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How to Find Out What Your Email Subscribers Really Want

This post is part of a series called Email Marketing Jumpstart.
How to Create an Effective Autoresponder Sequence
"What Should I Write About?" How to Generate Ideas for Your Email Marketing

There's a cardinal rule in business:

If you're providing a service, or selling a product that people want and are willing to pay for, then you're on the road to success.

Marketing has a bad reputation because so often it's about interrupting people's lives and trying to convince them that they want a product they've no real need for. Think of TV commercials or adverts in magazines and newspapers. Occasionally they're amusing. But more often than not, they're frustrating. They get in the way and distract our attention from what we really want to focus on.

Email marketing has numerous benefits, many of which we explore elsewhere on Tuts+. One of these—and perhaps the biggest benefit—is that it gives you a direct relationship with your subscribers. You can talk to them and find out what they want. You can also track how they interact with your emails to see what matters to them.

That way, your emails won't be an interrupting, but something your subscribers look forward to receiving.

Finding out what your customers want will help you as you decide upon your product line, or develop your services. What's more, it will help you write emails that get opened and read, because you'll be able to share information that your customers are excited to read. On top of that, it will also help you grow your email list, because you'll be able to develop an opt-in offer or buzz piece.

Knowing what your subscribers want matters. With that in mind, let's take a look about how you can find out what your email subscribers really want.

Step 1: Do Your Background Research

You can find out what your subscribers want even if you don't yet have a list. How? By going to where your potential subscribers hang out online, and seeing what they talk about.

Doing this research will also help you even if you've already got a healthy list of subscribers.

Before you start your research, you'll need to make a broad judgement call about the type of people you'd like to sign up for your list. The easiest way to do this is by thinking about the niche your list will be aimed at.

  • Do you write a blog about classic cars? Then you'll need to go where classic car enthusiasts hang out online.
  • Selling information products about internet marketing? Then head for where the internet marketers spend their time.
  • Running an online clothes store for newborn babies? Go to the places where new mothers congregate.

Now you've got a general idea of where to look, you can start to drill down deeper into specific online communities or gathering places. Particularly helpful places to look include:

  • Online forums. People go to forums to get questions answered. As such, they're ideal for learning about what your subscribers want.
  • Twitter. Use Twitter's advanced search to find what people are talking about in your niche. The free tool inboxQ helps you discover questions on Twitter. You can also follow popular hashtags and take part in Twitter Chats in your industry.
  • Google Plus Communities. As a social network, Google Plus is heavily underused. Communities, however, are thriving hubs of activity. Search for communities in your niche and start engaging with your audience.
  • Amazon reviews. Look up books in your niche, and check out their Amazon reviews. Give special attention to the reviews with low ratings (one and two stars). In these reviews, people share their frustrations and what they need help with. Essentially, they're sharing what they want.

As you engage with these communities and websites, ask yourself:

  • What do people need help with?
  • What questions are being asked again and again?
  • What are people most frustrated about?
  • What are their hopes and dreams?

These questions will help you paint a picture of what your subscribers want.

Step 2: Create a Subscriber Avatar

In the previous step, you started getting familiar with what your subscribers want. In this step, you flesh out a well-rounded image of your ideal subscriber.

An avatar is a word-picture of your ideal subscriber. You can also use an actual image to represent this person.

Why is it helpful? For two reasons. First, as you create your avatar, you'll start to see the world from the point of view of your subscribers. By stepping into their shoes, you'll find it easier to write emails that connect with them.

Second, you'll write more powerful emails if you write to a single person. The avatar you create gives you a single person to write to.

Here are some helpful questions to ask as you create your avatar:

  • How old is this person?
  • What's their gender?
  • Where do they live?
  • What work do they do? How much do they earn?
  • What's their relationship status?
  • How do they relax in their free time?
  • What newspapers, magazines and books do they read?
  • What's their favorite TV show?
  • What do they want?
  • What are their hopes and dreams?
  • What are they stuck with or frustrated about?
  • What are their biggest fears?

We've got a more in-depth tutorial on creating a subscriber avatar.

Don't worry about making this perfect. The description of your avatar will always be a work in progress. You'll develop it as you learn more about your subscribers and customers.

Step 3: Get Subscribers!

You now know a great deal about the people who are likely to sign up to your list. The next step is getting them to sign up to your list.

How does this help you in discovering what they want? Two ways.

