The secret to writing emails your audience will love? Serve, don’t sell.

When it comes time to talk about building and growing an audience for your online business, and we start to talk about email marketing, there’s one response we can count on hearing every single time:


“Email?” This particular brand of incredulity goes. “Why would I send emails to my audience when I don’t like getting spam from brands I don’t care about?” 

I get where the skepticism comes from. In the age of social media, with platforms like Facebook and Twitter taking up most of the cultural conversation, it can be surprising to hear that stodgy old email (which, by comparison, has been around pretty much since the Stone Age) is still the most effective channel for growing — and selling to — an audience.

But it is.

How do I know? Well, for one, because it’s what works for us. Here at GrowthLab and our sister site, I Will Teach You to Be Rich, 90% of our revenue can be traced directly to email marketing.

But it’s not just us — the data backs this up.

Consulting firm McKinsey estimates that email is 40X more effective at getting new customers than Twitter or Facebook. For every £1 spent, email marketing generates £32 in return, according to an estimate by UK-based Direct Marketing Association (DMA).    

There’s even data to suggest that people don’t hate getting promotional emails as much as we might assume they do — at least, not when it’s from a brand they like. A 2017 study by Statista found that 49% of people would like to receive promotional emails from their favorite brands once a week.

So the question we should ask is not, “Does email marketing work?”  

It’s, “What sets email marketing that works apart from email marketing that doesn’t?

To answer that question, I want to share with you THE best response that I’ve ever heard to the “Does email really work?” question that we started this post with:

“It does if you serve instead of sell.”

I love this response so much, I want to have it printed on a banner and then rent an airplane to fly it across the sky for everyone to see.

But I can’t rent an airplane, so let me just reiterate it in big, bold letters:

Great emails don’t (just) sell. They serve.

The reason that we sometimes feel that twinge of annoyance at the sight of an email in our inbox is because they focus on selling instead of serving. They’re falling over themselves to tell us to sign up for this deal, donate to this candidate, share this video with friends. In other words: they make it all about what they want from you, when it should be the other way around.  

By contrast, when you focus on serving instead of selling, your first question isn’t “What’s the fastest way I can get my audience to sign up/opt in/make the buy?” Instead, it’s, “What’s something I can share with my audience that’s so valuable, so juicy, that my audience won’t be able to do what I want them to do fast enough?”  

This is what we do here at GrowthLab. If you’ve been subscribed to our email list for a while, you know: most of the time, we’re not actually selling you anything. We’re pointing you toward an article we wrote lately that might help you move your business forward, or we’re asking you what you think about a topic.

The thinking that drives that strategy is this:

If we give you 98% of our stuff for free.
And we make that free content really really good.
And then you apply that stuff and it works for you.
Then you’ll come back for the other 2% — and you’ll be cool with paying for it.

And the crazy thing about this “serve-don’t-sell” strategy? It sells. 

If you spend most of your time not selling to people — if you spend most of your time asking them about their challenges, and sharing ideas that inspired you, and offering concrete tips that can actually help them — then during that 2% of the time when you are selling something? People’s response won’t be, “Ugh, why is this person in my inbox selling again?”

It’ll be:

giphy 12

How to write emails that serve instead of sell right now 

Okay, so we’ve established that successful email marketing prioritizes serving over selling. The next logical question to ask yourself is: How do I write emails that serve rather than sell?

The short, slightly dissatisfying answer is “Practice.” But here are a few tips.

Talk to your would-be readers. In order to write emails that truly serve instead of selling, you need to know what will actually serve your readers. The best way to do that is to spend time learning about your target audience. Who are they? What do they care about? What do they need help with?

Block off a few hours during your business-building time and make it specifically about understanding how your emails can better serve your audience. If you already have an email list, try sending out a quick survey asking your subscribers what they most need help with.

If you’re not quite ready for the list-building phase yet, reach out to 3-5 people who are in your target audience and schedule a quick, 15-minute interview to ask them: What do you need, and how can I help you

Helpful link: How to write copy that’ll blow your readers’ minds 

Pay attention to the emails you read. Most of us subscribe to at least a few emails that we reliably open and read through. The next time you’re reading an email, don’t just passively consume the content, step back and ask yourself:

  • Why do I like this?
  • What is this email doing that I respond to?
  • How can I apply that to my own emails?

I’m curious to know your answers to that last one: what are the email lists that you subscribe to that you regularly read, and why do you like them? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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There Are 6 Comments


Alison N Smith

Totally agree – I think the two sexiest words in the English language are: “customer service.”

Katie Parrott

Totally agree, Alison! A lot of internet marketers these days pound their heads against the wall trying to figure out how to communicate the appearance of value. My question to them: Have you tried… giving value?

Thank you for sharing this very interesting post with us I really enjoyed reading about it, it is very helpful with great information

I like Steve Kamb’s Nerd Fitness blog and emails. Very funny and conversational. And you guys, of course. I am trying to apply this conversational tone to my emails to make them interesting. It’s early days but it seems to be working well

Hi Katie!

Any chance you guys could publish content on IWT / Growthlab email metrics?

If you guys do 90% of revenue through email, it’d be very valuable for us as readers to have some benchmarks for a highly engaged list.

Comments are closed.