Fabric designer Bonnie Christine never guessed that she would be running a million-dollar business someday.
“I was crafty growing up. I loved to draw, but I wouldn't have considered myself an artist at the time,” she says.
“I made enough progress for me to see it actually happening, and that definitely kept me going.”
She started blogging and creating designs in 2009 and hasn’t looked back, fashioning interactive courses for beginners, a design community, and partnering with brands. “I found success as a designer first, and then I had the opportunity to teach,” she says. “I never set out to be an educator, but it has totally been incredible.”
But it wasn’t always so easy.
Realizing that she was missing something after six years of building her business from the ground up, she went back to the basics: her email list. In 2017, 4,100 visitors subscribed to her list through her website—but only 6% of them ever opened her emails. “I remember feeling like the whole world was talking about email lists, and I just could not wrap my head around how to grow or engage my list,” says Bonnie. “I buckled down in October and started a nurture sequence for the first time. Within six months, I had 7,900 subscribers and increased my open rate to 58%.”
That was only the beginning. Bonnie has doubled her email list each year since then, up to 62,000 subscribers. How? By focusing on people first.
A people-centered marketing strategy that doubled her email list 5 years running
Bonnie knows that she’s not selling designs, or even her course—not really. She’s selling a dream.
After her first online teaching experience in 2013, student after student kept contacting her. That’s when she knew that she was onto something more. “It gave my students permission to follow a dream that they had never had permission to follow before,” she says. “I kept hearing these stories of women with big obstacles they had to overcome that were now making money from their artwork, which was a dream come true. That’s where I started to find my way.”
Putting the emphasis on community first means that her entire business model revolves around best serving her ideal customers. The more she focuses on her students and the surface pattern design community, the more the business comes together. “I keep thinking, it's not possible, and it just keeps being possible,” she says.
I never have to hold back from serving my community because it does work, and it does make money, and I can do it in a way that’s true to me.
Free content offers at the heart of a winning email strategy
Give your prospects a reason to like you, know you, and trust you before asking them for a sale. For Bonnie, that means offering free content upfront. “Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s not strategic,” she says. “I want customers who want to go deeper with me, who understand my teaching style. That’s why I start by serving them great content.”
Four content offers anchor the rest of her marketing program by funnel location:
- Awareness: A top-of-funnel mini-course on creating gift wrap, just in time for the holidays
- Nurture: A five-day challenge for current subscribers on creating your own repeating designs, similar to the mini-course
- Lead Generation: An in-depth, 52-page ebook covering every possible topic on surface pattern design (and drove 22,000 leads in 2020!)
- Conversion: A course preview that leads directly into the next cohort of launches. Around 11% of students convert directly into the launch.
Her full-length course requires commitment and a level of interest that takes time to cultivate. Says Bonnie, “First, I need to educate my ideal customer that surface pattern design even exists. Then, I let them get familiar with my teaching style and Adobe Illustrator. Finally, I want to give them a big win. For the first course, for example, we’re literally taking doodles and creating a repeating pattern, and we're ordering gift wrap with it. But I want them to feel what it feels like to hold a product that they designed.”
Ultimately, the prospects that consume her free content make better, more engaged students—and that’s where the magic happens. “The people who come through the course really understand how much more there is, and the depth of it,” she says. “You have to know that you like the way someone educates before you decide to commit to a bigger course with them.”
I want [students] to feel what it feels like to hold a product that they designed.
— Bonnie Christine
Bonnie deploys these content offers at scheduled times throughout the year using ConvertKit, based on how close she is to launching her next cohort. “All of this is completely free. There’s no sales pitch, and there’s no offer,” she says. “You have to have something that works first. You have to know your ideal customer inside and out. You have to know their heart, you have to know what keeps them up at night, and then you have to have something that truly serves them.”
What drives leads is a combination of offers that directly speak to her ideal customer and paid promotion that gets them in front of more people. She averages $2.20 CPL for ads on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest—but she didn’t run ads right away and never runs them for her paid products. “When you know that you're getting the right person, and you really are able to change their life, then you can promote with paid traffic and everything scales at a bigger level,” she says.
