Email List Builders: Are they worth it?Oct 13, 2023
Several years ago, legendary indie author Mark Dawson taught a generation of authors how to build a mailing list on Facebook. Since that time, cost-per-click (CPC) has risen significantly, tempting authors to switch to list builders such as Book Funnel, Story Origin, and Prolific Works.
But do list builders provide cost-effective methods for building mailing lists?
The Cost of a New Facebook Subscriber
I polled a few dozen indie authors and found most authors pay around $0.25 per click on Facebook, which is about what I pay. Conversion rates vary among authors, but a rough average is around 28%.
Simple math tells us $25 buys us 100 clicks and 28 subscribers. Our cost per subscriber is $0.89. Not bad, though the numbers aren’t as enticing as they were several years ago.
One major reason for the declining efficacy of Facebook ads in building mailing lists is the rising competition within the Facebook advertising ecosystem itself. Facebook’s ad space is essentially a bidding war, and with more businesses, including authors, vying for the same target audience, the cost inevitably goes up.
But it’s not just the monetary cost that has escalated; the “attention cost” has increased as well. The Facebook feed today is a much more crowded space than it was a few years ago, filled with not just ads but also content from family, friends, and various groups. This saturation often leads to ad fatigue, where users simply scroll past ads without engaging, thereby reducing the conversion rates for advertisers.
Another contributing factor is the changing algorithms and privacy policies. Facebook has had to adjust its algorithms to accommodate new privacy laws and consumer demands for more relevant content. These shifts often affect how ads are displayed and to whom, adding an extra layer of unpredictability and complexity to an already intricate landscape. For example, Apple’s recent privacy update allowing users to opt out of tracking has affected ad targeting capabilities, making it harder for advertisers to reach a highly specific audience.
All of these changes require advertisers to constantly adapt, making it not just costlier but also more labor-intensive to achieve the same results as before. Hence, many authors are exploring other platforms and list builders as more predictable and cost-effective alternatives for growing their mailing lists.
The Cost of a New Subscriber from a List Builder
List builders vary in cost. Story Origin is the latest player to surface and cheaper than its competitors. Book Funnel is the most popular option at a cost of $15 per month for a Mid-List subscription. Join a few group promotions, and you can easily attain 100 to 200 new subscribers per month. This number will drop after a few months as the pool of potential subscribers who haven’t read your books shrinks. But even then, you can still add 100 new subscribers per month if you remain active.
The math suggests this method is far superior to Facebook Ads. I can add 250 subscribers for $15? That’s $0.06 per subscriber. Sign me up!
Here’s the problem. The subscribers we add via list builders tend to be free-seekers. They want free books and aren’t interested in buying.
Studying List Builder Subscribers
I studied six months of list building efforts and measured the results. Between late-June and late-December, I added 200 to 250 new subscribers per month. Around fifty percent of those subscribers never (or almost never) opened my emails, so I deleted them.
Six months later, 589 subscribers are still on my list. I paid $90 over six months to attain these subscribers, which means I paid about $0.15 per subscriber. That’s great!
But there’s one big problem.
Of the 589 subscribers I attained, most only clicked links for giveaways. They’re free-seekers, only interested in the next giveaway. If I stopped joining free promotions, they’d leave my list in a heartbeat.
Using MailerLite’s screening tools, I found 123 list builder subscribers clicked a buy link for one of my books. These are the only subscribers I care about, though I might convert a few of the free-seekers over time.
So I really paid $0.73 per subscriber ($90 for 123 subscribers) while adding 20 new worthwhile subscribers per month. That’s better than Facebook. But the numbers get worse each month, because I’ve depleted the pool of potential new readers at Book Funnel and Story Origin.
Subscriber Quality Counts
While the initial cost per subscriber seems attractive when using list builders, the quality of the subscribers often leaves much to be desired. It’s essential to look at the long-term value (LTV) of these subscribers. A subscriber who doesn’t engage with your content or make any purchases provides minimal to zero LTV.
In contrast, a subscriber acquired through more targeted means, such as Facebook Ads or organic methods, may cost more upfront but could provide a higher LTV through repeated engagement and purchases. This points to the importance of not just looking at the immediate cost per subscriber, but at the quality and long-term value of each addition to your mailing list.
Additionally, list builders often pool from a self-selecting group of readers who are mainly interested in freebies, as opposed to readers genuinely interested in your genre or writing. This poses another challenge. You’ll have to spend extra time and resources segmenting your list, creating specialized content to try and convert these free-seekers into paying customers.
That extra effort needs to be factored into your overall cost calculation. It’s not just the flat monthly fee; it’s also the additional time and resources spent in trying to elevate the quality of your list. In that sense, the cost-effectiveness of list builders can diminish over time, especially as the initial pool of interested subscribers begins to wane.
The next time an author tells you she pays $0.06 per new subscriber at Book Funnel or Prolific Works, realize the vast majority of those subscribers are free-seekers who never buy books. The cost per purchasing subscriber is closer to $0.70 or $0.80. There are no free lunches.
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