It's hard to build influence at work when you're nowhere near the top. I know. I've been there.

But there's an easier way to grow authority at work than by getting promoted, hiring more people or absorbing other teams.

The easier way is: email lists. Let me explain.

Why start an email list

Most people try to grow influence at work by building an organisation underneath them. This is the old way of building direct power through authority.

But this traditional approach has a lot of problems.

Firstly, it takes a long time. Years, or maybe decades in an older company.

Secondly, it takes a huge amount of investment into your career, one that you don't definitely want to make — our priorities change over time.

Thirdly, hard authority is fickle. People under you will come and go. They'll resent your authority. Others will try to snatch it from you, including people below, beside, and above you.

And finally, there's the responsibility and the administrative burden that comes with authority. You are directly responsible for inevitable failures, and you have to do bureaucratic things like sign people's leave requests. Boring!

Why put yourself through this torture? You need different strategies.

Enter the email distribution list.

At most workplaces, the email distribution lists ("distros", also "listservs" to old-timers) are woefully misused. They're used for boring company announcements, glib reminders of someone's birthday, or meeting invites for the "all-hands" meeting (another misused opportunity for another time).

If those were from anywhere else you'd hit "unsubscribe". So how do you change that?

The answer: start your own email list that's useful, relevant, and interesting, and grow it yourself.

How to start your own awesome email list

In most companies it's easy to start an email list. Firstly, you can just email ten people and say "I'm starting an email list doing this, want to be on it?" and you'll have your first five-ten sign-ups.

You can start it as a simple BCC list to start with. This will work for up to 25 or 50 email addressees, depending on the email system at your work.

In many companies, you can start one through official channels by asking the IT department.

Principles for running world-class email lists at work

Here are a few principles for how to run internal email distributions to make them your best asset.

Treat every email address in a work email list like a golden money-making resource.

Your email list is gold.

Imagine you were collecting email addresses for your business, an online store selling cat collars. Every subscriber is a potential customer for your cat collars! And every unsubscribe hurts you.

If this were the case, your email list size, open rates, click-through rates and other metrics would be measurements of how you make money. (See below for metrics you should use to measure your work email list effectiveness.)

The same is true at work. Those email performance metrics don't impact your salary directly, but they impact your effectiveness as an individual.

When you're building an email list that people don't have to subscribe to, you are building an audience. That audience is your field of influence, as long as they a) stay subscribed, b) read your content and c) forward your content on to others.

So start doing some of the basic hygiene anyone does in the online business world.

Firstly, keep your distribution list private. It's an exclusive list. People have to ask to join. This means you're less likely to be spamming people, which is never a reputation you want to have.

Then, when people ask to subscribe to your list:

  1. Thank people for subscribing to your list.
  2. Show them some past archive information of your most useful posts.
  3. Ask them why they subscribed and what they're interested in seeing.

When people unsubscribe, ask them why. No need for a magical automatic form — most lists are small at work (under 1,000), so emailing each one directly will be easy.

These are things every business owner does outside work. Use these strategies and see how they can serve you.

Control the email's audience, limiting it to those who'd care.

An easy way to lose your audience is to keep it too vague and broad. You have to write to your audience to read your email and then take action. This means that for them to trust you, you have to write specifically for your audience and nobody else.

Imagine you were writing an email on "How to fix a bicycle, make coffee and sell your things on eBay". (Yes, I was inspired to write that example by my day's to-do list.) Who do you send this to? Everyone! Who reads it? Nobody! Except maybe those who think that the title is ridiculous. But they probably won't act on it, because that desire to read (humour) won't inspire action.

Instead, if you wrote an email like "A non-techie's guide to fixing your mountain bike in fifteen minutes for free" and sent it to 100 self-starting non-techies who ride mountain bikes, the vast majority will open it. And then they'll open your next, similarly well-targeted email.

