Small List Shame – How to Tell if Size Really Matters

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Podcast title card - does email list size really matter?

The title I originally wanted for this post wouldn’t’ve let me through the spam filters, so I’ll cut right to the joke:


Email list size comparison is the online business world’s greatest 🍆 measuring contest.

Think about it.

Peep the Look

Much like teenage boys in the locker room, everyone’s secretly worried theirs isn’t big enough or doing a good enough job, and they’re very curious to know the size of everyone else’s…

… But no one really wants to talk about it outright, or what that obsessive measuring can lead to. (Imposter syndrome, self doubt, paralysis, insecurity, etc.)

And, to complete the parallel, a modest or large internet shlong email list also doesn’t necessarily translate into worse or better experiences for the business owner, or the customer.

As the saying goes: it’s not the size of the boat that matters, folks. It’s the motion of the ocean.

Which is why, on today’s episode of #HAMYAW, we’re addressing the eggplant elephant in the room: SMALL LIST SHAME.

The Little Email List That Could

If your email list is, say, under 2,000 people, is it even usable as a marketing tool? (Uh, yes.)

What does it really mean when your business has a small list? (Nothing bad, except maybe a little lead gen laziness. Guilty!)

Can you still sell to a small list and make a lotta money with a successful launch? (Absolutely.)

But, as with all things discussed on HAMYAW, the devils — and the angels — are in the details.

In Today’s HAMYAW Episode:

  • The nuance of the now-popular marketing hook seen on FB ads everywhere: “YOU CAN HAVE A SUCCESSFUL LAUNCH EVEN WITH A SMALL LIST!” It’s true, yes, but there are limitations and requirements. Let’s discuss.
  • Why traditional marketing tactics like the Product Launch Formula are a numbers game that you don’t necessarily have to play these days.
  • Do you even need an email list? Newsflash: some businesses don’t really require them.
  • The story of Jason Zook, and why he shut down an email list of 25,000 (ish? Sorry if you’re reading this Jason, feel free to fact check me) to start from scratch.
  • The blessings of a modest-size list, and the SUPER awesome + fun stuff you can do to keep things personal, and learn more about the audience you’ve gathered.

And, as always, we want to hear from YOU in the YouTube comments:

How does internet shlong email list size comparison impact your business?

Has it been a challenge for you in the past or present?

Have you had a successful small list launch? Come brag about it and tell us what happened!

And remember: all email lists are beautiful

There’s no need to be self conscious about your size.

Love yours, nurture it, and just know it’s working perfectly well for the people who are there, and really want to be there.


Write on, H

If you’re like “Hillary, this was such an immature post, I am unfollowing IMMEDIATELY” please know you have my sympathies, but that hasn’t stopped me from cackling maniacally behind my laptop yet. Love you!

Episode Transcript

Oh, I see what you mean.  


The no lines.  

Fuck lines on my teeth. I look amazing. This is how I look all the time. You meet me in person and I’m just… There’s no texture to my skin. 

(upbeat music)  

Welcome back, marketing nerds of the world. It’s time for another episode of HAMYAW and today Margo and I want to talk about something that you might be seeing talked about pretty actively in the online business space.

You might see ads for programs about it. You might be listening in on conversations and webinars about it. And this is the topic of launching with a small list. Basically finding ways to sell to your audience when you have a below, what might be indiscrete, average number of people on your mailing list. 

Is it possible to sell to them? How should you sell to them? What should you sell to them? We’re gonna dig into all that and more on this episode. But first, Margo, can you please define for the folks at home what a small list is?  

Yes, so the conventional answer is that list size is in the eye of the beholder. And I say that is false and I behold. I am beholder. No, we all know what that means. Small list shame is kinda like under 2,000, right?

Or really under 5,000 but under 2,000 is kinda where a lot of people in our space are and nobody wants to talk about it.

And then, of course, there’s the people who are like, “I only have 10,000 and everyone else has 100,000.” And then like, it never ends. It’s like you’re chasing the horizon.  

The first thing I want to talk about in terms of like, this, it’s a common marketing tagline right now. Where it’s like, “You can launch even with a small list!” And it’s like is that true? And the answer is, of course, yes.

Like, you can technically launch from a list of ten people. Like you can launch to a list of any size. What matters most is that, you know, the people are engaged and they’re actually buyers on your list.  

