So you want to start an email newsletter.
You want to build an audience, to reach people with a similar interest, to maybe some day turn all this Internet dreamin’ into a paying gig. Email’s the way to get it done, I’m told.
Email marketing yields an average 4,300% return on investment for businesses.
When consumers were asked which medium they’d like to receive updates from, 90% preferred an email newsletter, while only 10% chose Facebook.
And if you’re into clickthroughs, email’s got that, too. Email clickthrough rates are 6x that of a tweet.
Why not send a newsletter, right?
I’ve had a lot of fun experimenting with a brand new newsletter here on my site, and I’d love to let you behind the scenes on how it all came to be. My newsletter journey is an ongoing one (shameless plug: you can join the list here), and I feel even slightly odd sharing anything about it yet. I’m no expert, just an experimenter.
That being said, sharing stuff—every little tiny detail that might be helpful—is kind of why I got into the newsletter business.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Here’s the gist of what I’ve learned so far about how to start a newsletter.
How to Newsletter: An Overview
I’ve linked up each of the sections above if you’d like to jump straight to one or the other. And if any questions come up at all, feel free to drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. :)
1. The Foundation of Your Newsletter
Why do you want to send?
SEO company Moz has a company culture defined by an acronym, TAGFEE:
- Transparent & Authentic
At Buffer, we aim to follow 10 cultural values that help drive our organization and the decisions we make—and the content we produce. Helpful, positive, actionable with an eye toward self-improvement and clarity.
These values help define these companies. And these values help define their strategies, not just for high-level OKRs and Big Hairy Audacious Goals but for blog posts and social media and—here’s the kicker—newsletters.
To build an audience via a newsletter, start first with answering the question why.
Not why should someone open this email?
Rather why should I spend 2 hours every week curating links and editing email drafts?
Why do you want to send a newsletter?
The answer for me was this: I want to send a newsletter because I feel so grateful for the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve grown as an online marketer, and I’d love to give back a bit of that learning to anyone interested to hear.
You can get close to an answer for yourself by thinking on these questions:
- What do you enjoy about your favorite newsletters?
- What gets you excited to do when you first turn on your computer?
- What brings you the most satisfaction with your work?
- What do you wish you could do more of?
- What benefit would an email have for you?
You might be in it to meet new people.
You might be in it to build yourself as a thought leader.
You might be in it to have fun and laffs.
You might be in it to learn more about email marketing. (Kudos to you, btw!)
You might be in it to make money (we all got to make $$ one way or another, right?).
In my experience, I’ve found that this newsletter business is a lot easier to stick with if your why goes beyond traditional marketing/business-y ideals (making money, building authority), particularly if the newsletter is going to be a side gig.
2. How to Identify Your Niche
What do you want to send?
Here is a list of the things I like to read about online: dogs, the New England Patriots, magazine design, writing tips, board game reviews, comic strips, web design, email marketing, funny sports commentary, and the list goes on.
I’m probably maybe not going to email people about all that stuff.
For my newsletter, I needed to find a niche.
Moreso, I needed to find a niche that was
b) something I was already reading, curating, and interested in
Let’s start with specific.
I’ve found myself in the wonderful position to be gaining knowledge in digital marketing. This means social media, content, video, webinars, you name it I’ve had the privilege to learn about it.
If I were to run a newsletter about digital marketing, that’d be one massive newsletter.
I had to go deeper.
Content marketing is where I find that I have a particular interest and skill. There’re so many different levels of content marketing even: ideas, research, promotion, distribution, and oh yeah the writing part.
Again, I had to go deeper.
I chose writing, which in and of itself is a huge hairy topic (business writing, technical writing, composition, fiction, editing, copyediting, ideas, inspiration, etc.).
I went deeper. I settled on online writing tips.
This helped me focus the lens for the content I chose, and eventually it opened things up such that I could share a thing here or there beyond online writing tips. It made sense to start small and work up to big. It’s a lot harder to start big and work down to small. You more often start big and stay big.
