[Podcast] Pushing Send – Episode 1 with Kurt Elster

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Kurt Elster

How a struggling consultant started an email newsletter, then eventually became a leading Shopify expert and podcaster. How’d he do it? He took the advice of Shopify’s CEO Harley Finkelstein. This is Kurt Elster’s story about pushing send.

Kurt Elster is a Senior Ecommerce Consultant who helps Shopify merchants like Jay Leno’s Garage uncover hidden profits in their websites through his ecommerce agency Ethercycle. With one million downloads, Kurt is best known for hosting The Unofficial Shopify Podcast.

Key Points From This Episode:

  • Why Kurt was drawn to plain text emails that rely on marketing automation.
  • How certain mass emails manage to feel personal and build relationships and trust.
  • Understanding that no one likes being sold to.
  • The advantage that email has over many other forms of marketing.
  • Hear what life was like for Kurt before he discovered the power of email.
  • All the ways you can use an email list to take your business to the next level.
  • The most crucial piece of advice: give more value than you take.
  • Learn how many times you have to appear in someone’s inbox before they pay attention.
  • The evidence that, while email is old, it is still the best-converting strategy for e-commerce.
  • Why being consistent and sticking to a schedule is non-negotiable.
  • Advice for making the most of the unique opportunities with new subscribers.

Tweetables:

“I’d get an email from someone and you’re building this relationship where they are emailing thousands of people but on the receiving end it really feels like, when done right, they’re talking to you.” — @kurtinc [0:01:54]

“No one wants to be sold to. I don’t want to be sold to….No one else wants it either. There may be a handful of weirdos who are like, ‘Yeah, sell to me.’ Most people absolutely do not want that.” — @kurtinc [0:03:24]

“Looking at my e-commerce clients, email, for a lot of them, drives 70% of their revenue.” — @kurtinc [0:13:31]

Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:

