Don’t fixate on “growing an Email List”... instead, grow a holistic audience.

​“How do I grow my email list?"

I’ve been asked this question for years. People hear from business experts that building an email list is the most important thing to do in marketing.
It’s a myopic focus. If you talk more deeply with marketing experts, I think they'll agree.
None of us need an “email list”. What we actually want is an audience who cares about what we offer.
It is essential for authentic marketing to switch our mindset from “building an email list” to growing an engaged audience.  Without this mindset shift, even the resulting email list will be ineffective.
  1. When one is fixated on email lists, it is tempting to use any means necessary to get people’s email addresses even if the tactics erode the relationship. Example: A pop-up window asking for your email address is annoying... but businesses still do it because it seems to grow an email list faster. The subscribers are initially reluctant, and then increasingly annoyed by unwanted emails. To understand this dynamic, read my post No More Lead Magnets.

  2. When you instead focus on “growing an engaged audience” you’re thinking about the relationship — and whether they care about your message. Your actions will be aligned with their needs and wants, rather than a soulless numeric metric of “email subscribers”.
Meet people where they are

Email list-building was hot in the 2000’s. Back then, it was still kind of cool to receive emails from brands you like. 
In the 2010’s, marketers noticed that audiences had grown tired of being on lists.
Services like (helping you to quickly unsubscribe from email newsletters) became mainstream.
Audiences began to expect brands to meet them where they’re at.
You like Instagram? Great, you’ll see my posts there.
You watch Youtube? I've got a channel there.
You enjoy podcasts? I have a podcast you can listen to.
Care about your audience? Go to wherever they are.
Of course, this needs to be balanced with your limited time. Focus your marketing on just the few channels you’d like to become great at. There are more than enough people in any one channel you choose, e.g. Instagram, Youtube, etc.
In other words, don't force your audience to give you their email address to get your best free content. Post it where they are hanging out. Make it easier for them to consume and engage with your content.
The easier it is for them to chance upon your content wherever they are (not just via email), the easier it is for them to enjoy and share your content… thereby growing your audience.
Holding desires ransom with a "free gift"...

Many people find this annoying about marketing:
  1. Someone dangles their awesome "free" report, video series, free templates — and make us salivate ...
  2. ...but they require our email address before they give it to us.
They build up our desires with a deception of “free”, then hold it for ransom.
We end up paying for that "free gift" by allowing an ongoing barrage of emails of things they want to sell us. The "payment" is steeper than originally looked (“simply submit your email address!”)
We don’t have to be like those marketers.
“But my email list is the only thing I really control!”… is what marketers tell me.
The truth is that nobody is really in control of their email list. So many peers have lamented to me about low open rates. In fact, average email open rates are less than 25%!
Many email campaigns are going into spam folders… and never reaching the intended people.
Here’s the reality:
  • You cannot guarantee that your email subscribers will receive your email…
  • Even if they receive it, you can’t guarantee they’ll open it... 
  • Even if they open it, you can’t guarantee they’ll care about your message!
What can you control, if not your email list?

You control only your behavior: whether your content is authentic, relevant, and consistent.
  • Authenticity = Being real and sharing your truth
  • Relevance = Caring enough to find the intersection between your interests and your audience’s wants
  • Consistency = Being reliable so your audience can depend on the rhythm of your content
An engaged audience arises from you being authentic, relevant, and consistent. You build an audience that cares about you.
The truth is that the social media platforms want to keep us coming back again and again, so what they want are people who are engaged with content creators. All this fear about the platforms controlling the algorithms is illusory -- when we create content that our audience wants, the platforms are very happy to show it to them! That's how they sell ads.
For example, when I post something of real interest to my Instagram, it usually reaches at least 1,000 people, sometimes 2,000 or more, without me doing anything other than having posted it, and my audience finding it useful enough to share forward.
When your audience cares about you, they will look for you.

If you use Instagram, they will seek out your posts, in the rhythm they've become accustomed to seeing from you. Their behavior will train the algorithm to show them your posts. To find me there: George Kao on Instagram
If you upload Youtube videos, they'll miss you if they don't see you in the Recommended stream, and will go to your channel to see what's new. Again, the algorithm will notice this and put you into their Recommended section. My channel: George Kao on Youtube
And yes, if they subscribed to your email newsletter, they’ll look forward to it!

So… should we build our email list?

If your audience wants to receive your content via email -- and if you don't mind sending a consistent email newsletter -- then yes, offer it as a service of convenience to your audience.
I don’t look at my newsletter as “the most important asset” in my business and “the one channel I can control”.
I see the George Kao Email Newsletter as a free service of convenience for my audience. It’s for those who like receiving newsletters, and want to keep up with my latest content via email, rather than having to hunt for my posts on Facebook, Medium, etc.
(If you'd rather charge, you could monetize your email newsletter using a service like substack.)
But here’s the point — I also have followers on Facebook, Youtube, or LinkedIn who aren’t on my email newsletter. I meet them where they’re at.
If you do have a list, prune it regularly…

A friend and colleague Brian Smith wrote a response to this article:

If you set out to collect email addresses, that is exactly what you will collect, as George says, especially if you offer incentives just for signing up.

Many people will stay on your list forever. They will occasionally get annoyed and report you for spam. You will pay your email provider for subscribers who could not care less about your message.

I’ve done major list purges twice. The first time I cut my list from over 40,000 to around 20,000. This time it will be from 25,000 to 15,000.

Having a healthy list is good for getting your messages into the inbox because it improves your open rates and lowers your spam reports. It will also save money.

My plan is to purge my list periodically using the criteria of people who have never purchased, have been on the list for at least a year, and have not opened an email in 365 days.

The Bottom Line? Your Intention.​

When it comes to building an audience, release your fears and need for control. Dive into your caring and generosity. Share your truth, love your audience, and they won’t let algorithms get in their way of finding your content.
They will keep looking for you, and be delighted when they see your content.

(Originally written in May 2018. Updated in May 2022.)

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Don't fixate on building an email list... Instead Grow a holistic audience.