How Email (Still) Creates the Profit Engine of Your Digital Business

Today, we begin our five-episode series breaking down the elements of the modern marketing website. We begin with an element that remains incredibly powerful, despite still getting overlooked far more than it should.

In this 25-minute episode, Brian Clark and Jerod Morris discuss:

  • Some impressive to stats to remind you of email’s omnipotence
  • Why email is the missing element that creates the profit engine
  • The importance of going beyond the opt-in
  • How the logged-in experience helps you create less, convert more
  • Three illustrative case studies from our own experience

The Show Notes

How Email (Still) Creates the Profit Engine of Your Digital Business

Voiceover: You are listening to The Digital Entrepreneur. The show for folks who want to discover smarter ways to create and sell profitable digital goods and services. This podcast is a production of Digital Commerce Institute, the place to be for digital entrepreneurs.

DCI features an in-depth, ongoing instructional academy, plus a live education and networking summit where entrepreneurs from across the globe meet in person. For more information, go to

Jerod Morris: Welcome back to The Digital Entrepreneur. I am Jerod Morris, the VP of marketing for Rainmaker Digital. Brian Clark is back with us today on this episode. Brian, how you doing?

Brian Clark: I’m doing okay. I had a nice little tropical break, and apparently, you held down the fort while I was gone. That’s a good sign because I wouldn’t want things to fall apart or anything.

Jerod Morris: No, no. It was good. Danny Margulies joined us. If you haven’t listened to that episode yet, go back and listen to it. It’s a fantastic episode that we did where Danny offered some more insight into what he talked about in his case study in Digital Commerce Academy. It was good. With his help, we held down the fort pretty well.

Brian Clark: Excellent.

Jerod Morris: What we did there is we subbed that episode in with Danny because, in episode two of The Digital Entrepreneur, you and I introduced this idea of the five elements of the modern marketing website. We broke down those five elements and then mentioned that we would be breaking them down individually on future episodes of The Digital Entrepreneur.

That is what you and I are going to start doing today. Again, just as a quick review, those five elements are email, adaptive content, the logged-in experience, online courses as lead magnet, and then test everything. We’re going to spend some time now, over the next few episodes of The Digital Entrepreneur, going through these one by one and breaking them down in-depth. We want to start with email.

It’s interesting, Brian, I did a webinar last week. It was about how to use a podcast to build an email list. We did a poll at the beginning. I was just trying to see who was building an email list already, who had started a podcast, who was doing both, and who was doing neither. Over 50 percent of the respondents were not yet building an email list, which really surprised me.

I feel like sometimes we come on here, and we talk about email is not dead, all those clichés, and take it for granted that people get that, but it still seems like there’s a lot of people out there who don’t get it or don’t trust email for whatever reason. That’s not a good mindset to have.

Some Impressive Stats to Remind You of Email’s Omnipotence

Brian Clark: Yeah, and it’s interesting to me that some of our colleagues in the content marketing space really had an epiphany that, no, email’s not dead. Email is the thing. It is the first and foremost thing that should be on your mind when you’re creating content, when you’re thinking about traffic–well before you should be thinking about sales.

But here’s the thing. One of our favorite statistics when people try to say social media has or will kill email is that email remains the transactional engine of online sales. It’s not even close. The McKinsey report stated that email is 40 times more effective at converting prospects to buyers than any form of social media, specifically Twitter and Facebook. Those are the two big ones.

Not 40 percent, Jerod, 40 times. That’s astronomical. The other humorous thing that I always like to point out when people talk about social killing email or even the idea of that, which was never valid. But it’s really kind of laughable when you think about how much the social networks do email marketing themselves to get you back to the site.

If you’re not a believer, if you just happen not to like email yourself, you got to step aside from that and look at reality. This is the key thing that you should be focusing on–before sales–because this is what leads to sales.

Jerod Morris: The other thing, too, is that people seem to have this notion that, as more and more people started using their mobile devices to use the Internet, that email would start to go down and start to be less effective. That hasn’t happened.

Email is still very relevant in a mobile world. No one needs me to tell them stats on mobile proliferation. We know how quickly mobile phones are growing, both in the United States, even in third-world countries. Smartphones are growing.

