One Great Way to Build Your Email List with Bud Kraus

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Lately on this show we’ve been focusing on big picture stuff, but it’s really the small changes that make a big difference. Proof of that is Bud Kraus. He was trying to grow his newsletter and got nowhere….until he made a small change that grew it over 1,000 people in one year. Bud spills is secrets in this episode and tells you how you can do it too. 

Show Notes


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Intro: Hey, everybody, welcome to Episode 190 of How I Built It. This episode is brought to you by Yes Plz Coffee, TextExpander, and iThemes who you’ll hear about later in the show. Now, lately on this show, we’ve been focusing on big picture stuff, but it’s really the small changes that make a big difference. Proof of that is Bud Kraus. He was trying to grow his newsletter and got nowhere until he made a small change that grew it to over one thousand people in one year. Bud spills his secrets in this episode and tells you how you can do it too.


We’ll get into that in a minute. But first, a word from our first sponsor.


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And now back to the show.


Joe: Hey everybody, and welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, How did you build that? Today my guest is Bud Kraus. He is the Chief Education Officer at Joy of WP. We’re going to be talking about how Bud grew his email list by over 1,000 subscribers in one short year. Bud, how are you today?


Bud: I’m doing great, Joe. Tremendous. Thank you for having me on.


Joe: My pleasure. Thanks for coming on. I’m really glad that we connected and you talked about this because I think it’s really interesting. I think a lot of people struggle with growing their email list. And it’s such a valuable tool for anybody running their own business. So we’re going to get to that in a minute. But as I mentioned at the top of the show, you are the chief Education Officer at Joy of WP. Why don’t you tell the listeners a little bit about who you are and what exactly that entails? What do you do?


Bud: Well, at heart I’m an instructor. At my site,, you can go there and really learn WordPress for free. I have over 50 videos there. They’re organized into different courses. I also do site development too. I usually work on small sites for individuals, businesses, small organizations. That’s my kind of thing.


Joe: Nice. Very nice. So you do a little bit of the doing and then you do a bunch of the teaching?


Bud: That’s right.


Joe: Great. You said you’re an educator at heart. What made you start creating these videos? Did you teach in the classroom at first or did you always just start with creating videos?


Bud: Well, I’ve been teaching web design…in 1999, I started. So it’s way back.


Joe: Wow,


Bud: In the very beginning, I never realized we would be where we are in all this time. Then I did gravitate to WordPress. So I stuck with the HTML and CSS as far as training goes. Over time, I was doing less and less in class and I started doing things online. I was going to be teaching online, and then it just didn’t really work out. So I decided, “Hey, I really have a great material, I have a great way of doing it, why don’t I just put this online?” Then I thought, “Well, that’s really ridiculous. This is what you get paid for.” And therein is really the beginning of the story.


Joe: Interesting.


Bud: Go ahead. I’m sorry.


Joe: Oh, no. No problem. Let’s just stop there for a minute. Because you’re self-employed, and Joy of WP is your business?


Bud: Right.


Joe: So you started putting out these…these are free WordPress courses but there’s some way that you need to pay the bills, right?


Bud: Yeah. It was sort of very counterintuitive, but I sort of used the WordPress model. In other words, give as much stuff away as you can for free. If we were baking a cake, give away the cake, but charge for the icing.


Joe: Got you. Got you.


Bud: I just looked at the WordPress model. How did Matt Mullenweg do it? How does everybody do it? They give away, they give away, they give away, but they charge at a certain point. And that’s what I had to learn how to do. I had to learn also, you know, I could give away content. But I wanted people to subscribe to my newsletter because that would be my way to keep in touch with people and for people at least to see on a weekly basis, my name, my company, what I do. But how was I going to make all that work? That was really the question. I finally figured it out. And that’s what I’m here to share today.


Joe: This is great. I think you touched on already a couple of important points. Building your mailing list is a way to stay in front of people even if they’re not ready to buy. They see your name, they see what you’re doing. And then when they are ready, you forged that relationship.


