The Sad Truth About Email Marketing that Nobody Tells You (and Why I Deleted a 55K Email List)

Sad woman with fake smile

Believe half of what you see and nothing of what you hear” is a hyperbolic proverb by Edgar Allan Poe that can be rephrased to “… nothing of what you read.

Such a proverb, makes you wonder whether you should be reading this.

It’s probably not the smartest move on my part to kick off a post with a self-defeating quote.  After all, if you can’t believe anything you read, should you read this?

I won’t be offended if you bail now. Thanks for stopping by.

For those of you who appreciate hyperbole enjoy what follows.

Despite being self-defeating, the Poe proverb is apt.

If you’ve been a “make money online” blog dog* for any length of time, you’ve no doubt come across the oft-heralded advice “the money is in the list” as in the email list.

Many online publishers and marketers emphatically claim that the only way to make real money online is via email marketing.

The thing is they aren’t entirely wrong.  They’re right in that you can build a fantastically lucrative business with email marketing.  They’re wrong in suggesting that it’s the only way (as in you’ll leave all the money on the table in any niche).

In this article I want to dispel the myth that email marketing is a “must-do” for ALL niches.  It’s not. In fact, in many niches email marketing is a waste of time.

Update November 18, 2019

While much of what is set out below still rings true, I decided that I would continue my email newsletter for my biggest niche site, but did make some big changes.  Here they are.

1. Changed email autoresponder service

A big reason I removed ny 55K subscriber list from AWeber is that it was putting my other far more lucrative lists at risk (I explain below).  An easy fix was simply moving that list to a different email autoresponder provider (Mailchimp), which I did.  Divide and conquer as they say

2. Scrubbed the list to reduce cost

That list is still not lucrative and never will be.  To reduce the cost I scrubbed the list.  I blasted out a series of emails and removed all subs who didn’t open any email.  That’s an easy fix for the cost.

All in all, this 55K email list is not lucrative and I’m on the fence whether all this was/is worth it.  However, I decided to keep at it and see how it goes.

The Sad Truth: Email marketing does NOT work in every niche

Podcast version

It’s sad, but true.  I sure wish email marketing worked in all niches because it’s so easy collecting email addresses.  More importantly, it doesn’t get much easier than writing an email and clicking “send”.

The problem is squeezing money out of all email lists is not so easy.  Not that squeezing money is the be-all and end-all.  Toward the end of this post I set out some non-financial benefits of having an email list.

In fact, I’d venture to say there are more niches where email marketing does not work than it does.

The reason why it seems email is the holy grail of this business is because you read sites teaching this stuff.  Sites that discuss blogging, display ads, affiliate marketing, SEO and business in general are absolutely perfect for email.  Without email marketing Fat Stacks would be nearly worthless.  If I monetized with display ads only, it would be one of my lowest earning sites.  Traffic isn’t all that high and people who read these types of sites don’t click ads.  Trust me, if I could make a pile with ads on here, I’d sledgehammer you with ads 🙂 .  Instead, because email works so well, you get sledgehammered with opt in forms.  This site is not a charity (although charities need money too).

What on earth do I know about this?

Let me tell you what I know.  I know I’m not the best email marketer on the plant. Far from it.  Some would consider me a hack at best.  Other people, mostly email readers, like my emails.

Here’s my email experience

Over the years, I’ve focused on 3 email newsletters in three very different niches.  The fourth example set out below was an experiment that failed, but serves as another good example of how email is not always good.


Small, but highly engaged list of readers make it the foundation of this website.  Moreover, people who sign up to it are generally very interested in what I write about and teach.  The alignment is very strong.

Worth it?  Absolutely.  In fact, not only is email instrumental as a business tool, but I have a great deal of fun writing emails for Fat Stacks readers.

2. Niche site 1

This niche site is in a broad, consumer-oriented niche (B2C).

To date, it has 55,000 email subscribers in an information-focused niche.  I’ve scrubbed this list many times over the years.  I’ve probably scrubbed over 50K subs.

I have thrown everything at this list over the years.  My best months earned maybe $3K.  That may seem like a lot, but I put a lot of effort into that.  That works out to $.05 per month per subscriber (assuming I could maintain $3,000 per month).  $.05 per subscriber is a pittance for email.

Worth it?  Nope.

Recently, I deleted all 55K subs (after exporting them in case I have a change of heart).  I was paying AWeber over $450 per month just to have those subs and barely making that back some months.  In order to clear over $1k I had to work pretty hard at it.  Interestingly, it wasn’t a financial reason that spurred me to delete that list.  Instead, it was a risk analysis that got me to delete those subs.  The problem with email lists in many niches is many subs mark emails as spam and they submit complaints.  If you get a high complaint rate, you put your entire email autoresponder account at risk.  I would get 9 to 20 complaints per email.  After a while, AWeber sent me a warning.  The last thing I need is to lose my entire AWeber account for some big email list that earns nothing.

