AMA – How I started my email list and building an audience

Writing is difficult, writing consistently is even more difficult. I highly recommend you to start writing now and building your own audience. It's hard I know, I still struggle to write all the time. But I really wish I had started sooner. No matter how much or how little experience you have. There is always something unique about your own perspective that will resonate and connect with others. I will preface everything with how I started this very blog Verse. All the tools, strategies and approaches I used when I started it and everything I use to manage it.

Finally I will share a roadmap for you to do the same, so you can start growing your own audience and creating your own community. You can skip this back story part if you like as I kind of rant on and go straight to the roadmap.


The backstory

It back when I was still working at an agency back in 2013. We were having beers on Friday and I was talking about the early days of my career with my design team. I was telling them how I was shit scared during that time and how I wondered if I was good enough. We all had a laugh, and one the guys thought I should write some of that down. Along with all the so called bits of ‘design wisdom’ that I’d drop on them. I didn't really think anyone would care, but I decided to write it for fun. So I did on 30th September 2013. And it became this stale file on my dropbox for 2 years.

I believe it was when Medium was still invite only and I had finally managed to get access. In the end I never published or finished that draft. I was too obsessed with making everything perfect that I never found time to complete anything. I was crippled by perfection. A big lesson was “done is better than perfect” and just fucking ship it. My biggest regret having started all of this is I wish I had committed to writing sooner. In the end ideas from that draft did finally make it as this post here. It only took 2 or so years haha – procrastination is a bitch! So my best advice for starting to blog is just start writing and make sure you hit publish.

Beyond that I wanted to create a brand where I could share my thoughts but also sell some design resources that I had in mind. I created different drafts of the Verse brand initially to get myself pumped. And finally completed the visual language. I promised myself that no matter what I wouldn’t make too many changes and keep the visual language– which happens all too often when you do work for yourself. Once the branding was done I spent ages writing my first 5 articles. It was really difficult because I kept refining and editing everything and in the end it took 2.5 months on an off to write my first 5 articles. I launched with 4 and then had 1 backup to post up that week. 


Mailchimp email pre signup

As I was writing different articles I opened up a mailing list signup using mailchimp, I didn't even design it and just used the default template. I got my first few emails via dribbble where I have a decent following already, and posted this shot that explored the branding to garner interest. I think dribbble has a few pitfalls – such as work being seen from too much of a shallow level with no context to actual good design. It’s all based merely on aesthetic and not much else. And while it has it’s shortcomings beneath it all there is actually still a ton of talent on there and access to respectable agencies and designers. It has definitely introduced me to a ton of talented folks that I would otherwise would have never met and interacted with. Also I believe many of you guys found me from dribbble as well which I’m grateful for. 

So as you are writing your articles – leverage your existing network to get your first few readers. Fortunately for me that pre-registering equated to about 150 readers (and if you registered from that time and are still here I want to truly say thank you so much you are a rockstar)  


Don't be afraid to sell and consistency is key

I think as designers we all have this fear of selling and money. But a lot of our work revolves around this.   I use to be fearful of this as well, but now I have no qualms about plugging work that I believe in and can stand behind. Because I think it is useful and of value to others. So with every little preview on dribbble and my other social networks I would put a little plug to my mailing list. The key is to be unobtrusive but be in peoples minds.  I love this quote by Walt Disney “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” I find this very true, I make more money to be able to design and do more of the work that I love. Be empowered enough to explore different mediums and not feel tied down by budget constraints. So to fulfil this need I am never afraid to sell, as long as I love and believe in the product and what I’m backing. No one knows you exist if you don't say anything. And on average it takes people 7 times of exposure to finally digest information. So put yourself out there. And if there’s haters, well haters gonna hate and they are not your audience. 


Developing the blog

I used Squarespace to start this blog. When I designed the site I knew that I would implement it using Squarespace to manage my posts. So I kept the structure inline with their other templates so it wouldn’t eat into development time. The focus was on the content and whilst I wanted the site to be nice and well designed it wasn’t the highest priority. I used the horizon template and rejigged the site with custom CSS to match my design.  I was confident that this site was worth doing so I backed myself and declined client work to work on this blog during that time. In the end I’m happy with how it turned out and whilst it is far from perfect I’m happy I got it up and have managed to connect with you guys. I also used Hoefler & Co's cloud typography service, which I think is awesome. Utilisting Gotham and Chronicle Display as my main typefaces. In the end there were some issues with Squarespace and Cloud Typography but I managed to get it sorted by upgrading to Squarespace developer. It was a bit of a mini disaster but I managed to solve it and work through it. After many emails with support, reading up on the issue and pulling my hair out. 


Using MailChimp lists and setting up email templates

MailChimp is a fantastic tool for bloggers. I use it to collect and manage my emails. There are other great email tools for conversion like Nathan Barry’s However for my current needs I think MailChimp is perfect. You can setup a mail chimp account for free and sending campaigns is free as long as you have less than 2000 subscribers. Create weekly templates that you can use over again.  For those starting out I highly using recommend MailChimp to build your lists and manage your email campaigns. There’s a ton of documentation out there on how to create a list. So get reading on how you can get started. 


Launch and using analytics

After I finally launched the site I monitored user behaviour. I am a big believer in iterating and improving your site based on what users are doing. I implemented Google Analytics and Sumo Me. In particular I really like it’s heat mapping app which is a great resource to see where your users are clicking. I will write an more in depth post down the track talking about the interesting things that I had I uncovered. There were a few adjustments I made based on this data that garnered some great results. 

