In the last couple of days I received newsletter-type emails from Second Gear Software, makers of Today and Check Off, and Like Thought, makers of Opacity (which I have to just rave about every chance I get!) and Lexicon. We also just sent out our newsletter (which we do about every month or so), so this inspired me to write a post about customer mailing lists.
Back in the Watson days, we didn't collect email addresses from people when they purchased the software, nor did we have an email list for general interest, in case people wanted to just stay up to date with what we were doing. At the time it didn't even occur to me to set this up, but later I realized that it was odd that I had no way of contacting our customers or prospective customers.
So when we started to go public about Sandvox, before its launch, we set up a mailing list so people could find out when the product was available. Once the application launched, many of them bought the software — at a special price just for members of the list, of course.
Over the years, the list has grown — to huge numbers. It includes people who purchased the software and people who may not need the software but are just interested in what we are doing. We send out mailings periodically — not so frequent that they become annoying, but not so rarely that people forget they are on the list — with, hopefully, useful content. We include announcements of recent software updates, tips and tricks, mentions of recently-released third-party add-ons, referrals to other products we think our readers might like, sale announcements, and so forth. (If you are curious, you can read the archives of our mailings.)
If you are an indie developer selling software, you really ought to start up a mailing list for your customers and prospective customers.
Well, first of all, when you release a 2.0 (or 3.0, etc.) paid upgrade, you can tell your current customers about it and convince them that it's good idea to upgrade. Yes, they might find out via Sparkle (You are keeping your software up-to-date, aren't you?) but what about those users who aren't launching your product every day?
Also, when you have a new product — it's a good thing to have more than one in the long run — you are going to be able to reach a lot of people to tell them about it. You will be using what is essentially a "push" technology to reach them, rather than hoping they will come by your website. And more importantly, the people receiving your emails have already interacted with you, and, as a result of reading your previous mailings, have gotten to know you and trust you a bit. You are much more likely to be able to sell your software to somebody like that than a perfect "stranger." Seth Godin (see the sidebar) calls this "Permission Marketing."
Getting People On Your List
First of all, anybody who buys your product should automatically get put on your list. A while back I had let people "opt in" to a mailing list when they bought, but then as an experiment I tried out just automatically subscribed new customers. Of course, I make it very clear that people can unsubscribe any time — you should never do anything even remotely spammish — but since we automatically send out a few emails shortly after purchase with a lot of useful tips, I think that people are staying subscribed for the most part. I don't recall receiving a single complaint about being put on the mailing list as a result of being a customer, so my advice is to just do it.
But what about non-customers, or prospective customers? It's good to accumulate as many people for this list as well, since they may just not yet be your customer. One way to get people on your list is to ask people politely when they first download and try your software if they want to be on your list. That way, even if they don't buy it, you still have a prospective customer. (We modeled our dialog after the one that Panic uses on their software.) Another is to offer an incentive for signing up via a form on your website. Perhaps you have, or can make, some digital content such as a freeware application or how-to PDF guide, that will entice people to sign up for your newsletter.
An enticement for a signup doesn't just have to be passively sitting on your website, either. If what you have is cool, maybe you can convince some other developer with a mailing list (through a trade, or a financial transaction, or just to be nice) to mention your product(s) to their subscribers. If they mention the item that you are offering for free, you will probably get a lot of people come over to your website and sign up.
Maintaining a mailing list is a lot of technical work, or a lot of cost — especially as your list gets large. There are a number of commercial bulk email list providers (I listed a bunch in an earlier post) but you have to be aware that they are going to be charging something on the order of 1¢ per email sent. Not a big deal if your list is just a few hundred, but think about when your list is 40,000 people; twelve mailings a year would run you about five grand.
The other approach is to manage the mailing list yourself, and send the mailings out through your own IP address. The advantage is that it's much less expensive. The disadvantage is that you have to set up your database and all of the subscription/unsubscription management scripts. We rolled our own, though if I were getting started I might have a serious look at PHPList. It's important that you send your emails from a non-shared IP address so you are not affected when somebody else on a shared host gets blacklisted. We use SliceHost as our main ISP now, and it works great.
Above All, Do Not Spam
Just make sure that in your lists, you aren't doing anything spammy, and you are not perceived as being spammy. If you are using a commercial mail sender, they probably take care of the technical aspects of this, but you need to make sure your content is good. Some articles from Marketing Magazine and MailChimp offer advice on that. Make easy on each message to unsubscribe (and be sure to use that term.) Run your emails through SpamAssassin and do everything you can do get your message and headers to not raise any flags. (We do send out multipart plaint-text & HTML mails, though.) Get an SPF record on your mail-sending domain.
You may still occasionally receive a spam complaint — though both of the ones we got were actually just from apologetic subscribers who admitted to being a bit trigger-happy.
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If you have any suggestions about the technical aspects of managing your own list, or opinions about a mailing service you use, please leave it in the comments.