It may seem like everyone is starting their own newsletter these days. That’s not a coincidence. For almost a decade, I’ve worked with businesses and agencies on their marketing efforts. Consistently, email outperforms, and there are a few reasons why.
In general, email campaigns have a higher ROI than any other marketing category. Studies show that email has an average ROI of 4200%─you could earn $42 for every $1 you spend on email. Plus, a majority of the people that you’ll want to reach prefer email for business communications.
Apple’s sweeping privacy changes have made it more difficult to reach people through Facebook or Instagram. There are also changes ahead for email, but I don’t expect it to vastly impact those that do email right. Personally, I am a fan of the privacy changes. As a marketer, I know that it is changing the industry.
Content and community
With email, you usually have more control over your content. Because you can communicate with your audience directly, you get to nurture that relationship over time. Facebook and other social media/ad platforms are very much pay-to-play. You’re at the mercy of their ever-changing algorithms, and the leads drop when the money stops.
If you want to start an email newsletter for your business, here’s my advice on getting started:
1. Set up a content calendar
What’s your purpose for starting a newsletter? If you are starting a newsletter solely as another channel for you to sell your products and services, re-evaluate.
Emailing ads for your products only will bore subscribers. They also won’t open unless they are in the market for what you are selling at that time. Yes, you can sell your products, and many subscribers signed up because they wanted discounts and promotions, but not all the time.
If that is all that you are doing or if you are doing it in every email, prepare to end up in spam filters or get many unsubscribes.
Make promotions a treat. Do them sparingly. Instead of selling your product or including a promotion in every email, here are some content ideas that foster engagement:
- Announce product launches or email exclusive merch/deals (occasionally).
- Show how other customers are using your product with images.
- Educate subscribers on how to use your products or services or how to do a process in your industry.
- Build a community around your company's mission or expertise. If you donate to climate change or other efforts, record your contribution and progress. This shows accountability and builds trust. Provide resources for how subscribers can get involved.
- Go in-depth. Provide value and discussion with templates, how-to videos, events, and more. This is how many newsletters (Morning Brew, Lenny Rachitsky) became popular.
- One pro tip that I have used is to look at related searches in ahrefs. Here’s a guide on how to do keyword research. Keywords are simply the phrases that people put into search engines. If a query has a high search volume, it’s a good baseline indicator that people might want that content in your newsletter.
2. Select an ESP
When it comes to Email Service Providers (ESPs), there are lots to choose from, so much that it can be overwhelming. Asking these questions can help.
What’s your budget?
ESP pricing can be confusing. In general, most ESPs base their pricing on two main factors:
- The size of your audience (how many email subscribers you have).
- The number of emails that you send a month.
There are other factors, but for simplicity, these two usually have the most impact.
Will you have paid subscribers, free or a combination? Do you plan to sell ads in your newsletter?
Ad space and paid subscribers may make sense for freelancers, influencers or media companies. In general, ecommerce or B2B businesses will not need or want these options.
What features do you need?
In general, the smaller your business, the fewer fancy features you’ll need.
It can still be a headache to wade through all the options for ESPs, so here are the most common ones that I would advise.
For individuals that want to build a personal brand, expertise, or a community.
- Substack is ideal if you are just starting out and want to build a community before launching a product or if you, as an individual, want to establish expertise in your space.
- It’s free to sign up. Substack takes 10% of revenue from their platform. (Another option is Ghost. It’s not free, but it does not take a percentage of revenue.)
- It is designed to add paid subscribers
- Substack is very new. It’s not going to have advanced features that most businesses need as they grow.
- I wouldn’t recommend it for a business that uses a lot of tracking and order-related emails.
- It functions like a blog and newsletter in one. Creating a Substack newsletter also creates a website, which is very limited in terms of design and function.
Mailchimp has been around for around 20 years, so it is trusted by small to large businesses alike.
- It integrates with 200+ applications.
- It has one of the easiest-to-use email design builders.
- It has commonly used automation features.
- It can be expensive. Mailchimp charges based on the number of subscribers that you have on your email list, so the more you grow, the more you can expect to pay. This model is used by a lot of ESPs though.
(Not all your subscribers are going to convert to sales or engage at all, so it is important to continuously clean up the deadweight from your list regularly.)
- The analytics and features are limited. You can segment lists, but not well.
- It can be very difficult to pull data or create detailed customer journeys and automation. If you really want advanced features and automation, there are better options.
ConvertKit is popular with creatives, writers, and bloggers that have online courses and exclusive content for their communities.