I didn’t give up easily

I threw everything and the kitchen sink at this list to make it pay.  While some things paid okay, the complaint levels and resulting risk wasn’t worth it.  Here’s what I did:

  • In-email ads:  I ran quite a few in-email ads via PowerInbox which earned quite well, but the complaint risk didn’t make it worth it.
  • Affiliate promotions: I promoted many, many merchants and products with almost zero results.
  • Purely informational emails:  I sent out awesome articles which were reasonably well received, but it was a lot of work with little or no pay off.
  • Sent readers back to my site:  This worked okay, but it was still a very small fraction of the list that would regularly revisit the site.  Again, the risk wasn’t worth it.
  • Sold sponsored emails:  This was a total waste of time.  I sold one but the amount of haggling involved over price and all the other millions of details that had to be hammered out made it not worth it.

In addition to the above, I tried many formats including brief write-ups with links  to the site, entire articles in the email, an automated sequence of popular content and for a bit I even attempted a curated email newsletter with links to great related content on the web.  As an aside, curating great content is more work than it seems before you start.

3. Niche site 2

This niche site serves a B2B crowd.  In other words, it’s a list of business owners within a specific industry.

For this email newsletter I have an automated email sequence set up. I have about 30 emails spaced out several days apart so new subscribers receive 3 months worth of emails.  It promotes a few products along the way and it’s those promotions that generate almost all the site’s revenue.

I seldom send additional emails (i.e. broadcast emails).  This list generates a tad over $1.00 per email subscriber on almost auto-pilot.

Worth it?  You bet it is.  This site is my closest to truly passive income that I publish.

4. Niche site 3

This niche site is business/wealth news site.  The site gets a ton of traffic of people interested in business and wealth topics.  I was able to quickly attract 400 email subscribers but because it was such a broad audience, monetization was futile.

This was interesting because I really believed this would work because it was a business/wealth niche where visitors were interested in making money.

I guess because the site was so broad within the business realm and the fact much of the content is business news, the alignment wasn’t tight enough for publishing an email newsletter to pay off.

I don’t regret the time it took to test this because it could have been a big win.

Good email marketing niches

The secret as to whether email is a good fit for your niche are as follows:

Tight alignment:

Tight alignment means your audience is all seeking or interested in the same thing.  This way your emails will have a high resonation rate in that you readers will appreciate the info.  This not only makes it far easier to monetize, but you end up with a lower complaint rate (assuming you send decent emails).

Solves a problem:

Most niches that are good with email solve a problem.  The three biggies are health, wealth and relationships.  Examples include:

  1. How to save/make money: Budgeting, investing, make money online, real estate, etc.
  2. How to get healthier/improvement: lose weight, build muscle, wellness, look better (beauty, fashion…), etc.
  3. How to deal with relationship issues:  Attract partners, dating, etc.

Hobby niches:

There are good non-problem solving niches as well.  Hobby and sports niches fit the bill.

Readers aren’t necessarily looking to solve problems but want to learn about stuff and enjoy reading about the topics.

Examples include quilting, fly fishing, model railroads, survival, tennis, etc.  These readers have tight alignment within the niche.  Moreover, there are plenty of monetization options.  That said, conversion will likely be lower than true problem-solving promotions, but still likely worth it.


If you publish a site that covers news within a niche or niches that readers stay abreast of daily or weekly, email can work well.  At best you’ll send readers back to your site.  There aren’t many monetization options other than the revenue you generate by driving readers back to your site.

Local business:

If you operate a local business, building up an email readership is a very good idea.  It keeps your business fresh in their minds.  Just be sure not to annoy them because you could end up alienating prospective customers.

Provide good info:

Even if your niche site and email meets the above criteria, that does not guarantee success.  In order to make email work, you need to provide good information.  Make good recommendations, inform, entertain… your readers are human and see through spammy promotions.  Providing good info takes work.

Related: 5 ways to make money from email newsletters

Bad email marketing niches

Bad email niches are those niches that purely inform or entertain.  It also includes “one-off” niches where people are looking for a specific product and once they buy it aren’t interested anymore.

Here are examples of bad niches for email marketing:

Joke sites:  People visit joke sites for fun or to get some jokes for a specific use or event.  After being entertained or getting the jokes they need, they don’t care.

Celebrity sites:  Celebrity sites fall under the eye-candy or entertainment niches that aren’t particularly good for email.  By all means give it a shot because you might have okay engagement and send people back to your site regularly.

Minivan site:  This falls into the “one-off” niche where once people make their purchase, they’re no longer interested in the niche.  There are thousands of such niches – most product lines fall into the one-off category.  Another characterization of such a site is “research” sites where you provide info and research about products.  Consider appliances, hats, motorcycles, etc.  That said, there are some product lines that foster ongoing engagement.  Think RVs (it’s a lifestyle product) and sneakers (some people are nuts about sneakers and collect them).