I did have a whole episode with Angel Marie from ConvertKit about the importance of list building. So I’ll link to that episode in the show notes over at How I built It. But what you’re going to give us is a bit of practical knowledge and experience. Because building my subscriber list is something that I’ve really struggled to do. So let’s start with what you were doing that wasn’t working. So what wasn’t working?


Bud: Well, I was doing everything that everybody does that doesn’t work, which was you just put out a form on your website and say, “Subscribe to my newsletter.” Now, come on. No one needs another email. That’s just not going to work. Somebody’s email is like money. You’re going to have to give them something of value in order for them to give you that coveted email address. That’s where all the two courses and the 50 videos came in. I said, “Well, this is going to be a value.” So I sort of did it, like, “I will show you five or six videos, and if you like and you want to go on, you’re going to have to give me your email.”


But here’s what I did wrong. I wasn’t aggressive enough, I wasn’t forceful enough in getting them to subscribe. So I actually gave them an option. In order to see all the videos I gave them an option, “yes” or “no” to subscribe to my email. Big mistake. Because I turned out about 40% of everybody who wanted access to other videos, they didn’t want my newsletter. Well, that was defeating the whole purpose. That was defeating the reason why I created all these videos.


So I got smart. One day I woke up and I go, “Okay, I’m going to force you to give me your email address.” So out went the “no” option, and the “yes” option was pre-selected. Then there was a very big highlighted text that says, you are going to get access to all this good stuff but you’re going to also be taking my newsletter. And if you don’t like it, you can unsubscribe, it’s easy. I use Mailchimp, all that kind of stuff. And it worked. Of course, it worked because you get 100%. There’s no more option to say no, they must take the newsletter in order to get access to the content. So here’s a little…


Joe: Hold on. Hold on. We’re getting ahead of ourselves now. I want to kind of parse this out a little bit for those who might have been half listening and then you said something that really struck a chord with them. You were offering some of these videos completely for free and then you basically said in order to proceed, “I would like you to sign up for my newsletter, but you don’t have to.”


Bud: That’s right.


Joe: Some might argue…I’ve had my brother’s friends and stuff like that they’ve told me that they think the pop up on my website is stupid and they hate it. And to them, I say, “That works. I am providing value for my content, I’m giving them bonus stuff for signing up to my newsletter. I need them to sign up for my newsletter if I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.” It sounds like you came to the same conclusion. Like you said, an email address is basically money these days. And if people are going to consume the content that you’ve put a ton of work into, they need to give up their email address. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable approach. And it sounds like the people who signed up did too.


Bud: Yeah. Of course what happened is I branded the email as the WordPress Big Three. I told them it comes out almost every Sunday, three ideas that they could use for their website to improve their website or learn about SEO, or whatever I thought that the general sort of newbie, new user to the experience of using WordPres, what they could use. Then I started thinking like, “What am I building this list for?” You’ve got to think of that. And you’re going to try to monetize, right? Of course.


So maybe you would give away—and I’ve tried this in varying degrees of success and failure. I’m still working on it—private training. So if you want some private training, that’s what’s going to cost you. Or maybe I’ll give you a discount to review your site. I’ve done different kinds of things. Like I said, in varying degrees of success.


Now, one thing I did this year with the mailing list is to do a free webinar on website security. I have found that the more people I can get myself in front of, the more likely it is somebody is going to say, “Hey, would you work on our website.” That’s the key. And in this era, what you really can’t get out and get in front of people, in front of groups, this is about the best thing, this is the only thing you can do.


One thing I want to say in general is that when you build your mailing list, you’ve got to start thinking of the why am I doing this, what am I going to do? And whatever it is that you’re telling people you’re going to do, you’ve got to deliver. So if you say, “I’m going to do an email once a month,” you’ve got to do that once a month. Just get in the habit of doing it, whatever it is so people can start to expect it. And you build a following. It’s just funny. I sort of call them groupies, that they email me back, or they ask questions. This is exactly what you want—that whole engagement factor—with your audience. So it’s a work in progress, but it’s really cool to see that the idea worked.


