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How to Make Money from a Small List (and Get Some Other Valuable Insights)

Businesswoman on PhoneBack in July of this year, I found myself in a predicament. I wanted to create a new group program for a tiny niche I was working in, but I didn’t know what to make or where to start.

Oh, and I only had 246 subscribers.

They hadn’t heard from me in 6 months.

And in this tiny, old-school industry niche, there were exactly ZERO potential JV partners who could help me with this. I was working in the alcoholic spirits industry, which had a few traditional “consultants”, zero info-products, no big mailing lists, and a handful of magazines for my target audience that all wanted huge advertising fees. They all refused anything that even resembled a JV.

The total size of the market was about 3,000 people worldwide.

My prospects looked pretty grim for doing a big launch, no doubt. For some reason or another, I decided to put my skills as a marketer to the test and see what I could do. (Maybe I was feeling a little bit crazy?)

I knew from past experience that surveys were a great way to engage people. Getting someone to talk about themselves is the best way to get any conversation started, even one that has been dormant for 6 months.

Clearly, survey was the answer in this case.

Not just any survey, but a telephone survey. I wanted to get on the phone with as many people as I could to find out just what these people were really struggling with. I couldn’t just offer up a form with some directed questions, I needed to probe deep into the hearts and minds of the few prospects I had with open-ended questions. I needed to find out their biggest pain points, and how I could solve them.

I constructed a list of 5 questions for the survey. These were basic questions, including “what is the biggest obstacle you’re facing to grow your business?” and “what would it be worth to remove that obstacle for you?” I also included questions about how these individuals preferred to receive this information. Courses, group programs, one-on-one work, or other options would be offered. The answers to these questions would shape my offering to the group.

On July 26th at 4:37PM, I sent an email to 246 subscribers on my dormant list, with the subject line “I want to help you grow.” I placed a call to action at the very beginning of the email:

“It has been a long time since we’ve touched base. I’ve been busy working on projects, you’ve been busy building your business… I think it is time we reconnected a bit, so I want to offer you a gift – an hour of my time to solve your most pressing problem (worth $500.) Gratis, no catch.

If you want to take advantage, it is really easy – reply to this email with your phone number and a time. We’ll confirm our appointment, and I’ll call you. (Yes, really – it’s that easy.)”

No links to click, no forms to fill out, I asked them to simply reply to the email.

The events that followed were nothing short of shocking.

That email, sent on a random Friday afternoon in the middle of summer, achieved 47% open rate. 6% of those subscribers responded within 3 days, and actually got on the phone with me.

This is a screenshot of that campaign, direct from my MailChimp account. You can see that open rate was even above average for this list in the past:

Mailchimp Stats

Five people did unsubscribe from the list, but I was amazed there were only five. I hadn’t sent a single thing to this list in 6 months; it was amazing that they even remembered who I was.

Three days later, I sent a reminder email with the subject “Only a few no-cost consults left!” This time, I included some of my favorite testimonials at the end of the email. Only 41% opened the message this time, but 12% of those subscribers responded within 3 days.

That is 5 more responses than the first email, despite the lower open rate. Lesson learned: this list responds very well to testimonials.

I spent the next two weeks on the phone.

I spoke with 19 people in the industry over those two weeks. I asked them the survey questions, of course, and then let them take control of the conversation. I let them tell me about their problems and the types of solutions they are looking for. In exchange for their time, I offered a few tips and some strategic advice that was all well received.

From that research, I was able to create a list of the 3 primary pain points my subscribers were facing – more than 90% of all respondents had mentioned at least one of these.

I was also able to find out with a high level of certainty how these individuals preferred to learn:

Every single one of them said they wanted to work one-on-one with an expert, and they were willing to pay for it.

That was an amazing wake up call. If I had spent 6 months developing a group program for these people without talking to them first, I would have wasted 6 months. No one would have been interested. Confidentiality concerns were huge for these people, and so sharing their competitive secrets with others in a “mastermind” setting was actually a frightening idea!