You have to win hearts and minds before making an ask. You need to have a relationship in place with your subscribers—where you’re delivering them value and building trust over time—before you can go all-in on asking for a purchase. The key is that everything delivers immediate value while setting subscribers up for her nurture sequences.
Nurture sequences that keep subscribers interested
Once Bonnie figured out how to truly help her ideal customers make progress, she realized her time horizon for conversion wasn’t as simple as sending an email and making a sale. The majority of her students convert after two years on her list. “For my last course launch, 20% of students joined the email list two years ago, and 73% of them joined within the last twelve months,” she says. “I think a lot of people will take a no and just move on to the next lead. When I get a no, I really feel like it's probably not yet.”
In ConvertKit, she uses a 10-email nurture sequence across her entire list until course launch. For anyone who doesn’t join that year’s cohort, she sends a 12-email series, one per month, to keep them interested, as well as one-off campaigns throughout the year promoting her free offers. “My launch really starts six months before I ever open cart with my email sequences,” she says.
I prefer to get people on my email list well in advance, because I want to have plenty of time to nurture them. That's intentional because nobody wants to be added to a list, and then immediately sold to. It’s gonna be a firm no.
— Bonnie Christine
Her email campaigns primarily focus on engagement. Take, for example, a recent campaign designed to promote her latest course launch. Called “Surface Pattern Made Simple,” she focused on the biggest questions and objections students often have. In a five-week email series, she sent video lessons via email on Mondays and then did live Q&As on social media on Fridays.
“Since my primary goal was to increase engagement, I asked students to reply to the email every week. And I incentivized that reply by giving them an extra offer to anyone who told me how things were going,” she says. “This warmed up and reengaged my list right before the launch so they were excited and the emails were more likely to go to their inbox.”
While Bonnie uses plenty of automations for her campaigns, this wasn’t one of them. Sometimes, the things that don’t scale really can pay off. “We were sending over 500 emails a day because we personally responded to every single email that came in. We were drowning in emails, but it was worth it,” she says. “Several people have been surprised that we responded.”
When you surprise your audience, you get surprising results. We very much still want to be humans, on the other end of everything we do.
— Bonnie Christine
A tailored experience that mirrors her course community
Being human means meeting her subscribers where they’re at, and focusing on value rather than sales. Just like how her course community offers various levels of experience and interest, her email program doesn’t try to be everything for everyone.
That starts with a segmentation program in ConvertKit. Based on subscriber behavior, Bonnie and her team gain all the information they need on the back-end while designing their nurture flows. “I use a million different tags in different ways. People who have the planner have a tag and people who have taken a mini-course have a tag, and so anytime that I want to communicate with a smaller group of people, I can just pull it.”
For her Surface Pattern Made Simple campaign, tags helped deployment stay organized so that she didn’t drop brand new leads into a tailored campaign meant for subscribers. “For my Made Simple series, I emailed everyone on week number one and tagged them, so I don’t add anybody to a sequence in the middle of it,” she says.
ConvertKit’s tagging also keeps subscribers in control, giving them the option to opt out of particular campaigns or mini-courses they may already have taken. “One of my favorite things to do with ConvertKit is give subscribers a way to snooze any particular campaign that they're on,” she says. “At the bottom of the email, they can just click here to snooze a series or campaign but stay on my list for regular updates.”
Once they snooze, Bonnie adds a tag so the next campaign is more aligned with their interests.
That same logic goes for re-engagement sequences and marking which emails subscribers have already received. Says Bonnie, “I often tweak the sequences depending on when they come in and how they come in. For instance, when I ran ads to the ebook right before the course started, I didn't put those leads on the main nurture sequence. I put them on a shortened version that would basically give them everything they needed to know to make a decision before launch.”
How to use ConvertKit to grow your email list
Doubling her email list every year took a lot of focus, and meant leaning into process, rather than outcome. It’s not just about email—but about putting your community and customer at the center of everything you do, whether they purchase from you or not.
It comes back to giving them time serving them with free content, and then I would just say, trusting the process. To grow your list confidently, you do have to trust what you're doing.
ConvertKit makes it easy to build your email list with confidence. Try your free ConvertKit account and start growing your newsletter today.