First, let’s make this concrete
What I’m talking about in this article is a huge sector of products and services, of which you are most likely going to pick one and stick with it for a long time. To make this concrete, here are a few examples of what we’re talking about:
These are just a few examples; there are many, many more such services. It’s a packed field. Don’t worry, I’ll help you pick one by the end of this article.
Second, let’s pick our terms
Next we need to talk about terminology. The services you can pick from to manage and engage with your mailing list go by a lot of names:
- Customer Relations Management (CRM)
- Email Marketing System (EMS)
- Marketing Automation Platform
None of these terms captures, by itself, the overlapping set of functionalities you’re going to use for your banana stand business. At the same time, even all together, they don’t really express what this system is going to mean to your business.
If we were to pick a brand new word for this service, we might call it a Parasocial Engagement Engine. It’s a tool that enables you to scale your relationship with your community beyond the number of relationships a single human brain can keep track of. It’s an adjunct brain for engaging with your growing audience.
It also a term that no one else will recognize, and it makes for an unfortunate acronym (PEE). Let’s choose something else.
Grizzled old marketers often make reference your autoresponder. “Autoresponder” is an anachronistic term stemming from the early age of mailing list software. It’s from the days when a mailing list manager was a cgi-bin script that people could send an email to, and it would “auto-respond” with some options for opting-in to mailings.
I like the term “autoresponder” because it is so completely inaccurate that it can safely stand in for all the overlapping sets of functions that a parasocial engagement engine encompasses. And it’s also a recognized term of art. I’m going to use the term “autoresponder” from here on out.
Why it matters
We’ve talked about how your mailing list is the lifeblood of your business. Your autoresponder is what manages your mailing list.
Sure, your product is books or videos or courses or workshops. And you might use a storefront to sell those products. You might deliver them with a Content Management System (CMS) like WordPress, or a Learning Management System (LMS) like Podia or Kajabi.
You don’t have a business without a product. But your product is not your business. If there’s one thing you take away from this article, let it be this: your autoresponder is the operational backbone of your business.
- Your autoresponder is the means by which you build your audience.
- It may not be how you currently publish newsletters, but if not it probably will be eventually.
- It’s how you build trust with that audience, via your newsletters, free email courses, etc.
- It’s how you communicate with your biggest fans.
- It’s how you identify who might be interested in a particular topic… and who would just be annoyed by emails on that topic.
- It’s how you let your audience know when you have a new product available.
- It’s how reach out for feedback to guide your product planning.
- It’s the source of one-to-one conversations that may inspire new products.
- It’s how you solicit testimonials.
- It’s your most important source of analytics.
- It hosts the automations that will ensure your customers receive the products they are entitled to.
- It hosts the automations that will keep up with your customers ways you don’t have bandwidth for. E.g. notice a customer has purchased a product but never accessed it, and reach out to them to check if they ran into problems.
- It can be the consistent source of truth for who-has-bought-what, even as you migrate from one storefront platform to another.
- When integrated with your other services, it can be a huge aid to customer support, because it can give you a unified view of all of a customer’s past interactions with your business.
Your autoresponder is the team you don’t have. If your business was a car, it would be the chassis. If your business were a band, it would be the rhythm section. Other tools and services will come and go, and your autoresponder will outlive them all.
Hopefully I’ve convinced you by now of how important your autoresponder is. It is also the service that tends to change less often than checkout systems, CMSes, etc. Migrating from one autoresponder to another is a huge hassle. For this one element of your business, there’s a lot of value in continuity.
So where in most cases my advice tends to be “just pick something and start”, in this one case it makes sense to spend a little more time and effort on research.
Your autoresponder sits in the center of the web of services that power your business. As such, the most important consideration for picking an autoresponder is not the tool itself, but what it integrates with.
I’m not talking about the absolute number of supported integrations, either. I’m talking about its integrations with the kinds of other tools and services that a banana stand business needs. That is, services that support indie creators, as opposed to the services that cater to enterprise behemoths.
At the extreme end of integration, some content or store platforms offer a built-in autoresponder, of sorts. For instance, if you have a Gumroad store, people can subscribe to your store without buying a product. And you can email those people. This is a rudimentary autoresponder.
It can be tempting to lean on this kind of all-in-one platform when you’re getting started. And it might be OK for the first ~year, so long as the integrated autoresponder offers CSV export for migration.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about this product category, it’s that you want to be able to evolve your other services around your autoresponder. You don’t want it to tie you to any particular toolset. So I recommend picking a standalone service.
Choosing your autoresponder
Like I said earlier, there are a lot of services in this space to choose from. Many of them are “good enough”.
But rather than equivocate, I’m going to give you two concrete informed recommendations. As of 2021:
- ConvertKit is laser-focused on the indie creator community, has the essential autoresponder features, offers rudimentary store/subscription features as well, and integrates with most of the services you are likely to care about.
- ActiveCampaign is industrial-strength, will scale with you as far as you care to go, has fancier automation features, and integrates with everything under the sun. It is also WP Fusion’s top recommendation for 2021, and the WP Fusion folks know their shit.
Disclaimers: I am not affiliated with any of these services. I do not get referral fees. I have recommended ConvertKit to a few people and they report being happy with it. I have not used ActiveCampaign, but I’ve read a lot of good things about it, and I have noted that every service I care about integrates with it.
Personally, as of this writing I am still using Drip. If I could snap my fingers and migrate all my data and automations without a hiccup, I’d probably switch to ActiveCampaign. But Drip is still Good Enough for my purposes that the friction of migration isn’t worth it to me. Remember what I said earlier: when it comes to your autoresponder, there’s value in continuity.
OK, you picked an autoresponder and signed up. Now what?
This article is about as long as I want it to be, and I’ll have a lot to say about specific use-cases for your autoresponder in future posts. But for right now:
- If you have customers already, or already have a newsletter, make sure you import those email addresses into your autoresponder. Play with tagging them meaningfully (e.g.
Kubernetes Book Buyer)
- If you don’t already have a newsletter, use the autoresponder to create a newsletter sign-up form and embed it on your blog.
- Create your first drip email course! All modern autoresponders support this feature, and it’s a great way to build your relationships with your audience. Put a signup for the email course on your blog, or social media profile, etc.
Congratulations, your business now has a spinal column. Cheers!