First, you can only find out what your actual readers want if you've already got readers to test things on and to talk to. All the work you've done so far has allowed you to make your best guess. From here on out, you're going to be discovering first hand, from real subscribers, what they actually want.

Second, your opt-in offer itself is a tool you can use to find out what your subscribers want. When your opt-in offer attracts subscribers, you've already found what they want.

So, try out different opt-in offers, and see what works. If you're getting traffic to your opt-in page, but people aren't subscribing to your email list, then you're not hitting the hot buttons of your ideal readers. You need to try a different offer.

Offers you can try include:

  • discount deal. If this gets the most sign-ups, then you know that your subscribers want promotions and special offers.
  • giveaway buzz piece. This shows that subscribers value you sharing your best advice and wisdom.
  • An e-course or autoresponder sequence. People who sign up for an e-course are typically stuck with a specific problem and want to know how to solve it.

Alternatively, you can use a content funnel as a way of nurturing opt-ins. A content funnel is like a giveaway buzz piece that you give to subscribers before they sign up. It's so compelling that they read to the end and still want to know more.

As Hubspot explains:

Content funnels result in smaller opt in rates but the people who do join are top quality subscribers who have a high attention span, like what you do and REALLY want to hear from you – this results in higher open and click rates. What use is a list of 10,000 subscribers if only 1% open your emails?

Step 4: Watch How Your Subscribers Behave

Once you've grown your email list and you're sending out emails frequently, there's a really easy way to find out what your subscribers want: watch how they behave.

You can do this by:

  • Split testing subject lines. The subject lines that perform better are an indication of what your subscribers want. If they're opening your emails, you're sharing something they need.
  • Seeing which links get clicked. As with email opens, clickthroughs are an indication of what your subscribers want from you. When an email has a particularly high clickthrough rate, take note. Whatever you did there, you'll want to do it again.
  • Looking out for unsubscribes. If a particular email causes a subscriber exodus, then you've messed up by doing or saying something that your subscribers don't want. No need to beat yourself up about it, but make sure that you learn from your mistake.
  • Checking for social shares. Many email marketing services let you include the option to share your email on social media. If your email is shared a lot, you're doing the right thing.

A word of warning: Take care not to become obsessed with your stats. You're looking for general trends, not tiny changes. If you send out an email once a week, then checking your stats once per month is plenty.

Step 5: Ask Your Subscribers What they Want

It's obvious when you think about it. The best way of finding out what your subscribers want is to ask them.

You've got a few options for getting responses from your subscribers.

The One Question Survey

As the name suggests, this is where you ask subscribers a single question. You get them to respond by replying to your email.

great time to for one question surveys is when you send a welcome email to new subscribers. Subscribers have just signed-up, so they're expecting to hear from you, and they're motivated to interact. It's also a great way of kicking off your relationship with each individual subscriber.

Here are some great questions to get a conversation started, and to give you insight into what your subscribers want:

  • What are you working on at the moment?
  • What's the one thing you're struggling with right now?
  • What's your single biggest question about [your niche]?

The In-Depth Survey

With an in-depth survey, you use a service such as Survey Monkey or Google Forms to set up a series of questions for your subscribers to answer.

Because it's more in-depth, you'll likely get a lower response rate than with a one-question survey. But you will also have more data to work with.

It's a good idea to have developed a relationship with your readers before you ask them to complete a longer survey, because then they're more likely to want to help.

When you're preparing your survey:

  • Stick to open questions. These are questions where respondents write their own answers, rather than selecting an answer from a multiple choice list. With open questions, your subscribers will share what they want to know in their own language. Another advantage of using open questions is that it allows you to collect valuable data even if only a small number of people respond.
  • Limit yourself to five or six questions. Any more than that, and people won't bother completing the survey because they'll see it as too much work.

The Poll

With polls, respondents select an answer from a pre-written list of options.

Polls have the advantage of being quick to answer, so you'll get more responses. They also allow you to display your results in a chart.

Polls are great if you've got a big list and you want to get a quick overall picture of what they want. You can also use polls to segment your list based on the answers each respondent gives.

Never Stop Learning

We all grow and change over time. Your email list will grow and change, too. Never assume you know exactly what your subscribers want. Keep talking to them and listening to them to make sure you're meeting their needs.

Learn more about jump starting your email marketing in our multipart, foundational series on the subject.

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