Kurt Elster: Website, Twitter

Brennan Dunn: Website

Bryan Kelly: LinkedIn

Harley Finkelstein: Twitter

Episode Transcript

Kurt
I would not be here without email. I knew the importance of building a list. I was following other people who are like in the info product space and they all hammered on you’ve got to have a list. You gotta have emails you gotta use to connect with people. And I remember emailed five or 600 people on my list and I said, Hey, I’m your Shopify  guy like flat out said, I’m the Shopify guy. Within eight weeks of that, I got someone I didn’t know who told me. Oh, I know you’re the Shopify guy and they referred me to someone I didn’t know and that’s what I knew. Like That’s powerful on an email list with three figures and got a stranger to warm intro me to a potential client. And once that happened, I was like, OK, I am 100% all in on email  
Bryan
From rasa.io the free tool for sending smarter and better email newsletters. This is Pushing Send. A show featuring people who send e mails their subscribers actually want to read. I’m Brian Kelly and on today’s show how a struggling consultant started in email newsletter, then eventually became a leading Shopify expert and podcaster. Here’s Kurt Elster explaining when he first discovered the power of email.  
Kurt
I was on people’s email lists and had purchased things from that been interacted with them, and I realized, like All right, there’s fancy HTML newsletters are one thing they’re OK, but what really captured my attention were plain text emails and especially plain text emails that relied on marketing automation. And the reason was because it gave you a way to leverage that one on one relationship building at scale. So suddenly a personal plain text email became a one to many communication tool, where like I’d get an email from someone. And you’re building this relationship where, Yeah, they’re emailing thousands of people. But on the receiving end, it really feels like when done right they’re talking to you and then when you reply and you actually get a reply from them. Oh my gosh, Now you really do feel like you’re developing a relationship with that individual. When I emailed people, that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want people to feel like they’re being sold to. I want them to feel like, Oh, it’s my friend Kurt here with some more advice so that somewhere in the future they would think, Oh, well, I’ll just ask Kurt cause I know he’s the Shopify guy. He’s been helpful in the past. I wanted to be top of mind. E mail seemed like the way to do it to build that relationship.  
Bryan
Were there people you were modeling this after?  
Kurt
100% Brennan Dunn. He really that guy fascinated me. Maybe there are a few others, but no one was like as consistent and as on top of it and is willing to share and is willing to reply and interact with people as Brennan done. And I became friends with him at the time of that discussion, he was emailing 30,000 people, and he was still it still seemed relevant and personal, and he was still replying to them. I thought that was incredible.  
Bryan
Was it basically this approach to the personal nature of these messages that drew you in?  
Kurt
Yes, because if no one wants to be sold to, I don’t want to be sold to, and I have to do business development for a living. No one else wants it, either. There may be a handful of weirdoes who are, like, Yeah, sell to me.  Most people absolutely do not want that. And so this relationship building via mass email, but done in this very clever, personalized way, And then when you start your like right now we’re talking a podcast. I have a podcast as well. When you combine those two things. Oh, now suddenly it’s like, extraordinarily personal. So you need that initial list. If you want to launch just about anything, it’s gonna make your life easier and then having that list and having that engaged audience, it’s just a dramatic, unfair advantage that you could build for yourself versus anyone else just starting out. You’ll never regret having that list.  
Bryan
It sounds like the catalyst for your business was having a singular focus on your email list. Is that correct?  
Kurt
Yes, the advantage to that email list over everything else is that it can at any moment become one on one. What’s so wonderful about the email is, no matter what you send out, someone could just reply to it and go. Well have got this unrelated question and it could turn into a conversation and you could demonstrate value immediately and very quickly via email and you could turn into, Oh, hey, let’s jump on the phone like if you want it to become to go from, like this one sided relationship to a real relationship, you could do that. That’s what’s so cool about it.  
Bryan
Describe what life was like before you fully understood how to leverage email.  
Kurt
We were struggling. It was tough to keep the lights on prior to the list building in the email. It was like cold, emailing and spamming people and doing any goofball thing I could get my hands on. I was like, I’m a growth hacker. I think how I justified it. I hated it, but I was like, This is a means to an end. I got to do this so I could pay my rent. And while we’re building this email list and I found with the emails list, it was like, All right, you just need to get one person to subscribe. So, you know, it works. And then 10 people get 10 people. Oh, my gosh. Well, maybe you could get 100. If you get 100 you can get 1000 and then suddenly you’re like But I’m there. How did that happen? I got there. It worked. It was stacking the bricks. I was always chasing after these. Like overnight success is, they don’t exist. It’s mostly like just one step at a time when email a time when subscribing time, one person at a time, one day at a time.  
Bryan
When we come back, one piece of advice Kurt received from Shopify CEO for how to approach his email list. Plus, Kurt also describes how email has allowed him to make genuine personal connections with his audience. So stick around. I’m Bryan Kelly and you’re listening to Pushing  Send from rasa.io.  
Bryan
Creating email newsletters takes a lot of time. You might curate articles, write content, tweak your template, and look up metrics and to mention You’re probably doing all of this once a week. Well, at rasa.io we said enough and built a free tool to simplify the process, which saves you time. It also uses AI to personalize emails for each subscriber based on their interests. That means they get stuff they like to read. I want to see how it works? Visit www rasa.io and click “How it works.”  
Bryan
Welcome back to Pushing Send, I’m Bryan Kelly. In the early days of his business, Kurt Elster was struggling to keep the lights on while trying all sorts of growth hacks, but nothing was working. Then he discovered a guy named Brennan Dunn with a very personal and engaging approach to fostering a deep connection with his email list. Now, several years later, Kurt recalls the most powerful impression Brennan made on him.  
Kurt
I remember eight years ago, emailing Brennan Dunn and thinking like, Wow, that is so cool and I got just reply back. It was just like thumbs up emoji. I was thrilled. Damn. It’s not that he replied with a single character. It’s that, you know, they read your email. That’s the magic of it. Having an audience is power and an email list. It’s like having gold as an investment is just one of like the purest forms of audience building. I think it was like, All right, you’ve got an email list. You can use it as market research. You can use it to like, very literally run the audience insights tool on it, figure out the demographic information you could send out a survey. You could promote things with it. You could build these relationships, or you could get even more advanced than that. You can use it to retarget people on Facebook. You can use it to expand that audience with lookalike audiences. Like an email list, really, I called it the keystone of a digital marketing strategy. One of the tenants that I have run my business by in my content marketing strategy. Lee Gentry, whatever you wanna call it, the things of that I put out in the world is what will put this under. I follow one piece of advice given to me by Harley Finkelstein, CEO of Shopify. He said, Give more value than you take Ah ha. OK, so that’s what I do. That’s how I promote. That’s how I approach my email list. That’s all your approach content marketing. So I’ve never really asking people to buy something or to go register for something or to go do something 99 times out of 100. I am simply working in public. That’s how a share value is. Just here’s what’s working for me. Here’s this thing that excites me. Here’s this thing that’s interesting, or here’s what’s going on in my life. I am absolutely will include personal info about, like, cool things that are going on with me. I wanna have a personal brand. I want to work with people who like me, and I like them. So I have to share some of that stuff. So my goal here is rarely do I ever actually sell anything or ask anyone to buy anything. I just go out and share work in public, and that’s what we create more value than we take. You can’t do that unless you have someone to tell it to. And the email list has always been that. And one of my regrets has always been man, I wish from hindsight being 2020. I wish from Day One I had started with an email list and a lead magnet and had started building that earlier.  