I mean same rules apply, right? We’re only ever talking to people. So there’s nothing fundamentally different about a large or small list because you still need to make the case for why they should care.

You still need to have talked to them for the several months prior before you make an offer. You still need to know who they are and what they care about. I would say that the biggest differentiator, though, is the math. I guess what I mean…


Oh God, oh my God the math.

So you hear a lot of people that are like, “You can make tons of money no matter what your list size is.” Which like, in theory, is true but you also have to understand your market.

So, if you operated a market where the type of thing that you offer is in the $2,000 range or the $5,000 or $10,000 range, you need to sell less of them than if you were selling something that was $49, $100, $200, $300.

And so there comes a point where, depending on what pricing strategies you go with and what the market can bear, that you do kind of have to play a numbers game. 

So, for example, if you were in the $49 price range, you’re probably gonna need bigger numbers to hit the same profit goals as someone who is selling something for $5,000.

Now, if you’re nodding your head being like, “yeah, no shit, Margo I know that.” You should know that but a lot of people don’t! A lot of people don’t.

A lot of people are like, “I am gonna, out of left field, just launch this because I believe I’m worth it and they should be paying me $2,000- $5,000 for this thing because it’s really high quality.” 

And sometimes it has nothing to do with quality, just the market is not there yet. And so you might have a market. We were talking before this call. We have a few friends that had to discover even though they made $2,000 products, the sweet spot for their market was in the $150 range.

I have a friend, it was $7.99. Seven dollars and 99 cents. So it doesn’t matter if her list was 2,000 people. She’s not gonna be profitable until that list got really, really, really big. And it did. But it’s just a different strategy.

So depending on like what your product and services are, that’s where the list size matters.  

Yeah, absolutely, and I think I would also like to help everybody eradicate their sense of list-shame for a moment because I think it’s so important to know that even if your list is small, if you are in conversation with your audience, they are engaged, and they’re obsessed with what you do.

There’s the saying that’s like, “You could make a million dollars off a 200 person list if everybody is obsessed with what you’re doing.” I was trying to think of moments in which that would be like accurate.

It’s like a very encouraging status. It’s technically true because it’s less about the sheer numbers. You know, you could have 10,000 people on your list who don’t give a fuck.

Or you can have 200 people who are obsessed with you and will buy everything you’re selling. But the odds of that happening are slim.  


Um, so, well I mean but .001.

But I think it’s so important to keep in mind that it’s less about the sheer scale of numbers and more like, as you said, about understanding what your market wants, what kind of investment they can bear, and what conversations you’re having that’s gonna make them excited to invest in you.

And what’s been so interesting too, is that this is where people are also running into problems with Facebook ads. Because when it comes to lead gen around the launch, it is really really rare that somebody’s gonna come in through a Facebook ad and immediately hand you $10,000.  


That’s just, you’re playing shitty odds. The original model of the launch model, traditionally, well for, traditionally in the internet.  


Internet world, which is PLF. And that’s been around, what? Like seven years now? Five? Yeah I don’t know. How many years? It’s been a minute.  

God, I don’t know. When did Walker publish his book?  

I don’t know, someone Google that for us.

Internet years count like dog years so technically PLF is now 49 years old. So no wonder it’s not working as well anymore.

Because consumers are, first of all, accustomed to the model. They know if you have a webinar, there’s going to be an offer at the end of it. It might be high ticket.

And they also know that they’re gonna be sent through this funnel. And I find that usually it is getting harder and harder to warm people up to buy from you in that tiny time frame. Especially when it’s high ticket. 

Which is why everybody who I know who’s dealing with high ticket offers right now is not just doing it through PLF and hands-off.

They’re doing personal follow-ups.

And we’ve talked about this before. You can launch to a list of any size if you are willing to hustle really fucking hard. And the PLF model is for people who basically play the numbers game.

You bring in 300, 600, 3000 additional people via the ads and then you play the odds. Okay, I’m gonna convert 1 to 2% of the room at this price point. I’m gonna need to do these sales calls hypothetically. 

And that was a great model for running sales without necessarily needing to do all the follow up but now people want that connection and that, again, is great for small list size havers because it means it doesn’t really fucking matter anymore on whether or not you have 10,000 people on your list.

