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Virtual events are a newsletter growth hack

Kristian Freeman
Kristian Freeman

In this blog post, I’ll offer a tried-and-true but unconventional idea for growing your email list. I used it to go from a brand-new list to over four thousand subscribers in eighteen months.

It’s not a “get subscribers quick” scheme. In fact, not only is it not quick, it’s probably out of your comfort zone if you’re used to just writing emails for your newsletter.  That’s why it’s unconventional, but that’s also why it works.

But let’s get this out of the way first:  Growing your email list is REALLY hard.

At the end of the day, you’re still going to be spending a ton of time converting people into new subscribers, and this tactic isn’t going to be simple. So, what is it?

Host a virtual event. More specifically, host a virtual event through your newsletter.

The basics of a virtual event are really simple:

  1. Put together a lineup of speakers who know a bit more about a topic than your audience
  2. Pick a date and time
  3. Collect emails to RSVP
  4. Send a link when the event is live
  5. Sign people up for future events via your newsletter

By building a speaker lineup that knows the topic and has value to offer your subscribers, you’re building an intrinsic motivator for them to attend: they want to know more.  By making it virtual, you’re removing barriers to people attending (more on that later).

And, by collecting emails to RSVP, you’re driving new subscriptions to your newsletter. When your event ends, you can continue offering value through the newsletter that already was in place. You also have a newly-captive audience that learned a ton at your event!

Why does it work? There’s a strategy at play here that make it really hard for a virtual event to not be a success: audience borrowing.

Borrow your audience

Let’s use a hypothetical example to explain the concept.

I’m building a newsletter for “people who really like making pizza.” I’m having a hard time getting people to subscribe to my newsletter: I know that people like making pizza, but frankly, I don’t know how to find them.  This is my “first obstacle.”

What I do know is that, of course, I like making pizza. In 2017, I started watching a YouTube channel called “Mr. Pizza” and became interested in making pizza myself.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m writing weekly for my newsletter about new pizza recipes, tools that are coming out to make it easier to make pizza, and anything else related to the art of making pizza from scratch.

(By the way, while this is a hypothetical story, I do like pizza. I just don’t know how to make it from scratch. If you do a virtual event for pizza-making… message me on Twitter and let me know.)

You might not know how to find subscribers for your pizza-making newsletter. But Mr. Pizza -- even if he isn’t a huge YouTube success -- clearly is doing at least a little bit better at finding these potential people than you are.

Here’s the pitch for virtual events, through the lens of audience borrowing: what if Mr. Pizza was saying “Go subscribe to Kristian’s pizza-making newsletter”?

That would be awesome, right? But unless you’re a sponsor (or just have a really big fan in Mr. Pizza), it’s unlikely that you would ever get that direct support.

If you host a virtual event where Mr. Pizza is speaking, not only is he motivated to share a link to RSVP for the event — which happens via subscribing to your newsletter — but both before and after your event, he’s going to be strongly motivated to continually share your event (and your newsletter) with his audience.

It’s the equivalent of Mr. Pizza saying “Go subscribe to Kristian’s pizza-making newsletter!” but in a way that’s beneficial for both me and Mr. Pizza. Amazing!

As someone with likely very similar hobbies and interests to Mr. Pizza’s other subscribers, anyone who gets sent to your newsletter and signs up would probably really like it. If that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t have Mr. Pizza speaking at your virtual event.

That’s why audience borrowing is awesome. Instead of spending a ton of time and energy to find your subscribers, you’re connecting with an audience that you know is a good fit; often, it’s an audience that you yourself belong to.

It establishes credibility, too. For better or worse, the modern world of content is very influencer-driven. If you work in a really small niche, it can be extremely hard to get your foot in the door and start getting people reading your content.

Interested in beginning to plan your virtual event? Check out our free PDF worksheet for organizing a virtual event, with three guided questions to help you get started.

If you’ve read through that hypothetical example, there are probably two things you’re thinking right now:

First, that you never thought you would hear the words “Mr. Pizza” this many times in a single blog post. That’s fair.

The other thing you probably want to know: “Does it work?”

Building my first successful virtual event from scratch

Back in 2018, before virtual conferences were the default, I had the idea of organizing remote software development conferences, and streaming them online.

Of course, I had a few people ask: “Why would I go to this? My work pays for me to attend conferences every year and stay at a hotel.”  Not everyone had that luxury, however.  Some people didn’t work at companies with travel stipends.   Some didn’t even have jobs.

For most people, the value proposition was obvious: a previously-difficult to attend event where they were likely going to learn a ton of useful information, and meet interesting people, could now happen at home.

I had a small audience at the time. I had been building courses online, but hadn’t been putting together a mailing list.  In fact, I didn’t even really understand why I would need a mailing list (oh, how wrong I was!).  So what did I do with no mailing list, a few thousand followers on Twitter—followers who, frankly, didn’t engage with my tweets?

I borrowed an audience.

I got influential speakers in the web development space like Kent C. Dodds and Tracy Lee on the lineup — people who I respected and had learned a lot from — and as we got closer to the event, their posts and engagement with their audiences about the event legitimized it, even though I had never put on a conference before.

And that event was a success — over 900 people tuned in for a scrappy remote conference, and in August 2017, I sat in my office and live-mixed and managed a conference from my laptop to people around the world.

That was the beginning of my newsletter. Over the next few years, I’ve continued to organize virtual events. And at a point in 2018, things flipped in a way I didn’t expect: the newsletter became the primary project, and the virtual events were secondary. They were ways to build my newsletter audience, which has much more value long-term than how many viewers tuned in for a one-day event.

Why you shouldn’t do virtual events

Virtual events work, but they can be really complicated to organize.

At a fundamental level, the logistics of organizing a virtual event require some technical know-how, and while email automation can make this a lot easier, it’s not for the faint of heart.

Out of necessity, COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the tooling and ecosystem around virtual events. Now, you can use tools like Hopin and many other pieces of software coming out right now to manage a complete virtual conference experience, with trade booths, proto-social networking, and more.

In this post however, I’ve been careful not to use the term “virtual conference,” however, and decided to stick with virtual events.

The reason? Virtual events can be as simple as a Zoom call. You can send out a link for people to join, give Zoom $20 for the month to support larger and longer calls, and ta-da: your virtual event is live.

That’s what we do with Mailing List Hackers — our first meetup took place earlier this month, and we all we did was send a Zoom link out in our private chat.

You can even record it, and make it all available for free on YouTube after the fact. That’s what I did with my software development conference, and the majority of views on my coding YouTube channel come from past talks that are still providing tons of value to viewers.

Growth that doesn’t feel bad

I call virtual events a growth hack, but unlike a lot of things in the growth marketing space, they don’t feel icky.

  • Like the best tactics, they have many synergistic (okay, that feels a little icky) qualities to them.
  • New subscribers are happy to learn something from experts.
  • The experts (your speakers) are happy to be exposed to a new audience, teach what they know, and be able to plug the stuff they’re creating.
  • You get subscribers, and you gain credibility in your industry.

So yes, it’s a growth hack, but it’s one with few downsides. The main downside is time. It just takes a ton of work.

If you’re willing to put in that work, it is an awesome way to start building your list, and to produce content that’s really valuable and drives people to your newsletter.

If you’re excited about organizing a virtual event, I’ve put together a free PDF worksheet with three guided questions to help you get started. Check it out!

If you try this tactic and find that it works well for you, I’d love to hear about it! Join us in the Mailing List Hackers chat community and share your experiences with virtual events and newsletter building.

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Kristian Freeman

I'm a programmer and writer — I also founded Mailing List Hackers! I love to teach, write, and make stuff online.