Email best practices for online community growth. (A long-winded guide)

Grab a beverage; we cover some ground in this post.

We’re often asked by customers, what are the most effective ways to grow our community? The short and the long answer: No one tactic works the “best,” and, as most marketers know, an integrated strategy with a deep understanding of your audience works best.

So, to support your integrated strategies, we’re sharing tactical best practices for community growth—and this is the beginning of our series.

In this post, we’re talking about email! Specifically, how to use email for online community growth.

Email isn’t dead. But if abused and misused, get used to abysmal performance and the sound of crickets.

Email: It isn’t dead, but we need to avoid the ZERO value bucket.

Gone are the days of batch and blast, and the idea of sending more email = more results. 

We all know this. 

But in our busy-as-all-get-out days, we tend to forget about thinking and fall into the habit of doing (I’m a get-stuff-done type, too). We push emails without much thought about the audience or the value exchange—the elements that help make your email worth receiving. 

We need a reset—a pause for thinking. 

One of the best strategies to help with sending emails is to write a short brief.

Here’s a free brief template — see what I did there for value? More on that in a moment…

More work now = less later (& better results)

I know, writing a brief is extra work. But it also forces us to pause and think, which is important for many reasons, including communication. As the world rapidly shifts to a “less is more” mindset we all need to be mindful of the fact that we receive too many messages every day, and many have ZERO value.

That’s the category for these kinds of messages–the zero value bucket. Andnd for most folks, this bucket is FULL!

In order to avoid the ZERO value bucket and use email to drive growth in your online community, here are some best practices to consider.

First, THE GOLDEN RULE for all communication.

Give value for free. That’s it. Do this every day, all damn day—especially you, biz dev 😎

Think about it. Suppose I (recipient) should take a few moments out of my busy day to engage with whatever message you’re trying to have me read. If I do, I better get a clear exchange of value—even if I NEVER purchase, sign-up, join, or whatever CTA you’re expecting me to do. If we fail to do this, Houston, we have a problem. We can plan for misery on all communication fronts. 

Value for free isn’t easy, though. 

We have to think pretty hard about what value looks like concerning our audience. You’ll find as you deep-dive into the minds of your recipients, the value looks quite  different for each person you’re trying to address. 

You’ll quickly see that your addressable audience grows smaller and smaller the more focused your value delivery becomes. And this is ok. It forces us to send emails to much smaller audiences in exchange for relevant value, which encourages a much higher likelihood of transaction. 

What does value for free look like in email? Let’s look at some examples that focus on the goal of getting someone to join our community.

Examples of value for free in email for joining a community:

Again, if a recipient never transacts with you, at least they walk away with tangible value that they may share with others, and you avoid the fast path to the ZERO value bucket.

Golden rule + audience: Who are we talking to? It’s certainly not everyone.

I know what you’re thinking, “Audience, yeah captain obvious…” but so many folks miss the mark when it comes to addressing audiences via email. We send one too many emails, too often, in hopes that someone might care (I’m guilty of this, too). 

If we reference the notion above (they go hand in hand, folks) and we get really specific about the value we  deliver, our audience is suddenly much smaller, right? Right, but it’s also much more targeted. Which again keeps us out of that dreaded zero value bucket.

Value from the mind of each recipient is significant.

Let’s say you’ve only one piece of specific value to give for free—it’s likely only to fit a smaller subset of minds who would care. So, give this some thought and address specific people who have specific problems—with the specific value they can take today. 

Easy right? Well, no. Especially if we don’t have a practice of talking to customers/members. Or if we have messy data with only email addresses and not much segmentation. 

If you’re sending emails to lists where you have incomplete profile information, I would challenge you to FIRST conduct a thorough exercise in cleansing and enriching your recipient lists. This will help you to better understand your audience. 

At the same time, you’ll also want to look at performance indicators tied to your audience. Most folks have tracking analytics or more sophisticated platforms that deliver signals about what content folks engage with. Do a deep dive here to understand if your audience already shows a preference for specific content or topics tied to the value you intend to deliver.

If this is a cold audience, establish a value hypothesis about the pain they might have, then get specific and test. Send warm emails to a subset of your audience and gauge the reception.

BTW, value doesn’t live in a PDF of a trite buyer persona either (sorry/not sorry, marketing). It’s prescribed by previous actions, conversations, or a series of tests with similar audiences (like current members). Talking to existing members can often define the most valuable insight into the value your community delivers.

TL:DR on choosing your audience:

  1. Think about value first (golden rule) — the specific problem you’re solving and who falls into the addressable audience
    • To get even more precise, talk to your members about intended points of value
  2. Cleanse and enrich your audience if it’s lacking details (important for finding peer-to-peer examples)
  3. Review analytics data tied to this audience. Are the insights aligned to the value you intend to deliver?
  4. If working with a cold audience, set some hypotheses about value (rooted in current member conversations), create subsets of the total audience, and plan for testing

Okay, now that we’ve thought deeply about value and our audience, what’s our next step?!

Before we get married, can we date first?

How many emails have you sent where an individual immediately transacts? 