What matters is you know the people who are going to buy from you and you know how to talk to them, pursue them, and get the offer in front of them. But it’s a lot more complicated and labor intensive.

Well, launching is pretty labor intensive. Then the hypothetical of running an ever draining funnel to a $2,000 program.  

Yeah, well, I have problems with the evergreen funnel models. No, I think you’re right. The one thing I will caveat is, I do think that it does matter. Like, I think it just depends on your business.

Like, there are certain businesses where focusing on lead gen for a little bit, actually would be better than immediately launching.  

Oh I was talking about in terms of like the launch model itself.  

Oh okay.  

Just like how launches worked previously. Not that lead gen is trash in general.  

Lead gen as part of your launch.  

Anarchy! Fuck lead gen. Anyway, that’s not the hill I’m gonna die on today.  

It made me think of the question I get asked a lot but nobody says it quite in this way, but this is what they mean, which is should you have a list?

And do you even need one?

And I wrote a piece for Ink, it was actually my first piece for them, it’s that how I built my business without a website. Thank God it was really really popular.

That’s probably one of the most common questions I get asked all the time, do I really need a website?

And to your point, in the beginning you need to hustle for sales. So if a website is gonna help you do that, then yes. I think a lot of people feel like they need a website for the same reason you feel like you need a business card. 

You know, there are certain things that aren’t really relevant to your bottom line. But there comes a point where if you’re gonna be running an online business, then yes, a list matters.

But not everyone is running an online business. So that’s the other thing that I think gets confused is that we have that mantra that lead gen, specifically in the sense of getting traffic to your site to convert into opt-ins on your email list, it’s like the gold standard.

Because it’s the one thing no one can take away from you and everybody makes the case for email. Which I agree with, I’m an email marketer. I’m not gonna sit there and tell you that’s wrong but I do… 

Actually, I am gonna tell you that’s wrong and I’ll tell you why.

Because some companies aren’t reliant on cold traffic. Some people are in relationship businesses. Some people are in referral businesses.

I had a student who had an audio and visual company. So they installed home theaters basically and like audio systems. Nobody was googling this. They were having complete word of mouth referrals so when they were launching something new, it wasn’t really relevant.

Their email list was people who’d worked with them in the past or that might have been interested but it was pretty much all warm traffic that was coming to see them and they were mostly scoping them out to see if they were legit.

And I think in that case, you don’t need to be so reliant on your list because your list is actually your in-person Rolodex. That’s kind of where it started from. Like it was the people you mailed stuff to. That’s where lists started.  

I like this distinction between people who need cold traffic in order to move, make the numbers, and people who are in a relationship businesses already.

Yeah, I think as service providers that’s actually a larger chunk of people than we realize. Which is why people are like, “You can launch to a small list.” Because they already have that relationship with their audience.

Because they’ve already been serving, been showing up. They got the opt-in and all that stuff. This is why I love that you pointed out, Margo, that some businesses, there’s so much that goes into what kind of list you need, how big does it have to be.

And that’s more than just like vanity metrics. That’s more than like, What’s it gonna make me proud to say when people are like, “how many people are on your email list?” 

It has to do with, again, the kind of stuff you sell. So, if it’s a $7.99 offer, you’ve got to play that numbers game. You gotta run ads, bring those leads in. And they’re also like much more likely to buy because it’s a low ticket offer. And there’s not as much of the mental work or trust building necessary to have someone spend that $7.99 a month for example.

And two, I think it is basically the traditional maybe lead gen play the numbers model is not appropriate anymore for high ticket sales for like say $2K or above in the sense that you need those relationships and people who have just met you out of the blue are not very likely to invest in you at that level. 

Basically, what this comes down to is that if you have a small list, you’re Louis Vuitton.

If you’re focusing on cold traffic, you’re McDonald’s. No, I’m not saying that.

But, I think people should be comforted in the fact that if they have a small list, as long as they are in relationship with that list, of course they could turn it into a profitable launch. Of course they can.

But it’s gonna take leg work. It’s gonna take really honest and direct approaches.

And you can’t be shy about sales when you’re selling from a small list, period. You cannot hide behind funnels.  