Next: Make it something you’re already reading about
This might one of my favorite tips for building a newsletter because it’s such a smooth way to do things.
Choose a niche that you’re already grooving on.
What do you read online? Write down your favorite topics or look through your RSS reader. Notice any trends?
What do you highlight in your Pocket? What do you click on in email newsletters or social media feeds?
3. The 15 Tools of an Effective Newsletter Campaign
How do you want to send it?
I find a lot of inspiration here from Brian Balfour’s course “How to Build a Growth Machine.”
Systematically and repeatedly find, design, test and execute growth ideas that lead to sustainable and massive growth.
To paraphrase for an email newsletter:
Systematically and repeatedly find, curate, compose, and send newsletters that lead to sustainable and massive growth
The keys here, in my mind, are the systematic and repeatable approaches, which are made all the easier by using the right tools.
It should be noted, too, that the right tools for me might not be the right tools for you, and vice versa. The “right” tools are simply those that fit best with your workflow, your budget, and your comfort level so that you can make the best systematic and repeatable process possible.
You’re after sustainable and massive growth! And I like to think that the sustainable part refers as much to the continued clicking, subscribing, and engaging of your list as it does your own ability to keep on emailin’.
Think: Process, process, process. Then use some of the following tools and ideas to get there.
My email sender of choice, there’s just so much depth and quality in the product, whether you’re on the free plan (send 12,000 emails to 2,000 subscribers each month) or a paid plan (starting at $10/month).
What I get the most value out of is the ability to deeply control my list, segmenting it so that I can send followup emails to only those who clicked on the newsletter the last time, for instance.
Perhaps my favorite, simplest way of just getting something started. Very low overhead, very low maintenance. You simply create an account, get the link to your subscribe page, share the link, write an email, hit send.
(It’s perhaps notable, too, that Tiny Letter is a small arm of MailChimp, doing the minimal email thing while big brother MailChimp does the heavy lifting.)
How cool is this: Install a bookmarklet that you click whenever you find an article worth sharing. Goodbits stores all these articles, formats all these articles, and creates a newsletter for you. When the time comes to send, log in to Goodbits to see what you’ve got, load in your list of contacts (easily exportable from something like TinyLetter or MailChimp), hit send.
You can also sync everything with MailChimp and send the newsletter through there, and you can pull in sources into the Goodbits dashboard to add content to your newsletter without leaving the app.
One of my favorite features of Goodbits, too, is their reminder system where they’ll send you a nudge when it’s time to send your next email (whenever it is you choose to be nudged).
Real similar to Goodbits, except $25 per month.
Here’s a bit about my Process, Process, Process. I find cool things to read, I save them to Pocket, I read them in Pocket, and if I think it’s something that might be helpful or interesting for my list, then I’ll tag the article as “Send.”
Then, when the time comes for building the newsletter, I’ll pull up all my tagged articles and add them to a MailChimp draft.
(Details on this process are below.)
6. Twitter favorites
Like Pocket, you could also store interesting articles by favoriting them when you find them on Twitter.
Even more options! You can bookmark articles in Feedly if you come across something good.
And the peanut butter between some cool slices of newsletter bread, IFTTT can be used to send all these Pocket tags or Twitter faves or Feedly bookmarks into a spreadsheet for easy consumption later.
(Zapier is a great option, too, if you need premium automation.)
And here are some other tools that I’ve heard have been helpful for newsletter senders.
9. Google Drive – a spreadsheet to hold all your links
10. Trello – create boards for newsletter issues, create cards for newsletter links
11. Evernote – for saving ideas and links
12. Emma – MailChimp alternative
13. Campaign Monitor – MailChimp alternative
14. Aweber – MailChimp alternative
15. Cakemail – MailChimp alternative (plus, cake!)
How I put all my tools together into a process
Out of all the above tools, I find myself mostly using two: Pocket and MailChimp (and I’ll find content using Feedly, Twitter, newsletter, or just about anything).
Here’s my process.