What I had been teaching my own clients for years rang true yet again: you need to get on the phone with your customers and speak to them as people. Doing so in this case saved me 6 months of wasted time.

It also generated $11,964 worth of pure profit.

A funny thing happened on those calls. When I began offering solutions to their problems, they began to see me as an expert. And when we discussed that one-on-one mentoring was the best fit for them, they started to think about working one-on-one with me.

From those calls and the conversations that resulted, I closed one contract worth $11,964 – and the client couldn’t fit more perfectly into my “ideal client” profile. Since then he has already launched a new product into a new market, and seen six figures in sales growth. They’re now on track to do $2.5M in 2014.

There are still others staying in touch since those conversations, discussing one-on-one work in the future. Astonishingly, the total value of all the mentoring contracts available to me from that survey is over $95,856.

Surveys are a great way to build relationships.

That is the takeaway from this post. Not that using surveys can generate business for you, or that they’re a fast way to get on the phone with prospects. This client came back to me 4 weeks after the survey was completed, he didn’t sign the dotted line on July 29th when we spoke.

The real lesson is that getting on the phone and asking people questions about themselves can give you some amazing insights into what people really need. It can build rapport, relationships, and even friendships.

Yes, in this case the survey I did resulted in over $10k of pure profit and almost $100k in potential revenues… But the market insights I gained completely changed my business model, saving me hundreds of thousands of dollars and months of wasted time. If I had spent 6 months building a program before even talking to those subscribers, I would not have been able to help those 19 people – or work ongoing with any of them.

I leave you with this piece of advice, one I stress with all of my private mentoring clients:

When you’re launching a new business or a new product, you need to close your first 100 sales over the phone. Not with a salesletter, not through a salesperson, not via telemarketing, you – as the CEO – on the phone. The insights you gain and the relationships you build are the assets that make successfully automating your sales funnel possible in the future.

Today, I’m starting this process again. A new survey, a new group of respondents, and some amazing insights into what I can do to help people just like you.

I’m looking for entrepreneurs in the idea or start-up stage who are looking to grow. In exchange for a few minutes of your time to answer 5 questions, I’ll offer you a solution to the biggest problem facing your business today. The goal is to use the information you share to develop new free resources for people just like you. To help you grow. To help you succeed. To get you where you want to be.

If you would like to volunteer, please enter your information here.

Get to know your customers. The benefits far, far outweigh the risks.

About Cheryl Woodhouse

Cheryl Woodhouse is an incredibly nerdy marketing executive turned startup mentor. She blogs over at CherylWoodhouse.com, where you can score a free copy of her book "Start Something". She also loves using food metaphors in business lessons, so don't follow her when you're hungry.

44 thoughts on “How to Make Money from a Small List (and Get Some Other Valuable Insights)

  1. Great post, Cheryl. Sounds like your relaunch to your list was very well received and it’s given me some ideas for an email campaign I’m running now. Right now is the perfect time to get back in touch with people, especially in niches like marketing or advertising since some of them like to plan ahead and budget. So while some are thinking about taking a break and winding down for the year, it’s actually a great time to pounce.

    • Absolutely! It is a great time to reach out and get back in touch with people. I did this in the height of the summer, actually right after the 4th of July. Almost everyone was on vacation. The beautiful thing about it was that no one else was emailing these people during this time, no one was launching in that market, no one was trying to get their attention.

      Release any limiting beliefs you might have about the holidays – they’re a great time to “Start Something” (tee hee!)

      – Cheryl

  2. Hi Cheryl,
    You’ve given me much food for thought. I’m in the process of developing my first product – How to Relieve Stress using Mindfulness.
    Point taken.
    I’ll find a way to talk directly to my target audience either in person or on the phone. I’m also considering conducting workshops for small groups of business executives and entrepreneurs as well as senior citizens.
    (Btw, I’m a student of the Audience Business Masterclass and am following the step-by-step process outlined by Danny.)
    Thanks again.

    • Workshops are a great way to generate buzz and interest while surveying your target market. In fact, some of the life coaches and healers I’ve worked with have found a lot of success using physical, paper surveys/polls handed out at the beginning of a workshop.