Bryan
So what we’re talking about is really people on the receiving end of these emails, and it sounds like you think about building a relationship with them like you would in real life right?  
Kurt
Yes, it’s relationship building. I’m glad you brought that up. When you are trying to  enter into your relationship, you’re dating. Some people go pick people up in a bar with their pickup line and you walk into the bar. Have you ever used the following is a pickup line, true or false? Will you marry me?  
Bryan
No.  
Kurt
False. You like never. You would never do that, of course. But yet a soon as people are early in a business relationship and their marketing, they treat it that way where they just jump straight to like you found my brand. Now you buy and it it isn’t the case. You need to do the same thing. You need to build a relationship, and that’s very much what email lets you do. It’s increasing the total number of touch points. We’re in e commerce. A really great conversion rate is 2%. That’s good. Very good. You can build a business off that. That still means of 50 people who visit your website. 49 didn’t buy. So what do you do with them? Well, you hope that you can re-market to them. You hope that you’re welcome and exit intent pop ups get them to sign up for your email list and then that email list you know a really successful welcome series on an email list, has any commerce 18 to 20 emails. That’s how many touch points, That’s how many times you have to appear in someone’s inbox before they’re like, You know what I should check that site out and buy that one in 50 people who buy those of the people who read the 18 emails from you. That’s the magic of it. Like trying to do that via social media is very difficult because there’s so much noise in it. These things are not mutually exclusive. You could combine them into both. But even if you think about like Facebook retargeting ads, there is no practical way to have someone visit your site and then have them see a different message from you every day and guarantee they see it and and make sure it works like you have to do an elaborate series of audiences and inclusive and exclusive audiences, and then pay for it to make it work and again approved by faith. Where as an email, that’s just how it works. You could just send the email and then they see in their inbox and may or may not have to act on it, and yet it’s not cool because it’s been around forever, we don’t talk about it. People don’t get excited about it. Like looking at by e commerce clients. Email for a lot of them drives like 70% of their revenue. I got one that 80% is driven through email. It was just tremendous.  
Bryan
What would you say is the biggest take away from all these years doing email now? What have you learned? 
Kurt
The one universal constant, regardless of who you are, who your audience is and what you’re doing, what you’re pitching is consistency is critical. So if you I would just send out my newsletter whenever very well. I’ve got content right now, So it goes out and I found it didn’t work as well is when I just picked These are the days of times that the newsletter goes out, and I think this is true of a lot of content. When I committed to a schedule and then never skipped it, never missed it, just committed to it. That’s when open rates went up and reply rates went up.  
Kurt
I think it’s twofold. One you’re training people, but like all right, well, this is when it comes, so I should expect it or get used to it. I think there’s something to be said for that. I think the other thing is when someone agrees to receive your content, whether it’s like they subscribed on YouTube or a podcast or your newsletter, whichever it is, they I don’t want to commit to your subscription if they think you’re just gonna disappear if you’re gonna flake out. When people are early on in their journey, I think they’re scared to annoy people, which is that’s good. You like You don’t want to be spammy right? But by virtue of being worried about being annoying or spammy, you 100% will end up doing yourself a disservice. And the reason I say that, as I’ve seen so many people were like, You have a list? Yeah, how often email them, um, once a month. Mostly, like what? Once a month. That’s like a lifetime in inbox years, right? If someone signed up for your list and they don’t have the email for a month, there is a 99% chance they have forgotten who you are. They’re gonna hit unsubscribe like they’re flushing a toilet and then mark you with spam. I think minimum. If you have a newsletter, you have a responsibility to provide whatever content, whatever value you said you were going to you need to be emailing. I think minimum twice a month or they’re just Who is this? Why am I on this list? What’s going on here?  
Bryan
Okay, we’ve talked about emailing people once they’re subscribed. But what about when they first sign up?  
Kurt
Yeah, when they signed up for that newsletter, that’s when they’re most excited. That’s when they’re like, All right, what’s this guy got to offer? They’re basically saying, OK, I’ll give you a shot. Impress me, Sell me. That’s your opportunity to jump in there and start building that relationship. Going back to that dating analogy, it’s like, All right, you got the phone number now. The next step is not ignore them for a month. Send them a message and ignore them for a month. It’s not gonna work. You would never build a relationship like that.  
Bryan
What’s the best email response you’ve gotten from somebody who’s replied to the content you’ve put out? Do you specifically recall getting a response from someone that was so excited about what you published, what kind of impression did that make on you?  
Kurt
I have gotten a couple where the person emailed me and they’re like, Hey, I followed your advice and I kept going and it made all the difference in the world and I quit my job. I’ve got two of that where the person flat was like I was able to quit my job because of you. And that’s absolutely thrilling because in that vein of give more value than you take, I view myself is largely being a champion for entrepreneurship. So seeing that someone was able to make that jump and go on that journey successfully, it’s just utterly thrilling.  
Bryan
There you have it. Kurt’s story of how both the experiences and influences he encountered along his journey ultimately led him to the opportunity of forging a genuine relationship with thousands of people on his email list, a relationship that has helped him build and maintain a successful business. But Kurt’s story isn’t the only story coming up on our next episode, we’ll hear from Jay Acunzo an award winning podcast host about how he believes that when it comes to email subscribers, the new mandate should be, don’t just grab attention, earn it and hold it. You won’t want to miss what Jay has to say. So if you’re listening to Pushing Send for the first time, be sure to subscribe at apple podcasts or wherever you’re listening so you don’t miss an episode. And if you’ve enjoyed what you heard, I’d encourage you to check out a few other episodes while you’re here. Lastly, leaving a review will help us share these stories with others just like you. Thanks in advance for doing that. I’m Bryan Kelly, and you’ve been listening to Pushing Send from rasa.io.

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