We build businesses. Even little ones.

We build businesses.
Even little ones.

“Ack!! When should I tell my list?”

Here’s a question we’ve had a lot over the last few weeks. (Fellow blogger writer consultant types – have you noticed how these things tend to cluster? Is that just me?)

Somebody with a small to moderate following and a small to moderately popular blog has something happen in their personal life. Experience says this is almost always a divorce, but this month’s examples also include a pregnancy and a significant change in personal direction.

Because this event seems like – and in reality, often is – the biggest thing to happen in recent memory, we want to tell the people we know. This is what a few million years of living in tribes will do to you. When you get pregnant, every other cave woman wants to know why she hasn’t been told already.

When you run an online business, there’s a very good chance that a large part of your social interaction comes from the internet. The intimacy you have with your clients, your customers, and even your blog readers or newsletter subscribers often surpasses the intimacy you share with people you know locally.

Because of this, holding on to a “secret” feels… weird.

Adding to that, we are often pseudo-social with people, online or otherwise, in ways that are not particularly authentic. If you haven’t seen somebody around in a while, you’re likely to ask where they’ve been, regardless of whether or not you’re actually interested. We were raised to believe it is the polite thing to do.

You, to group: Hi.

Relative stranger in group: Oh my GOD!!! I haven’t seen you in forever! Where have you been? What’s going on?

If this is your best friend from high school, they probably do actually care about where you’ve been and what’s going on in your life. But in most cases, we say these things to people whether we have an affection for them or not. It’s a social contract.

Because of all of this, if you leave social media for a few days, or you stop blogging as frequently for a few months, you’re going to get emails or Facebook notifications that read something like this:

“Oh my GOD!!! I haven’t seen you in forever! Where have you been? What’s going on?”

As you go through this significant change in your life – your divorce, your crisis of faith, your infertility treatments and subsequent pregnancy, whatever – you’re going to get a handful of those emails. And then, the next time you and I are on the phone, you’re going to ask me…

“When should I tell my list?”

Here is the answer.

Tell your list when there is a valid business reason to do so.

It is a nearly inescapable facet of human nature, the thinking that others really want, or need to know what’s going on in our lives. We think this way not because we are selfish and solipsistic beings – well, not only because we are selfish and solipsistic beings, anyway. We think this way because other people tell us outright that they want or need to know what’s going on in our lives.

The challenging thing to realize as an ittybiz owner is that while your email list is friendly, they are not your friends.

And while a small percentage of them are extremely friendly, the rest of them you couldn’t pick out of a police line-up. They’re not even kind of your friends.

You only hear from the 1% that are extremely friendly. This, naturally, gives you a distorted view of the list as a whole. The 99% who just read your blog or subscribe to your newsletter are people whose names you will probably never know.

Other than the small handful of people you know online who are legitimately your friends – these are the people whose home phone numbers are in your iPhone contacts and would not think it was weird in the slightest for you to call them on a weekend – none of these people are friends. They are not granted the same access as your friends, no matter how friendly they are.

Think of it like this. When you work in an office, there might be a few people who are your genuine friends. Those people get told you’re having a baby or getting divorced or engaged in a crisis of faith when you would tell your friends. This probably means right away, and privately. They get the drama, the blow-by-blow, the dirty details.

Then there are the people who are friendly to you, but not remotely your friends. Your direct supervisor, your contact in HR or billing. You laugh and joke in the break room, but they’re not friends. Those people get told when they need to know, and when any drama has passed.

Then there are the people who you don’t really know at all. You know their name, but only because it’s written on the sign on their desk. Those people are never told outright, but pick it up through contextual evidence after the fact. When you haven’t been to the office for a year and come back bleary-eyed, they assume you had a baby.

The media has conditioned us to believe that the public needs to know. We can thank the National Enquirer for that one.

The time to tell your list when there is a valid business reason to do so.

If you’re running a business, the public only needs to know when they need to know. That is usually never if the news is bad, and after the fact if the news is good.

If you’re on your chiropractor’s mailing list and they’re going to be off from September to December because they had a baby, this is something you need to know.

If you’re on your chiropractor’s mailing list and their mother died, or they got divorced, or they rediscovered their Jewish heritage – or, God help us, they’re wondering if chiropractic is really for them after all – you never need to know.

So, since you’re not a chiropractor, what should you do?

  • If you are running a pure personality brand – you’re a mommy blogger, for example – then yes, tell people as soon as you want. They’re reading to get a behind-the-scenes look at your life, and only to get a behind-the-scenes look at your life. If that’s you, though, you probably knew that already.
  • If you’re not going to be running the workshop you always run because you’re going to be on maternity leave, by all means, tell them that. They need to know that the workshop schedule is changing, and babies are nice.
  • If you’re not going to be running the workshop you always run because you’re too messed up after your divorce, tell them that the December workshop is cancelled and for the love of God, leave it at that. Resist the urge to give any reason at all. Nobody cares.
  • If you have something that nobody needs to know but they might find interesting and you feel like working the information into existing communications as an interesting side note, feel free.
  • If you can’t figure out how to work the information into existing communications without it looking awkward, that’s because it’s awkward, and you probably shouldn’t do it.

The public only needs to know when they need to know.