      Here is what you can do. Create a short intro to what they’re going to learn (1 paragraph.) Tell them that you’re very interested in hearing what they want to know/what they struggle with for future workshops, and even to answer questions during this workshop. Ask them to answer a couple of basic questions on the form.

      If you place these forms on the seats/tables before your workshop starts (or email if you’re doing a digital workshop, though it will probably be a bit less responsive that way) you’ll get people filling it out while they wait for the event to start.

      Once you finish your presentation, ask people to come up and ask questions/get advice afterwards. Survey them in person, and offer some advice in exchange for their time.

      That has worked very well, especially with seniors (FYI 🙂 )

      – Cheryl

  3. The use of a survey gets to the core of a business model basic tenet — get out there and talk to your customers. You have to ask your customers what they want, not give them what you think they want. As consultants or service providers, we know how to solve the problem, but we may not really know what the problem is, until we ask the open ended questions.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • Amen! You’re very welcome. And you’re right, this is very true for service providers, but I also recommend it highly for product-based businesses. Get out and introduce your prototype to the first 100 customers yourself. In person, by hand.

      The insights you gain into the key benefits of your product or service are what make it possible to automate the sales process in the future!

      – Cheryl Woodhouse

  4. Hi Cheryl,
    What a great idea! I will be implementing this idea in the work I’m doing for a coaching program I hope to launch early next year. I love the idea of reconnecting with an “inactive” list and moving forward from there.

    Thanks for the reminder that talking to our potential clients is so valuable, and for the exact mechanism to make it happen!

    • It is a great way to reconnect with people… And even today, I’m still hearing from people because of that survey. If nothing else, it puts a face and a voice to the name. It helps to build relationships.

      If everyone was willing, I would get on the phone with every single subscriber I have and chat with them. You just never know what amazing insights they can offer!

      – Cheryl Woodhouse

    • Sure Faheem!

      Because this was an industry specific list, the questions were industry specific as well.

      2. What do you believe is more important to the growth of your business – distribution or consumer marketing?

      3. How many states are you currently distributed in? What are your goals for the next 12 months?

      4. How do you currently plan to meet those distribution goals?

      The thing I love most about moving from that industry to helping other small businesses is that the principles of distribution can be applied with great success. Just ask Danny – guest blogging is a specific form of content distribution that he used to grow Firepole Marketing and create the super-successful Audience Business Masterclass!

  5. Thanks for the insight! It’s a great lesson right there. I’ll pay more attention to surveys now. But as an author of fiction, what kind of surveys can I offer my followers?

    • Douglas,

      You’re very welcome! And actually, this is a fantastic opportunity for you to do something that others in your market aren’t doing.

      If you were my client, I would advise you to release a free preview of your next book (first chapter?)

      Then take the opportunity to survey some of your readers about what they think will happen next, some of their favourite books and what types of materials they read, and even some basic demographic data. Sometimes as a fiction author it is difficult to know exactly who your target market *is* so you can target them where they “hang out”. A survey could give you a much better idea.

      Then once they’ve given you some insights into who they are, give them the second chapter as a reward for doing the survey.

      The reason I recommend giving away the first chapter prior to the survey is because you’ll give them something to talk about. Don’t mention the survey, just give the chapter away and then offer to speak with them after they’ve received it.

      When your book is 100% ready to launch, you’ll know who your target market is and what they’re expecting from the book, and you’ll have a list of people who have read the first chapter and are interested in more. You can tailor your pre-sales/launch email to their exact needs, desires, and curiosities!

      Hope that helps!

      – Cheryl

      • Thanks Cherry! In fact, all my subscribers have got a freebie of 5 chapters for my next book and they’ve told me how much they loved it.
        Plus, as they wait for the final release I’ve also given away 2 completely free ebooks so I won’t leave them bored.
        If that’s not too much to give away and I hope it’s not because I enjoy doing this, my big question is how can I inform more readers about this offer?
        (By the way, most of my readers are from goodreads—the biggest reader based site but it’s not very easy to earn attention.)