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Now back to the show.


Joe: I think that understanding why you’re starting your mailing list should really start with the lead magnet. Because I’ve done things in the past to build my mailing list, I’ve joined giveaways where maybe I gave away my course to somebody else’s list or I gave away a set of books that I really liked that built my list. But those were all bad leads, essentially. People only signed up for the free stuff. And then they were never going to become a customer because they wanted the free stuff without really knowing, liking, and trusting me.


But my podcast workbook lead generator is great. People sign up for that. I send them weekly tips on podcasting, and stories, and content I’ve written and they stick around. My newsletter that went out this week, I had like a 30% open rate, and like 10% Click rate, which is generally good for me, and zero unsubscribes. So starting with the why means that you’re getting the email addresses of people who actually care about what you’re doing, right?


Bud: Yeah. I’m also eventually going to try to build a paid course. Very inexpensive. I don’t really want to say here what it is, but I don’t think there’s a lot of it out there and I think there’s a need for it. I’m going to try that. Now one thing I did try and it was very successful actually with the list that I built, was just at the beginning of the pandemic, I said, “Hey, I know everybody’s sort of stuck in front of their computers, and they’re starting to work on their websites and stuff. I will give you an hour free consultation time or whatever, just get in touch with me.” It was overwhelming. I mean, I was slammed with all kinds of.


And not only that. So you say, “Well, again, free?” I got paid customers out of that. I didn’t even expect it. So that’s the kind of thing. That email list is gold. I mean, show me a business that’s got zero on their email list and they have no subscribers, and I will show you a struggling business. Show me a business that’s got thousands of subscribers, and I will show you a successful business. It’s just that simple.


What isn’t simple is the strategy to bring in the qualified leads. Use your website as the lead generator. How do you go about doing that so that you’ll get them to sign up? In my case, it was building content that people would want to see, and then they would subscribe. Of course, from my standpoint, and this is not really related but a little side note, which is, what’s very gratifying is I get a lot of people coming back to the site over and over and over again to see the videos. So that tells me it’s good stuff.


I really get gratified when I see somebody a hundred times. I either think they don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, or they really like it. From all over the world. It’s really cool. So it’s very gratifying also to know that your voice has been heard around the world. I’m sure you feel the same way.


Joe: Yeah, that’s really nice. Somebody actually told me that I was talking and they recognized my voice, either from the podcasts or from courses I’ve done, which is like wild. And I’m so sorry that my voice is ingrained in their head that much. I mean, it’s very rewarding. I love hearing stuff like that.


Bud: Sure.


Joe: Let’s ask the title question here. How did you build it? So you mentioned Mailchimp. I’m really curious as to how you quote-unquote, “paywalls” these videos. People could watch a couple for free, then they sign up, and then they get access to the other ones, right?


Bud: Yeah, but there’s no pay videos as of the moment.


Joe: Sorry. When I say paywall, I really mean how do you secure the videos for only people who signed up?


Bud: I used the plugin Restrict Content.


Joe: Nice.


Bud: So that was the way that they get access to. I mean, it’s all sort of built with band aids. I use LearnDash for the LMS. There’s another plugin that’s a companion to it called Uncanny Owl  toolkit which extends what LearnDash does. Then I have the Restrict Content plugin. Now, though, I’m sort of retooling everything to make it a little more sophisticated and to start build the whole idea of my account and things like that. I want people to log in, see their account, see what courses are free, and then see what’s coming that’s going to be paid. Just to get them used to the fact that, there’s going to be paid courses eventually. Not a lot, because it’s so hard to do this. I mean, if I can do one, it would be a miracle at this point.


Joe: Yeah. It’s a ton of work, right?


