Jessica Wicks

Starting small is the only option


List building is a widely talked about topic in the online marketing world. Amidst conversations about the six-digit lists that the digital giants have, us mere mortals can’t help but feel ashamed of our small (or non-existent) lists.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. It’s something that you and I have in common, and I hope it will help you move past any list building shame that’s holding you back from sharing your knowledge with the world.

Are you ready?

When I started my facebook page, I had zero likes.

When I created my website, I had zero visitors.

When I first began offering services, I had zero clients.

When I launched my email newsletter, I had zero subscribers.

Want to know something else? I started out the exact same way that everyone else did.

Everyone starts at zero.

You’re probably thinking: hello, captain obvious.

Rationally, we already know that everyone starts at zero. Unless you are the child of a celebrity, you’re probably starting with a pretty small list. Sure, your mother or best friend might subscribe right away, but in terms of people you actually want to build your community around? Zero. Zip. Zilch.

Yet emotionally, starting at zero makes you feel vulnerable – especially in the online space where the number of likes, followers, and comments you have is visible to the world.

One thing you have to remember to move past the insecurities is that unless you put yourself out there, that feeling is never going to change.

When I realized that, I finally took the plunge and hit publish on my Facebook page. I began sharing my blog posts on websites other than my own and interacting in online groups and communities, helping any way I could.

See, I had been feeling ashamed for years. Here I am, someone who has been working within the marketing world for seven years, and my list size is nearly non-existent. Who am I to tell anyone how to grow their community when I have just 17 Facebook page likes? My only newsletter subscriber? Myself. Trust me, it’s hard to put time and energy into creating content that no one will ever read.

I am qualified, of course. I’ve lead teams to build multiple four- and five-figure communities for my clients. I have a degree and graduate certificate. Maybe more importantly, I am passionate about continually learning. I just never wanted to publicize my teensy tiny numbers until they grew, but they couldn’t grow until I took the leap and put myself out there.

The one thing that you and I have in common with the biggest names on the internet is that we all start small.

List size isn’t everything.

OK, truth is, the size of your list does matter. It’s just not all that matters. The type of people on your list and how you interact with them count for a whole lot more.

When I was just getting started as a freelancer (in the early days of businesses using social media), I helped a client build a large online following. The numbers were good and the sales weren’t bad either. You know what was terrible? Community engagement. Customer loyalty. Sure we had built up a big list of people to sell to, but they weren’t sharing us with their friends or commenting on posts. You can bet that they would still shop around whenever they needed a product that we were selling.

As a result, there was no momentum to the list growth. If the client wanted to keep growing, they needed to keep paying more and more. Sounds great for me as the marketer, right? But the truth is, my team was bored and frustrated. I had done what I was hired to do, but knowing what I do now I wish I could go back and tackle that project differently.

I’ll take slow and steady growth over a flash in the pan any day.

When you’re focused on list building alone, you miss the importance of finding the right people and converting them into evangelists. What does that mean exactly? It means I’d rather have a small community of people who actually care about the content I’m putting out (and that I can learn from in return) than a bloated list of people who send my emails straight to the trash or hit unfollow when they see my posts on Facebook.

Does this mean you shouldn’t bother trying to grow your tribe? Heck no. Marketing is a numbers game, and part of being able to grow your business (and help people solve their problems) is having more people know, like and trust you. More people who love what you do translates into more referrals, higher conversions, and better sales.

The trick is to actually connect with your followers in some way.

A small list is an opportunity.

THIS is your chance. A small list gives you the opportunity to really get to know each person in your community – what problems they face, where they look for solutions – as they get to know you. Once it grows, it’s hard to get that same level of intimacy and provide the same attention.

You know what happens when you nurture those first few people? They continue to show up, and they help you nurture the newcomers as your tribe grows.

Join my list.

I’m not desperate to grow my list. In fact, I don’t even want you to join me if you care more about making money than running a rewarding, sustainable business.

If, however, you are a small- to mid-sized business owner who is looking to improve your marketing by actually rolling up your sleeves and doing some work – please consider joining me in one of the following ways:


Finding and using free stock photos


Why should you use free stock photos?

If you do any type of content creation for your business (and you should), you probably need some imagery. Whether it’s a blog post, social media, or even an advertisement, images get people’s attention. They also cost money – as they should. Photographers can’t pay the bills with your gratitude.

Yet the cost of purchasing images multiple times a week would be pretty prohibitive for most businesses.

After all, the content you are taking the time to write and publish is giving away your knowledge for free. Luckily, there are many websites out there where photographers are giving away their goods for free as well.

Of course, there are some different rules depending on what type of license the photos have. It’s always best to read the license page on the website or the agreement for each specific photo. Generally, I like to look for photos with the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license so that I have a lot of freedom to use the image however I need to, and reuse it in the future if I wish.

At the time of writing, each of the websites I list is free for personal use – although there are a few with some specific rules (e.g. don’t take their photos and sell them on your site). I would like to think these rules are common-sense, but we obviously have copyright laws for a reason.

Here are my current favourite free stock photo sites:

(Feel free to bookmark this page for easy reference)

Choosing free stock photos

Now, knowing what sites to look on is not enough. Actually finding free stock photos that will complement your content is a whole different ball game. There are significantly less to choose from compared to paid, and it can take a little creativity. I usually try to think of a handful of visuals that might suit a specific need.

As an example, I’ll use a blog post about quitting your day job.

It would be unlikely that you’ll find a photo of someone handing in a resignation letter on a free stock photo site. You might need to get a little more conceptual with what the underlying concept of quitting a job might represent. Going to work for yourself might mean freedom, making space, or represent a journey in your life. Or we could go a little more literal and look for photos that represent work – an office, work suit, desk, etc.

You might search for words like freedom, sky, office, home office, suit, desk, quit, journey, work, coffee shop.

Editing the photos

Once you’ve found the photo of your choice, you may want to edit or brand it. For instance, my blog photos are always covered with a layer of transparent colour and a title of the post using a font from my brand. Editing also has the added benefit of making your free stock photo look at least a little more custom. It’s a bit embarrassing when you realize that you’ve used the exact same image as another blog in your industry.

I do this using Photoshop because I’ve used the program for over 15 years now (yikes!). For clients who just want to create a simple template they can use over and over, I suggest Canva for editing your photos. You can use an existing design style or customize it to better suit your needs.

Leave a comment if you know other quality free stock photography websites and I will add them to the list.

P.S. I am planning to write a counterpoint article about when and why you should use custom or paid stock photography. I will link to that post here once it is published.