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Email Marketing 101: How To Actually Use Your Mailing List

If you are confused about the differences between social media and email marketing, read this guide. I will teach you what you need to send your email list.

Good news, you read that email marketing is more powerful than Facebook and Twitter for getting people to buy your game and so you signed up for an email marketing service. But now you are thinking, what am I actually supposed to do with my email list? 

Well luckily I am here to give the missing instruction book for email marketing. Follow just half of these steps and you will be light years ahead of most developers and be well on your way to creating an energized fan base who will download every single one of your games day 1 and leave you glowing reviews. 

At the end of each step I include a super easy “Action to take" that you can do today that will show you immediately how awesome email marketing is. 

Step 1: Understand what email marketing is good for and how to think about it.

Unfortunately I see many indie devs use email marketing just like another form of social media. They essentially email a longer version of what they already posted to Twitter and Facebook and usually a few days later. Social media and email marketing are very different and serve different purposes. Knowing this distinction will help you when deciding what to post where. 

Social media is very good at saying “look at me! Look at me!” to people who have no idea that you exist. It is a discovery platform. Using hashtags and getting retweeted are the best ways for new people to find you. However, once they know about you, social media becomes less useful because it is really bad at getting people to actually act on what you want them to do (such as going to Steam to buy your game)

Email will never help new players discover you. It is, however, very very good at turning those mildly interested folks who found you on social media into die-hard fans who will buy every single thing you make the day it comes out. 

There are many stages someone goes through when they first hear about you. Social Media makes them aware, but mailing lists makes them true fans. Note that sad social media line puttering out after someone is aware (Face icons courtesy of the classic GamePro review scale)

The reason Email marketing is so effective is because it appears as a 1 to 1 conversation between you and each subscriber. Your email goes right to your fan’s inbox with their name in the “To” field and your name in the “From” field. Social media, on the other hand, is like using a bull horn from atop a soapbox while you yell to a largely anonymous audience. Email on the other hand is personal and is most effective when you pretend that you are writing it to a single close friend. Never write in an email that starts “Hi All” or “Hey everyone.” Instead say “Hi Mary.”

A helpful way to think of email is to pretend your list is your company’s fan club. Social media is where your fair weather fans live, but your die hards they know that, to get the real scoop, they need to belong to the email list. With that in mind, your email marketing should be where you share the more nitty-gritty details about your game, yourself, and your company. Share stuff here that you don’t tell any of the other social media platforms. People stay subscribed to your email list because they know that they get the inside information that cannot be found anywhere else. For instance, The Beatles ran a fan club where they would send out personal records with special messages to their fans. Here is one of their fan-club-exclusive Christmas Albums. Listen to how they speak personally to this group:


Action to take: 
Send an email to your list this week and write it as if you are emailing a close acquaintance. Remind them who you are and just tell them a game that influenced you to make the game you are currently working on and why you liked it. Then, ask them what game they recently played that they really liked. That’s it. 
For example
“Hi, Chris here, I am making a platformer that takes place entirely on one screen. I got the idea while playing Toad’s Treasure Tracker. I loved how it was like playing a tiny self contained world where I could see everything I needed to do at one time. I want my game to also feel so self contained. Have you been playing anything recently?”

Step 2: Setup your email template 

Your emails should NOT have complex formatting with a bunch of HTML, graphics, and multiple headline levels. Remember how I said this is supposed to feel like an email with a friend. How many times do you email your friends with all that crazy graphic design? I bet it is just a regular old text email.

When you send emails with complex formatting and HTML, it looks like an email you get from a huge corporation trying to sell you something. Remember, you are a small scrappy indie studio. Embrace it. Use regular text.

In Mailchimp chose the Basic 1 Column or 1 column full width template.Who has ever recieved a non-sales email with more than 1 column. BLECH! Don't use those multi-column layouts.


Don't pick the MailChimp option called "Plain Text" because that option removes the tracking pixel that allows the MailChimp software to know whether the recipient opened the email or not. It is very important feature so make sure you don't pick the option "plain text."

Action to take:
When you are writing your email that I told you to do in Step #1, pick the “basic text” option in MailChimp. Do include a small version of your logo at the top of the email or next to your signature. That visual cue will help remind readers who you are. 

Step 3: Write single-subject emails

Every email you send should have only one action that you want the reader to perform. Don’t send emails with multiple sections that each have their own links. These omnibus emails announcing a discount, telling me about a new blog post you wrote, listing new merch, and then finally telling me to join your Discord are confusing. By the end of reading it your audience will not know what to do and just close the email. If you really want your reader to do something, send an email that is about only the one action you want them to perform. For example this should be your email:

“Hi <subscribers_name>, Chris here, I just setup a Discord to discuss my game with a bunch of other players who are discussing strategies and setting up matches. You should join it. Here is a link. [Button: Join Discord]” 

There is no question what you want me to do with an email like that. Yes it means more emails but they don’t take long to read, and you are much more likely to get the action you want done. 