Bud: Sure, it is. I mean, people don’t understand—and you certainly do better than most—the amount of planning and preparation and work it takes to build an online class. And especially knowing that most of this stuff can’t be evergreen, as much as we would like it to be as course developers. Things are good. If you’re doing anything with WordPress in Gutenberg, good luck. I’m holding off now because I know huge changes are coming in six months. Even though my videos are getting dated, it’s just nuts to start redoing everything now. This is just not the time to do it. So I don’t know when will be the time, but I’m hoping after five, six that we could do that.


Joe: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. That’s really interesting. One more clarifying question here is, when people sign up, they’re actually being made a user on your website, right?


Bud: Correct.


Joe: Okay. Go ahead. Go ahead.


Bud: Usually people now expect my account and stuff like that. We don’t really have a page like that now. They’re just readers. They sign up, they log in, and then they go to a page that has a listing of all the videos on the site.


Joe: Got you.


Bud: Which is about the only thing I could think of. But like I said, I’m retooling that and trying to personalize it using GravityView.


Joe: Nice.


Bud: So just something like that.


Joe: GravityView. That’s Zach Katz? Is that right?


Bud: It is. I’ve just become friends with Zack. He and I are in touch.


Joe: Nice. Full disclosure. GravityView sponsored an episode. Gosh, I think that’s right. That’s absolutely right. GravityView sponsored this show previously. So full disclosure on that. And of course, thanks for the support.


Bud: Great.


Joe: Awesome.


Bud: Can I just say one thing about GravityView? Can I say one thing about it real quick?


Joe: Yeah, yeah.


Bud: For those of you out there who might be using Gravity Forms, I always look at GravityView as the plugin that finishes when Gravity Forms starts. That’s a pretty good way to start. Because you know you can’t display entries very well on the front end of your site. But with GravityView, that’s exactly what you can do. It makes it possible to display entries in the way you want on your site.


Joe: Great. That’s fantastic. It sounds like you have a…I mean, you say band-aids, but this is a pretty interesting setup here. You have something up, it gets connected to Mailchimp. You’re running your courses through LearnDash, you’re using Restrict Content. I haven’t explored the latest version of LearnDash yet, but I think their groups have turned more to memberships. So now if people sign up. You can enroll them in certain courses automatically. You might not even need Restrict Content anymore. That’s something I’m considering because I’m using WooCommerce subscriptions and WooCommerce memberships. And they are great, great plugins. Just my annual renewals pay for them. So it’s not like I don’t see the value.


But if I can lighten the load, and I do have a custom function that essentially says, “When somebody purchases a membership, add them to a LearnDash group, I had to write that code, if I don’t have to write and maintain that code anymore, that’s that would be really fantastic.


Bud: Yeah. I know what I want to do. I just don’t really think that the paid course that I’m working on is really going to bring in a lot of money, but it’ll bring in some. It will get me away from the fact that everything is free. Now, that’s another issue. Because once people start thinking that everything is free, you know this drill I’m sure, that a large percentage of those people will never buy a thing from you. But that’s the way it works. We just have to live with that model. You just have to focus on the people who will pay for what you do. And that’s it.


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And now back to the show.


Joe: I’ve talked about this with a few of my friends and other people in the WordPress space. But I feel like in open source communities, you feel it a bit more, right. So like WordPress, Android, people want everything for free. Unfortunately, it just can’t work that way because you and I are doing our best to make a living, put out our best work and we should be compensated for that. I would say to anybody who doesn’t want to pay for stuff, do you expect to show up at your day job for free because the company doesn’t want to pay you for the work you’re doing?


Bud: Well, but I’m also of the mindset with the people get things for free. If I get something for free, I want more stuff for free. I mean, I get it. I get exactly the way they think because I think the way they do. But I’m also the kind of person that supports plugin developers, and will buy the pro version. I’ll do all that kind of stuff because I’d like to think I’m a huge supporter of primarily plugin developers. Because without them, how am I going to do any of this stuff? I can’t. So I understand it.


Joe: I am more than willing to pay for an app or a plugin or a service to make sure that it sticks around. I do these app lifetime deals from time to time. I’m like, “Well, I’m rolling the dice here, because I’m paying 60 bucks for a lifetime for a plugin. There’s no way that they can support me over five years. So I hope I’m funding their development enough that they could build a good business off of it.” But I also know that they might be gone in the year and that’s the risk I take.