I think that’s the important point, is that I think people don’t realize that the principles are the same, small or big but the profit is gonna be different. So, that’s the part that I want people to pay attention to.

A lot of this conversation originated because there were people early in my career who would be like, “Small lists, you absolutely can sell to them.” And I’d be like, but there’s an upper limit to what you can sell.

Like you can’t always hit them up with a new offer because you’re gonna punch the well dry.

And they’re like, “That’s a scarcity mentality.”

And I’m like, that’s not scarcity. I just hit them up, they said no. You need to rest, recover. It’s like, I don’t need new jeggings from GAP if I just bought jeggings from GAP.  

It is easier to launch something constantly to a bigger list because more people will see it, it’s not gonna impact your numbers as hard as having un-subs. Like every time I launch, I watch those un-sub numbers go up, I’m just like, “fuck.”

But at the same time, it’s fine. Like these people who are not gonna buy from me, they can go. But when you have a smaller list and the pool is smaller, it’s easier to exhaust.

So you have to be mindful of the cadence, for sure. And that’s another reason to focus on, when you do sell, selling high ticket offers to your small list because it’s gonna be worthwhile.  

No, if it’s the right market.  

Yeah, if it’s the right market, something’s gotta be worthwhile in order to make you money basically.

Because if you’re selling a $100 program and 10 people buy it, you made $1,000, great. But is that gonna reflect the amount of effort it took to create the sequence and the promo and all of this stuff?  

So I’d like to end on this question of like what is your list for?

That’s the question I really want us to ask ourselves because it’s become marketing bible, at least in the digital space, you have to have an email list. And I am in evangelism camp for that, for sure.  

I would hope so!  

But, no, ’cause I also do believe that that is really important for digital marketing but what kind of business do you run? I think that’s the more important question. Like, what are you trying to do?

So, for me, I view my list as future book buyers.

People are like, “why haven’t you sold a course?” I’m like, because the numbers don’t make sense for me yet. Like I could do a nice month or two of sales and then after that, then I have to focus really hard on lead gen and I don’t want that.

I want to build this relationship with them over time so when I sell a book, they’re there and they’re interested and I can workshop ideas with them in conjunction. 

So we’re always in conversation and they’re helping me build my ideas and so that’s a fundamentally different approach than people who see a list as like a distribution channel for content or a distribution channel for sales.

There’s lots of different ways and the moral for me is, and when I try and teach, is it shouldn’t be transactional regardless of what it is.

So, know what it’s for but remember there’s still people on the other side.

Like there is no one size fits all. You can’t be delusional about like, “okay I have a small list but I could be a bajillionaire now.” Like you have to see what the market will bear. And the same is true for big lists, actually. There’s different problems on that side.  

Yeah you can have a big list and not have people buy from you. That’s the thing. So this was interesting.

Jason Zook has this great story and I think I might have told it before on HAMYAW, where he basically like shut down a 25,000 person email list. It was like this is in true Jason Zook style. There was this big article about it that he wrote at Tandem.

And he basically explained that he had built that list by saying basically someone on his email list could win a free iPad. And so people signed up. And then the list grew and it was like, “Yay!”

But then when it came to make an offer, really kind of launched a cricket. And it was harder to sell despite the numbers because why?

People weren’t on his list because they were interested in learning from Jason Zook. People were on his list because they were interested in getting a free iPad, winning a free iPad. 

So I think that’s such an important distinction too and I’m totally with you, Margo, in that my email is about relationship building.

The common wisdom is your email list is the only platform that you really own. If Facebook goes down tomorrow, Instagram, Twitter, we are all shit out of luck.

An email list will sort of protect you but it doesn’t tell me what’s gonna happen if ConvertKit goes down but we’re not gonna think about that today.

And I think it’s so important to establish that relationship and serve. But also remember it’s really easy to fall into the trap of thinking like, “I’m relationship building, so I should not be selling to my list, period. Like I should just be offering value.” 

I saw a Tweet that just made my skin crawl the other week.

Which is basically someone responding to a Tweet about how likely are you to buy from somebody on their email list, basically. And one person was like, “Not me, never. I just hate being sold to.” There’s like, “The goal is to serve, serve, serve and then you sell through serving. That’s the long game that most people just don’t want to play.”