Action to take:
A week after you send your question email, send a second email that just tells them the forums you use to connect to your fans. Is it a Discord, a slack channel, a dev log on Touch Arcade? Whatever it is, send them there. 

Step 4: Get people to join your list

Very very few people are just going to give you their email address for "news and updates." However, you will greatly increase signups when you hand out a small freebie as part of the ask. The giveaway item is emailed as soon as they confirm their email and is theirs to keep even if they immediately unsubscribe. This little giveaway is called a “lead magnet” and is incredibly powerful. 

That little blue guy might be barely aware of your game, but he is willing to give you his email address if you give him a cool gift.


There are two places you should have a giveaway:

  1. From your public-facing marketing material (website/social media/youtube)
  2. From within each of the games you have released. 

Outside your game

Your lead magnet has to be something digital (so they can download it) and appeal to the type of gamers who like your genre of games. It also has to be tangible and immediate. It should feel like an "impulse buy” for the person considering your list

Here are a few ideas for lead magnets. Again this depend on your type of game and what resources you have.

  • Your game’s original soundtrack 
  • A PDF ebook of your game’s concept art (good if you have great artists on the team)
  • A short story set in the game’s universe (useful lore-heavy RPGs)
  • A guide with a chart of all the character’s moves (if you have a fighting or brawler game)
  • Level maps (if you have a metroidvania or adventure game)
  • A hint guide (if you have a puzzle game)
  • A free downloadable game that you made (can be a game jam game or one that you made a while ago that is not selling as well)

In a future blog post I will cover how to configure and advertise your lead magnet. But basically you need to use your email marketing service to auto respond and send an email after someone joins your list. That email will have a link to download your lead magnet.

From within your games

Adding an email signup to your marketing material is good but adding it to your games is even better. Few of your potential customers actually go to your website. They are more likely to find your games and download them straight from Steam/App store. 

Lead magnets are also much more effective in the game because they can be used immediately. Here are some ideas in-game lead magnets. Configure it so players can ONLY get these things if they join your mailing list. 

  • Unlockable characters
  • Special bonus levels
  • Special weapons
  • Developer commentary

If this is your first game and you are months away from releasing, consider taking a short break to release a free micro-game that has a signup for your list. 

The developers at CROWS CROWS CROWS used this technique by releasing the totally free game Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald. The game takes about 15 minutes to beat and then ends with the following message to join their mailing list. 

This is a great way to reach your fans. However two quibbles with their implementation: They don’t provide a form within the game (every extra step you make people go through will cost you signups) and they don’t give you anything of value. It would have an order of magnitude more successful if they did something like at the end of the game say

Join the WORKERS AGAINST UNSAFE WORKING CONDITIONS and fight this injustice. Tell me where to send the application [email input form]

Action to take:
Come up with a list ideas for things you could giveaway that would be attractive to your target audience. Upload one of them to a server or dropbox. Then, from your email marketing service, setup an autoresponder email to send out a link to this giveaway. 


Step 5: Setup automated emails

So you now have a steady stream of folks joining your mailing list. What do you do with them? Do you start giving them the hard sell to your games until you get every penny you can? NO!

The people who signed up for your mailing list in exchange for the lead magnet are what is referred to in the sales world as a “cold prospect.” They most likely know nothing about you. They probably got to your website because of an article on some gaming website or they may have seen a screenshot you posted on Twitter. Your mission now is to “warm” them up so they are more receptive to you when you try to sell them your next game. 

So how do you warm them up? Basically, by giving them a tour. If you have ever looked at buying a house, what is the first thing the agent does? They show you around. They let you look in the closets, turn on the water, see the back yard. Similarly, if you were ever considering going to college, there is always a tour given by a super perky student who shows you the beautiful campus, the recreation center, the dorms. You need to basically give a virtual tour of your studio and your games for new subscribers. 

To give a tour, you use a feature that is built in to almost every email marketing service called “email automation.” It is also referred to as an “auto responder.” It might sound complicated but it is just a series of emails that you pre-write and then configure to be automatically sent to a recipient based on some triggering factor. The most obvious trigger is “subscribed.” Once triggered, your pre-written emails are sent on a schedule you specify to just that person.

That happy yellow guy is not in the general population of your mailing list until he complete the emails that are sent as part of the auto responder. 

