Not following the 80/20 rule is like hiring a scary clown to make you laugh — you defeat the purpose of your list before you ever get any benefit from it.

Those who have e-mail lists (and if you don’t have one, then you are doing something wrong because the money is still in the list) all should know about the 80/20 rule. Sadly, it seems from the constant stream of spam that I get in my inbox that very few people actually bother to follow that advice though. So, here is the rule again and the right way to follow it:

The Purpose of an E-mail List

Let’s start with the basics – what is the purpose of your e-mail list? Depending on how it was created, it may have several different purposes. I tend to see people mixing them all together though which frankly is just irritating in the extreme.
The most obvious purpose for a mailing list is to keep people updated about the newest versions of your products. This means that for example if you sell a WordPress plugin that you may put people onto a mailing list to receive updates so they know if bug fixes or major releases have been put out.
The second common purpose of a mailing list is to get people to buy your products. These are the mailing lists many of us sign up for when we visit a website and see a pop up which tells us about a great freebie that we can get if we just hand over our e-mail address. People understand that they’ll get spammed to a certain extent with these lists and they react accordingly. I personally for example have a special e-mail address for spam.

Understanding the Difference

I’m going to discuss the 80/20 rule in a moment and explain how it applies to each of these two broad categories of e-mail lists (they are different though the rule should generally be used for both). However, before I do that, I want to make clear that people sign up for these lists for different reasons and you should respect that.

The Update List

People sign up for an update list primarily because they want to get – you guessed it! Updates! They don’t want to be spammed by you constantly with offers of whatever product you have for sale or now that you think is the greatest thing since sliced bread that you found an affiliate offer for on the Warrior Forum.
It is important to respect this understanding when you have such a list and to treat people on these lists with extra care. This is because many people will actually unsubscribe and refrain from purchasing your products in the future if they feel that the update list has become another list to get spammed on. I know I just ignore the e-mails from people who do this and just visit the website to download updates periodically.

The Freebie List

The freebie list by comparison is the one where people expect to get a hard sell and so you can be a bit more flexible about sending out offers to these customers. However, I personally think this is a mistake because you’ll ultimately end up being just another one of the me too spammers who sends out endless junk mail that people don’t want and they become blind to it and or eventually unsubscribe.

The 80/20 Rule

Okay, so let’s talk about the 80/20 rule now that we have established the two broad types of e-mail lists (and yes, there are others, such as the newsletter list, but these tend to fit into the freebie list anyway). The rule states that you should provide 80% useful content and 20% advertising when you send out anything to your e-mail list.
There are actually two ways to understand this by the way. You could for example always send out original posts with useful material which people can actually use and then include an ad in each e-mail. Or you could send out four useful e-mails for every one e-mail with an ad in it. Or you could also try a combination of the two.

going crazy

This is how most of your customers will feel if you spam your “updates” list.

Why This Matters

The odds of you being the only person sending your customer entreaties to purchase something are pretty minimal. Heck, if you’re one of only five people that your customer gets e-mails from regularly, you are in extremely rare company. Most people get e-mails from a couple of dozen people and tend to ignore 98% of them. And that doesn’t include true spam which is unsolicited.
Thus it is important to stand out. Now for all the gimmicks that you can try, including catchy headlines in your e-mails and using HTML or other tricks, the bottom line is that nothing makes you stand out like being the guy who people actually look forward to hearing from. This means that if you promise a weekly newsletter then you deliver a weekly newsletter with real, useable material. The kind of thing you’d publish on your blog.
You do not spam your list endlessly with one offer after another and hope that they’ll keep buying from you. This simply doesn’t work. Yes, you’ll get a handful of sales, but you’ll get many more sales if you build a loyal customer base.

Applying the Rule

I’ll discuss my personal feeling on how to apply the rule in more specifics in a moment, but I want to go back to our two broad strokes of different kinds of e-mail lists. The first kind you may recall was the update list.
These lists need to be treated with great care. In these cases, I’d even make it a 90/10 rule. Unless you are offering an upgrade for sale then you really need to tread cautiously about offering new products. As I noted, people get annoyed with those who treat their paid purchaser’s list as an ATM where they never get anything but a constant stream of spam.
The ideal here is to keep the total volume to a minimum as well. You are unlikely to issue an update every day so why would you send out offers every day? I’d suggest that you send out offers either in conjunction with notes about updates or that you create a newsletter which people get used to getting and which includes advertising.
The second kind of list as I noted, is a bit more flexible. People won’t be as pissed off at you for having sent them e-mails which tell them about whatever new product you have for sale because they expect it. Thus it likely won’t affect whether they make a purchase from you in the future (at least as long as you aren’t sending them offers six times a day with flashing HTML).
However, if you want to make more of these people pay attention to your e-mails and actually want to purchase whatever you have for sale, you should apply the 80/20 rule. The reason is simple – most of your competitors won’t bother to do so and so you’ll stand out as the guy (or gal) they look forward to hearing from each time.

Making It Work

Personally, I like the newsletter approach to doing the 80/20 rule. What this means is that every single e-mail you send out is always going to be useful with real information that your list might find interesting. You can then embed an ad inside of your e-mails.
The reason that I prefer this method is simple – it’s the method which is most likely to get every single one of your e-mails read. Think about it – if you get useful e-mails every time, you’re much more likely to actually read the whole thing and see the ad.
On the other hand, if you were to send out one ad for every four useful e-mails you send out, some people may learn to tune out the ads and just focus on the useful content which you send out (which kind of defeats the purpose of an e-mail list).

The Hybrid Method

Toyota Prius

Think of the hybrid method as being like a Prius — it gives you the most mileage with the least sacrifice. You do need to treat it right though, just like a real hybrid.

The hybrid method of the 80/20 rule basically suggests that you use the advertising model in every e-mail but also occasionally send out a pure ad e-mail. This can give you the best of both worlds, because occasionally you really do want to devote a complete e-mail to telling your customer about a new product that you have for sale.
However, it’s tricky to pull off this method because you want to make those pure ad e-mails fairly infrequent. They should not be every fifth e-mail but rather perhaps every tenth e-mail. The reason is that you don’t want to make it seem as if the e-mails are all about advertising (even though it is and we all know they are, perception is everything – you want to seem like the guy who cares about his list).

One Caveat

Whatever you do, remember that nobody is going to pay attention to spammers. Even if you are sending out useful material, space it out somewhat so that people don’t feel as if they are constantly hearing from you. Even useful e-mails which follow the 80/20 rule can end up backfiring if they come too frequently.