I also implemented HelloBar from internet marketer Neil Patel and of KISSmetrics fame. It’s that little form that animates in when you scroll to the bottom of the page. I’m planning to customise it down the track so the form and animation feels less intrusive. Overall it has converted very well since it’s implementation. I was iffy about it at first but I can’t deny the number and its results. Which kind of relates back to the top, don’t be afraid to sell. 


Consistency and showing up is one of the hardest parts

For me the biggest hurdle was showing up and writing consistently every week. When you make a promise to your audience you have to keep it. I’m most proud of the fact that since I started Verse, I’ve consistently written at least 1 article a week and sent out a newsletter. And it definitely wasn’t easy, procrastinating is easy - but I made sure that I showed up every wekk. The best part is the more I wrote the better and faster I became. Which is a lot like anything in life, the more work you put in the better you will become. 


Here is a list of all the tools that I use

MailChimp - To manage my email subscriptions, email lists and weekly newsletter. 

Squarespace Developer - Used as my backend and the management of my blog posts.

Cloud Typography by Hoefler & Co. - Used for licensing and hosting fonts Gotham and Chronicle Display. - Has a suite of analytic tools but I specifically use it for it’s heat mapping app

Hello Bar - Used for my call to action email opt-in form and A/B split testing. 

Google Analytics - Used for checking where traffic is coming from, user engagement rate and overall traffic.


Areas I would like to improve

Writing more so I will have more articles as a buffer to allow me to take more time to edit future articles. 

I would love to automate more of my processes. Auto welcome emails, the management of my email lists and automating a lot of the processes on the blog. ie. Posting, creating new pages, updating stats. At the moment a lot of it is done quite manually, which is time consuming. 

Cleaning up my mailing list. I recently consolidated my MailChimp lista that had different groups together and lost some details such as first names. Which I need to fix and had I known what I know now I wouldn’t have created some many different lists arbitrarily. 

Fixing little areas on the site and tightening up the overall design. Which still needs a ton of improvement. 

A basic roadmap – Creating your own email list and building your audience

Start Writing

Before I get into any tools, designs or site development. I think the most important thing is to write the content. Start writing at least 5 articles and make it a habit. Find topics that you really care about. And focus your writing to specific areas so users know what to expect. If you have a wide range of topics it’s hard to get followers as you content is too spread out. Particularly if you don’t have many articles to being with. Regardless of your experience different people will resonate and connect with different points of views. Here are some concepts to get you started. 

Share your journey. If you are starting out a good idea is to share your journey. Have you just started learning web design? Write down what you have learnt everyday. You will be more relatable to those who are starting out as well and have the same struggles for example. They can connect with you better because they are in the same boat. 

Teach what you know. For those with more experience, teach everything you know. Everyone has their own experiences and point of view. Perhaps the way you do things is not how everyone approaches things. Share your point of view, sometimes you will get the most interest when you don’t follow popular opinion.


Find your audience and garner early interest

Find audiences where you think your content can benefit and provide value to. The best place to start is your own social network. But some ideas are on dribbble, behance, designernews sites or even medium. Create a dialogue on these channels to get initial interest. And if you don’t have access to any of these communities consider guest posting and starting to be a part of these communities. I got my first few readers by leveraging my existing social networks. I really believed in the blog and I knew I could offer value to others so I had no qualms selling it and consistently talking about it. It takes people on average 7 times of exposure to digest information and take action. So if you are starting your own list be prepared to sell, but make sure you have good content to back that up and be useful and offer value to your readers. 


Find a publishing platform

Technology is merely the vehicle. So it doesn’t matter if it's Squarespace, Medium or Wordpress. The most important thing is what you’re writing about. Your voice and what you have to say to the world. So find a vehicle for content. I personally use Squarespace and would recommend it.  


Create a schedule, consistency is key

Make sure you create a schedule for yourself so you are accountable. Consistency is key. Write like no one is reading and keep at it, because in the beginning it will be just you and maybe your mum reading. Make sure you hit that publish button regardless, whether its once a day, once a week or once a month. I try to post at least once a week and sometimes 2 articles. The key is being fucking consistent, I know its hard. Netflix or writing....choose the writing. Then you can Netflix. 


Create value for your readers

The key to getting attention and more signups is to write about stuff you care about, but equally as important is to provide value to your readers. How can you help them in some way? As designers we should be empathetic and this is a perfect opportunity to empathise with your readers. I love Seth Godins blog as it provides so much value and it’s updated daily.


Launch and start promoting

Now that you have everything in place get ready to launch and start promoting the shit out of your site. There are a ton of great sites with wonderful content that disappear into obscurity because they lost motivation. In part because no one was reading their content. If you believe in you what you are talking about, then start selling ot and promoting it. Great content that provides value coupled with good promotion is the key to a successful blog.  If you do this you will get more readers, the more you help them, the more they will spread the word for you. 


Optimise your site with analytics

Once your site is up you are just getting started. Use tools such as google analytics, sumo-me and hellobar to see what your users are doing. Where are they clicking? How long are they staying on your site for and why? Which pages are getting viewed the most and why? Which areas of the site are they dropping off. And can they see your sign up form. As long as you are publishing great articles, then now it’s about refining your site so you can serve your users better.  


Make sure you have fun and enjoy what you do

At the end of the day make sure you have fun, learn to enjoy the process of writing and getting better. I definitely don’t find it easy, but getting the great feedback and continually learning new things is a real joy for me. It’s hard work maintaining it all. And while it’s great to hustle. In the end if showing up and trying to build an audience is causing you misery, then it’s not worth pursuing. But don’t quit until you’ve really taken a full crack at it. Passion and consistency is key. Happy writing!