Here are some topics that you should cover in your automation sequence

  • Who you are. Get personal so that your reader will empathize with you and want to follow what you do.
  • Who else works at your studio. Again get personal. Even if it is just you and a dog, introduce her.
  • The ups and downs of your studio history and any awards or sales records that you hit. Social proof is very powerful in the minds of your subscribers.
  • What the mission of your studio is. If you have always fantasized about getting a famous website like Kotaku or Wired to write a glowing profile of you, don’t wait for them to come to you, write your own.
  • (If they joined your list through the signup form you built into your game) Tips for playing and getting a high score.
  • Finally, at the end of your automation sequence, describe and link to the other games you have made. 

You might have missed it but I just started the sales process. In your last email you described all the games you made and you conveniently included a link to the Steam page. If the subscriber has read all of your previous emails about who you are and what your studio does and didn’t unsubscribe, they are now “warm.” They like you and are receptive to your message. If you send them a link to one of your other games they are quite likely to buy one of them.

This email automation process is what makes email marketing so powerful. You are able to make sales of your games without doing anything on a day-to-day basis. All you had to do was write these emails once then configure the sequence. Your mailing list is making sales 24 hours a day that you would never have earned otherwise. Social media just can’t do this.

Just remember what I mentioned in steps #2 and #3: keep these emails personal, casual, and without any formatting. You want to make it feel like a conversation.

Action to take:
Log in to your email marketing service, and write just one email profiling who you and the other people at your studio. Configure it to fire when someone new joins your list. See how this performs and who reads through it. As you gain confidence, add more emails and tweak them to increase the number of people who open them.

Step 6: Send emails to your general email population

After the person has gone through the automation sequence and they receive the final email, your email marketing service will automatically move them to the general population of your list. Now whenever you send a new (non-automated) email, the people here will get it.These are called “broadcast messages” because everyone gets them (as opposed to the automated emails that arrive based on original signup time.)

Look at all those warm little guys sitting in the general mailing list pool.

If you did your job right with automated emails, everyone who comes off your sequence is “warm.” They have heard your message, learned about who you are, they might even be playing your game that lead them to join your list. This is a special time. Your goal now is to keep your list “warm” so they do not forget about you. The conventional wisdom is you need to email your list at least once every two weeks to keep you and your studio fresh in their mind. 

That sounds like a lot of emails and a pain to be constantly selling your audience on your games. It is a lot but you are not selling to them. The secret to these broadcast emails is to always give your audience more than you ask from them. The rule of thumb is that for every one email you send asking your list to buy something, you should sent three emails that give them something of value. This email ratio is also referred to as “give-give-give-ask” or the “jab-jab-jab-right hook.” The “right-hook” being a proposition to buy your game. The reason you give away so much stuff is that you want your audience to be excited to open your emails. If you give more than you ask, people get used to your kindness. When your emails appear in their inbox they should be clamoring to open them because they know that you have something good to give them. Entertain them! 

But you say “I can’t think of anything good to send them to keep them entertained every two weeks for an entire two year development cycle?”

Mid Essay Peptalk
You are a game maker. You are an entertainer. You are in showbiz. You have a magic ability to arrange 1s and 0s in such a way that human animals can derive pleasure after being exposed to them. We are all some sort of dark summoner of entertainment and joy. Now Act like it! And use some of that black magic on emails

If after that pep-talk you still can’t think of anything, I wrote a mini e-book on 87 ideas for emails. You can download it here.

Bottom line: just entertain your list more than you ask them to buy your stuff. 

Action To Take:
From the past month, compile a list of all the changes you committed to your game’s source control and write them up in a really entertaining way. Email this to your list as a status update. 

Step 7: Tell your list to buy your new game 

Releasing a game is the number-one reason why you go through all the trouble of email marketing. Remember that people are 10-times more likely to click on a link from a trusted email than from a Tweet. You can use this insane click through percentage by telling your list to buy your game. 

If you followed step #6 you have given a lot to your audience without asking much of them. Now that your game is for sale, it is time to ask them to help you. Thank them for being a fan and for being with you during the hard development process. They stuck with you through it all. You are finally delivering on that promise and giving them something great.

Your general launch strategy should be to mobilize your army of list followers and get them to buy. However most people are lazy and procrastinate. To get them to move you must create a sense of scarcity and a fear of missing out. You do this by launching your game with a limited-time discount. While on sale, you need to regularly remind your list that the sale is ending soon.

Here is the general sequence…

The first email goes out a week before launch. Tell them your plans about what the launch discount will be and how long it will last. Link to your store page (if live before launch.) If your game is on Steam, tell them to wishlist your game and explain to them why that is so important. Tell them how the stores work and how if they buy it day one the store will think your game is awesome and push it to the top of the “hot” charts. 