It takes 7-10 email touches with most audiences before your recipient gets enough perceived value to transact with your offer. (Reminder, that’s a lot of free value you need to deliver).

In the case of community, this is even more challenging. Your recipient perceives this as ANOTHER channel/place/thing they have to pay attention to, and they’re already feeling inundated with information overload from all the other networks they belong to. 

Be prepared for “You’re just not that exciting” on the first go. 

Every good relationship takes time to build. So don’t expect your audience to just jump right in the first time you blow them a kiss. In the case of community, this means most folks won’t go straight from a first email—or second or third for that matter—to joining your community right away. 

In other words it’s really important to  plan for a series of moments where your audience gets to know you and does their own analysis of the perceived value to “more noise” ratio.

Now, maybe you’re thinking, “Well, let’s just deliver as much value as we can in one email, then!” 

Most folks don’t have time to read that much material.

Consider messaging for the way readers consume information and how their attention span comes into play. (Chances are you’ve already skipped over this). 

More folks scan the headlines (thank you, news networks) vs. read the details—so be brief, be bright, and be gone (and be valuable), especially in email.

Time to think (feel and do) about the message

Since we can’t expect a transaction on the first go, we know that a series of conversations must happen. 

Not just any conversation though, we want to focus on education. People don’t want to be sold to or solicited—ever. They want to be educated. Once we’re clear on the value, education becomes easy. 

When we educate, it’s important to reflect on the message/conversation and avoid words like “don’t miss” or “exclusive” or “engaging connections” … you know, salesy buzzy terms. 

Instead, deliver concise facts with clear educational value. 

Here’s a simplified way to think about the conversation to help craft messaging in email:

What do you want your recipient to:

  1. Think?
  2. Feel?
  3. Do? 

#3 here is essential in that email should only have ONE do. So back off on the number of CTAs and links in email whenever possible. 

Make your ask as straightforward as possible, too. One prominent CTA that leaves zero question as to what you want them to do. 

If this is a new audience you’re encouraging to join your community—it’s likely your first ask WON’T be “join the community” … you read that right, and it’s based on my points about dating above.


Let’s pretend you have a growing community of really high-value realtors that you’d like to encourage more high-value realtors to join:

Audience: Top 1% of realtors

  • Think: This is a place for the top-of-the-top performers, and they’re sharing some new strategies that can keep me in the ranks as a top performer, making me even more money. 
  • Feel: I might not stay competitive if I don’t leverage these strategies.
  • Do: Get more free strategies from this handy landing page and decide if you want a seat in this community full of professionals like you.

Landing page before asking to join—try it.  

Instead of asking your audience to join your community from the outset,  point them to a highly valuable landing page (or pages)—specific to who they are—and give them specific value (like free strategies) with proof of why they should join the community. 

You might offer a video or two from the community—perhaps a working session, or strategy discussion or an archived event in full. Hook them on the drug first, and the ask to join becomes effortless later on.

Email Design: Perception is reality, and we must OWN the envelope

For most community growth campaigns, simplify your email, don’t use any design. (I may have just ruffled some feathers)

With community, we want to educate our audience, and we want that education to feel authentic. To set this up for success, the email(s) should come from a human and deliver concise, conversational messages that feel like we care about the individual’s outcome. 

We want our recipients to perceive the person sending the email as a knowledgeable peer. Someone who is neutral but who also provides undeniable value where the only intent is to be helpful. 

It’s challenging to do this with over-designed emails that offer cliche branding, fake signatures etc… We’ve all seen them.

Next, own the envelope.

What’s the envelope you ask? It’s the subject line and preheader text that presents itself in your mobile email client.

It’s the precursory reason and, more often, the deciding factor between someone opening your email or sending it straight to trash—the fastest path to the ZERO value bucket. 

So many folks miss the importance of subject lines and preheader text. The envelope.. 

It’s without question that at least 70% of email gets consumed on mobile devices. We send plenty of emails to the ZERO value bucket with a swift swipe left (or right). 

Most emails die before ever being opened. All because we the senders don’t think about the envelopes in which our emails arrive. Presentation is (almost) everything.. 

So before you send ANY email, send yourself a test and view it on your mobile device. Ask yourself the question—open or ZERO value bucket? Scrutinize, do some A/B subject line testing, and take the time to really feel out your feelings.

TL;DR – Email design tips:

  • Own the envelope
  • Keep the emails plain 
  • Send from a human (ideally, someone who comes off as a peer)
  • Avoid the “show up throw up” — brevity is critical, save the long-form for the landing pages you link to in your emails
  • Guide the eye (short headlines or sentences, quickly scanned — make sure a quick scan gives you the gist of the message)
  • ONE ask. Plain as day.

Wrap up:

We covered a lot of ground in this post. Thanks for taking the time to read! 

While we haven’t yet delved into frequency (trust us, less is more) or testing strategies with email, you can bet those topics are coming. They just deserve their own posts! 

As I mentioned way back at the beginning, this is the first in a series of community growth posts to help you drive more membership and create undeniable value for your audience. 

I’m curious about your feedback on this discussion, and would love to hear about other topics you’d like us to cover. Send me an email – matt @

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