        • That’s great Douglas! Have you captured any of their details so you can follow up with a survey? That demographic data will be absolutely gold for you – you’ll be able to find other places that your target market “hangs out” where it might be easier to earn their attention!

          – Cheryl

          • Um… most my subscribers reside in American states. Online, I’ve only had relationships with readers on goodreads. You’re right, a survey for demographic data will definitely score!
            And I’ve got something I want to do but I’m not aware how to. Can I email my idea to you?
            My email is: douglasr_writer@yahoo.com

  6. What a great post! It’s inspired me to kick up my email marketing for my writer website. Plus, I’m working on building my author platform, but for some reason it’s been a struggle. I’m not sure why. I know what to do and even help other writers, but… I’ll figure it out.

    • Amandah,

      Often when you struggle to build your platform, there are one (or all) of 3 key things missing…

      1. A willingness to put the “real you” out there (you’re likely holding back something about yourself, trying to fit into an image you think you need to succeed.)

      2. Knowledge of your target market, which your survey can help you with.

      3. A mission and a purpose that propels you, makes you passionate, and helps others relate to and support and share what you’re doing. Something bigger than just yourself or your writing.

      You know, if you want to participate in the survey I believe we could help each other out – I’d love to offer you a few insights in exchange for a few insights from you! Click the link in the post if you’re in 🙂 Thanks!

      – Cheryl

  7. Hi Cheryl,
    This is one of the best blog posts I have ever read. It is one of those that makes me think ‘of course’ wiht hindsight, but had never thought of doing myself. Very inspiring.
    I have been grappling with a question of slightly shifting the focus of some of the work I do. But having spent three years building up my existing subscriber base, was nervous about how to do this without 1) alienating everyone or 2) not having a clear enough idea of what my new niche might want. Ironically, the new niche is based on a book I am writing for which I have interviewed quite a lot of people and done a lot of psychology research, so in some ways I know them very well indeed! now I think I can just send a single email to the existing list and run a survey/offer like you suggest, then make sure all my ohter content remains focused on my existing target market and the mssages I already know work for them. Thanks. Really really helpful. And what is more, some of the best most helpful replies to comments I have ever seen too.

    • Thank you so much Devi! I really appreciate all of the feedback. Much love!

      You know, as you can tell I’ve done a pivot in my niche – actually entered a totally different market than this small list was in now. The beautiful thing is, there are some people from my other business that have an interest in these things – and they’ve also been good referral sources!

      If there is any chance of cross over at all, why not do a survey with your existing list? You might be surprised at the results!

      – Cheryl

      • Yes, that is the plan – to survey the existing list. I know there is some crossover because the clients I get from the existing list frequently fit the niche for the new one. Something I am already putting out there unwittingly is doing this! But at the same time, more than one newsletter/blog on the new topic might alienate the people who don’t identify with the second idea. This feels like a great way to ‘pivot’ – excellent description of what is happening.
        I’m off to get hold of your book now. Thanks again.

  8. Hi Cheryl,
    Your strategy is amazing. As if your post weren’t enough, I’ve learned even more just from the very timely, well thought out responses to all of these comments. I especially related to what you spoke to Amandah about.

    Your insight is invaluable and I greatly appreciate it. I look forward to communicating with you in the future.

    Thank you so much.

    • You are so very welcome, Lynn. I look forward to getting to know you! If you want to do a bit of work on what I mentioned to Amandah, you might want to try a copy of my book (it’s free) – the first chapter, specifically, on determining the outcome will really help with those types of obstacles. It centers around creating something that is bigger than yourself, and yet still powerful, motivating, and personal for you. I might be biased, but I highly recommend it 🙂 Click on my name – I’ve linked to it just with this comment, just for you!

      – Cheryl Woodhouse

  9. Hi Cheryl, Thank you for this post and it’s so timely for me. I’ve been thinking of ways to bridge the gap between me and my email list by trying to get them to call me. Your approach makes so much sense and I’m going to use it.

