This week advisory firm Forrester Research released a report that shows why you should focus on growing your email list more than your Facebook page.
Because of my journalism background, I tend to share research when it offers new or insightful information we can all act on. This research falls into that category, as Fast Company explains in their summary of the report. But it caught my eye for a slightly different reason. I want to share this report with you because this is precisely what content marketers are talking about.
I’ve had this discussion with a number of people over the last six months who know what they’re doing when it comes to content marketing, and they’ve all said the same thing: rather than putting money into Facebook, GROW YOUR EMAIL LIST.
Here’s why: Your Facebook fans rarely see your updates, unless you pay Facebook to show them. You could have tens of thousands of Facebook fans — and indeed, some of the brands my company works with do — and only several hundred of them will see any given update you post.
Compare that to your email list. If you have tens of thousands of email subscribers and say, 20 percent of them open your emails, that’s thousands of eyes on your message. This doesn’t even consider the fact that readers are more likely to act on a message that comes right to their inbox. In other words, they’re more likely to buy whatever you’re selling if you send them an email (with their permission, of course).
Why Facebook’s algorithm makes your updates kinda useless
Still don’t believe me? Let’s look at The Write Life, a website for writers my team created about a year-and-a-half ago.
The Write Life has nearly 7,800 Facebook fans. We grew the page organically, spending minimally: about $20 each month to boost posts, with an occasional bigger spend to increase the reach of our most amazing content, plus a bigger spend when we first launched the site to get over the 1,000-follower mark. Because we grew organically and post valuable content, the page has a quality following and sees a healthy mix of likes, comments and shares.
But when we posted this link to a blog post about how to choose a writing residency, look how many people Facebook showed it to:
One hundred and fifty-four. That’s only about 2 percent of our 8,000 followers!
And that’s not an anomoly. Other posts performed similarly, despite getting comments and likes and shares. Some posts were seen by 800 followers or even 1,200 followers, but most posts had views only in the hundreds. Facebook says average organic reach is 16 percent, which has made a lot of page owners pretty angry.
Occasionally one of our posts will do particularly well without us putting money behind it. This update, a link that goes to a blog post about gifts for writers that has been super popular ever since we published it last year, managed to get in front of 12,000+ people. But even that seems low considering it got nearly 100 shares!
Now compare the performance of most of our Facebook updates with our email list.
Last week, our newsletter went out to 16,276 subscribers. About 21 percent of subscribers opened the email, which puts us at nearly 4,000 readers. We had a six percent click rate, which means about 980 clicks on the links in the newsletter, almost all of which go back to our site.
So the number of clicks — not eyes, but clicks — on our newsletter content surpassed how many people typically see an update we post on our Facebook page. That’s partly because we have twice as many newsletter subscribers as we do Facebook fans, but you can still see the point I’m making here: you get a whole lot more return for the effort you spend growing your email list than your Facebook page.
With email, you don’t have to wait for the customer to use Facebook, because you’re visiting them where they already hang out: in their inbox. And you don’t have to rely on Facebook to show your update to your audience; you can send them a note whenever you like, and as long as you follow best practices, it should end up in their inbox. Email might feel like the oldest digital tool around, but it’s also the most effective.
Does that mean you should abandon your Facebook efforts?
Well… Not quite. You might not want to abandon your Facebook efforts entirely, but you should reconsider the effort you put into the channel.
To complicate this explainer a bit, consider The Write Life’s website traffic. In October, about 91,000 unique visitors stopped by The Write Life. Google was our first traffic source, followed by direct traffic. (Liz Lockard eloquently explains in this post what “direct traffic” includes.)
Our newsletter brought in about 10,500 visitors. (We can measure this because we enabled Google Analytics tracking in MailChimp. It’s pretty easy to set up and is worth doing.) Facebook, including both the website and the mobile version, sent us 13,800 views. That’s higher than most months, but Facebook referrals tend to fluctuate greatly based on when our posts get shared by popular pages, those with over 100,000 fans. Which is why that number doesn’t really tell you much about whether our efforts on Facebook are paying off: because lots of that traffic comes from other brand pages, not ours. That’s traffic that probably would’ve come from Facebook regardless of whether we updated our page.
So yeah… it’s complicated.
Whether Facebook is worth the effort also depends on your goals and why you’re using the network. You probably care about how much traffic it sends to your website, but you might also be looking to grow a community and foster engagement, and communicating via Facebook can be a good way to accomplish those goals. Having a high number of followers can also serve as a sort of props to your brand, and looking popular might help you sign new clients or convince investors to fund your company.
Even if you think it’s worth growing your Facebook page for these reasons, you should put just as much effort or more into growing your email list. For the smartest online marketers, this translates into a number of actionable steps, including:
- Don’t spend money on gaining Facebook fans. Sure, spend money to boost your posts so more people see them, or to get email signups, or to send followers to a certain page on your website. But it no longer makes sense to spend money just to get fans, because even once you get them, they probably won’t see your updates. I think this is particularly relevant for small businesses, but a woman who manages a Facebook page for a large, well-known brand told me her company is following this advice, too.
- Find ways to move your Facebook fans to your email list. One of the benefits of growing a Facebook page is that it gives you (restricted) access to people who are interested in your brand, who you can then move onto your email list. Do that by boosting an opt-in offer so more of your fans see it and sign up, or boosting a giveaway that encourages people to opt in. Don’t make the mistake of stopping when you acquire the fan; make it your mission to shift them onto your email list, too.
- Focus more of your effort on growing your email list. It’s easy to continue doing what you’ve always done, but figuring out the most efficient ways to spend your energy is what will truly move the needle in your business. Now that you know you’ll likely get more return from email, you might consider putting more time and effort into email marketing instead of Facebook. I say “instead” because we all have a limited number of hours in each day, and adding something means eliminating something else. You can’t do everything, so do what really matters.
This is what in-the-know content marketers are talking about, and now we have research to back it up. Facebook offers an increasingly diminishing return, and email gives you more control and better ROI.
How will this affect how you go about building your online community?
P.S. If you want to learn more about email marketing, I offer a free webinar on this topic: Grow an Engaged Email List.