The thing is, people use their phones for checking email. If you look at some of the stats just on email usage, and this one’s from Pew, it said 87 percent of people in the US use their smartphones at least once per week to check email–which actually sounds low to me, but it’s still a really high number.

But the one that really gets me is that 80 percent of smartphone users check their phones within the first 15 minutes of waking up. Four out of five check them before doing anything else.

Brian Clark: I know that’s me.

Jerod Morris: I know. And a lot of those people are going first to email. One of the things that people cited as why they use their smartphones so much is this sense of connectedness–some of the other ones: excitement, curiosity, productivity–and email remains one of the primary drivers of smartphone connectedness and productivity. It’s not killing email by any means. In fact, it’s making it easier to check email, and people are getting into their email even more.

Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. I also want to bring up that I did an episode of New Rainmaker last year talking about the myth that Millennials had abandoned email. It’s just not true. It is absolutely not true. Now, they are very, very tough customers when it comes to giving up their email address and about the value that you need to provide to keep them on your list.

That’s a big part of our point here in this episode of talking about, not just the importance of email, but how do you make it work? What is it that is going to get someone to trust you with that email address? What’s going to keep them sticking with you? That’s really what it comes down to.

Jerod Morris: Let’s talk about that then. Let’s talk about using email as the centerpiece of your content marketing. Because when we talk about content marketing and we talk about building an audience, you want your email to be the centerpiece of it.

Why Email Is the Missing Element That Creates the Profit Engine

Brian Clark: Yeah. You know that meme–it was big on Digg, and it’s probably still big on Reddit–where you have two items, a question mark, and then the last thing is profit? It’s kind of a way to exemplify that you’ve got a hair-brained scheme because you don’t understand the thing that comes in the middle.

It’s like content marketing is thought of as content, then traffic, then question mark, and then profit. Well, email is the missing element that creates that profit engine. That’s why it’s really the centerpiece of any smart content marketing strategy.

When we talk about content marketing, when we talk about the type of content that you need to create, what we’re talking about is information that has so much value to the intended prospect that it’s worth paying for. The other function of that content, beyond just value, is that it meshes with your business objective. It educates people in a way that makes them more likely to do business with you– plus all the know, like, and trust aspects that comes with it.

So you’ve got your content. Now you’ve got to get traffic to that content. How many times have we heard people have this ‘build it, and they’ll come’ mentality? No. Content needs distribution. It’s either going to be from search, it’s going to be from social, or you’re going to pay for your traffic.

That’s when you really start thinking about, “Okay, is this content the right content for the people that I’m trying to reach, and is it tied sufficiently to my business objectives?”

You can get all the traffic in the world and if they just stop by, then bounce, and go somewhere else–like people do–you’re done, especially if you’re paying for that traffic. You can retarget and all those kind of things, but the goal of all of that is to create a relationship based on permission, based on someone raises their hand.

This goes all the way back to the best and first marketing book I ever read, Permission Marketing, back in 1999 from Seth Godin. That’s the key to everything. The only thing we’re really trying to say here today is, the context is very different. It’s harder than it was in 1999. Trust me, that’s when I got started. People would sign up for anything. They would forward every email that was interesting to all their friends.

We live in a very different environment now, but fundamentally, everything is the same. It’s just the context and the mindset. The web has shifted to what is perceived as value and what’s perceived as likely to be spam. We really need to talk about in what context are we building an email list and how are we going to keep people on board.

Jerod Morris: Yeah. Obviously, as things shift, then our mindset needs to shift. One of the biggest shifts, it seems to me, is this change from thinking about getting someone to opt-in to now where you’re really trying to get people to register. Of course, the difference is that, when someone opts-in, they’re on your list, and they get your emails. Okay, that’s fine. But if you can actually get someone to register, now it opens up a whole new world of an experience that you can give them.

The Importance of Going Beyond the Opt-In

Brian Clark: Yeah. This is a hypothesis that I had years ago from watching the mainstreaming of social media and watching how expectations and perception of value had really shifted. When you think about everything that’s really cool, everything that’s really valuable–it could be Google, Amazon, Apple, iTunes, all of these things, but especially Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn–what do you have to do? What defines your experience?