- It is easy to add paid newsletter subscribers, exclusive digital products, and sign-up forms.
- It has many basic forms, landing pages, and templates that you may need as a creator.
- It can have a learning curve.
- If you need more advanced customization and features, it’s not the best fit.
- It can be expensive. The price goes up with your number of subscribers.
It’s used by small businesses, nonprofits, and individuals that want to get started fast.
- It’s user-friendly and easy to get started.
- It has a drag-and-drop email editor.
- You can test it out for a long time─a 60-day free trial with no payment details needed.
- It has the basic features a small business would need.
- If you have an enterprise company with hundreds of employees, it’s not the best fit.
Similar to Mailchimp, it is used by small to large businesses. There are a lot of enterprise and big retail companies that use it because it has almost every feature that you could need.
- It has the most advanced features that make it easy to automate processes, highly segment lists, and create user-specific funnels.
- According to EmailToolTester, ActiveCampaign has one of the best deliverability rates─so your emails are more likely to go to your recipients’ inboxes and not to spam.
- It can be expensive. If you don’t need all the bells and whistles and are a growing business, then there are more cost-effective options.
These are just a few of the most used ESPs. There are many more. If you want to see what ESPs other businesses use, you can sometimes find out with a little research.
It may appear in the footer of their emails or when clicking links. 1-800-D2C is a useful resource that I use often when I’m curious about what tools a company that I admire uses. It’s only D2C, but it includes more tools than just ESPs. You can view everything from web hosting services to payment platforms.
3. How to get email addresses in a non-spammy way
- Set up an opt-in form on your website. Avoid pop-ups. There are ways to subtly include pop-ups that don’t annoy users, but to start, stick with a floating banner, a footer for newsletter signups on your website, a sign up on your about page, or a dedicated landing page for your newsletter.
- When a customer makes an order, ask them if they’d like to sign up for your newsletter. Be sure to point out why it is valuable to them.
- Join communities with fellow entrepreneurs. Fellow business owners can understand what you are going through and tend to be supportive. Share your newsletter. Don’t be transactional. Make sure that you have provided value to the community first.
- Create a lead magnet. Provide a high-quality free resource (an online course, an ebook, a template, etc) that visitors can get by email.
4. How to grow your email list
Welcome emails are incredibly important.
Welcome emails are the email that subscribers get right after they sign up for your newsletter. This is the first impression. Patagonia does a great job at explaining what their company is all about, and what you can expect from their emails. (Welcome email example here.)
Most ESPs have a guide on how to set up your welcome emails and best practices. Here’s one from ActiveCampaign.
Personalization is still the top way that marketers increase the overall performance of emails. It’s more than just addressing your recipient by name.
- Add personalized recommendations based on past purchases or behaviors. Segment your lists based on how they interact.
- How often do they open your emails?
- Do they click on links? What links/content have they clicked?
- Include polls and questions. You can ask what your community would like to receive or learn about, then include that in your next email.
Giveaways accelerate growth but aren’t sustainable.
I’ve done this with companies before and have gotten as much as 20K to 40K+ subscribers in a month. Often with a cost-per-acquisition (CPA) as low as .10 an email.
Partner with like-minded brands to increase your reach. Make sure to theme your giveaway to appeal to your audience, so it is a prize they actually want.
These are a few examples of prizes that I’ve seen generate the most excitement.
- Travel packages
- Home office supplies
- Tech (MacBooks, Pelotons, etc)
I don’t recommend this tactic to everyone, because it can lead to relying on free stuff to grow your list, instead of providing quality content. If you rely on giveaways, your list will be disengaged. You always have to clean the inactive and spam emails from your list or your engagement rates will drop. Be prepared to get a lot of cold emails that may never engage and immediately unsubscribe after your giveaway campaign.
Content is the biggest influence on sharing.
I used to conduct research, interviewing subscribers as to why they would recommend a newsletter. The response that I would always get: Great content. (See my advice on setting up a content calendar for content ideas.)
If people love your newsletter content, then great! Make it easy to share your newsletter with forward and referral perks.
The first email you send will not be perfect. Neither will the second, or even hundredth. Consistently check how your audience engages with your emails. What’s your open rate? What are the most clicked links? Did a newsletter get a lot of replies and forwards? Why?
You can A/B test subject lines, track the most clicked links and provide more content similar to those, and ask your subscribers for feedback.
Building a newsletter is a process, but it is worth the investment. In the end, you’ll have a direct line of communication between you and your community.