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Nov 06, 2014
Case Study

Content Marketing: How Tim Ferriss turned his blog into a successful email program

SUMMARY: When author, angel investor and self-described "email-phobe" Tim Ferriss realized he had collected hundreds of thousands of email addresses over seven years of posting to his blog — without ever sending an email — he knew he had to act.

From this base, Ferriss decided to create an email program that would drive content from lessons he learned while building up his audience.
by Courtney Eckerle, Manager of Editorial Content

CHALLENGE

Tim Ferriss has built a career on eliminating the unnecessary to achieve the optimal result.

For seven years, he focused on building up his blog with engaging content, and while he collected email addresses, he never sent an email to a single person in his database.

"I've never consciously thought of a personal brand. I've thought about pursuing things that excite me and conveying that in a very honest way to my readers," he said.

However, one day he realized that he had collected around 300,000 email addresses. After an expletive-peppered moment of panic, he realized a strong email program could be built by utilizing lessons he had already learned from running his blog.

"I realized that the reason to email people for me was not to build my lists or to put them into a sales funnel or anything like that," he said.

Instead, Ferriss realized that that an email program could be an extremely effective method to replace other tools he used to reach his audience, such as Twitter or Facebook, "which were being crowded out in various ways."

"I could hit 80% of my fan-base very easily two years ago. It's very difficult now to alert them to the fact that I have a new blog post. Readers were missing things that were time sensitive," he said.

Ferriss explained that Facebook throttled back the percentage of the audience he is reaching, and with 250,000 fans on Facebook, he says in many cases, "I'm organically hitting only about 25,000 of those people maximum That means that people are missing things."

CAMPAIGN

In a world where Ferriss said, "email addresses often change less frequently than physical mailing addresses," email emerged as a "great way to simply ensure that my fans get the content they want to get from me. That's it."

Ferriss wanted to take the lessons he had learned from content, and put them to the test in the email world while building up that marketing channel.

Before he began sending anything, Ferriss posted on his blog, "Tim Ferriss Rethinks Email," explaining that he was going to start emailing and what his audience could expect from the experience.

From that point, Ferriss began a weekly email program to promote his website content, which included email-exclusive content such as private Q-and-As and giveaways.

"I can pull it off after seven years of not emailing, then I think there are lessons to be gleaned from that that show how to create persistence of interest and, I hate to use the term, but brand loyalty," said Ferriss, adding that he wanted the email program to be a continuation of why people trust him.

Lesson #1. Approach "best practices" with skepticism

"There are a lot of so-called best practices in email marketing, in blog publishing, etc. It just turns out when I usually stress test those best practices, it's not always the case, but usually they are very unfounded or unsupported by the data," Ferriss said.

When he began publishing his blog, for instance, Ferriss was told "very early on that the blog posts have to be shorter than 1000 words, ideally 500 words. You should post X number of times per day. If you don't have a regular publishing schedule, you're going to be screwed. None of that has proven to be true, for me at least."

He wanted to take that skepticism into email because, by testing assumptions and so called "best practices" for himself and his blog, Ferris has built up what he calls an "extremely action-oriented audience of somewhere between 1 million and 2 million unique visitors a month."

Primarily, he uses email for experimentation, testing and feedback. Rather than rely on that type of survey or polling, Ferriss said he asks himself, "What are the things that bug me about specific emails that I get?"

One thing he's implemented based on his personal preferences has to do with including articles. Ferriss prefers to have an entire article in his emails, so he doesn't have to click through.

"Up to this point in time, and I might test this, but every blog post that I sent out has been put in its entirety in the email. That violates a lot of best practices that I've been told I must follow, for clickthrough rate and seeking advertising and blah, blah, blah," he said.

Ferriss added that because he doesn't want to receive stunted emails that force him to click around a lot, he doesn't want to do that to his audience.

"All of my other decisions have to accommodate that. Does that mean I'll never experiment with truncated emails? No way, of course I probably will at some point, but when in doubt, do what you yourself would like to receive as a user," he said.

Lesson #2. Use the blog to prime your audience for email

For Ferriss, content creation has been simple: follow the Golden Rule. He only puts up blog posts that he himself would like to read, and in translating that to email, he knew he had to be clear about value over quantity.