- I find cool stuff to read by subscribing to blogs in Feedly (here’s my current list) and keeping an eye on Twitter and email subscriptions
- Everything that looks good to read, I’ll save to Pocket
- When I read something I think would be cool to share in the newsletter, I tag the story with a “send” tag
- Time to compose the newsletter! I’ll hop into Pocket and view the archived posts with a “send” tag
- I’ll open each article in a new tab, grab the URL, and add the headline and link to my MailChimp draft (I could probably save a good deal of time here with Goodbits or Curata)
4. The delightfully short guide to email testing
How will you know what’s working?
By now, you’ve found your reason for sending a newsletter, you’ve chosen the focus, you’ve found the content and composed the email and sent the thing. Woot woot!
The next step is to figure out how to send better.
At Buffer, we tend to view everything as an experiment, and I’ve carried over a bit of that philosophy to the things I’m trying on my personal site. For example, if I forget to write a catchy subject line for a newsletter (a thing I’ve actually done quite recently), then I can at least still learn what effect the subject line has on open and click rates (interestingly, very little).
Your newsletter does not need to be perfect. In fact, if it was perfect, you’d have nothing left to learn!
Seeking perfection can even keep you from sending. Imperfection allows you to send, learn, and iterate.
Step one: Analyze what links get clicked
In MailChimp, you get a full report following a newsletter send, and you can see in great detail each and every link that was clicked in your email.
With this, you can learn what content people liked best. The links with the most clicks could be popular for any number of reasons:
- You wrote a really good headline for the link
- The topic itself was super interesting
- The link was placed in the right spot
For specific takeaways here, I like to focus in particular on #2. What was the topic? What angle was it with this topic that made it more appealing than any other? Looking at the links that get clicked tells me which kind of content might be best to keep pursuing.
For instance, looking at the most-clicked links from my February newsletter, I can see that a lot of the writing links came near the top (which makes sense since the majority of links are writing-focused). What’s interesting here is that the Growth article was the third-most clicked post and the Ideas article finished high also.
Conclusion: Stick to the writing content, keep mixing in a growth or ideas article every now and then.
Another helpful bit of info you’ll glean here is this: You can learn where in the vertical scroll of the email your readers tend to drop off.
If only the links at the top of the email seem to be getting clicks, perhaps it’s best to shorten up your newsletter (or send more frequently, thereby shortening each newsletter).
For example, in the newsletter I sent in March, here’s a look at the click map that MailChimp provides. The most popular link was the second one, yet even the links at the end had higher click rates than one in the middle.
Conclusion: The length of this section is probably quite good.
Step two: A/B test all the time
Depending on your email service—mine is MailChimp, which has A/B testing in spades—you’ll be able to send the same, one email and try out different subject lines or from names or send times, basically testing anything major that could impact the open and click rates of your message.
A/B testing works like this:
- You choose what to test
- You choose which percentage of your list you’d like to run tests on
- Two versions are sent to this percentage of your list. The one with the higher opens or clicks or manual choice (you decide) is the winner.
- The remainder of the list gets the winning email.
(Note: If you A/B test with send times, your list will go to 50 percent at Time A and 50 percent at Time B. There’s no “winning email” that gets sent to the remainder.)
It’s an absolutely huge privilege to be able to gain these insights every time you send a newsletter.
Run an A/B test every time.
Run an A/B test even if you don’t think you’ll ever go back and look at the results.
Run an A/B test so that you can learn, either now or later, or just to get your head used to the idea that testing things is cool, useful, rad, and insightful.
I like to test each of the Big Three: subject line, from name, and send time. Here are a few of the tests I try.
- Super short
- Super long
- Song lyrics
- Pop culture references
- Sentence case
- Title case
- First name (Kevan)
- First name and last name (Kevan Lee)
- First name and business (Kevan from Buffer)
- Business (Buffer)
- Lowercase (kevan)
- Pretty much anything. My favorite send times are non-peak times, so in the evenings or on the weekends.
5. How to iterate and improve
What’re you gonna do when you know what’s working?
So let’s say you’re getting all this great insight from testing and reviewing what’s been working. What are your next steps here?