If you don’t register, you don’t get access to whatever that is. It could be Gmail. It could be Facebook, whatever the case may be. Then you have to log in in order to experience the benefits of whatever it is.

It was that observation years ago that changed my thinking. We eventually implemented this ourselves to test it out–and we’ll talk a little bit about that–but here’s the fundamental thing to think about: registration and access. This is the way the web works.

When people really want something, they’re going to register to gain access to the experience. What can you glean from that, in the context of email that makes people more likely to sign up? Every time you gain access to anything, all those examples I gave you, they’re going to email you. Again, going back to the social networks, they’re some of the biggest email marketers in the world. It’s the way that we access things of value on the web.

Going back to the other perception, the opposite perception, ‘opt-in to my marketing newsletter,’ is just perceived as, “Yeah, right. I’m either giving you a dummy email or one I don’t check, or I’m just leaving,” because people have been burned too often. Here’s the shift in context that I’m talking about from just a simple opt-in box on your site.

How the ‘Logged-In’ Experience Helps You Create Less, Convert More

Brian Clark: The other thing that’s going to permeate this entire series that we’re doing here is the importance of identity and that adaptive content. That’s one of our later lessons. On one hand, you want to be able to create less and convert more by having a higher impact experience for people–delivering the right information at the right time and all of that stuff.

But the identity piece is crucial. Again, Facebook knows who you are when you’re logged in. Google knows who you are. Identity. And when you start talking about adaptive content, which is a form of marketing automation and you’re talking about a mobile and cross-device world, the cookie approach to knowing that someone’s been there before is really flawed.

But with a registration-and-access concept, you’re able to use more advanced automation techniques. When they log in to the experience, you also know who they are, and you’re able to best deliver the right information to them based on their behavior.

Jerod Morris: Yeah. And it’s important to realize how big of a win-win this is. Whereas just going for a simple opt-in is easier, really on both ends of the transaction, it’s not nearly as high value. When you have someone register and you can learn more about them, as you said, you can create less, convert more.

Instead of having to throw 10 pieces of content at them and hoping that three stick, based on what they do, you know what three pieces of content to give them. It’s better for you, more efficient, more impactful, and it’s better for them. They’re getting exactly what they need based on what they’re doing, who they are, all of that. That’s why that registration–the ‘logged-in experience’–is such a better option than just doing the simple opt-in.

Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. We’re going to explore this idea of adaptive content as one of our future elements. We’ll also talk about what we–after doing this for three years with the concept of access over opt-in and subscription–is the best thing to give access to.

It’s important not to confuse the distinction. Access can be an app. It can be a social network. It can be a content library. It can be a design template–all of these things that you can give people that provide value.

But later on, we’ll talk about why we are using free online courses. Remember, the content has to have value, but it also has to educate them to the point that they do business with. We know that the $15 billion online education industry is something people are worth paying for, but it also educates people.

That’s what good content marketing does. Having that sort of lead magnet is what allows you to really think through, “What do they need to know?” We’ll talk about that more later. Let’s stick just with the fundamental concepts of email using an access concept.

Three Illustrative Case Studies from Our Own Experience

Brian Clark: We first tried this in 2013. Before that time, we had a newsletter. It was standard opt-in, and it was called Internet Marketing for Smart People. Then we shifted that to a content library concept where we re-purposed. This was not new content creation.

A lot of content that we created over the years, we turned them into ebooks. We really upped the perceived value by formatting it for different e-readers and things like that. But it was fundamentally stuff that we had created before and was bringing in search traffic on these very highly targeted terms.

I’m going to put a link to the MarketingSherpa case study that was done on My Copyblogger a little bit after we had launched it. But the short story, shifting from an opt-in concept to an access concept raised our opt-in rate by 400 percent, and it persisted–and people stayed on the list. Having a hypothesis and seeing it come true that much is actually kind of surprising.

Jerod Morris: Yeah. Well, and then, that was followed up with what you and Robert did with the New Rainmaker course. This was the precursor to launching the Rainmaker Platform where you guys started with the New Rainmaker podcast. Those episodes had really high production value in terms of the planning that it took, the script that you guys put together, and just everything that went into those episodes.

