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Ever tried your hand at email marketing and felt like you were sending messages off into oblivion, wondering if they’ve made any impact? You’re not alone.

Whether you’re new to marketing or a seasoned business owner, email marketing often goes understood.

It’s not a magic bullet or guaranteed money-maker, even if you have tens of thousands of subscribers.

It’s also not something that must be relegated to marketing pros, requiring layers of technical set-up, segmentation and years of experience to be successful.

Like any form of effective communication, great email marketing is based on developing trust and real relationships with your audience. Everything else is secondary.

Darrell Vesterfelt knows a thing or two about email marketing, and particularly for authors. As the Founder of 783 Media, he works with best-selling authors including the likes of Gretchin Rubin to turn their books and other content into online courses. He’s helped create courses that have collectively served 25,000 people and 9 million in revenue for authors

We sat down with him to hear everything he knows about turning books into successful online courses, and the essential elements of an effective email marketing strategy.

Watch the video below to hear all of Darrell’s tips for finding your online course niche, growing your email list, and how to create an email marketing strategy that cultivates community and trust with your audience.

Lessons from launching to zero sales

Before Darrell started consulting with authors, he tried his own hand at creating an online course. Through his blog and social media, he had built a substantial following around his content – 2 million page views a month, and tens of thousands of followers on social media. But there was a problem.

He didn’t know how to monetize his content or audience. Apart from a few measly earnings a month from ads on the sidebar of his blog, his efforts were not outweighing the outcome.

Connecting with mentor and best-selling author Jeff Goins [link to his summit article], Darrell learned the power of using online courses as a way to add value for his audience and make a living at the same time.

With this in mind Darrell spent three months building his first online course before launching it to his audience. Much to his dismay, zero people bought it.

Darrell went back to the drawing board and started to ask some key questions. What went wrong? What would he do differently next time?

Consulting his mentor helped turn the page on what needed to change. “How big is your email list?” Jeff asked. Apart from his blog and social media, Darrell hadn’t built much of an email list. “That’s why you sold none,” Jeff continued. “If you want people to buy something but have no direct way to connect with them, selling at a price point of $800 is not going to happen. No one’s going to buy that off of twitter.”

As it turns out, email marketing was the missing component to generating sales from his course.

Taking Jeff’s advice to heart, Darrell started building an email list and relaunched the same course a few months later to 3,000 subscribers. He made $30,000.

With this positive reception on his course, Darrell continued to tweak the content, rebrand and relaunch it a second time. He made $97,000 in the first month of the relaunch.

With his learnings on how to turn a launch failure into a huge success, Darrell now helps authors create the same success in their own business. He attributes much of this success to having a strategic way to communicate with his audience, mainly through an email list.

“People will pay a premium to have your book content turned into courses. This could be a commentary on your chapters, or videos that build on your book content. People want options in the way they can consume your content, and courses provide that flexibility.”

–Darrell Vesterfelt

Email Marketing Strategy Fundamentals

As Darrell demonstrated with his personal story, having a direct way to authentically connect with your audience is key to building a sustainable business, and making your first sales with online courses.

When it comes to building out an effective email marketing strategy, there is a temptation to fixate on the tactics and tools involved. Before jumping into choosing an email provider or mapping out a content publication schedule, Darrell suggests going back to the basics and asking a key question.

Do you have a minimum viable audience?

“Having a minimum viable product is important, but even more important is to determine a minimum viable audience. This is the foundation of every effective email marketing strategy.”

– Darrell Vesterfelt

For authors who already have a published book or two, you’re already on your way to validating both your audience and online course product. In the words of Seth Godin, “if I can get one person tapping their foot to a song while driving in their car, I know I can get 10. If I can get 10, I know I can get 100.”

Even if you don’t have a book yet, you may have a successful blog with significant traffic or gotten comments. That can be a great starting point.

Your goal is to determine a minimum viable audience and validate that there is even a small group of people who will be changed and shaped by your message.

“If you have a book that has sold 10 copies or even 100 copies, you know that you have the start of a really good online course. If you are in direct communication with them over email, you can tell who is resonating with it, and have a conversation about what they need.” – Darrell Vesterfelt

If you have only one email from a reader saying their life has been changed by your content, that is the exact starting signal you need to create a successful online course. Once you have a minimum viable audience, you can ask them questions and learn everything you need to know before getting started in creating your course.

Niching down: from minimum viable audience to minimum viable product

These days, creating original content is a challenge. To stand out, you need to identify what is unique about what you have to say on your topic.

Let’s say your expertise is around dog training. To stand out among the thousands of sites covering that topic, you need to get specific.

Dog training for Golden Doodles may be a bit more specific, but still highly competitive. Niching down might look like going after male golden doodles under the age of three. Your goal is to get to the lowest common denominator – one that includes what you’re passionate about, your expertise, and what people are looking for.

While it might be counterintuitive to niche down with such specificity, it’s the only way to build a highly engaged audience – by speaking directly to their specific needs. It often requires a mental shift and resist the temptation to cast your net wide.

