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Stop Renting the Internet. Start Owning It.

January 3rd, 2024 | 4 min. read

By Ian Harber

stop-renting-the-internet-start-owning-it

You can own only three things on the internet: domain names, email addresses, and Bitcoin. Since we’re probably not ready for the discussion around Bitcoin, and domain names are simple enough—you can just go buy one on GoDaddy or something similar—let’s talk about email addresses.

Renting Social Media

There was an era of the internet between about 2014 and, well, now, when the thing that everyone chased was a high follower count on social media. It makes sense why that was the case. Followers are relatively easy to get if you know how to work the system. You can reach your followers just by posting a tweet, photo, video, or story, and you get immediate feedback through likes, comments, and reactions. Not only that, but follower counts are public. There is clout that comes with having a lot of followers. Whether it should or not, it gives us a sense of validity. If lots of people follow us, surely we have something to say worth listening to. Plus, from the other side of the screen, pressing the “follow” button is easy. It’s a low commitment to make when you see something you find interesting on the internet. You can always unfollow later if you decide it’s not for you. It’s not crazy to default to trying to gain followers on social media.

The problem is that you don’t own that follower count; the platform does. Meta, X, and TikTok own that data. You don’t. Which means that you are beholden to their rules. If they decide to change the rules—as all of them have done recently—you are directly impacted by that change.

Elon Musk wants to reward paid users and punish free users? That affects you.

Instagram wants to switch from a social graph to an interest graph? That affects you.

TikTok wants to push longer videos instead of shorter videos? That affects you.

As a church or content creator, if you solely rely on these networks to distribute your message, you are a renter on rented land that you can be unceremoniously evicted from without any warning. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them. They’re great for finding an audience. But beware of building your entire strategy around platforms that you don’t have any control over. It can be taken from you on a whim. You need to stop renting the internet and start owning it. And the only way you can do that is with email addresses.

Start an Email Newsletter

You need to start an email newsletter. It’s not as exciting as social media—there’s no quick growth, no public follower counts, no instant feedback—but it’s the most important thing you can be doing if you want to build something on the internet that lasts. When someone gives you their email address, they’re not casually following you; they’re trusting you with their data and giving you permission to send them your content. They haven’t just added something to their already endless feed; they have opted in to you because they find something valuable in what you’re doing. That level of trust is qualitatively different from what you get on social media. It’s a trust that requires a different level of stewardship as well. You can’t just fire off any thought you have in the moment. They expect more from you, but that also means a higher level of investment in you.

As of today, no social network allows you to export your followers and take them with you to another platform. That would go directly against their business goals. An email list is entirely different. You own your email list.

If you decide you want to delete your social media altogether, you still have your email list.

If you don’t like one email service and want to switch to a new service, you can export your email list and take it with you.

Your email list is yours. Full stop. Nothing else on the internet can promise you an audience that can’t be taken away from you. The best time to start building an email list was 20 years ago (well done, Tim Challies). The second-best time is today. It’s time for you to start an email newsletter.

Let’s quickly answer a few questions about it.

What should I use?

The easiest thing to get set up is a Substack. You can have it up and running in a few minutes, and it serves as both a public blog and an email newsletter. It’s an incredible service that I use personally. The downside is that you only get email addresses and not all the data that would be helpful for you to have—mainly people’s names. But you can start building an email list immediately, and their built-in discovery services are extremely well done. Other great services are Mailchimp and Constant Contact. A new up-and-comer worth checking out is Ghost. We use HubSpot, but that’s because we’re managing a large database with multiple clients. You probably won’t need something that robust for a while.

What do I put in my newsletter?

It depends on what you want to do. This newsletter is obviously how-tos and think pieces on faith and technology. On my Substack, I write shorter reflections on faith and deconstruction. But maybe writing short (or long) articles isn’t for you. You can also curate links and resources in a weekly round-up email that builds your reputation as a helpful source of content on a relevant topic. If you have a podcast or YouTube channel, you can also use your newsletter to let people know when a new one has dropped. That way, if they miss it in their feeds, they’ll see it in their inbox.

What Does Growth Look Like?

If you’re consistent, email growth is slow and steady. Here is a chart of my personal Substack growth since I created an account. I think you can tell when I started writing consistently (answer: August 2022). I haven’t written every single week, but I have written most weeks since then, and it’s produced steady growth ever since. Being consistent is the most important thing you can do. Keep putting something out week after week that people find valuable.

In email marketing across the board, the average open rate for emails is 21.33 percent. On social media, the typical post reaches less than 10 percent of your followers. On my personal Substack, I haven’t had an open rate below 50 percent since November 2021… when I had seven subscribers. The importance of taking your audience to a platform that allows you to engage more intentionally with them, and them with you, can’t be overstated. 

Start Now

I may have significantly fewer subscribers to my newsletter than Twitter followers, but those who have subscribed to the newsletter are much more valuable in the long run than those who follow me on Twitter. They have trusted me with their inboxes and the responsibility of stewarding their attention well. If Elon ever shuts X down, I’ll still have access to those who support me the most.

Make 2024 the year you invest in your email list. What you invest in it this year will pay dividends for years to come. You have the opportunity to stop renting the internet and start owning it. The best time to start is now.

Ian Harber

Ian is a marketing manager at Endeavor and is a digital marketing practitioner with 10 years of experience. He has written about faith and technology, deconstruction and reconstruction for The Gospel Coalition and Mere Orthodoxy as well as appearing on podcasts such as Reconstructing Faith, The Alisa Childers Podcast, Love Thy Neighborhood, The Living Room Disciple, Everything Just Changed, and more. Additionally, Ian has contributed to the book, Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church (TGC, 2021) and is the author of an upcoming a forthcoming book about deconstruction with InterVarsity Press (2024). Ian lives in Denton, Texas with his wife, Katie, and son, Ezra and is a member at The Village Church Denton.

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