We Used to Suck at Email. Here’s How We Turned It Around

“We suck at email.”

I made that remark during my Mixergy podcast interview with Andrew Warner. (You can hear my thoughts around the 30:30 mark.)

Andrew was commenting on our large number of email subscribers -- 1.7 million had signed up at the time of the recording earlier in the year -- and our strategy.

It’s an impressive number, for sure. And while we’re happy so many people looked forward to seeing us pop up in their inbox, our email strategy was lacking.

How We Used to Approach Email

We’ve been growing our list for over five years. For a long time, I used to write an email to our readers. Every day.

I’d write to the reader like I was talking to a friend, complete with photos of my black lab, Franklin. And it was effective -- I had an open rate over 50%! It was one of my best traffic sources.

It helped me build a consistent base early on, more so than social media or SEO. In hindsight, I wish I took full advantage of it then.

However, as The Penny Hoarder grew and things got busier, it became tougher to keep up with the demands of that format. We dropped the personalization in favor of a simple template: a daily newsletter with four or five articles we’d written on the site -- that we could switch out easily -- without commentary.

I was still the one sending out emails until last year, when I had help from one of our regular contractors. In June 2016, we brought on a full-time email marketing specialist.

The First Step is Admitting You Have a Problem

Like I mentioned in the podcast, you need to give somebody something unique, something that they might not get on the site. You have to give people a reason to subscribe to your email.

We weren’t doing any of these things.

Our regular newsletter format included the day’s top articles and a link back to the content on our site. That has a purpose all its own -- it serves our usual readers who grown to expect it and like it -- but we knew we could do more.

Folks are inundated with email subscriptions. If you don’t stand out, people get bored and unsubscribe. And today, the content you’re creating for your site isn’t enough -- whatever your content distribution network (Facebook, Snapchat, etc.), your content needs to be original and specialized.

Getting Email on the Right Track (Or, Our Quest Not to Suck Anymore)

In the months since, I’m proud to say we’ve stepped up our email game. Here’s how.

1. We Surveyed Our Readers

Last fall, we surveyed a random sample of 27,000 newsletter subscribers as part of our redesign efforts. One of the questions we asked readers was how they typically accessed our content.

The newsletter came in at No. 1 -- which we expected -- with 77.8% selecting that format. From there, we gleaned information on the content readers wanted more of in the future.

2. We Fixed Our ESP Issues

We had several problems with our old email service provider (ESP).

The customer service wasn’t great. QA was next to nonexistent. There are several levels of authentication that a bulk email should go through, and a lot of our messages were going to SPAM. There was no transparency in reporting or analytics, and we’d have to call a rep to get a report.

Lastly, we were paying a lot of money. A lot. Aside from being Penny Hoarders, the high price tag didn’t match the service we were getting.

We switched to Yesmail last December and haven’t looked back.

We’ve seen a big improvement in transparency and service. Yesmail also discovered long-term deliverability problems on the user side that we were able to rectify, helping us reach readers who inexplicably stopped receiving our emails.

3. We Changed Our Output Frequency and Introduced a Daily Email

For years, our regular newsletter was a roundup of the day’s top articles on The Penny Hoarder. The frequency changed a couple times throughout the years -- daily, then once or twice a week, and then three to four times a week.

This year, we decided to rebrand the roundup as the “weekender” email; it goes out Saturday mornings and includes that week’s top stories on the site.

The Penny Hoarder weekender email

We also introduced a new, daily newsletter.

After a test launch where we actively requested feedback, the daily went live March 20. It goes out Monday through Friday, and already reaches 384,000 readers.

The function of our roundup weekender email is to target our usual readers; the daily is something special for being a subscriber.

4. We Started Personalizing Our Emails Again

For the daily, it was a natural decision to bring over one of our in-house writers who knew our style and tone. At the time, Dana Sitar, one of our senior writers, expressed interest in transitioning to a new role.

She’s a solid humor writer -- here’s one of my favorite articles by her -- and we all knew she’d be a great fit as the voice of the daily.

The Penny Hoarder daily email

We know not everybody cares about every topic. But this is a fun, personal way to “talk” to our readers again. (Want to check it out for yourself? Subscribe here.)

One thing we’re not looking to do with email? Monetize our emails by filling them with display banners. We don’t want it to feel like an ad; we want it to feel like a letter from someone you trust.

We value user experience. And while it’s tempting to take those dollars, we don’t want to kill our open rate and blow our trust with readers.

No, Email isn’t Dead

Just look at the numbers for TheSkimm and The Hustle. Each company has above-industry-average open rates and hundreds of thousands (millions, for TheSkimm) subscribers.

In his article for The New York Times, David Carr wrote, “Newsletters are clicking because readers have grown tired of the endless stream of information on the Internet, and having something finite and recognizable show up in your inbox can impose order on all that chaos.”

The national average open rate for publishing hovers just over 15%. I’m happy to report we’re above that number and growing.

Email often feels like one more box to “check off” when you’re getting your business off the ground. But if handled properly, you can get great results.

And in a world where Google is constantly updating its algorithm, it’s essential to have other traffic streams. Email is one thing you have control over -- so take advantage of it!

Kyle Taylor is the founder and CEO of The Penny Hoarder, one of the largest personal finance websites with 19+ million monthly readers. In 2016, the Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder the 32nd fastest-growing private company and the #1 fastest-growing media company in the United States. You can read his last article on LinkedIn, “The Penny Hoarder Has a New Look! And the Changes Make a Lot of Cents..."