Dealing with large quantities of subscriber email

A lot of online businesses revolve around an email list of subscribers. Mine falls under this category.

There was once a time when getting email from my subscribers felt like Christmas. Now, with over 1,000 subscribers on my list and 10+ new subscribers a day, the emails are more of a burden than a delight. The emails that contain technical questions pose a particular challenge.

I’m not full-time on my business yet and my time is very squeezed as it is. I don’t really have free time. I basically have to sacrifice family time for business time.

I wondered if anyone had any tips for alleviating this email burden. And to be clear on what I’m looking for, it’s not my desire to process my email 10% faster or something. My desire, although I don’t know if it’s a realistic one, is to perhaps eliminate my uncompensated email “responsibilities” altogether.

For example, if there’s this much demand for my help, maybe I can somehow charge for the help. But I would hate to respond to each technical email saying, “Hey, cool question. I won’t answer unless you pay me though.” That seems like a dick move.

BTW I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m trying to have the benefit of having a product business without wanting to make the necessary time investment. That’s not where I’m coming from. I have so many other things within the business that take time (writing blog posts, updating my book, producing videos, etc.) that I really just can’t afford to spend so much time on email or else it’s all I would ever do.

Any advice?

Caveat emptor: I haven’t done this myself. It’s just an idea.

I think you could try triaging your email with a VA (virtual assistant).

Come up with a decision tree that basically goes like this:

If the email is about this, send them this response.
If the email is about that, ask them for more information.
If the email is about this and that, forward it to me.

Aside from the decision tree, you’d have to come up with some fairly canned responses that could be modified in certain aspects for the most common types of inquiries you get.

I’ve heard of some people using this approach with some success, although I’m not in that camp and can’t give first-hand feedback. I don’t have near the volume of email inquiries that you do at this time. I’ll let you know what I do if that changes :slight_smile:

Jason, I have to say congratulations! If you are getting enough email for it to become stressful, then that’s because you are having quite some success in getting an active audience.

Your question is a common one for people whose online business starts to get traction. Nothing quite prepares you for the reality of the daily grind of responding to emails, etc. Some basic techniques:

  • Discipline: Only check your email once a day (or, if the routine works for you, twice a day). When you do check, respond to everything and get to inbox zero in a single session of emailing.
  • Ruthless efficiency: many of your responses will be similar or identical. Use an autotype software. I use Typinator; there are many more to choose from. With the help of autotype software, I can answer some emails in 30 seconds.
  • Courage: Say no to people. Just because they write doesn’t oblige you to help. With autotype you can say no eloquently. “Thanks for your email. I’d love to help, but currently I’m flat out busy preparing more tutorial videos to help people learn Angular on Rails.”
  • Terseness: Keep your responses short
  • FAQ time: If you get the same question more than twice, put the answer in a FAQ entry on your site. You’d be surprised how quickly Google starts guiding people towards your FAQ entries.

Try this, she always end up in forwarding the email to me :confused: Now I’m using canned responses, you can do those in gmail, no need for anything fancier than that.

When it’s came to technical stuff I don’t think you will be able to use VA’s for your support.

Also, +1 for checking emails one or twice a day. One during the morning one in the afternoon should be enough.

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Then answer “Hey, sorry, my email queue is now 381 messages long, and with the amount of my time allocated for answering emails, I should be back to you in about 73 days. If your question is urgent, please consider to ask it on my forum, or to request help via my consulting business.”

I think it is less dickish and communicates the fact that you’re kinda busy, while at the same time may send some people to your consulting front.

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+1 for Steve’s congratulations to you.
They are acting. So you have engaged them. They seem to view you as an authority (hence asking).

Can you give us a few examples of the types of emails you’re getting?
Is this a newsletter about your product? Or about the pain your product solves? Or topics of interest to people who are likely to need your product?

Are they asking questions about your product?
Are they about the articles you’re writing? (ie. you write about XYZ and they say ask specific questions about XYZ?
Is there any pattern to these questions so that you might be able to “thread many needles” with one article or product idea?

I recently read Deep Work by Cal Newport, and there are a couple of strategies for managing email in there. Some of those methods are pretty ruthless, but they certainly provided some inspiration. It might be worth reading.

