5 Rules for Starting an Email Newsletter

and the Tools to Manage Them

So, you have the great idea to create an email newsletter? You know that even in the social media age, email is still the most intimate and direct connection to your audience. The are tools are mature (and mostly free), everyone has an email address, and the only real question you should have is what do you want to cover?

I started mine on a whim and it’s snowballed into some real opportunities and business for me. I’m 100% certain that my newsletter got me the job I have now. My goal was to collect all of the open tabs from the links and posts that I was reading and send them out to my friends and colleagues once a week. It was purposefully designed to be a digest of the most important stories during the week to be read over your Sunday morning coffee. My topic was both narrow (startup news) and broad (the entire State of Texas) at the same time and more importantly, it wasn’t being covered anywhere else — in any medium.

Here are some lessons learned that should help you build your audience:

My Number One Rule is: BE CONSISTENT

If you’re going to start spending the time doing it, make sure you can deliver it regularly — same time, same day, same subject line, same format. Make it a comforting, regular piece of someone’s day/week/month and they will stick with you. I’ve consistently published 124 of them over the last two years every Sunday at 8am which is a huge accomplishment for me because I’ve never been good with deadlines. You have to block out a certain amount of time to compile it, edit it and make sure it goes out properly and all of your automations work.

Rule Number 2: BE USEFUL

Know your audience — and it helps if YOU are your target reader. That’s why I started in the first place — I wasn’t finding a good single source for all of the links that I was interested in reading during the week. Understanding who reads it and why will help you make editorial decisions and streamline your content. What should they already know? What do they need to know? What is the context and level of language they speak? How can they use the information? Basically, figure out Who Cares and write to them — non-core readers will fall off, not contribute and some will unsubscribe, and that’s OK. [A note on Unsubscribers — it hurts to have someone actively tell you that your work isn’t valuable to them — even if they are simply clicking the button to get to Inbox Zero. I try not to take it personally, but then I re-double my efforts to make it useful for my existing subscribers.]

Rule Number 3: HAVE A VOICE

What you leave out is sometimes more important than what you put in. I make a conscious effort to focus on news and blogs that aren’t ‘mainstream’, because I assume that everyone reads the major headlines from national sources. I try to only add local, or audience-specific commentary, otherwise, it’s just regurgitating old news. In my case, since I’m dealing with startups — I also intentionally leave out funding announcements because I don’t consider them real news, plus everyone else is covering them. I believe it is the job of the publisher to decide what the audience SHOULD know.

Rule Number 4: ALWAYS CREDIT YOUR SOURCES

Professional journalists get measured on their click-throughs and bloggers live for traffic. I always make sure I name writers (and give their twitter handle) and their publications. It’s not just the right thing to do, but it’s good business too because it allows you to become an expert source for their articles.

Rule Number 5: GET VALUE IF YOU GIVE VALUE

I get a lot of ‘psychological value’ when I see who opened the newsletter and from the feedback I receive from regular readers. Business opportunities and speaking roles have definitely come my way because of the newsletter, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ‘monetize your side hustle’. If you spend time building your list, crafting your content and delivering consistently, you will find that people will ask you to help them promote their projects and events to your audience. Like Heath Ledgers Joker said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free”. My general rule is to promote non-profits and educational events at no cost, but paid events and workshops, job posts or promotions should pay for advertising, AND/OR display the newsletter as a ‘Media Sponsor’. I have a sponsor package PDF I send out with suggested prices, samples, and a logo for print and web link backs.

Recommended Tools:

1) Mailchimp — www.mailchimp.com — This one should be obvious because it’s the best email platform period — especially for the cost (which is ZERO for the first 2000 subscribers). It’s great for list management, signups, delivery (and auto-scrubbing bounces) and it integrates with everything like WordPress and Zapier. It does take a little tweaking to make sure all of the settings are correct, and I don’t love their in-browser editor, but their customizable templates are really terrific.

2) Feedly — www.feedly.com — I set it up to pull as many as 40 main RSS feeds, about 20 secondary sources, plus at least a dozen or so persistent keyword searches.

3) One Tab — https://www.one-tab.com/ — I use this Chrome Extension to turn all of my open tabs into a single webpage that I can copy-and-paste into a manageable format. I can have 30–40 tabs open at a time so pushing it all to one webpage helps when I’m compiling the newsletter

4) Microsoft Word 2016 (not Office 365) — https://www.microsoft.com/en-ca/download/office.aspx — I’m a little embarrassed about this one as I’ve come to rely on it for my workflow. I’ve built a few custom macros to extract hyperlinks and delete extra text from copying Feedly links. It’s also great for clearing formats in bulk. I had to build a custom ‘Newsletter’ toolbar to keep my macros, formatting and copy-and-paste buttons handy.

5) Zapier — https://zapier.com/ — I’ve created a couple of recipes to automatically post the newsletter to LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook once it’s sent. I tried to use it to post to Medium, but I have to do this by hand because the formatting gets garbled. I also created a recipe to automatically scrub contact information from email list subscribers to Full Contact and add them to my Google contact manager.

6) Tweetdeck — https://tweetdeck.twitter.com — Twitter’s multi-account dashboard. I set it up to do persistent searches for several keywords and hashtags.

7) Pocket — https://getpocket.com — Pocket is a persistent bookmark manager, that I used after Del.icio.us stopped working entirely. It doesn’t really help me because I only want to save the bookmarks temporarily.

Overall, it takes me about four hours each week from start to finish. I like to start around 6am on Saturday mornings and queue it to publish by 10am. Most of the news is already out that week, and it still gives me time to add to it before it goes out the next morning for breaking news. I could probably make this a lot faster, but I’d leave too much content out and that would go against the brand. The time I spend crafting the newsletter each week is very well spent considering the payoff.

Hope that this is useful and I’m happy to answer any questions.

Sincerely,

Marc Nathan
Texas Squared Startup Newsletter