Your Mailing List (A Pattern Language of Banana Stands)

So I’m doing this series of posts on the various parts that go into a “banana stand” business. And I’m going to tackle them like software design patterns, because I’m a nerd like that.

Starting with…

Pattern: Your Mailing List

Where it fits: It’s basically the backbone of your entire business as a professional creative.

When you need to care about it: Yesterday.

This is the piece of know-how I impart the most often to people looking to kick off their own independent creative venture. Everyone in the banana stand business learns this lesson eventually, and the sooner the better: sales come from your mailing list. Not your social media. Not your ad placements. Not your podcast appearances or your conference talks. Sales come from your mailing list. Always and forever. This is rule zero. Your business lives or dies by your mailing list.

The best time to start collecting email addresses was ten years ago. The second best time to start collecting email addresses is today.

Your mailing list is a slow-rolling, perpetually-refined snowball of relationships and trust that no social media service can take away from you. No corporate acquisition can deprive you of it.

Once upon a time (and perhaps still?), companies would spend millions to hire a sales executives with the right rolodex (that’s an archaic form of address book, for you young ‘uns). That is to say, they’d hire these “big fish” because of they people they knew. Your mailing list is that rolodex.

Of course, when I say mailing list I don’t just mean a list of email addresses. Shovelfuls of emails addresses are cheap, and worth less. What I’m really talking about is a list of people who a) are interested in you as a creative, and b) have given you means and consent to contact them on the regular.

Notice I didn’t say “people who are interested in your product”. Or “people who are interested in that one thing you talked about on a podcast”.

One of the early mistakes people often make in their banana stand business is getting too granular, too quickly. Just the other day someone told me “oh, I opted out off your mailing list years ago. Not anything against you; I just didn’t need Ruby training anymore”. Now, while I still publish some Ruby-centric screencasts, it hasn’t been the focus of my mailings in years. But clearly, I set some expectations early about what people could expect from being on my mailing list. The moral of this story is that it’s easy to pigeonhole yourself, and people will happily reinforce it.

Once upon a time, mailing list management software encouraged this kind of subdivision. Each subscription was attached to a specific mailing list. Getting people onto another mailing list was hard, and often involved having that one email address be charged against your quota multiple times, once for each mailing list they were on.

Then Drip came along and changed the game by saying, look: you have a mailing list of people who are broadly interested in what you have to say, in the context of profession or topic. You may want to slice and dice that list of addresses in many different ways: by how often they have interacted with your site; or whether they’ve purchased a particular product from you; or by what topics they’ve expressed interest in. It’s not about your mailing lists; it’s about your mailing list, singular.

Since then most mailing list management tools have adopted this model. This article is not about mailing list managers specifically; that’s a different pattern. But we can’t escape the influence that specific concrete tools have on our business processes.

The people who you want on your mailing list are the people who are interested in you: in your perspective, your tastes, your angle within a broad topic area like “software development” or “data science”. (Remind me to write about Taste as its own pattern someday). Orient yourself towards building those relationships.

And, look, this isn’t just about a one-way relationship. When I say your mailing list is the backbone of your business, it’s not just about sales. Your mailing list is your proving ground for whether ideas have traction or not. It’s a source of serendipitous collaborations and leads you would otherwise have missed. It’s the cadre of people who will help you understand and evolve your voice, your niche, your angle, your position. Your business as an independent creative professional is symbiotic with your mailing list: you grow together.

There’s a lot to say about the concrete tools and techniques that go into growing and maintaining a high-quality mailing list. I’ll talk about several of them in other articles. I guess the takeaway for today is:

Your mailing list is your banana stand’s lifeblood. Get into the habit of thinking about your business’ health in terms of the relationships of which your mailing list is the concrete manifestation. And start collecting those email addresses. Because platforms may come and go, but your mailing list is eternal.

OK Avdi, but how do I start? Well, one good place to start is with a newsletter.

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