The lessons I learnt doubling my mailing list subscribers

Paul Boag

Email mailing lists are a valuable marketing tool. However, getting users to signup, let alone open and click on emails can be incredibly challenging.

One rainy Friday afternoon, I was finding it impossible to settle to anything. In what must be the greatest feat of procrastination ever, I found myself looking through the email addresses of over three thousand boagworld subscribers. I had been running the mailing list for a while, but it wasn’t something I paid a huge amount of attention to.

Within a few minutes of looking, I started getting progressively more excited. There were some good prospective clients in that list. People who I would chew off my right arm to work with. I suddenly realised just how valuable mailing lists are and committed myself to making my newsletter the best it could be.

The first step in the plan was getting the content right.

Get the content right

For the longest time my mailing list felt like just another thing I had to do. Because I could see little value in it, it was always the bottom of my task list. In the end I set it up so that emails where automatically sent out when a new post was published.

When I realised just how valuable the list was I decided that an automated email was not going to cut it. It was too impersonal and gave the impression I didn’t care about the people who had subscribed. That said, they obviously saw some value in it, otherwise they would unsubscribe.

I decided to keep the core idea that the newsletter would summarise what I had been writing on the blog and link to relevant articles. After all that is what people had signed up to. However, instead of the email being automatically generated, I would write something personal each week.

Sample newsletter
I would write my emails as if I was writing to a colleague or client. I kept them personal and informal.

The personal element was key. I wanted the reader to feel like I was writing just to them. I wanted them to feel valued and that we were getting to know each other. After all, I knew that most people hire based on some kind of personal relationship.

Each week as I wrote the newsletter, I would picture one of my clients and write as if I was writing just for them. I would write about how my week had gone, ask them about their lives and generally keep things as informal as possible. Before long, people were replying and I always made sure I wrote back even if they were not somebody who appeared to be an immediate prospect. I long ago learnt that you should never dismiss somebody who doesn’t look like a valuable lead. You never know where they may end up.

Anyway, with a more friendly, tailored and engaging newsletter up and running, it was time to find some more subscribers to the newsletter.

Encouraging more subscribers

The call to action on Boagworld for the newsletter represented my lack of commitment to the newsletter. It consisted of an item in the main navigation and a button at the foot of the page. Yes, I had made these options stand out, but neither presented a compelling reason to subscribe.

Main navigation on Boagworld
The newsletter call to action didn’t provide a compelling reason to subscribe.

Clicking on this button would reveal a subscribe box with the lacklustre title “Subscribe to our weekly newsletter”.

Old newsletter subscription box
The old newsletter subscription box lacked visual impact and poor copy.

My first step was to ensure that the subscription box was visible all of the time at the bottom of each post. After much debate I decided to place it directly below the post and above the comments. I had some concerns this would reduce the amount of commenting, but eventually decided that was a price I was willing to pay.

With that obvious change done, I now started experimenting with some split testing. For this I used a tool called Optimizely, which makes multi-variance testing a breeze.

I began by testing various headlines. Some of the headlines were focused on what you got from the newsletter, while others were focused on how the newsletter would benefit you.

In the end the hands down winner was – Become a web expert with our weekly newsletter. People responded to the idea that my newsletter might make them a better person in someway. This is a well know marketing technique – place the emphasis on how your product or service enhances the person. It obviously works, because this text was twice as effective as its closest rival.

As well as testing the copy I did some multi-variance testing with the design too. In the end the best performing design enhancement was the simplest. I simply switched the background colour of the subscription from white to dark grey. This made the box stand out on the page and so drew the users attention.

The new newsletter box
My changing the copy and background colour I was able to double the rate people subscribed to my newsletter.

Altogether, through a program of multi-variance testing I was able to increase conversion by 100%. My mailing list was now growing twice as fast as it had done before the changes.

With my number of subscribers growing at a healthy rate, the next objective was to increase the number of people responding to the emails they received.

Improving mailing list engagement

Having a big mailing list of high profile recipients is of little use if they are not actively engaged. Getting them to engage involved two steps – getting them to open their emails and then getting them to click on links that it contained.

The place to start was obviously getting them to actually read the emails I sent.

Getting them to read

According to Mailchimp the open rate for newsletters like mine is only 17.2%. This struck me as pitifully low and I was sure I could do better.

After experimenting with lots of different approaches I discovered two that seemed to work well for me. First, was mentioning the recipients name in the subject line. This caused a significant spike in the numbers opening the emails. The second was including some sense of urgency in the subject line. This didn’t have as significant impact, but was still worth doing when appropriate.

Using these approaches and others I was able to increase my open rate by 9.3% to an impressive 37.7%. I am still keen to see this number increase, but it’s a lot better than the industry average of 17.2%.

Getting them to click

With an average open rate of 17.2% it is hardly surprising that the click through rate in my sector is only 3.8%. At that kind of rate, it is hardly worth the effort of writing a newsletter. I needed better.

Turns out some simple design changes did the trick when combined with some engaging headlines.

Each news story mentioned in my emails was associated with an image to grab users attention. Overlayed on the image was the headline and I hoped this would cause the user to click the image.

Example newsletter image
Adding a small arrow to the images in my newsletter helped increase the click through rate by 3.4%.

Unfortunately this didn’t perform as well as I had hoped. Eventually it struck me that perhaps users didn’t realise that they could click an image. I therefore added a small arrow to show users the image was clickable. This one change caused click rates to jump by 3.4% to a healthy 8.9%.

The morale of this story

So why am I sharing my experiences of improving my newsletter? It is to demonstrate that attention to detail and testing is everything. We so often pay lip service to things like multi-variance testing and monitoring, but it is crucial for increasing conversion rates, whether on your website or with an email mailing list.

So if your mailing list is failing to meet your expectations, do not give up on it. Instead instigate a systematic program of testing and experimentation, or if all else fails give us a call!

“Business Related Email Concept Shot” image courtesy of