    • Reid,

      It is an absolutely fantastic way to get back in touch! Just be sure that it is honest and genuine. The biggest benefit to doing something like this is the knowledge you gain to evolve your offerings. Now, if you evolve your offerings and they express an interest in what you’re doing, they may ask about becoming a client or customer – but don’t push. Word will get around and you won’t get many more people taking you up on it!

      – Cheryl Woodhouse

  10. What an amazing post! I’ve been wondering how to get back in touch with my (somewhat neglected) subscribers in 2014, and this idea couldn’t be more perfect. Thanks for sharing!

    • You’re so welcome Ashley! It will really help you understand who they are. One hidden benefit, too, is that it will help *you* understand your relationship with them. You won’t just be writing to 246 people, you’ll be writing to Joe and Sally and Chris and Mary (apparently all of your subscribers have very average names, Ashley. LOL)

      It does make a difference in how you write – you start writing to people instead of numbers… And then the most important numbers (like open rate, clickthrough rate, and revenue) start to increase!

      – Cheryl Woodhouse

  11. Cool post Cheryl. I love case studies and numbers.
    As the Kindle author I have much less possibilities to contact my audience, but…
    I’ve just had a chat with one of my readers today. In person. What a wasted opportunity! I’m going to jot down and memorize 5 questions for my audience.
    It’s on my to-do list. Thanks.

    • Michal,

      It is never too late to start building your platform! Even updating your books to include a link to your website, where people can find out more about your work… As Danny will tell you, if you want to sell lots and lots of books, having a captive audience is mandatory!

      And that is a fantastic idea for taking advantage of those chance meetings – I would say go for it!

      – Cheryl Woodhouse

  12. Hi Cheryl,
    This is a great post indeed !!!
    Thank you VERY much – I will certainly use your own experience with my own list.
    Monetizing has been an enigma for me – but your ideas ring so true to my situation.
    Muchas gracias again Cheryl.
    All the best,
    José Luis

    • José,

      Monetization doesn’t have to be an enigma! Start with the survey, and ask questions about the types of problems your audience has. Ask how they would prefer to solve them. Then, make that and charge for it! (And FYI, if your niche is one of those that doesn’t take easily to monetization, for example a website full of funny cat pictures, sponsorship may be the model you’re looking for…)

      – Cheryl Woodhouse

    • Christina,

      Oddly enough, the list itself spanned many continents and several of the respondents were from other countries.

      I personally have worked with clients on nearly every continent – North and South America, UK, Europe, Asia, Australia, and even Africa. Now if only someone would start a business in Antarctica that wants to use relationship-based marketing, I could conquer the world! Ha ha 🙂

      – Cheryl Woodhouse

  13. Excellent post Cheryl and I especially appreciate your openness in being transparent about your list size and steps you took to re-connect with your readers/list….and with u..plus your gift and the way you offered us an opportunity to personally experience what you are doing. Brill.Keep shining and I’m looking forward to chatting with you. Thank you

    • Thank you Ntathu! Fortunately that is my old list in a smaller niche, things have grown since moving into the relationship-marketing arena with other types of businesses – but I see no reason to hide a list of under 250 people. How many people do you know can generate over $10k in profit from a list that size? There aren’t many!

      Then again, those are the benefits of relationship marketing. Clarity, focus, and what we all want – success.

      Looking forward to chatting with you as well!

      – Cheryl Woodhouse

  14. Hi Cheryl,

    This is an awesome post with valuable information, thanks for sharing. I never really put much thought in to this concept before, but you just motivated me to start doing surveys more regular with my list. I think getting on call with your followers is a really smart move too.

    Do you think this method would work well for a re-launch of a service style product?

    • John,

      Actually, the survey results you see above were about launching a product – and the profitable results that occurred were the result of re-launching a service! So yes, absolutely. In fact, it may be the best possible use of this method!

      – Cheryl Woodhouse

  15. This was great information Cheryl it has give me some ideas on moving forward. I have a very small list that I haven’t been in contact with in several months and I also have a course that I would like to get out there, but I’m not sure how many people would be interested. Thanks for the insights!

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