In my weekly newsletter dated September 11th, 2020, I explained that I had brought the number of people I follow on Twitter down to 150, popularly known as Dunbar’s number. It was also my intention to do something similar for my Instagram account and I went about cleaning up my following numbers from over 1500 people to around 250 now.

While I was working on these platforms, I began to take a good look at my list of e-mail subscribers.

On September 11th, 2020, my active subscriber count stood at 1731. As of today, October 22nd, 2020, I have deleted over 200 people from my list and it is now at 1515 subscribers.

Why did I do this? Is it worth it? More importantly, if you are building an e-mail list, is it something that you should consider as well? Can you actually make money from a small e-mail list?

Answers to all of these questions will be found in today’s post.

This post contains Referral/Affiliate links. What that means is if you click on any of the links and make a purchase, I get a commission at no extra cost to you. Read my complete disclosure policy here.

Do You Need an E-mail List?

First, should you even launch a newsletter? That’s the most important question to ask yourself as a content creator.

Why do people launch an email list? It’s because it is one of the most reliable ways to reach your audience. Social media is great for building a brand and connecting with your network and community. But email list building is pretty phenomenal for a number of reasons: you get welcomed into people’s inboxes,  you have no algorithm to circumvent and there’s a direct path to your audience without taking the paid advertising route.

Read more in this post on 8 Things to Keep in Mind before Launching a Newsletter

How to connect with your audience

An email list is a very valuable and treasured resource for a creator. As I mentioned earlier it’s a direct way for people to touch base with you and vice versa.

So, how do you actually connect with your audience? Learn to make your subscribers feel special.

In your newsletter, offer your subscribers something exclusive apart from the free content readily available on your website. These could be periodic tips, extra information relevant to them and their niche or quality updates from trusted sources. 

This is especially valuable if you are a solopreneur/solo business owner and don’t have someone like a virtual assistant managing your email list on your behalf.

My two models of authentic email connection are Meera Kothand and George Kao, who take the time to personally connect with their audience through email. I am not kidding. Send them an email today and I guarantee you will receive a personal response from both of them.

Why you must periodically clean your email list

I must confess that when I started building my email list the last thing on my mind was actually removing people from the list. But, as time wore on and my list began to grow, my entire approach to list building changed.

While having a large number of subscribers can feel immensely gratifying, over time you’d realise that a big number does not necessarily mean more value.

Let me share an example.

One of the highest converting ‘freebies’ for my subscriber list is my free ‘Grow your Instagram’ course. The idea is that you sign up for my free course by giving me your email address and in exchange you get an in-depth free course on how to organically grow your Instagram audience.

In fact, that single freebie grew my subscriber count by 250 people in less than 2 weeks.

But, here’s the kicker.

Less than 50 people from that subset of subscribers continue to open my emails a year and a half after they signed up for the free course.

So, what does that mean?

Freebies do not equal Subscribers

A High Converting Freebie Does not equal Engaged Subscribers

If your primary route to your email list is through a freebie, there are two distinct possibilities in that scenario:

  1. You manage to tap into your target audience and their mindset at just the optimal time and manage to keep them on your list well past the value of the freebie.
  2. The freebie seeker downloads the relevant material and then assigns your email address  to the spam folder or unsubscribes from your list.

As a content consumer, I must confess that this is not wholly uncommon.

Our attention span is limited and we find that engaging with anyone online over an extended period of time requires focus, interest and dedication. Here’s the approach I have found that works best when it comes to new content consumption.

I use an email address different from my work email to subscribe to lists that I am interested in. It’s very easy to set up one using Gmail or any other free email service provider.

Then, I wait for about a month or two to look at the value the creator provides through their newsletter. If I am engaging with the content and find that the vibe exists well beyond the intent of the freebie, I stay on their list. If not, I do the kind thing and unsubscribe.

How is it kind, you ask?

Every bit of attention that you give away to mailing lists is worth way more than you imagine. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of accumulating freebies and not actually do any of the hard work that it entails.

When you unsubscribe, it sends the creator one of three messages:

  1. You were never their intended target audience
  2. Your time and attention is way too valuable to remain on a static newsletter list
  3. They need to look at the ‘freebie’ as well as their ongoing content to determine if it’s engaging enough for their subscribers

All these messages are important and every creator would do well to pay attention to them.

