publisher. If you don’t ever plan to get into personalization or commerce, then this is probably the all-around winner for you.
  • If you’re an enterprise publisher or media company, use Sailthru. It’s the most sophisticated ESP on the market and is used by some of the biggest media co’s in the game. Sailthru enables you to maximize the efficiency of your data, create a unified user profile — and comes with tools you need to truly drive a high ARPU. 

I say it all the time: Media is an execution game. To be the best executor, you need to strategically capture and utilize your data. 

In the past, this required huge investments of time and resources to build custom tech solutions. Today, choosing the right out-of-the-box solutions can help you build an ARPU powerhouse.