Authentic email marketing – Why I don’t recommend “lead magnets”

 A common marketing tactic is when you’re forced to give your email address in order to access a freebie, like an e-book, webinar, video series, summit, email course, or “special report”.​

Marketers call this a “lead magnet”. What an unfortunate term that dissociates marketing from relationship-building.

The real problem? It doesn’t even work that well.

I built a 10,000-person email list by using a lead magnet of a “free” webinar.

I put “free” in quotes, because your attention is valuable — not free — and if I require your email address in exchange for my webinar, then you’ve effectively paid for the webinar with your email.

Then you had to contend with my ongoing emails that tried to sell you on various products & services until you unsubscribed.

Years later, as I transitioned towards authentic marketing, I deleted 90% of my original email list, and only kept the small minority who had engaged recently with my emails.

The people who unknowingly “subscribed” to my email list — when they actually intending to register for my “free” webinars — were mostly not opening my emails. It seems that they cared more about the freebie than ongoing contact with me.

Lead magnets or “ethical bribes” (as they’re also called) are a bait-and-switch.

Mostly, the recipient just wants the freebie in the moment, not looking forward to ongoing emails.

The average open rates of all email newsletters are about 22%… and yet those of us using “lead magnets” were getting only 10–17% open rates. Dismal.

(Now that I’ve changed my strategy, my email open rates are about 52%, which is more than double the average. More on this later.)

It felt demoralizing to realize that the majority of my “subscribers” did not look forward to my emails, no matter how well-written.

It didn’t help my creative energy.

Eventually, I made 2 shifts in my email strategy that benefitted my business:

I separated my email lists into Content versus Offers.

I made the sign-up process more intentional.

I’ll explain each…

Email Lists for Content vs. Offers

People can subscribe to George Kao’s Best Content to receive emails that focus on my free articles and videos… without additional emails about my product launches.

(Each newsletter does mention one offer, but it’s buried at the bottom of each email. The reader gets to first see what they expected — the content itself.)

On the other hand, people can also join the George Kao Launch List if they want to be sure not to miss the announcements about my upcoming workshops & openings for my coaching.

I created a webpage to give visitors the two newsletter options:

After a year, I realized that some subscribers were confused, so now I only publicly promote my Content newsletter.

…and after they sign-up, they receive a confirmation email that also mentions the option of joining my Offers email list, if they wish to consider it.

This separation into 2 email lists has worked well for me. My open rates (as well as my click rates) are now much higher than average… giving some evidence that my subscribers are enjoying the new format 😊

A key principle of authentic marketing is to build a friendly relationship with one’s audience… not to force things on them.

A More Intentional Sign-Up Process

When you visit a marketer’s website, it’s extremely obvious how to sign-up for their email list. The opt-in box is “above the fold” (meaning, you don’t have to scroll down to see it.)

You might even get a pop-up window.

You would have to intentionally avoid signing up for their email list, if you’re not ready to.

And why would you be ready, when you’re just getting to know them? It feels pushy…

I used these tactics in the past.

As I moved into authentic marketing, I decided that I want my audience to want my emails, rather than forcing it on them.

If they want it, they’ll look for it, and they will join.

So I took off the email opt-in box from my homepage.

If visitors are interested enough, they can easily find a Newsletter link in the top navigation bar, or a link in the footer.

No more pop-up windows. No more opt-in boxes.

Once they get into the sign-up process, I ask for email, name, and how they discovered me, as well as what frequency of emails they prefer. Indeed, these questions result in less opt-ins than if I didn’t ask questions… but much more intentional subscribers.

Interestingly, most of my subscribers choose to receive my emails “once a week” instead of “once a month”.

Regarding automatic opt-ins, I do make one exception: When someone buys a course from me, they are automatically subscribed to my once-a-month best content newsletter, as well as my offers newsletter (which usually sends only 2 emails per month). It is going well. As I mentioned earlier, my open and click rates are more than double the industry average.

What should you do with that freebie you created?

Perhaps you already put in the work to make a freebie. I recommend several options:

  1. Make it into a low-price product. You were going to “sell” it by asking for an email address anyway… so it’s valuable, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be worth paying for? That e-book you wrote… publish it on Amazon Kindle. That video series you recorded… make it a low-price course!

  2. Even if you don’t expect it to make you rich, you can still add a price to it, and offer it as a bonus to other services/products you offer (or as a bonus to your friends’ services/products if they serve the same audience!)

  3. If you don’t want to put a price on it, then why not simply make it ungated content? Just post it on your website as a blog post or a standalone web page, and share it far and wide. Ungated content is much more likely to be shared and talked about! This gives it the chance to go viral and really bring a lot of ideal visitors to your website. At the bottom of that freebie page, you can include an invitation to receive ongoing great content from you (your email newsletter!) This way, the intention to receive ongoing emails is truly intentional, rather than a (somewhat accidental) byproduct of wanting one free thing…

Be sought-after, rather than tolerated.

That’s really the bottom line of this transition away from lead-magnets.

Let’s do marketing that is sought-after and enjoyed, rather than mildly-annoying and merely tolerated.

You will build an audience of true fans, and a business you can really love!

(Originally written in 2018, updated in 2023.)