FYI:  One-off sites can be insanely lucrative in their own right. Instead of promoting via email, you promote specific products on the site.  It serves people researching purchases and help them decide and direct them to a merchant.  This is a model taught in-depth in this course.

Please keep in mind that while I suggest the above aren’t good, if there is tight alignment within the niche and you provide good info, it may be worth it.

What should you do if in a new niche?

If you’re not sure whether email is a good fit, experiment with an email list.  Collect 300 to 500 email subscribers (won’t cost you too much) and test promotions and engagement.  If you make money and/or have good engagement (and no complaints), it could be worth doing.

If, however, you get a few complaints with such a small list and don’t make any money, seriously consider ending the newsletter and focus on monetizing purely on your website.

How much should you make per subscriber for it to be worth it?

I’ve read that if you can’t make $1.00 per month per subscriber you’re either doing it wrong or it’s not worth doing email.

I disagree with that figure big time.

I think email can be totally worth it if you make $.25 per subscriber.  If my 55K email list earned $.25 per month, I’d still be running it.  That would amount to $13,750 per month which would be great.

The per subscriber metric is important, but it will vary by niche.

For me, I made $.05 per subscriber which wasn’t worth it.  What would be worth it?  If I could fairly easily squeeze out $.10 per subscriber, I’d probably stick with it because I pay nothing for subscribers.

If you buy traffic for subscribers, then you need to know your numbers and ensure you’re earning more in the long run than you’re spending.

Email Marketing Tips

Read these with a grain of salt. There are much better email marketers than yours truly, but I’ve figured out a few things that work well.  Here they are:

Put the entire message in the email

As an email subscriber, I’m far more likely to read an email message the entire message is in the email instead of a link to a blog post.  This is really important if you’re promoting stuff in the content.

Most emails I send to my two lucrative email lists contain the entire message.  When I started doing this, the results were astonishing.  People replied far more often (I like replies to emails) and revenue increased substantially.

It sounds ludicrous doesn’t it?  After all, there’s almost no effort involved in clicking a link in an email that takes you to a website, but when on my mobile phone I don’t care to click and wait.  If, on the other hand, the entire message is in the email, I’ll read it.

I can tell you from experience that I’m not the only person who finds it “too much effort” to click a link.

Have fun and write/include good stuff

The more personality I inject in my emails, the better the engagement. Instead of some boring intro followed by mechanical nuts and bolts content, take some time to inject some humor and personality.  Readers, including me, enjoy this and are more likely to read it.  I believe the same applies to blog posts.

In addition to personality, it’s a good idea to include good info pertaining to the niche.  If you just crack jokes, you’ll lose relevancy.  Stay relevant by including solid info pertaining to your niche but at the same time inject personality.

Non-financial benefits to keep in mind

There are some sound non-financial benefits to building up an email list.  They are:

Branding:  With email you can easily and relatively cheaply get your brand in front of many eyeballs.  If brand-building is important to you, the cost and time of email may well be worth it.

Website traffic:  Sometimes blasting readers to new blog posts can be a very good thing and may well make running an email newsletter worth it.  In fact, this was the one reason I was reluctant to delete my 55K email sub list, but it wasn’t compelling enough given the complaint risk.

Your opt in enticement can help alignment

You can help solve the alignment issue by crafting an enticement that attracts readers interested in something specific.

For example, if on Fat Stacks I offered “enter to win $1,000” I would not create an aligned subscribership.  Everyone wants $1,000 for nothing.  They’d sign up and enter but possibly not be interested in anything I sent in emails.

Instead, I create email sign up enticements that align with the email messages I send and stuff I promote (including my own courses).

That said, most people who end up on Fat Stacks are somewhat interested in blogging and niche sites, so that alone helps alignment, but the email sign up enticement can help tighten alignment.

Test email frequency

In some niches you can email daily. In others, you’ll annoy readers with daily emails and up with a high complaint rate.

That said, generally if your emails rock, people will like it.

You can’t please all the people all the time

Even if they sign up doesn’t mean they’ll like your email despite writing great emails and staying relevant.  Don’t worry about it unless your complaint rate skyrockets (in which case you need to deal with it).

What if you really want to run an email marketing business?

Make it easy and choose a niche where email works really well.  There are many to choose from.  It’s an amazing and fun business model when it works.

*The “blog dog” term is used regularly by one of the world’s greatest bloggers who I read daily. His name is Garth Turner. He blogs about real estate and investing.  For us aspiring bloggers, the real gold in his financial blog is his approach to blogging and writing prowess.  He enjoys well over 1 million monthly visits not from SEO, but from regular daily direct readers.  It’s blogging in its purest form.  As an aside, he does not publish an email newsletter, but could probably benefit from one (not that he needs one given his content is do good people visit in droves directly).

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