Nassim Taleb is one of my favorite authors right now. I’ve read Antifragile, Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, and Bed of Procrustes twice each, and regularly use Bed of Procrustes for writing inspiration.
A few weeks ago, my friend Neil messaged me, letting me know that Taleb had released early chapter drafts for his next book on his site. Excited, I went to where they were hosted and downloaded all of the article PDFs so I could read them.
This is not how you imagine reading on the Internet. Who goes to a site and downloads a PDF? And who puts up PDFs? Where’s the blog? Taleb should have an email list that you have to sign up for and where you get his new articles emailed to you!
But Taleb doesn’t need to send me an email with the subject line “15 Things People Don’t Realize About Having Skin in the Game,” and I’d be turned off if he did. I appreciate him so much as an author that I’m happy to read it this way.
I realized that this applied to people beyond Taleb, and beyond writers, too. I love Paul Graham’s essays, and would gladly sign up for his email newsletter if he had one. When Robert Greene publishes a new book, I’ll go buy it. When SpaceX does a launch, I’m going to watch the livestream. When 3LAU releases a new mix, I’m going to listen to it. None of them need to fight for my attention, I willingly give it to them. I want to give it to them.
According to the Internet marketing world (and, yes, I recognize my involvement in creating this noise), you have to be building an email list if you want people to read your work.
The logic says that in a world where everyone’s attention is getting progressively worse, you need to be hyper aggressive and get people to sign up, otherwise they’ll never read your stuff.
But as Drift points out in their article about removing their own lead magnets, people are getting sick of this pushiness. It’s weird to go to a site now and have them not hit you with a pop-up or two.
There is not a single newsletter I was coerced into joining that I enjoy or have stayed subscribed to. For the few newsletters that I do allow in my inbox, I went to the site and sought out their signup form because I liked their work.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. I recently purged a portion of my email list, realizing that there were old signups who were inactive. Before I deleted them, I went through their information and found something interesting: almost 100% of the inactive subscribers were the ones who signed up through a content upgrade or lead magnet.
With email capture, it’s easy to focus on the results we see, and ignore the effects we don’t. As Pieter Levels pointed out in a tweetstorm, 1% of your readers might be signing up, but what about the 99% who probably thought “fuck you, another one of these?”
I can imagine someone finding an article like The Runway Calculator and neglecting to share it with a friend because I put the spreadsheet behind an email signup. I’d rather have more people benefit from it than get another person’s email.
And why do you need to aggressively capture emails, anyway? Many Internet marketers treat email as a magic source of traffic that your site can’t survive without, but that’s simply not true.
This site has grown to 200,000+ monthly readers, substantially more than most blogs, with almost no impact from email. The vast majority of that traffic comes from SEO and social sharing because the articles are very good.
I don’t get traffic because I write catchy headlines or have awesome email campaigns, I get traffic because I give away 5,000 word guides on starting online businesses, 10,000+ words of guides on improving sex for men, spreadsheets to plan your goals with, and so on.
In some cases, my desire for more email signups was decreasing my traffic. In the most noticeable case, adding an immediate popup to my lasting longer in bed article to try to capture those visitors moved it from the #4 spot on Google to #15. I turned it off, and the #4 ranking came back. I even tried turning it on and off again to be sure. The results were clear: my daily traffic to the article dropped 80% because I tried to aggressively capture emails on it.
And while I agree that aggressive email capture is very effective and worth the downsides in certain areas (Programming for Marketers, for example) it simply doesn’t fit with my goals for this site.
So I’m not doing it anymore. I don’t want to harass you or gate everything behind a signup.
Before publishing this, I went through all my old articles and removed the lead magnets, and I’ve turned off my popup. That means you can go to them and just click to get the downloads, or you can get all the downloads on my new “Creations” page. Checklists, spreadsheets, etc. they’re all there, free for you to enjoy, no email signup necessary.
I’m only keeping my homepage opt in, and my end of article opt-in. I want it to be easy to sign up, but not to interrupt your reading.
My opt-in rate will be below 1%, but I see that as a good thing now. I’m only getting people who are legitimately interested, not people who just want a checklist of ways to last longer in bed.
Many writers get the causality reversed when it comes to building an audience. You don’t build something successful (blog, book, podcast) by building up a huge audience via email, twitter, facebook, etc. Rather, you build up a huge audience by building something successful.
In a desire to feel important and appreciated, people jump the gun and try to collect attention before they deserve it.
I remember interviewing a (so called) internet marketer who had a marketing blog with 3 different email capture forms… and no traffic! He was giving away a PDF of “101 ways to get more traffic to your site” when he was getting fewer than 50 visitors a day. Worse, he seemed oblivious to the irony.
People with mediocre products and mediocre content think the solution is to become more aggressive about marketing when the solution is to make something better.
Most of my favorite writers: Paul Graham, Nassim Taleb, Farnam Street, Wait but Why, Cal Newport, Brain Pickings, are all very light on asking for your email if they ask at all.
And the reason is that they don’t have to. When you’re creating truly great content or products, you don’t need to bombard people with demands for their attention.
They will gladly give it to you.