"I put up blog posts typically about things that I get a bee in my bonnet about that I find interesting. I assume there's probably at least one other person out there who will also find it interesting," he said.

When he found out he was sitting on several hundred thousand email addresses, "I realized a few things simultaneously. No. 1, before I emailed anyone in my audience, I wanted to take their temperature and see how they would respond to it, which I did with a blog post."

The blog post Ferriss posted was entitled, "Tim Ferriss Rethinks Email" and put his readers on alert that he was likely going to begin emailing, explained clearly his approach, as well as detailing what subscribers could expect.

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In the post, he explained a few key value points:
  • If you haven't signed up yet (or you're not sure), please do so now. Here's the link. No spam, ever. Just good stuff.
    If you sign up now, your first email will also include a link to a free download of the entire 4-Hour Chef audiobook, which includes narration by yours truly and Neil Gaiman (!). And to kick things off, I'll be doing a 2 to 3-hour Q&A — for email subscribers only — next Monday night, Aug. 11. Ask me anything: business, personal, "inappropriate," whatever. Nothing is off limits. Sign up here to get the details via email. A recording will be made available to email subscribers who can't make the live session.

    I'll also be giving away a round-trip ticket to anywhere in the world. For details, you guessed it, you need to click here.

  • If you've already signed up, you're all set! Please keep an eye out for a welcome email from "Tim Ferriss" within the next 10 days.
    It's not spam. It's from me. Following that, blog posts and VIP goodies will show up, roughly once per week.

    If you're using Gmail and my email ends up in your "Promotions" folder, please do me a favor and drag it to your "Primary" so it doesn't get lost in all the OKCupid notifications and whatnot.

    And please realize — I and my assistant get about 1,000 email a day. It's funking unreal, and it's brutal. No one is more sensitive to email abuse than I am, so I will NOT abuse your inbox.

    If you get annoyed, you can one-click unsubscribe. Easy peasy and no BS.

Use the comments section as a gauge for your audience

An extremely important aspect of publishing this blog post, Ferriss explained, was the opportunity for feedback before he began emailing.

"The blog post, and the comments in that blog post it allowed them to vent any concerns, frustrations, provide suggestions," he said.

He concluded the post by saying, "If you have any questions about all this, please ask in the comments! I'll be paying close attention and answering as many as I can. I've literally put off email for years, but enough is enough. It's the right thing to do. And thank you for reading. Whatever this blog has become, I owe it all to you."

The blog post was an invaluable for "priming the pump and warming everyone up, so when they received emails, No. 1 they had the highest likelihood of being valuable, because I was getting a lot of feedback. No. 2, it was less likely to be marked as spam because I was giving everyone the heads up," he said.

Lesson #3. Use every opportunity for experimentation

"Email just happens to offer a spectacularly granular sandbox within which I can play and test. It's more flexible in a lot of ways than the blog, for instance," said Ferriss.

One of the defining principles of his approach, he said, is to base everything on the scientific method.

Forming a hypothesis that you can test, as well as writing out assumptions and considering results with a series of questions, is important to streamlining any marketing process, he said.

"What am I assuming about these results? What else could explain these results? What could the unintended side effects of doing 'X' be? I think these questions are constant," he said.

That way, he said, marketers know that their own best practices are based on concrete knowledge, instead of assumptions.

"It usually comes down to really questioning your assumptions and asking yourself, 'Are these numbers real? What do these numbers mean? Are the metrics that I'm looking at useful metrics?' You can optimize for all sorts of numbers, but there are some that just don't matter, or worse yet, that are very misleading," he said.

On a blog for instance, Ferriss breaks this idea of misleading numbers down to vanity metrics versus actionable metrics.

"On a blog, you can say, 'I'm going to optimize for page views instead of unique visitors.' And there's all sorts of ways to fake that and to trick advertisers if that's your game. Or you have 20-page slideshows, or you take a 600 word post and you break it up into six pages," he said.

These tactics will benefit in some ways, he added, but will annoy readers — "You can optimize for that, but are you optimizing the right thing, and for what outcome?"

