Recently I was having a conversation with a business owner who was thinking of hiring me for SEO. We were reviewing her website together, and the traffic she was already getting from her blogs.
Then as I was looking at her site, a pop-up jumped out to me. “Get news and updates from the studio!” I asked her how many people sign up for the “news and updates.” Almost none. How often does she email her list? She tries for monthly. Has she ever had a solid lead come from email marketing? No.
And I said something that made her eyes go big: “Would it feel better not to send out a monthly newsletter?” She nodded. “Then I give you permission not to do it.”
And the relief in her face was palpable. But it was quickly replaced with panic. “But if I don’t have an email list, how will I capture those people?!”
“Send them to the contact form to schedule a consult, then have a conversation to figure out if you even want to work with them.”
You might not need an email list to be successful
I see this all. the. time. People writing newsletters because they think they have to. Collecting email addresses because their business guru tells them it’s important. Blogging because the big names in their industry swear by it. (And did you notice the verb choice of “capture” those email addresses? Doesn’t that sound a little like you’re wrapping them in a net they have to escape from?)
Here’s the thing: Most service-based businesses don’t need to do all the marketing to be successful . In fact, for a lot of service-based businesses — copywriters, web designers, hair stylists, interior designers, yoga studios, dentists, attorneys, financial advisors, photographers, pretty much any business that serves their clients 1:1 — that amount of traffic could crash your website, break your systems and ruin your business. #truthbomb
I don’t want to name names, but those people out there who are talking the loudest about sustainable businesses that can scale? They are built on a business model that might not be a good fit for you. And they make money from teaching you how to build a business just like theirs , even if it’s not in your best interest. (In fact, they might even shame you for choosing a business model that works for your lifestyle instead of replicating theirs.)
Those people have business models that require massive, astronomical amounts of traffic to their websites. They need to be constantly producing content in order to grow their lists into the millions, because they need huge amounts of people in their programs to get them to work.
How much traffic do you really need?
So let’s talk for a hot sec about business models and traffic, and do some math. Let’s say you want to make $20K:
If you’re running a 1:1 services-based business — we’ll use a photographer as an example — and your average package is $5K, then you need to sign 4 new clients. If you have a 60% close rate, then you need to get 7 leads to fill out your contact form. And if you have about 3% of the people on your site who fill out your form, then you need 230 people to see your website.
1:1 Services business
$5000 x 7 leads x 3% conversion = 230 visitors
If you’re running an e-commerce shop, and your average cart value is $200, then you need 100 sales. And then let’s say that your visitor-to-sale conversion rate is 1.5%. You’d need 60,000 people to visit your site to make your $20K.
Online product business
$200 x 100 sales x 1.5% conversion = 60,000 visitors
If you’re selling a $100 digital product and doing most of the sales via email marketing (which is the model that these gurus tell you is the most sustainable, scalable option), you can probably expect a 3% opt-in rate to your email list, then a 2% conversion rate from your email. (I’m just going with industry standards here.) So your site need to get 160,000 visitors.
Digital product with complex sales funnel
$100 x 200 sales x 3% opt-in x 2% conversion = 160,000 visitors
You need 700% more visitors to make that same $20K as the service-based business.
(And don’t even get me started with the expenses of all those fancy funnels and ad spend.)
Ask yourself: Who benefits from this narrative?
So if you’ve heard that the only way to have a long-term business is to have an online course … guess who is telling you that? A person selling a course about how you should build an online course. And that person is also an affiliate for a program that teaches you how to sell on Instagram, or an affiliate for a software that requires you to build something at scale.
But your business can be successful even if you opt-out of the large-scale “get a million people on your list in 2 weeks and then sell them all your digital product” bandwagon.
But what if I already have a list?
Maybe you’re reading this and panicking. “OMG I’ve been wasting time on list building!”
Hold your horses — it’s not all bad. If, at some point in the future, you feel called to build a lower-tier offer that is affordable to people who don’t have the money to work with you? Then you should do some sort of data collection and/or community building.
And if you want to build a digital empire that can reach millions? Go for it. There’s no shame in that either. But just be aware of all the work that goes into it. It’s a hell of a lot more of a grind to reach those big milestones than just telling people that they can hire you.
But if you really, truly want a sustainable business? It’s not necessarily a business that’s built on sales funnels and Facebook ads and building an entire machine just to get hundreds of thousands of people to know who you are.
IMHO, the most sustainable business is based on reaching out to people you already know and *gasp* having a conversation where you ask for money, or for introductions to somebody who needs your services.
Because no matter how sophisticated your sales funnel is? At the end of the day, you’ll still need to make the case that you’re the best option to solve that customer’s problem. So maybe get out from behind the computer screen, get uncomfortable, and sell your services now instead of waiting until everything is digitally perfect.
I don’t buy it. Can online businesses really be successful without an email list?
Yes, 100%. I polled my friends & audiences (so this data is a little skewed, but I tried to cast a wide net), and here are some folks who offered to be examples:
- Lacy Boggs over at the Content Direction Agency original built up her business with a goal of digital product sales before deciding to go to an agency model. She now says, “I have a list with 4,000 people on it, most of whom don’t want to buy what I want to sell.”
- Maggie Patterson of Scoop Industries signed 5 content marketing clients last month, and she jokes “I have about 10 people on my email list.” So where did the clients come from? One came via search — the client found this blog post — the others were based on relationships.
- Rachael Kay Albers of RKA Ink has been booked up for 10 years of strategic web design. She guesses 85% of her clients come from referrals, and the others found her most popular post, You don’t want Marie Forleo’s website.
- Melissa Jean Clark has never sent a newsletter, and hasn’t blogged since 2016. Her business is nearly all referrals + local SEO, because she’s ranked #3 for “WordPress Toronto.”
And lest you think that only B2B marketing businesses can survive based on referrals without email marketing, here are some B2C options:
- Arianna Taboada helps pregnant entrepreneurs plan their maternity leaves. All her clients come from referrals and she says she’s never had a client who was on her email list before deciding to work together. Why does she think that is? “I work with pregnant people who aren’t trying to figure stuff out from emails and blog posts.” And I agree — any service-provider who works with time-sensitive clients (and let’s be serious, pregnancy is a ticking time-bomb!) are well-served to promote a consult call instead of an email list!
- Lori & Erin Photography are booking 18 months in advance for their wedding photography, based mostly on word-of-mouth and search results (among other keywords, they rank for “wedding photographers rochester ny”). They do have an email list, but that’s mostly to keep in touch with their family photo members. (Disclaimer: My family is a member of this program, so if you see cute pics of my kids on Instagram, now you know why.)
- Darci Hether runs a high-end interior design studio in Manhattan — among the most competitive markets in the industry — and all her clients come from word-of-mouth referrals and industry connections … and showing up on Google for “luxury interior design new york” certainly doesn’t hurt!
TL;DR: You don’t need a fancy funnel or a giant email list to be successful in business. You just need people to find you and hire you!
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