That said, I’d maybe consider doing a few things.

  1. Send your newsletter from a dedicated email address so that replies and questions are routed into a special inbox that you check once a week or once per month.
  2. Setup an auto-responder on that inbox that explains you receive a high volume of emails, and that you’re simply not able to respond to them all but that you will go through them and select the questions that are well-worded and provide the ability to give a direct and clear response.
  3. Provide a suggestion for some common resources, forums, etc. that could be good alternatives for them.
  4. Not related to the list, but some suggestions from the book were things like a checklist before people asked questions via email. i.e. [ ] I am not asking a question that I could just as easily spend 10 minutes googling. [ ] I understand that a response could take 2-4 weeks due to the volume of emails. That way, people kind of self-select out of it and you only receive thoughtful and considerate emails.

Finally, hopefully, those questions you’re getting are useful questions that might serve as inspiration for future emails to your list. In that case, maybe look for opportunities where you can answer a series of questions in an email to your list if the questions feel like they might have broad enough applicability to others. That may not be feasible if the emails are overly specific or technical in nature, but maybe there’s something there.

Best of luck with the process whatever ends up working!

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As your books are technical and I assume they are asking related questions “How do I do … using Ruby and …”, maybe you could have a premium support option. For $20 mth you will answer their questions ASAP, other questions go in the queue to be answered in n days. Or just send them to StackOverflow!

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A good idea but an order of magnitude too cheap.

Source: my own bitter experience!

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Your probably right, hard to know without seeing the exact kind of questions coming in. But assuming your time is worth $100/hr, for $20 a month you only get about 10 minutes of time for that client. Maybe $200 per month is better!

The questions are likely coming from individuals, who are learning or straggling with something at work. They’re not going to pay $200/mo, this is a business plan (and way too cheap at that - a company can easily use tens of one’s hours in a month).

People who bought the book or course from the OP – they should be treated differently, I believe. Some free answers should be given to them - but keep a tab on the volume, some people like to abuse this channel. That’s where the “my queue is too long” canned reply comes into play.

People who did not buy could be replied to: “I cover this topic in chapter N in my book” or “video M in my course”. “It is too long to explain in a email, please consider to consume that book or course”.

People from corporate setting should be directed to paid support.

P.S. Mmm… sounds like an idea for email management software for people selling e-goods! :smiley: Not only it would reduce the email answering burden, but it would also generate more business.

Right, I don’t think people would pay $200 or even $20 a month for faster email help. I think the only kind of paid help it makes sense for me to offer is by the hour help, and I can’t justify anything less than $150/hr for that. (So far a few people have expressed interest in the $150/hr help but no one has actually done it.)

I have this interesting problem: I have too much demand on my time, so supply and demand says I should be able to charge money for my time, but I can’t think of any good way to do it.

What I’ve been leaning toward is to have regular training/office hours sessions. I’ve had a couple free webinars and a couple free office hours sessions and they’ve been pretty successful. I can’t “afford” to do those for free because I’m so busy with client work but if enough people were willing to pay for them, I could make it work.

Nope, the demand must have deep pockets. You’re probably getting a cheap or free demand.

I believe the best you can do it to point free questions to your book - if the book answers it.

I’m not sure the training hours would work. They might work as a source of income, but not in a reducing your email influx. These are again more of a corporate thing.

BTW I think you should offer companies an oversight/code review service. To buy “questions time” would feel strange for a manager, but to buy an expert audit and a report is a common practice that works for security reviews. You’d spend a few hours a month checking on a group of probably novice Ang/RoR programmers, and business would have a confidence things are going well.

I’ve been thinking about this, and I think there might be a completely different approach you could take that satisfies both your user base as well as yourself.

As there’s so many people emailing you to ask questions, etc., why not add a forum to your site for people who sign up to your list/purchase your book? Rather than you having to answer every technical question, users could post their questions and others could try to help them with their questions. Questions and answers would be public, but they’d have to be a “member” to post questions or answers.

Could be a good upsell to your offer and a way to make your site even stickier. Plus it could have a positive impact to SEO rankings as well.

Rather than just put the forum up, you could send a poll out to your user base to see if that is something that would interest them.

Either way, it could take some of the load off of you while still being helpful to your users.

Just a thought.