Creating an email newsletter

Partly to be helpful, and partly to do a bit of profile-raising, I have been thinking of putting together a regular (weekly or fortnightly) email newsletter, full of social web news, views and other tidbits. It might go some way to filling the need for the govweb group blog I mooted earlier, though I should imagine it would be written in sufficiently broad terms to make it applicable to non government folk too. I think there are a number of valuable things about email lists like this, as opposed to a site:

  • People use their email all day everyday, pretty much, so if they register, they will always see the emails in their inboxes
  • If I stick to plain text, I don’t need to worry too much about accessibility and whether things render well in Internet Explorer 4
  • People see email as work, the web as play

My newsletter will feature a few regular sections:

  • A feature on a recent cool bit of webbery from a public or third sector organisation
  • A roundup on news and development in the social web space
  • An introduction to a social web site or service
  • A multi-part how-to guide (eg setting up a blog, or a wiki)

There are a number of ways of setting something like this up, and I have been playing around with some of them. Here’s what I have found.

1. Do It Yourself

It would be the most simple option to gather in email addresses via a HTML form on a page on this blog, store them in a text file, then write the emails in my mail client, and paste in the email addresses to the BCC field and hit send. Unsubcribes would have to be done manually, and any analysis of subscriber numbers, etc, would have to be done in a spreadsheet or something. Also, there may be issues with the emails getting past spam filters, etc, as I use gmail to power my emails. I would also have to make sure I don’t use any funky formatting in my emails so that they can be read easily in different mail clients. So, this option is easy to get up and running, but difficult to manage and maintain, and there may be access problems. It’s cost free, though.

2. Use Mailman

Mailman is a remarkably configurable mailing list manager, and (like all the best things in life) is open source. I could set up a one-way mailing list, allow people to sign up to it as they pleased, and likewise unsubscribe. One of the problems with Mailman, though, is the interface which is used to manage the service and through which users can change their settings, which can seem a little unfriendlyto the uninitiated. To set it all up as a one way service would mean quite a bit of messing about to remove certain options from view, etc. So, whie this option might make some things easier, it will add complications elsewhere. Again, though, this would be free for me to use.

3. Use a dedicated service

The third option would be to use a service to manage my list of subscribers and to handle the sending of the emails themselves. They provide statistics, too, so I can track which newsletters are more popular, etc. These services also provide the ability to send HTML or rich text emails, making them easier on the eye and easier for most people to navigate. Given my target audience, though, I am tempted to stick to plain text – ugly but pretty much guaranteed to work! Some of the services I have looked at include MailBuild (suggested by Steph), AWeber (recommended by Chris Garrett) and Blue Sky Factory (used by Chris Brogan). All look pretty good. The obvious disadvantage is that they will cost me money, but they all need quite a bit of time dedicated to them to get set up properly.

So there we are. I think I am going to go for one of the dedicated services, but not sure which just yet. Of course the real challenge will be to produce regular, quality content that people will want to read, but by wittering on about which tools I am going to use I can put that one off for a day or too!

If anyone has any feedback on the ideas I have set out here, please leave them in the comments. And if you would like to be a recipient of the inaugral newsletter, say so in the comments or drop an email to newsletter@davepress.net and I will add you to the list. Ta!