“If you try to cover all things within your topic area, you actually become less relevant. Think about how you can stand out in your niche. You want to create the best content from a specific topic, that drills a few levels down from the general topic.” – Darrell Vesterfelt

But what about all those authors who are so successful in putting out general content?

Idolizing the success of those ten steps ahead is a huge mistake. Trying to emulate a Gary Vee’s or Mark Manson when just starting out will keep you chasing your audience, instead of attracting them.

Most likely, the people you follow have spent years building up their audience, working to connect with their own niche, and developing out their content into generalities over time.

Instead, get comfortable with the idea of niching down as a way to stand out. You need to be patient in carving out your own space.

If you’ve already niched down, you may be wondering, at what point do you know when it’s time to move on from your niche?

Darrell suggests mastering your domain before moving on to the next one.

“Get specific, and master what you’ve built. Get 1,000 people taking your course on a specific topic and move on to build more material when you feel you’ve tapped out your audience, and what you can offer them.”

– Darrell Vesterfelt

To hear more details on Darrell’s strategy for effectively niching down with your audience and product, watch the video above!

Using email to connect with your audience

Darrell shared that email has been a key driver of his success as an online course creator.

When he launched his online course in early 2019, Darrell found that over 90% of the people who bought his course came through a direct click in an email.

If this sounds like a result you’d like to emulate, you need to understand one of Darrell’s fundamental beliefs about email marketing:

The best way to have a relationship with your subscribers and nurture them towards a sale is by having a direct connection. You can achieve this through email by strategically having 1:1 conversations with your audience, through a channel you own.

Here are a few tips around using email marketing to increase engagement with your audience:

Create a direct connection

Relying mainly on social media to create a connection with your audience may help you create initial buzz around your offering, but this strategy won’t serve you well in the long term.

That’s because social media doesn’t provide you with the direct connection that email does.  

“Social media is a mass broadcast to a lot of people. On email you can foster individual relationships with people, and carve out your own space to earn their trust over time.”

– Darrell Vesterfelt

Over time, it will become harder to effectively reach people through social media. Between the inundation of content, algorithm updates, and increasing amounts of advertising affecting what your audience sees, prioritizing email as your main form of communication will help you maintain a direct connection in the long-run.

Build your list

Darrell suggests using social media as a conduit to ultimately build your email list. You can do this by creating helpful guides and resources, and offering them in exchange for email addresses.  

In deciding what content to create, think about what people would need to do in order to be ready to take your course. It might be going through a webinar, or reading a PDF. Think about how can you prepare people to take your course as a way to build your email list.

Track closely how that social effort is growing email list, prior to the launch of the course. How many people can we get to download the prerequisite to the course.

“I don’t try to build my social media following. Everything I do on social is designed to capture emails so I can start building 1:1 relationships. Put links on social media directing people to free content in exchange for their email.” – Darrell Vesterfelt

Content is king, but context is a close second. Social media is a tool to provide context around your content, and email will help you build relationships with that content.

Social media is a lag measure, not a leading measure of success #socialmedia #emailmarketing Click To Tweet

Create your plan, test, and tweak

While there are many best practices out there around what to include in your emails and how often you should send them, the key is to start testing things with your audience to see what works.

Since your goal with email marketing should be to cultivate a personal relationship with your audience, the last thing you want to do is copy and paste someone else’s strategy.

Take the time to experiment in the way you communicate to your audience, to find out what resonates the most.

Here are some tips to get you started on building an email strategy:

  1. Timing
    Put yourself in the shoes of your reader. Think about how often you would want to be communicated to?

    Some platforms require daily communication. Others require weekly, or monthly. Consistency is the key – come up with a strategy, and stick with it.

“Consistency will take you much farther than inspiration ever will. You want to build a community through your emails. Community is built by demonstrating trust, by showing up when you say you will.”

– Darrell Vesterfelt

You can adjust your routine over time, but adjust too much too often, and you’ll lose trust.

2) Content

In deciding what to include in your emails, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How would I want to be communicated to?
  • What would I need to learn or know before investing in my course or book?
  • How can I strengthen trust?
  • How can I provide value in an authentic way?

Remember, the people on your email list are real people! Take the same principles of how you cultivate strong friendships, and apply them to your email strategy.

3) Automation

While it’s helpful to build systems into your business, you don’t want to overdo it on automation. In order to set up automations without losing the human connection, think about areas in your business that are repetitive, that could warrant an automation, such as:

  • Your welcome emails. If someone downloads a guide for the first time, introduce yourself. Don’t assume people know who you are, and how you may be able to help them. You could point people to your helpful content, and educate them on how else you can help.
  • Start a dialogue by asking for feedback. For example you could set up an automation for a conversation starter such as, what is the biggest thing you’re struggling with, and how can I help?

“You can take some pressure off of yourself by setting up automations for common things like welcome emails, or unsubscribes, but it has to be rooted in human connection. Otherwise people are going to see through your efforts as tactics, and you will erode their trust.”

– Darrell Vesterfelt

Connect with Darrell at or on Twitter @dvest