The first time I took a stab at working for myself, it seemed like things were going well. I had a book of digital marketing clients, my website looked nice, I was making ends meet, and my customers were happy. “I’m my own boss, look at me!” I exclaimed.

Unfortunately, I had a blind spot — an expensive one. And over the course of a year, I blew down almost $30,000, nearly everything I had in savings. The runway I spent years building up had quickly evaporated because of this one missing link.

My blind spot was that I didn’t have a way for new consumers who found me to *really* get to know, like, and trust me. Most of my clients were experts or business owners who were already in my network and knew me personally.

I would occasionally drum up followers and email subscribers from my online efforts, but this audience never made the jump onto my client roster. It was ironic, really: I was a marketing consultant brutally failing at marketing myself.

In returning to self-employed life, I wanted to ensure readers could get a feel for my energy and vibe right from the start. So in my first week, I put in place a welcome email sequence that gives new subscribers a taste of my personality, my credentials, and how I can solve their problems. This welcome email sequence is sometimes called a nurture sequence or an autoresponder sequence, and its ability to shape new subscriber interest is both powerful and lucrative.

Why you need a welcome email sequence

“Different is better than better.” — Sally Hogshead

If you love writing, I have good news: Email continues to dominate other channels when measuring a return on your marketing dollar, which is probably why 4 out of 5 businesses use email as their main customer acquisition channel (Sorry TikTok, you’re not as cool as you think you are).

That’s because a welcome email sequence allows you to give new subscribers great information in a logical order. It’s easier to get related, highlight a problem, and then sell or offer a solution through a series of dripped emails than it is through never-ending social media posts. You also only have to write this content once, and then you’re done.

Naysayers will point to the low open rates of emails. But nearly every email list sees higher open rates from new subscribers in their first one to two weeks. The first few emails to my subscribers, for example, receive open rates of 72%, 55%, and 51% respectively. I am average, and these numbers are common for new subscriber engagement during week one.

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(Image from the author)

Even if subscribers don’t open my stuff regularly, this golden advertising window is completely free and completely automated — why pass it up? A welcome email sequence helps me cement with readers who I am and what they can count on me for: Marketing basics and consumer tech commentary, delivered in a sassy-but-informative writing voice.

There are many permutations of the welcome email sequence. If you’re setting yours up for the first time, I recommend you start with a five-email sequence delivered over a total of 10–14 days. You can certainly do more or less — there are writers out there whose sequences stretch on for weeks and months — but five is a healthy start.

I also personally make a small sales pitch in my fifth email, then cool my jets for a bit, so I want people to hear the pitch during our “honeymoon period” so they at least know what the heck my offer is in case they want to sign up now or later. If I wait multiple weeks or months to sell, I risk being tuned out and never getting to pitch at all because of lower open rates.

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Elements of a welcome email sequence

Before we dive into the sequence, I have one caveat. If your subscribers get a free gift or opt-in bribe when they sign up for your list, that email should be sent out immediately and before any of these other emails. Think about it: If you just told people you’re going to send them a checklist of secrets or a body fat calculator or a free copy of your book, you’ve framed them into focusing on this freebie, and they only care about this freebie for the time being. Deliver the goods, then start fresh with storytelling in a new email.

Email #1: “The killer share”

I used to use my opening email to talk about where I went to school, why you should follow me on social media, how I grew up in rural Illinois, blah blah blah. No one cares. The more superficially you talk about yourself, the less connected people feel.

Now I do the complete opposite, and go for the jugular with one of the most vulnerable shares in my arsenal (How the shame of being gay continued to run my life years after I came out). I like to call this a “killer share”. It’s raw and personal, and I always feel a vulnerability hangover, so thankfully my email account sends it automatically for me. Unless you’re the absolute leading expert and guru in your field, you’ll see more longevity from your list when readers connect with you as a person first and as a subject matter expert second.

Remember: Different is better than better. There are lots of consultants like me who talk about working online, so I need a way to differentiate myself, and opening with a story about being a gay dude who burned out of music conservatory and still battles shame triggers does the trick. If readers have a problem with it, they’re not your people, and they can go elsewhere. Often I get replies from readers saying “I had a similar experience when I was young,” which are the types of experiences you want to elicit from your list.

Email #2: “Lost and confused”

People are on your list to learn from you. You know what you know — but surely there was a time or experience where you were lost and confused and learned the ropes? Take us to that moment, and you’ll connect with your readers in a way that relates to your subject matter expertise. This can be a new personal story, a continuation of the previous story, or both.

Think about the humble beginnings we know and love. Oprah was fired as a news anchor. Basketball legend Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school team. And Mark Cuban was fired from his job as a computer salesman, which was the last time he worked for someone else. What did they do next? What did you do next? Take me there.

Email #3: “What you stand for”

Do you feel that certain practices in your industry are B.S.? Is there something the public is largely ignoring that would actually make a big difference? Or perhaps you just have strong, passionate opinions and vision for a particular subject? Show off your methodology here, even if it goes against the grain.

Readers want to know you have a point of view. By delivering this email early on in your new subscriber experience, you’ll show your audience that you’re willing to fight for what you believe in. Everyone loves a hero. You don’t want squatters on your email list; you want to forge real connections, and a welcome email sequence will do that automatically.

Email #4: “I was here, and now I’m here”

Show me your transformation from point A to point B. As an alternative, you can also show the transformation of another person or a client. Highlighting details are important, but more readers lean in when you describe what life felt like for the protagonist then and what it feels like now.

This is where a lot of writers mess up! Copy that shares a real-life transformation needs to both persuade readers that you navigated from point A to point B successfully and convince them that they can do it too. The latter often gets missed, because it’s harder to deliver, and the result is a hollow, “I’m better than you” feeling that we want to avoid. Telling readers you or someone else had great results is nice, but when they’re motivated to jump up from their desk and create the same kinds of results for themselves, you’re onto something.

Email #5: “The next step readers should take”

If you sell something, do it now. If you don’t sell anything, but have a community or a social media platform you hang out in, tell your readers about it now. The tone I like to strike in this email is direct and informative: “Here’s a little more information about how to go deeper with me if you’re interested.” Most of your subscribers won’t take you up on this offer, but some will, and others may take you up on it later.

You know who will never take you up on your offers? Readers who sign up for your email list, don’t know much about you, and stop opening your newsletters after a few weeks. If your products, programs, services, and content help people, it’s your responsibility to make people aware of their options — show those assets off. A welcome email sequence helps people come to like you and trust you so that they’ll be forgiving and even interested in your pitch. And in case I haven’t said it enough, this sequence is automated; you write it once and you’re done. Set yours up sooner rather than later.

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