Bud: Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting I still also teach live online. And that is not free. That you have to pay for. But I do that through third party services, educational service that teach businesses and organizations or whatnot. So I still do. And people say, “If you have all these videos that are free, why do I need to take your class live?” And the reason is because my live stuff is better. My live stuff is more up to date. Stuff that’s recorded is older. That’s the way it’s always going to be.


Joe: Yeah, absolutely. And you know what? Somebody said that to me, too. Like, “Why would I buy your course when it’s all free on YouTube?” But I’m like, “If you don’t see the value of taking a course that I put together in a way that will help you learn and stick the landing for your podcast where you get access to me, you’re not my customer. Keep scouring YouTube and wasting your time and spinning your wheels, and I’ll cater to the people who see the value in my work.”


Bud: And let me just say, Joe. Not that you need a plug for me, but I’m going to give it right now, which is Joe you’re such a fabulous teacher. You know how much I’ve learned from you and all the material that you have predominantly I’ve seen on LinkedIn Learning. That it’s just a fool’s errand to go looking for the stuff on YouTube that Joe does on LinkedInLearning. Because there’s a huge difference between that and listening to somebody who takes you step by step through a process of learning about custom post types, or PHP and WordPress, and things like that. It’s just worth it. It’s a waste of time to scour YouTube for all this. It just doesn’t work. It does to a point, but it really doesn’t.


Joe: Right. And thank you very much for those kind words. If we’re talking content strategy here, I do put a lot of free stuff on YouTube. But you know what? First of all, I shoot the video, I edit it, and I upload it. Nobody else looks at it before I upload it. And if you comment on a YouTube video, I’ll do my best to respond eventually. But I might not be able to answer your question. Nobody has vetted my knowledge.


My most popular video on YouTube right now is how to set up my Sony A 6400 camera as a webcam. I did it, I followed the steps. I watch other YouTube videos and I feel like those YouTube videos left stuff out so I made a video. And people were like, “what about this?” I’m like, “I don’t know.”” I just did what I did with my camera. There are digital photography courses that you can and should pay for that’ll tell you everything.


On LinkedInLearning, I write the scripts, my producer reviews the scripts, I record the videos, my producer reviews the videos and the editing team edits the videos, and then the course is beta tested. So if something’s confusing, then the beta tester comes back to me and my producer and says, “Can you clarify this? This seems to be missing?” So I mean, the quality control is much higher for courses like that versus just finding someone off YouTube videos.


Bud: I don’t have anybody, I don’t have a staff to…I don’t have beta testing…


Joe: My personal sites too. I mean, my creator courses, I don’t have the staff. I have to hire an editor. But I have friends and maybe some of my members test the course if they want, but they’re not obligated to do that.


Bud: And everything you do, not for LinkedIn Learning, but just out of curiosity, your personal, do you always read from a script?


Joe: No, very rarely do I read from a script.


Bud: Can I just say something really quick? I was very self-conscious of this. I asked a whole bunch of people before I started ever going into recording videos. I can’t use a script because I’m visually impaired and I can’t read the words. So I asked a whole bunch of people, “Is it okay if I just do this live?” And everybody said, “Of course.” And I realized when I do it in class, I’m not reading a script. I know it’s a different experience. And it turns out a lot of people tell me they love the fact that I’m just talking natural and not reading from a script. Because I know the material so well, it’s fine. It comes out good.


Joe: Absolutely. There are various schools of thought on that. I don’t read from a script because, like you, teaching stuff I know really well. I will edit if I need to if it’s not live. Our friend Shawn Hesketh at WP 101, I know his process very well because I’ve made videos for him too. With those, he reads from a script. I read from a script. His videos are very smooth and very choreographed. That’s why he’s the leader in WordPress education. But I think that for him, they absolutely need to be that way because he’s talking to basically people who have never seen WordPress before, or who at least don’t know it well at all. So Shawn wants to make sure he hits all the points. He very clearly demonstrates how to do things.