The next email you send the microsecond after your game goes live on the store. Send a very short email with a strong call to action and a button: “Buy my game.” Don’t do anything else. You want this email very direct, very clear.

A third email goes out on the last day of the sale. Make the subject line direct. Something along the lines “Last day to save X% on <game_title>.” Tell them the sale is almost over and that you don’t put your games on sale very often. Provide a “Buy it Now for X% Off” button. 

How many times have you seen a game on sale but didn’t buy it thinking “I will pick it up later after I see all the other sales.” This email is to catch those fence sitters who probably said the same thing but forgot to go back to the store to pick it up.

Finally, email a few hours before the sale is over. Include a button that says simply “Final chance to buy on sale.”

I know this sounds excessive but in my experience I receive the most clicks that result in a sale on this final email. People are procrastinators and wait for the last moment to buy. You need to remind them as many times as you can. If you still feel weird doing this you can target specific subscribers who have opened but never clicked the “Buy it” link.

This constant, firm, but friendly cascade of emails is the best way to activate your followers who have been loving all the emails you have sent them over the years. You will see a significant increase in the number of purchases you get on the store. 

Step 8: Put your game onsale

At some point you will run another discount on your game post-launch. The process for alerting your list to a sale is almost the same as the process for a game launch. Emphasize that this sale is a limited offer and remind them over several emails that the sale is ending. And remember, the last email you send will always outperform all the others before it.

Frequently Asked Questions 

What if I have multiple games, How do I structure my list?

If you have one game, your automation sequence is pretty easy. Describe your game, describe your studio then dump them in your main list. However, what should you do if you have multiple games?

Create a short automated sequence for each game. Then, if the reader has only played one of your games, start them on a second automated sequence that describes your studio. After that sequence is complete, dump them in the general list. 

If the reader has already played one of your games (you know this by tagging them earlier in your email marketing service) just dump them in the general list.

Do not create separate lists for each game. Instead use segmentation to tag players with the games they have played (this is a feature in your email marketing service). The reason you want one big list is that you get charged by your service for each subscriber. If you have someone who has played both games they would appear on both lists and you will get double charged. Your whole goal is to get people to buy all your games. If you have one list per game you are going to be over-charged. 

What happens if I built a list long ago but never emailed them?

That makes my heart sad. Those subscribers who wanted to hear from you were ignored. They have gone cold. They have forgotten who you are and if you send them a message asking them to buy your game their first reaction is going to be “Who is this?” and then unsubscribe and delete your email.

You need to win them back. Write up a “come back to me” email sequence and have it start sending to everyone on your list (not just folks who have recently registered). Your first email should give them something awesome as a “I am sorry I forgot about you” gift. Soundtracks work wonders. So do cool graphics. If you know how most of your subscribers joined your list, remind them in that email why they signed up. For instance “My upcoming game was covered by streamer XYZ and you found your way to my list because you were interested in my game." 

Quickly transition in the next emails to who you are and what your studio is all about and what game you are working on. 

When you run this sequence you will get lots of unsubscribes just because your list has gone cold. It is worth trying anyway because there will be a few glowing embers under that pile of ash. After your sequence runs, delete everyone who only opened one or fewer of the emails in your new sequence. Now start down the long but rewarding process of getting new subscribers. 

Additional Resources

The US Federal Trade Commision published this helpful guide describing how to not violate SPAM laws.

Can you recommend an email marketing provider?

I don’t have experience with many email providers so I can’t tell you which one is best. Just make sure your email marketing service provides the following features

  • Charge you by the number of subscriber you have not by the number of emails you send.
  • Supports Email Automation
  • Allows you to add subscribers via an API so you can integrate signups into your games. 
  • Support segmentation (sometimes called tagging) so you can set what games of yours each subscriber has played. 

I use MailChimp (I am not in love with them but they do a decent job) 

Here are some others that I hear good things

  • Convert kit
  • Awebber
  • Drip

Wrap up

You need to do the following with your email list:

  • A lead magnet to increase the number of signups
  • A series of automated emails to introduce yourself and to warm up the subscriber so they are receptive to your future emails.
  • A steady stream of emails (at least 1 every 2 weeks) in which you are mostly giving away cool stuff that can only be obtained by joining your email list.
  • (When you release a game) Multiple emails reminding folks that they don’t want to miss out on your sale. 

I know this sounds like a lot of emails to write. It is. But in return you get an army of followers who will buy your game on day 1, which in turn makes your store page look like the hottest game and get you featured by the store, which causes new people to find your game, which causes them to join your list, which turns you into a surging avalanche of customers. 

If you still need help with ideas for what to send to your list, I wrote a book with even more details than this essay and an easy to read collection of 87 emails you should send out. Download it for free here.

If you are interested in my other articles about how to use your email list try


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