"Did You Know I Lead a Cult?"

Someone told me recently that, measured by the degree of their loyalty, my ezine readers are almost a "cult!" After thinking it over, I had to agree - to a point. I hardly think any of them will drink poisoned Kool-Aid cocktails for me, but they ARE loyal. And, since they are, they buy.

How many times have we read it? "The money is in the list." And, it's true.

Online marketers who publish ezines can testify: the days they get the most sales are the day they publish, and the following day. So, of course, the money is in the list.

Based on that, it seems logical for would-be marketers to build a list. We read article after article on building huge lists. Numerous ebooks have been written on the subject. Unfortunately, that isn't the whole answer.

You may also have heard that it's better to have a small, responsive list than a list of, say, 50 to 100 thousand unresponsive people. That is the greater truth! Going through hours, days, weeks, months, even years of gathering subscribers who will never read your ezine is an exercise in futility.

Now, How Did I Build This "Cult?"

At first, I didn't know how it happened. I did know I hadn't done anything deliberately to bring it about. So, I started re-reading months of feed-back to see what my subscribers were really saying. In reading between the lines, I was able to see a pattern and figure it out.

Realize that this is not a new list. I started my first ezine in February of 1999, and it never hit 10,000 subscribers. Doesn't sound very successful, does it?

Part of that is because, every couple of years, I "clean" the list. I ask everyone to reconfirm their subscription. That causes everyone who hasn't been reading to get lost.

Yet, I still have some people on that list who have been there since the beginning - and they read the ezine too! Not only that, all I have to do is give a personal recommendation for something, and BANG! If they need it, or want it, and can afford it, they buy it.

How did it happen? Trial and error. Since I'm not big on listening to the "gurus," I do everything by trial and error. Lots of error. And, since I am not a guru, maybe I can just give you some ideas.

If I had it all to do over, I would do these things from the beginning. This all happened over time. My topics below may say what you "should" do. But, I'm going to tell you my own experience. Then, you can decide what might work for you.

Be Careful Where You Get Your Subs

When I started, I did submit my ezine to every ezine directory I could find. That was a good thing and, although I don't do it anymore, I still recommend it. I'm still getting subscribers from those directories for an ezine I changed the name of years ago.

Why don't I do it now? Because it's time consuming, and I don't have that kind of time anymore.

I tried buying subscribers from one of the sites that takes subscriptions for you, and sends you a list. Forget that! Once was enough!

Half the time, those people didn't even remember subscribing. I'm also convinced that some of them didn't subscribe, since I got bogus email addresses, even though these were supposed to be confirmed requests.

The rest weren't all that interested. They probably subscribed to a bazillion ezines from that site and found themselves on overload. Watching the number of unsubscribes from that group told me they simply weren't that interested in what I had to offer. Certainly not worth what I paid to get them.

At some point, I began writing articles and sending them to other publishers. I asked them to use a resource box with a subscribe link to my ezine. That worked big time.

However, my articles weren't the "norm." No bread and butter there! I took a stand! I had opinions! Even if it was a "How To …" article, I took the time to add commentary. I let people know how I felt about things.

My articles had a quality that allowed the reader to get a feel for my over-all point of view. The articles clearly showed my writing personality. Those who subscribed to my ezine because they liked an article already knew there was something about me they liked.

Those who hated my opinionated style didn't subscribe. So, I didn't have to deal with them canceling later. Which brings us to ...

Don't Be Intimidated

In the beginning, I was terrified of my subscribers. Losing one was a fate worse than death. Not to mention it hurt my feelings. Yes - it truly did! And, having one chew me out would nearly put me in the corner, in the fetal position.

Upon reflection, I believe this was because I worked so hard to get them in the first place. Losing one almost seemed like failure. And, why I was so invested in having every one of them love me is beyond my comprehension now.

I decided I needed to toughen up. I did. Now, I can let them depart without feeling sick. Some people just annoy me; I'm sure I must annoy just as many of them. I've even been known to suggest that anyone who doesn't like the way I do things, should unsubscribe. Gets rid of the dead wood.

You Gotta Have a Gimmick

Understand this was before I started sending articles to publishers. I realized I needed to establish a style. I didn't want to "make one up." But, years in the entertainment business had taught me: "You gotta have a gimmick" if you want to get attention.

Gimmicks shouldn't be phony. I'd never have been able to keep up a phony style, or personality, all these years. Nor, do I want to.

A gimmick is simply something a little different - different from what everyone else is doing. In my past life in the entertainment business, I saw incredibly talented people who never made it because they didn't have that elusive quality that made them stand out from the crowd.

I also saw many people with limited talent go all the way to the top. They knew how to be commercial. They had something besides talent that sold.

It comes down to this. It isn't subscribers you want. It's fans.

Different people like different things. What works for one may not work for another. We really can't please all of the people all of the time. If we think we should, we need to get over it; and as I said earlier, toughen up.

Developing a Style

Since I didn't want to develop a phony style, I had to figure out what I already had that I could use. We are all multi-faceted people. We have many different sides to our personalities. My style needed to be some very real part of my own personality. I knew if it wasn't, it would break down over time.