There’s a cool methodology that we use at Buffer that has guided our product process and seeped into things like marketing and daily Buffer life, too. It’s called the Lean Startup methodology. It works like this:
You can apply it to email, too.
By this point, after sending the email and checking your stats, you’ve built, sent, learned, and now it’s time to put all this knowledge back to work in coming up with a better version two (or three or four or 50).
This could look a hundred different ways depending on your situation.
In my case, this step has been useful to think through the content of the emails that I send—which articles mean the most to those I have the privilege of sharing with?
This has helped me think through who will receive my emails—should I send to those who have been engaged or send to everyone all the time?
Based on the latter, I’ve pursued the idea of segmentation: Send emails to people in a targeted way such that you’re more likely to send them something they’d like. Think of an email that comes to you because you live in Idaho, with Idaho-specific content and calls-to-action. That’s a form of segmentation (also, somewhat related, it could be a form of personalization, too).
With this in mind, I’ve come up with kind of a cool thing to try.
Build a list of VIPs
I’ve taken the list of awesome people I get to share with and broken it down into a few different categories. MailChimp lets me easily save these lists and add to them automatically when new people meet the criteria.
- People who have opened an email in the past 90 days (so, 3 newsletters’s worth)
- People who have clicked an email in the past 90 days
- People who opened the most recent email
- People who clicked the most recent email
- People who have replied to me (a manual list)
- People whose names I recognize or have prior connections to (a manual list)
I still send the main monthly email to the entire list, which is near 300 people now.
What I’ll do in between monthly emails is send out a goodie to those who have interacted with the newsletter. I’ve done this twice so far.
- This. invites – I was lucky to receive a few invites to the new content network This., and I gave them away to a segment of the list. I sent it to 34 people. Thirty opened (88%). Thirteen asked for invites. (I ran out twice before finally getting everyone one.)
- Sharing someone else’s article – For this, I found something super valuable that I felt like sharing immediately with people. So I just sent out a small email to those who clicked a link in the last newsletter, letting them know that I found this other cool article. (This is a great tactic in general, to share someone else’s stuff before your own, because it shows your list that you care about them and their problems, not solely about you and your stuff.) I sent this to 83 people, 61 opened (73%) and 28 clicked (33%).
The flip side of always iterating
There’s this small bit of advice that I heard from Ryan Holiday in his book Growth Hacker Marketing.
Always be tweaking.
For the most part, yes, I believe this is an awesome way to approach things.
For the personal newsletter of a side project website, I’ve found that my time might not be best spent “always tweaking.”
Instead, always find great content.
Always listen for feedback.
Always check with yourself to see that the work you’re doing is enjoyable.
When it comes to side projects, I think the first couple lines from the Holstee manifesto ring particularly true for me:
This is your life. Do what you love and do it often.
Any newsletter you send should fall into this category. And if it does, the natural result will be a newsletter that will be helpful and add value to the people that subscribe. If it’s fun for you, it will be fun for others.
Q: How often should you send your newsletter?
A: Send it as infrequently as once per month or as frequently as once per week.
Q: How do you encourage people to sign up?
A: We experimented a bit with this at Buffer, finding some really great tactics that worked. The short answer: Ask for email addresses a lot—on the blog homepage, in a slideup, in the footer, in a popup (if you’re cool with that). And then at a high level, be specific in sharing what it is you’ll email people. My CTA is “My Favorite Writing Tips and Resources, Sent Monthly.” Let others get to know you so they know what to expect from you.
Other thoughts or questions?
I’ve likely left a lot out here and have maybe even brought up more questions than I answered. Is there anything I can help with?
Feel free to look me up on Twitter or LinkedIn, or subscribe to the newsletter to get in touch with me directly at any time. I’d love to learn from any newsletter experiences you’ve had or to help brainstorm any ideas here, too!
— Kevan Lee (@kevanlee) May 11, 2015
How We Doubled Our Email Signups in 30 Days – our email strategies at Buffer
How We Grow and Manage Our 60,000+ Subscriber Newsletter – cool tips from Greg Ciotti