In terms of his goals for email, Ferriss said, "Once you have the ability to communicate with people directly through their inboxes, you have an unlimited number of options. I didn't, and I still don't, have any particular plans aside from the ability to experiment with the list."

According to Ferriss, the blog has reached a point where it's more than a million unique visitors per month typically, which makes it difficult to quietly test things.

"If I put out a blog post You're doing your debutante ball right off the bat, and you don't have a lot of margin for error," he said.

Email provides him with a "new laboratory within which, if I want to send out an email to a thousand people and see what happens before I send it out to 10,000 and 300,000 or 400,000, I can do that," he added.

The email list allows Ferriss to experiment, and also engage with his most "hardcore fans. The people who are most likely to be interested in other things that I do. If they opt in and they self-select from the email lists, that tells me a lot about them. It allows me to communicate with a subset of my audience," he added.

Lesson #4. Focus your email on content

Because Ferriss doesn't want to be overly sophisticated or "corporate" in his blog posts, he wanted to keep that tone throughout his email sends.

The "Resurrection email" is Ferriss' name for the first email he sent out, with the subject line, "It's Tim Ferriss Remember Me?"

View the Creative Sample


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The email takes the same conversational tone Ferriss applies in his blog, and begins, "Hey Friend:"
I've put off this email for ages. I promise it's not spam! It's just long overdue.

You're getting this because — at some point between 2007 and now — you provided your email on my blog or The 4-Hour Workweek homepage. I'm the author of three No. 1 NY Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers, so perhaps you read one and found me online.

Incredibly, I've probably NEVER sent you an email before this (yes, ridiculous). That's about to change, and I hope you stick around, but you can easily opt out.

If you'd prefer not to receive email from me, please find the one-click unsubscribe link at the bottom of this email. Otherwise

Just 1 to 2 times per week, you'll get high-quality blog posts (Inc. Magazine named my blog one of the "19 Blogs You Should Bookmark Right Now") and occasional VIP treatment, such as exclusive content, private Q-and-As, invitations to events, etc. The first post should arrive soon.

In the meantime, here are a few things you might enjoy.

Ferris then offers a content cornucopia to his subscribers, including:
  • The 4-Hour Chef audiobook

  • A notice for a two-hour live Q-and-A

  • Four books that "have changed my life"

  • A list of Ferriss' most popular blog posts

Don't hide the unsubscribe button

Far from burying the "unsubscribe" button away in a tiny link in the footer of the email, "we put a big, graphical header at the top of the email that said, 'Not interested in this? Click here to unsubscribe.' We almost tempted people. We practically encouraged people to unsubscribe, to minimize headache for everyone," Ferriss said.

Ferriss has kept that ongoing in the emails because "It's not about the size of your audience, the size of your list. It's about the size of your qualified, interested audience or list."

"I care about people who are primed for action and who have self-selected to be interested in what I'm providing I want as many of those people to opt out for their betterment and my betterment as possible," he said.



RESULTS

"Advice No. 1 would be do not rush. Doing it quickly is going to hurt you more than help you. No. 2 is if there's any way through other channels to warm up your audience, even a fraction of it, to indicate to them that you are going to email, and to make it personal in some way," Ferriss said.

Transparency is important in content — email or otherwise, he added, and "if you haven't emailed in a long time, don't make up some corporate reason for it have a human interaction and not a corporate interaction. People trust people more than they trust brands, so be a human."

Since the first blog post, Ferriss has added 60,000 new subscribers to his list, and his emails see a 35% average open rate.

Creating this email program was similar to Ferriss' experience writing a book in the way that, "A mediocre book is more of a liability to you than no book at all. Similarly, a mediocre execution of email is way more of a liability to you than no email list at all. So if you're going to do it, you'd better be prepared to take it very, very seriously," he said.

Creative Samples

  1. Blog post

  2. The" Resurrection email"

Sources

Tim Ferriss

Aweber

Elto

Related Resources

Email Marketing: Copyblogger's email list grows by 400% using free paywall to access

Content Marketing: How Copyblogger used content and a free paywall to grow its email list by 400%

Email Marketing: E-commerce site increases online ticket purchases by 66% with relevant content

Marketing Research Chart: Most effective email list building tactics

Content Marketing: 7 copy editing tips to improve any content piece



See Also:

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