I started watching my thoughts and feelings as I worked online. I found that I was fairly critical, and frustrated a lot. After many years in the world of business (another former life) I wasn't used to this free-for-all world of scams, no rules, and little competence.

I decided to go with that. It meant that I would have to write commentary. I had the knowledge and experience to do that, or I wouldn't have even tried it. I would have to give my opinions, and they wouldn't always be appreciated.

Of course, we never get 100% agreement with our opinions. But, I was to carry it a step further. I allowed myself to border on the outrageous - to say things that were surprising in that few people would ever come right out and say it, let alone publish it - even if they believed it.

In other words, I almost made a caricature of this part of my personality. I made it extreme. I exaggerated it to being "bigger" than I normally use. I've been controversial. I've offended any number of people with my direct, no nonsense views.

If they're subscribers - they leave. And now, I realize, that's okay. If they don't like you, they're not going to buy from you - ever! Unfortunately, I've never really learned the trick of keeping some of them around long enough to get the hang of me. But, if they stay that long - they're mine.

It's risky, but controversy ain't all bad. In the words of Oscar Wilde, "There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

Nevertheless, I don't necessarily recommend that approach unless you have the stomach for it. It was unavoidable with the style I chose. But, it isn't absolutely necessary.

I've seen other publishers build extremely loyal lists who have used completely different styles. We have: the moms - the comedians - the gurus - the good ol' boys (can be of either gender) - the philanthropists - the geeks - even the blithering idiots who admit they don't have a clue!

They all work. But, trust me when I tell you - none of these people are only that part of their personality all the time. These publishers are simply using one aspect of their personalities, and raising it to an art form. And, they may not even know it.

Just Talk to the People

I'm sure you've heard the advice, "Write like you talk." That's good advice. I do it. I even use a bit of slang, now and then. Not so much as to seem ignorant, but enough to allow personality through. When I write, "ain't," my readers know I'm using it for effect - to entertain.

And, since I know it's no secret, I've been known to swear, now and then. I try to keep it down, but I don't strangle myself using "darn," when I damn well mean "DAMN!" I don't necessarily recommend this unless it fits your style and personality. And, I would never do it for sensationalism.

Here's the trick I use. I write as if I'm talking directly to people I know personally. I actually imagine they are the only people who will see what I write. Even if I'm ranting and raving about something, it's always in the back of my mind to entertain them. (I rant and rave a lot.)

When we write for friends, we don't get stilted or tongue-tied. We let it all hang out and say what we mean, the way we mean it. We don't hold back. Writing for an ezine this way gives it a "tone" picked up by everyone who reads it. It "sounds" as if you are "speaking" directly to a group of good friends.

I'm sure you've also heard it's good to personalize your ezine, using the subscriber's name. That's advice I do not follow. That may seem strange, based on what I've just written.

Instead, I write to my subscribers as if they're a group I'm standing in front of, speaking at a seminar. I believe it makes them feel more they're a part of a very special group - which they are.

That's something all publishers have to decide for themselves. I took a vote, and my readers tell me they like the feeling of the group. The readers of publishers who do personalize have told them they like it that way. It seems to depend on the personality of the publisher.

But, then, my loyal readers don't like anything they know is phony. And, since everyone knows "personalization" happens via software, well ...

Ask Their Opinions

Now, here's where I may have fallen down on the job for a long time.

I received a nominal amount of feed-back from my readers. Nothing that would blow anyone's socks off, but enough that I could tell someone was actually reading that erag. I always made a point of answering each one with a personal email.

Then, one day, as I was starting to write one opinion or another, I found myself wondering what my readers thought. I decided to ask them.

I explained the situation in the ezine, asked their opinions, and gave them a way to answer easily with a mailto: link. I did not tell them my opinion. I didn't want to skew the results by having people think they needed to either agree, or disagree, with me.

Wow! I couldn't believe the response! Here were people, some of whom had known me for years, and I was just getting to "meet" them! The interesting part is, they wrote to me as if they really did know me! The next week, I compiled everything, and wrote an article based on their responses.

A couple of weeks later, I tried it again. This time, I asked them to vote on something. I gave them three, different mailto: links - one for each possible answer.

Again - a deluge of email. It was almost as if they had just been waiting for the chance to "talk" to me one-on-one. What an eye-opener!

The truth is, I had probably been intimidating them to some degree. But, as soon as they saw I respected their opinions, the world changed!

Respect Your Audience

I do respect the intelligence of my subscribers, and I let them know it often. I let them know by saying so! Since I receive so much email now, I base that on what I read from them. I'm not just flattering my readers. They'd see through that in a Hot New York Minute!

Although, I sometimes think it might "look" better if more of them used the blog comments, they obviously prefer our more personal email. And, I have to admit, I enjoy their email - even though there's so much of it! It provides nice little breaks in my day.

I also show respect for them by what I put in front of them. I keep the ezine easy to read - lots of white space and no silly and distracting ASCII designs. I give them original material. They can read the same articles in multiple ezines, but it won't be in my newsletter.

