How Can I Monetize an Email List?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

I discovered a seven-year old question on Hacker News asking how to monetize an email list.

There are three primary ways to monetize a list:

  1. Sell to subscribers.
  2. Sell the subscribers.
  3. Sell the number of subscribers

Let's take a look at each, in turn.

Sell to subscribers - As the owner of a mailing list, you have the ability to add advertisements to your messages. The ads can be for offerings produced by you or someone else.

At first, it may be tempting to sell your own services or products (such as eBooks). The reason for this is clear. As the owner of the product being sold, you are able to capture a significant percentage of the sales price for each item. Unfortunately, creating desirable products can be expensive and risky, in terms of time and money.

It's often more profitable (and less risky) to sell another producer's offerings in return for an affiliate commission or flat rate fee. The advantage to this is twofold: no investment is required in order to create the offerings and the offerings may be rotated quickly, so as to allow for many product sales per subscriber within a relatively short time frame.

Sell the subscribers - You can actually sell the subscribers themselves. This can be accomplished by selling the list to another party as Peter Shankman eventually did with his mailing list (Help a Reporter Out).

Of course, many businessmen would prefer to maintain ownership of a valuable asset, rather than selling it for a one-time fee. For that reason, many list owners rent their lists to other parties. I'd strongly urge list owners to moderate the content being delivered to the list. Should owners accept any content, overly-aggressive, misleading or poor quality content will erode (and eventually destroy) the value of the list.

Sell the number of subscribers - A mailing list does not have to be monetized directly. It can be used as evidence to demonstrate the skills, expertise or popularity of its owner. This evidence can then be used to sell consulting services, related products and other tertiary offerings without polluting the information stream within the list itself. Remember McDonald's famous 'billions served' signs? It's the same concept.

Combined Strategies - Combining strategies can be an extremely powerful means to maximize earnings. Here is one common strategy that combines all three.

  1. First, a list owner looks for someone with a complementary (or similar) audience. For instance, a public speaking coach might seek a comedy writing coach, or a chef might search for a baker.
  2. Then, the list owner impresses the other with information about his audience size and relevant characteristics.
  3. Finally, the two agree to cross-promote each other's products to his own list. Because each product is being offered to a new base of customers, many sales should ensue. In addition to direct monetization via product sales, each list will likely grow as interested parties from the other list join as new members. This opens up the possibility for profit from future sales.

If possible, owners should consider collaborating with other list owners in order to build joint products. Although each list owner may earn less profit per sale, the combination of efforts will lead to lower costs. More importantly, the joint ownership will lower the purchasing barriers to sale because each mailing list reader will see his respective list owner's name attached to the product.

If you don't want to wait seven years for a response to your monetization questions, why not contact me for a consultation?

Oh, and don't forget to join my mailing list at the bottom of the page.