It’s also the reason that I recently converted my Instagram course to a completely direct free-to-access course, without requiring people to sign up for my list.

That’s right. You can now take my free Instagram course directly here.

How to change your Email Approach

Instead of freebies, I now offer a free weekly newsletter option. When people sign up for my newsletter instead of a freebie, they usually do so after they’ve engaged with my content in some way over a period of time.

Perhaps they came across me on Medium or they saw a post of mine on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or Linkedin. Or maybe they found me via Pinterest and were compelled enough to read through my posts and sign up for my newsletter.

What this means is that they are genuinely interested in the content and tips that I provide. They are the ones most likely to stay on my list for a longer period of time. This includes the people who take a free course of mine.

If they appreciate the content, they will come back and find my newsletter anyway. Interesting, isn’t it?


On the other hand, if they sign up only for the freebie, chances are they will unsubscribe within a short period of time. And this isn’t a bad thing, by the way, as I’ve explained above.

One of the biggest reasons I changed my approach to email is thanks to George Kao and his wonderful wisdom. In his Introduction to Authentic Business Course, the lessons talk about how to create genuine connections with your audience.

How to Clean Up your Email List

We now come to the more uncomfortable task for creators: Cleaning their email lists.

Let’s say you have a list of 1000 subscribers but only about 500 of them actually open your e-mails consistently. After 6 months if you notice that the other 500 are not even seeing your emails, this would be a good time to clean your list. 

All email service providers give you the option to do so with a ‘Clean up Inactive subscribers’ option. Alternatively, you can create a ‘segment’ of your list where you manually remove those who have not opened your emails in the last 3 or 6 months.

Screenshot of email list clean up inside Mailerlite

This way, the people who remain on your list are the ones who want to hear from you.

The next course I am taking from Kao is ‘Netcaring: (A Joyful Alternative to Networking) How to Keep in Touch Wisely + Find New Kindred Spirits

Get it at a special pre-launch price of $50 until October 27th, 2020 only

How to Make Money even with a Small Email List

This may be one of the best outcomes of an engaged and cleaned-up email list.

You may have heard of the phrase ‘The Money is in the list’ but what does it actually mean?

Those of you on my e-mail list will know by now that I have two different newsletters. One is my regular, weekly newsletter where you get updates about fresh content on my website or on my Medium page. 

The second newsletter is geared towards those who are willing to sign up for my courses and workshops or buy a product that I recommend from a trusted source.

The first is what I recommend to everyone- Free, value-based and optimal content that will establish your authority with your audience. Generate a whole lot of trust with two things: your expertise and your willingness to serve people anyway.

Meaning, money should not be a driving factor when it comes to your work. It should be a valuable add-on that happens automatically or as a natural extension of the work that you do.

As you keep creating content and engaging with people, an interesting thing happens. You understand what people are asking for and help them find solutions. When that solution is offered to them (either for free or at a rate), people will be willing to invest in it for their own purposes.

Those are the people who sign up for my second, targeted newsletter: My Workshops Newsletter.

As a sample, my income for August was X; September saw it grow to 2X and October is on track to reach 3X within a few days.

And this is the best part:

My weekly newsletter has 1500 subscribers while my workshop newsletter has around 150 subscribers.

In the last fortnight, I sent out two e-mails talking about two different group coaching sessions to the smaller list. Within 24 hours, I’d sold out both sessions! I sent no follow-up emails and no reminders. This happened organically and instinctively. 

When you learn to connect with an engaged audience (even less than 200 people), you’d see that money flows naturally and without effort into your business.



An email list is a valuable and treasured resource for bloggers, small business owners and content creators. The key to making it work for you is knowing how to connect deeply and genuinely with your audience, provide value to their lives and also make it a sustainable source of income for you.

Has your experience with building an email list been different? I’d love to hear from you. Let me know in the comments below or send an email to shailaja @ shailajav dot com

I respond personally to all emails.

Piggy bank with money emerging from it

Shailaja V

I’m a blog & content coach with over 13 years of writing, blogging and social media experience.

Join my free weekly newsletter that 1500+ creators read every Friday.