And I was like, have you ever tried to sell anything? Like by just creating content? It doesn’t work. Of course you have to use sales tactics, you have to use the strategy, you have to shift the conversation if you’re going to sell. 

But at the same time, you can still be a useful, valuable conversation. We did a whole episode on this called (murmurs) so you can go watch that one.

But I think it’s so important to remember that in cultivating a relationship with your list and being of service, you are allowed, even if your list is small, to sell.

You are allowed to, even if you are in that relationship building space, even if you want to be of service without demanding money. You are able to do both.

And it can feel a little more awkward and confronting with a smaller list but it is just as important and just as possible for you to have a great pay-day with a smaller list as long as, again, you have that relationship, you have that trust built, and you know sort of that you have created something people need at a price point that the market is going to respond to.

You’re gonna be okay. It’s all right to sell.  

Totally. I love this and you can also practice by selling ideas. Like practice having strong CTAs.

So, maybe you’re not selling something for cash but you can be decisive and be clear and direct when you say, “I want you to click here.” Or, “Read this.” “Do this.” “Reply to me.” Like there are instructional things you can do to build up your muscle for when you have an ask.

Listen, we can love and hate on Gary Vee but this is one thing I really do think he got right. Which is his jab, jab, jab, right hook framework which is simply like when you give, give generously but when you have an ask, ask!  

Yeah, exactly. 

Like, be like, “I want you to buy my book.” “I want you to buy this course.” Obviously you should frame it as to why they should. But the point is, you’ve gotten all this free content and the truth is, people are gonna want to. It never is annoying.

The second someone you like and have been following turns around and is like “Hey, by the way, if you like what you’ve had up until this point, I made something else. Would you like it?”  

You gotta pay for it, but… And there are so many different ways to create different levels of value.

I think you can offer things like smaller things like 50 minute sessions. I know that you can offer even free 10 minute conversations. I know somebody in this room was doing that to gain some insight from their email list, which is the lovely Margo over here and which I will totally be copying soon.

So everyone sit tight. But it becomes so much more personal when your list is smaller. It feels more personal. It feels closer. But at the same time, the rules still apply. Like this is business and it’s okay to make the ask.  

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I love that point. So, I will share a little bit about that. Like the fun things that you can do with a smaller list. You can reply to all your emails. I always tell my readers like I’m so excited for when I won’t be able to respond to them.  

I love reading reader emails so much. I gotta be better at keeping on top of my replies for sure.  

I know, one day I wanna be like “I am so busy and important that I saw it but I really couldn’t even say thanks”. It’s coming you guys, it’s coming.

But no, there’s a lot of ways that you can experiment.

Like you could do content that’s more experimental and see how it lands and there’s less consequences because your unsubscribes, even though they might hurt you, it might just be 6 people instead of 700 or 2,000 every time you send because it’s always gonna be the same proportionally.

So it just depends on the number of your list. You can make small asks, you can respond, you can be in conversation with them.

I think you should be doing that regardless as the list size grows. But it’s much easier when it’s smaller to get a picture of who these people are, what they want, and play.  

And also we can’t forget the reason behind having a small list too is that people are finding you organically. People aren’t clicking an ad and saying, “who’s this? I think I need this.”

They are hearing about you. They are signing up for your opt-in. They are following their way to your email list from your articles or your content. Or just listening to you in a conference or something like that.

So those people are precious. Those people are basically those who have a high potential for engagement. More than ice cold leads coming in through a Facebook ad. So count your blessings there.

I think that’s what I love about my list is that the people who are there really wanna be there. And they know who I am and they’re familiar with my work already and it’s just really fun to hang out with them and share with them and hear from them. So there are many, many blessings to having a modest sized list.

Celebrate them.  

Well, I think there’s a lot here that we have to chew on, in terms of what it means to launch to a small list. And we’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments below.

So tell us, have you felt small list shame? How have your launches gone? Prove us wrong.

Give us your numbers. Tell us all the things. We would love to continue this conversation.

So talk to us in the comments below. If you are new to HAMYAW, subscribe. Hit the like button. If you liked it, come join us. We’re here every two weeks and tell all of your friends.

I am Margo Aaron.  

And I am Hillary Weiss.  

We will see you in two weeks! Bye!  

Bye, guys! 

Photo by Juliet Clare Warren

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