For many years, I also used a copy editor, better known as "The Nitpicker." We all make mistakes and I make plenty of them. I'll see someone else's mistakes every time, but I'm completely blind to my own. I know what I meant! So, I had The Nitpicker go over every issue of the ezine before publication.

Lately, I'm ashamed to admit, I've been in such a hurry, I haven't taken the time for the proof-reading, like I should. I just holler for the Nitpicker if I have a question on something.

But, my advice? Use a proof-reader!

Let Them In

After doing it for so long, it did get to be a strain keeping up the "style" all the time. Sometimes, stuff happens, and we just don't feel like doing it. I learned that this was okay too - after it was well-established.

At some point, after my readers and I had become closer via the surveys, I had one of "those" weeks. Even though I believe that our professional lives should stay professional, and our personal lives kept to ourselves, I shared with them a rather traumatic week.

I didn't whine about it, or make them read through a lot of detail. I just told them what happened. BOOM! An outpouring of concern! Some of the things they wrote brought tears to my eyes. Now, I realized that these people were friends! And, I wouldn't trade them for ANY list of 100,000 subscribers in the world!

The Bottom Line

It took me a couple of years to build a list like this. But, if I had it all to do over, I'll bet I could build this kind of loyalty in six months. Most of the things I've written about here I discovered accidentally, and over time. If I had it to do over, I'd do it all right from the beginning.

Even with all my talk of "gimmicks," and writing in a certain way to seem like I'm writing to a friend, even though I may not know the subscriber at all, the biggest factor in building my list of ultra-loyal readers has been honesty.

I've always been straight with them. If I make a mistake, or find out something I wrote was incorrect - I tell them right away. I know they've come to depend on getting the truth from of me. I'll even tell the truths that others are reluctant to publish!

They know I won't shine them on about a product or service - not even to get a sale. Yet, when I give a personal recommendation for a product or service, if they can use it, they'll buy it as soon as they can.

Now, if you are one of my subs, and you're reading this, you may wonder if I just see you as a meal ticket. At one time, that would have been true. We gotta be honest about this; that's why we build lists.

However, over the years, I've come to know so many of my subs! I now see them as trusted friends and, even, an extended family. And, having that perspective, most new subs quickly become part of my "cult!"

So, building a list of loyal subscribers is building a list with money in it. But, it all comes down to developing good, solid relationships based on honesty, trust and respect. Nothing cult-like about that!

Join the Conversation

jonsollie's picture

The Need For Genuine Caring

Many thanks jl...

Many years ago in my little rural community, there was a need for tax preparation help for low-income folks.

Since I already had the software I began to provide this help, free. My
"clients" were treated like family and with the utmost respect, and soon insisted on paying whatever they could afford. By the time I sold the business it had grown (by word of mouth) to be one of the largest independent tax preparation business in the Upper Mid-West!

This all happened as a result of caring and the principles you advocate!

Thanks again.


The Need For Genuine Caring

Ah, good job!

So now we have proof I didn't invent this way of dealing with customers. It works no matter where it's used.

Thanks so much for sharing this!

:-) jl

jl scott, ph.d., Director: Chamber of Commerce - on the Web

Iamblessed's picture

Did You Know I Lead a Cult?

WOW, jl, you've outdone yourself...
I'm a faithful reader of yours, but today I was SO BLESSED with all the 'personal' stuff, that I feel more like a 'brother' than just a "sub"...
Even my wife [of 53 years] enjoys your ezine and that says a lot!!
Thanks and "keep on, keeping on"!!
Vern Brown

Did You Know I Lead a Cult?

Thanks so much for sharing this, Vern!

I was telling the truth when I said my readers have become like family. And, much of the time, you're a LOT more fun!

;-) jl

jl scott, ph.d., Director: Chamber of Commerce - on the Web

Excellent article - excellent advice!

Hi jl - Just a quick note to let you know I thought that was perhaps the best article I've ever read on building an identity and relationship with your mailing list - and that includes anything I've ever written on the topic!

Nice, very nice. :)

HTML and CSS Tutorials: http://www.boogiejack.com

Excellent article - excellent advice!

Thank you so MUCH, Dennis!

Since, without you even knowing it, you served as a sort of mentor to me when I first started, this means more than I can say!

:-) jl

jl scott, ph.d., Director: Chamber of Commerce - on the Web

tlcpro's picture


I began writing an ezine ten years ago, while looking at home based businesses. It all started out as commentary on the bogus programs I found and it sort of snow-balled from there. Now I write more commentary than anything else, and a lot of it is political, but my readers like it. I have to agree, adding personality to what you write makes a lot of difference. Keep up the good work. I always enjoy reading your stuff.

Trina L.C. Sonnenberg
Freelance Commercial writer


Hi Trina!

Well, I don't know about you, but I find writing commentary more fun than anything else. We also need to teach, sometimes, but my own commentary seems to amuse and entertain - and that's necessary, too, in building good reader relationships.

:-) jl

jl scott, ph.d., Director: Chamber of Commerce - on the Web

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