For my programming videos, I can assume I’m talking to a slightly savvier audience, and I don’t need it to be as chor…I’m not going to say as polished because my videos are polished. But as choreographed necessarily.  I’m sorry. I’m talking, you’re the guest. But to that point, I do script out my videos. I just don’t read from them verbatim.


Bud: Right. Obviously, I make notes and I know what I’m going to do before I do the video. But I don’t read a script when I’m doing them. A lot of people say it’s just I have more of like a folksy slower. And they like it. If it’s very fast, they have to play it over and over again. In my case, because I go a little bit slower—and my audience is a little older too—then they don’t have a problem with it. So, good.


Joe: Yeah, absolutely. This has been great. We’re coming up on time, but I do want to ask you two more questions. The first is, if somebody is sitting here today thinking, “Gee, I want to grow my email list to over 1000 subscribe. How do I do that?” Where do you recommend they start?


Bud: I hope it’s more than a thousand a year. I’m personally working on getting more than two or three a day. But that’s a whole nother conversation, obviously. Here is the trade secret. Is that the right time to bring this up?


Joe: Yeah. Do you have any secrets for us?


Bud: I’ve sort of alluded to it already. In order for you to get a user to surrender their email address, you must be willing to create content that the user would otherwise have to pay for. That is the trick. That’s essentially what I learned is that your content has to be so good, it has to compete with paid content. And that’s when they’ll do it. That’s the best I can say. I just look at what competition is doing and how good it is and polished and all that other stuff and I’ll say, “Okay, I have to give it my best shot. These guys are getting paid for it. That’s not my model.” But I just realized it has to be so good.


Of course, I’m going to give you my email address. I don’t have to pay for this. So if there is a trade secret that I’ve learned, it is…When I talk to businesses about setting up because everybody says, “Well, I want to have a subscription. I want to have an email list,” I say, “Whoa, stop right there. What are you willing to do? What are you willing to give up that’s of value to you?” You’re going to really have to basically rethink your business now. Because now you’re going to give away for free what you used to charge for. That’s a serious discussion. That’s like rearranging everything. And that’s really what it takes. That’s what it’s going to take.


Joe: Absolutely. I love that. You must be willing to create content the user would otherwise pay for. I think a good analogy here is probably the free lunch at WordCamps. Right? You pay 20 bucks and then you say, “Oh, lunch is included.” So it’s technically free because you’re paying to attend the conference and great content. But if lunch is bad, you’ll hear about it or people will end up paying for lunch anyway. So you know that. I mean, you were WordCamp city organizer. Your lunch was great. It was a very fancy lunch by the way.


Bud: Well, it better be considering what we pay for.


Joe: Right. Right. We are really cognizant of that too at WordCamp Philly, and we wanted to make sure that we were doing right by…


Bud: And it was good.


Joe: Absolutely. I think that’s great. Bud, thank you so much for joining me today. Thanks for your time. Where can people find you?


Bud: Well, at Easy enough to remember. Don’t say Joy of WordPress. That’s where people get a little messed up.


Joe: No copyright violations here.


Bud: No, I skirted away from all that. Or


Joe: All right. I will link to both of those as well as everything we talked about in the show notes over at Bud, thanks so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.


Bud: Joe, thank you very much for having me.


Outro: Thanks so much to Bud for joining us today. I love how focused and clear his story was. He provided all of the tools that he recommends and uses and his trade secret. You must be willing to create content that the user would otherwise pay for. I think that’s so important. You can’t just repurpose free content and try to package it up. You need to add value for your users.


Thanks to this week’s sponsors: Yes Plz Coffee, TextExpander, and iThemes. You can find all of the show notes and learn more about them over at And if you want to get episodes delivered directly to your inbox along with content tools, recommendations, be sure to sign up for the Build Something Weekly newsletter. You can do that over at as well. Thanks so much for listening. And until next time, get out there and build something.

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