Having a well-targeted distribution list makes it more likely to grow. Because people will have water-cooler conversations like

  • "I heard about this cool new thing about fixing bikes."
  • "Oh yeah? Where'd you hear that?"
  • "On Dana's email list for bike fixers, are you on it?"
  • "What? I didn't even know about it!"

Remember, keep asking for feedback from people about your list. Are your emails too long? Too unstructured? Too wordy? It's easy to cater to a variety of audiences.

In the commerce world, business owners ask people to unsubscribe if they don't find emails relevant. This keeps open rates up, and costs down. You don't have to go this far, but have the same mentality in your head.

Always send emails that are helpful, interesting and new. Never send emails that are boring.

Let me repeat this: Never send boring emails. Always send emails that are helpful, interesting and new.  

Interesting means relevant to the audience. Helpful means it'll help them be better. And new means they haven't heard it anywhere else before.

Whenever writing anything down in an email, put it through the wringer to make sure it passes a number of tests.

  1. Is the content helpful, interesting and new? If not ALL of those, don't send it.
  2. Is there a better way of communicating the content? Like a meeting? If not, don't send it.
  3. Have you answered all the latent questions people will have about the topic? If not, go out and find the answers.
  4. Have you made it fun to read? Jokes, one-liners and pictures are all welcome as long as they're not superfluous. If not, add in just enough to keep people reading.
  5. Is it too long? Cut out every single word, sentence, paragraph and section not necessary to convey the message.
  6. Is it too complicated? Rewrite it, simplifying every idea so anyone can understand it. If you can't, then you don't understand it yourself.
  7. Is it too wordy? Replace words with words of one syllable. And keep cutting out words you don't need.
  8. Is it unstructured or hard to follow? Add headings, an index and emphasis of important topics. (Don't be obnoxious about emphasis, it's not a sales pitch.)
  9. Acid test: Would you want to read this email?

The above takes a long time to do. Throwaway emails that would have taken 15 minutes suddenly span into days, because you have to do so much research to keep answering people's latent questions. Guess what? You were going to have to do this research and work anyway. This is your job.

The result is a punchy, useful, interesting and helpful email packed with new content that people are going to want to read, write back to you about to thank you and forward on to other people.

Again, the best part is: you're just doing your job. But you're suddenly doing it better than people expect.

An important side note: make sure nobody else can send to your email list, to make sure that people consider it a trusted resource. If anyone asks if they can send to your list, ask them to send the content to you and forward it. Make sure you have to approve everything sent to the list.

Measure results (growth, opens, clicks) with the right tools.

Finally, after doing all of the above make sure you're measuring your results.

Marketers do this with their email lists, but it's easy for you to do it too.

If you're new to email lists, you want to measure three things:

  1. List size growth rate. Measure both additions and cancellations (unsubscribes). Your net growth rate is important, but you also want to know how to maximise additions and minimise cancellations, so you have to know what's driving each.
  2. Open rate. The percentage of subscribers who open your email. This is related to a) how effective the subject message is, b) reader experience with past emails and c) how well-targeted your group is.
  3. Click-through rate. This is really a measure of 'action': are you effective at getting members to take action? That's really the only purpose of writing work emails: to take action.

You can manage your email list using a number of tools out there, like Zapier, Google Sheets, Google Forms and so on. You can even put a simple CRM like Streak straight into your Gmail — presuming you use Gmail at work (something becoming more and more common).

I personally use two tools:

  • Mailtrack, which costs $10 a year. This lets me see when people have read my emails by sending a tracking pixel along with them.
  • YAMM (Yet Another Mail Merge), which lets me send personal emails to long distribution lists, using Google Sheets as the source for the emails. This is good for email lists of up to 1,000 or so. More than that, and you probably should have a Google Group or equivalent set up at work. This costs $28 a year.

At Lyft, I used their Google Groups feature. This meant I didn't have to use YAMM there. I still used Mailtrack for their cool analytics.