No more “lead magnets” — back to “email newsletters”

​...and keep the newsletters simple.

A common marketing tactic — you’ve probably experienced this — is when you’re forced to give your email address, in order to receive a freebie, such as an e-book, webinar, video series, telesummit, or email course.

Marketers call this a “lead magnet”… and it’s a term that disassociates marketing from relationship-building.

The problem is that it doesn’t even work that well... 
I built a 10,000-person email list by using a lead magnet of a “free” webinar.

Why do I put “free” in quotes? Because your attention is valuable — not free — and if I force your email address in exchange for my webinar, then you have effectively paid for the webinar with ongoing clutter in your email inbox. (You had to contend with my ongoing emails that tried to sell you on various products & services.)

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

I noticed this — the people who unknowingly “subscribed” to my email list when they really just wanted my “free” webinar — were mostly not opening my ongoing emails.

Lead magnets or “ethical bribes” (as they’re also called) are a bait-and-switch.The recipient just wants the freebie, instead of the ongoing emails.

The average open rates of email newsletters are about 23%… and yet me and my colleagues who used “lead magnets” were getting only 10–17% open rates. Dismal.
(Now that I’ve changed my strategy, my email open rates are about 35%!)

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

I made 2 dramatic shifts 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…

Distinct Email Lists for Content vs. Offers

People can subscribe to George Kao Best Content and get only my free articles and videos, without specific emails about my product launches.

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

On the other hand, people can also join the George Kao Workshops & Coaching email 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:
…but after a year, I realized that some subscribers were confused, so now I only publicly promote my Content newsletter.

After they sign-up, they receive a confirmation email that also mentions the option of joining my Offers email list.

This separation into 2 email lists has worked well for me. My open rates are now much higher than industry average, and my click rates (how many readers click on a link inside my emails) are 3x higher.

My unsubscription rate (how many readers unsubscribe) used to be higher than industry average. Now, it’s much lower.

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

More Intentional Sign-Ups

When you visit a marketer’s website, it’s very 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.

In other words, if you’re not ready to sign up for their email list, you would have to intentionally avoid signing up.

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

I had used these tactics in the past.

As I came to terms with 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 my list.

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, having these questions does result in fewer 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”, which is evidence that they look forward to my emails.

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, and my offers newsletter (which sends only 2–3 emails per month).

It is going well. My open rates, as mentioned, are much higher than industry average.

Keep the Newsletters Simple

I used to spend a lot of time creating my email newsletters.

Now I spend only 15 minutes. My newsletters are minimalistic. Readers give me positive feedback.

What about all the work you put into your freebies?That e-book that you worked hard to create? Publish it on Amazon Kindle.

The video series you made? Turn it into an online course. Sell it at an entry-level price.

The webinar you put together? Put it up as a video on Youtube, Facebook, and IGTV. People will be impressed that such high quality content is “ungated” — not requiring an email address.

Be sought-after, rather than tolerated.

This is really why we are transitioning 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 2020.)

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