An unexpected benefit of mailing lists

A personal letter. Thanks to Shirley on Flickr.

We launched Bitesize Irish Gaelic in August 2010 after toying with the idea in 2008. It’s a site with online Irish Gaelic language lessons, in bitesize chunks.

The idea of “release early, release often” had intrigued me when planning the site. Reading the free Getting Real ebook by 37Signals, the idea was quite straightforward: release a web app as early as possible and get feedback on it. Users will let you know what they think, and you can iteratively improve the app.

We launched Bitesize Irish Gaelic, and guess what, nobody told us what they thought.

The feedback form wasn’t once filled in by either prospects or members, while it was a part of the main navigation.

Meanwhile in mailing list land…

After launching, I came across Rob Walling who wrote Start Small, Stay Small. In the book, he has distilled his knowledge of starting web apps. He’s an advocate both of outsourcing tasks, and of keeping in contact with prospects through a mailing list, two things I haven’t dabbled in much.

Despite all my on-page optimisation since 2002, I had to a certain extent relied on drive-by online sign ups. In other words, I assumed that people complete whatever action (buying a product, becoming a member) on their first visit.

But more often than not, visitors aren’t immediately convinced and they may take a quick mental note to come back. Then, after building familiarity with you and your web app, they are far more likely to sign up.

So, I created two mailing lists: one for prospects and one for members. With Mailchimp, I set up autoresponders. An autoresponder to a mailing list is an email that you pre-write, and the recipient will get it so many days after signing up. I’ll concentrate on the members mailing list here:

  • 2 days after signup, you get an autoresponder with “Get to know Bitesize”.
  • 6 days after signup, you get “Track your learning progress”.
  • 11 days after signup, you get an article on optimizing your learning.

Each autoresponder comes from me, Eoin Bitesize, and at the end of each autoresponder email I say:

“I’d love to hear how you’re getting on with Bitesize Irish Gaelic. Just reply to this email to let me know”.

People are replying with feedback to these emails

Suddenly, I got people replying to the autoresponders. The members are telling me how they’re getting on, and it’s mostly positive. They tell me their story and how they started the service.

It’s exactly how I needed to get to know them; it’s exactly what a feedback form wasn’t doing.

Why email is probably easier

Familiarity with how email works: Whether it be Gmail, Facebook Mail (ok, I’m jumping ahead on that right now!), or Outlook, people generally know exactly how to reply to an email. They’re already familiar with the interface. They know where the reply button is, and they know generally how email works. When they get your personalised autoresponder, all they have to do is click reply to send you feedback.

Still, there are a couple of drawbacks to soliciting replies from a mailing list:

  1. Many mailing list emails come from a “no-reply” email address, so many people don’t expect to be able to reply to an email that looks like it’s automated.
  2. There is the question of whether their reply will ever get back to you or will ever be read.

More unknowns with online contact forms: On the other hand, getting people to contact you through a web page is more difficult, I would argue, for several reasons:

  1. Visitors can’t tell where the contact form submits to. Will anybody ever read it?
  2. Each contact page on the web looks different, leading to lack of familiarity with the steps required.
  3. All sites have slightly different ways of linking to the content page.
  4. They generally need to type in their name and email before typing any actual feedback.
  5. It may take several clicks to submit a contact form if the form is linked to from another page.
  6. There may be a CAPTCHA field needed to block spammers.

Unknowns for visitors when presented with an email address on a web page soliciting feedback:

  1. If they are using a webmail address, their computer is probably not set up to deal correctly with clicking on an email address.
  2. (Power users) If they send from several different email addresses such as for work or personal, which email address will be selected when clicking on the email link?
  3. The email address may have some form of “NO-SPAM” embedded into it, requiring the sender to remove those characters, in an effort to avoid spam.
  4. The email address may not even be linked to, but rather embedded in an image trying to avoid spammers.

How to use a mailing list to get feedback

  1. As Rob Walling advocates, send your mailing list messages from your personal email address. Use your own name in the sender name field. I use Eoin Bitesize.
  2. Use minimal styling for your mailing list messages. Emails full of images mean advertising email spam. Non-styled emails more often come from humans.
  3. Ask for feedback! Tell them specifically that they can simply reply to the email to contact you.
  4. Sign off with your real name, and give your personal contact details such as your personal email address.