They weren’t just episodes that went out and then faded into obscurity in the archive of the podcast. There was a plan there to take those episodes, turn that into a free course, re-purpose that audio into a free course, add on a few webinars. Now that becomes the free course that is going to compel people to register and, with that, build a huge email list of people who had registered for this free course–which, ultimately, helped us launch the Rainmaker Platform.

Brian Clark: Yeah. And it still remains one of our primary sources of new customers for Rainmaker even a couple years later. That was the evolution of the access hypothesis–that it’s cool to give people all those ebooks, but it’s kind of unstructured. You don’t know if people actually consume them or not and those kind of things.

You’re right, though. Again, it was re-purposing content. Yes, we started a new podcast, but it served double duty. I knew that those first eight episodes were going to end up being a course.

What that forced me to do, going into a podcast with that understanding, forced me to say, “What do they need to know? How’s the best way to explain this content marketing thing?” That was where the whole ‘media not marketing’ thing came in. I got a lot of gratification out of that because a lot of people said the light bulb went off thanks to that course. If the light bulb didn’t go off, we’re not selling the platform right.

Jerod Morris: Yeah.

Brian Clark: Even with Unemployable, which is a podcast, it’s also now a curated email newsletter, so the email is the feature there. It’s one of the main reasons, in itself, that you want people to sign up. But what I did was, while I was doing the initial six months of the whole project, just did three simple webinars.

Again, thought through, “What do I need to accomplish here? What do these people need to learn to take either their freelancing business or their entrepreneurial business to the next level?”–mapped it out, found other people to be my guests.

So I did the webinars. Then I re-purposed them into a course. You’re getting a theme here–never create content just once, if you can help it.

Jerod Morris: And we might be doing that right now.

Brian Clark: Oh, yeah, we may be doing that right now in a different way.

Jerod Morris: How meta is that?

Brian Clark: It’s interesting because we’re taking a slightly different approach here that I don’t want to talk too much about. It’s not as highly scripted as New Rainmaker was, but this is really a way of talking about core concepts in a way that we will continue to do over time and in different formats. As you said, all we have to do is get it down cold.

Jerod Morris: Exactly. Absolutely. So that’s email. Next week, on the next episode of The Digital Entrepreneur, we’re going to talk about adaptive content–which has comes up a few times in this, and as you see, going over these next few episodes, there is overlap between these. But that will be what we’ll talk about next week.

Brian Clark: People have to realize that these are not things that just live in isolation. Everything is integrated. Everything has to work together. So there’s always overlap if you’re doing something right, but at each step, you’ll expand on the core premise and really get to a broader understanding of what you need to do.

The Registration Idea in Action: The Digital Commerce Academy

Jerod Morris: Yeah. Speaking of this idea of registration, we just so happen to have something for folks to register for–which I mentioned on the last episode of The Digital Entrepreneur.

Again, on that episode we had Danny Margulies from Freelance to Win on the show, and he explained to us this transition that he went on from this soul-crushing job to becoming a six-figure freelancer and then how he leveraged that experience into building this powerhouse online course that just made him $25,000 in revenue in January of 2016.

It’s a great story–both for the human element because he’s just a really great guy and because of what you learn. What’s cool is that you can actually watch that entire case study that I did with Danny. It’s about 90 minutes, and it’s chock full of great stuff. Doing it, it went by so much faster than that.

But it’s part of the free membership option that we just launched at Digital Commerce Academy. To find out what that membership entails and to register in about 10 seconds, go to

Then you can get Danny’s complete story by watching the case study, which is called How Danny Margulies Turned His Freelancing Success into a Powerhouse Paid Course. Once you’re done with that, perhaps inspired to create your own course, you can navigate over to Brian’s course on building your own online training business, where you actually have several lessons available to you as part of the free membership as well.

Brian Clark: And don’t forget there are some free lessons on creating marketing funnels, which is very much tied to how you drive traffic onto lists. This is another example of the registration concept. In this case, you’re getting a free taste. That’s something that we really haven’t tried before. So we continue to experience, and we continue to report the results to you. That’s really the idea specifically behind this podcast, The Digital Entrepreneur.

Jerod Morris: So go to, check that out. Then come back next week, and join us for another brand new episode of The Digital Entrepreneur.

Brian Clark: Take care, everyone.