Perhaps by now you’ve downloaded the demo version of one of the do-it-yourself newsletter products I mentioned last week. You’ve learned that — whoa, Nelly! — it is a lot of work to send your own newsletter. On the other hand, if you went ahead with it, you probably saw a big spike in traffic on your site. On my own site, alexisgutzman.com, half the traffic that comes in a week typically comes in the 48 hours immediately following a newsletter.
For more information about publishing your own newsletter, check out these other articles from Alexis Gutzman’s ongoing weekly series:
Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 7 The seventh part of a multi-part series on how to publish your own newsletter, Alexis Gutzman discusses five must-haves for a successful newsletter and how to find content.
Avoiding Gray Hair When Publishing a Newsletter If you don’t have the time or inclination to do it yourself — expect to earn more than a few gray hairs trying — then you might be looking for a service provider that can handle the mechanics of the mailing. When you first sign up with one, you’ll have to upload your list of addresses, then every week or whatever you’ll sign in via a Web interface and upload your latest newsletter, test, and tell it to send the mailing. After the mailing is complete, there will be a secure page you can go to review the results of the campaign.
For the purposes of writing this column, I interviewed several mailing list companies — there are many, many out there, so don’t think my list (later in this column) is comprehensive. Most of them offered me the chance to test out their software by sending my own newsletter, but I couldn’t take them all up on it. I decided to use GotMarketing.com’s newsletter service to run a test. GotMarketing recently signed an agreement with Yahoo to offer their email marketing service to Yahoo’s small business customers. I really liked GotMarketing’s service; the interface, the speed, and the reporting feature were excellent, and when I ran into a snag during testing, there was a toll-free number to call for assistance.
Features to Compare If you’re shopping for a newsletter service, make sure you compare all of the following features. The prices are pretty close, but the services provided might not be.
Ease of uploading your list. Most service providers will let you upload either a text file or a comma-separated values (CSV) file with your addresses. If you have to type them all in by hand, run away. On the other hand, if you don’t yet have much of a list, then you might be able to key them in by hand and use built-in tools to grow the list.
List management. You should be able to add and remove people from your list via the Web interface. You should also be provided some HTML code that you put on your Web pages, which, when clicked, opens a pop-up box permitting visitors to subscribe to your newsletter.
Ability to send HTML or text, or even better yet, multi-part/alternative mail (see Part 3 of this series). If you let subscribers tell you which version they prefer, then you should be able to use that parameter to send out the correct version. AOL members should automatically receive either a text or an HTML-light version — meaning no images and limited to the small subset of HTML that AOL accepts. Ideally, the system you select will permit you to send both versions to everyone so that their own email clients can decide to open the appropriate ones. Some services call this an email client sniffer or some sort of auto-detect function, and they usually imply that they have some top-secret code that permits them (alone!) to do this. That’s bunk. I’d avoid any service that tries to tell you they have auto-sniffing capabilities. If they’re going to lie to you about that, who knows what else they’ll lie to you about.
Ability to personalize the message. Later in this series, I’ll devote an entire column to the pros and cons of personalization. For now, you’ll simply want to make sure that if you choose to employ personalization, you can. In addition to the email address, you should be able to define fields relevant to your own newsletter. You won’t be able to implement customized links so that people can unsubscribe with a single click, if you can’t implement personalization.
Ability to send unlimited test messages. I have never managed to get my mailing out with fewer than three test messages. I like to re-read every word of the newsletter in my inbox, so that it looks to me exactly as it looks to recipients. You need not only to be able to send test messages — to a POP client, as well as a Web-based client, and an AOL address — but also to have all links, including personalized links, working in the test messages. Testing deserves a separate column.
Ability to schedule when messages are sent. Once you’re happy with your newsletter, you should be able to schedule it to be sent whenever you want, so it arrives in conjunction with other activities, such as a site update, a sale, or a catalog arriving by mail.
Reporting how many opened the email, and tracking desired links should be available. In the figure below, you can see that 42 percent of the people who received my newsletter opened it. Of course, text versions of the newsletter cannot be tracked, which includes all AOL recipients. If you have a high proportion of AOL users, this open statistic will not be very accurate. Notice that 2020 people received the newsletter. My list only included 2107 people, but the software reports that it was forwarded and opened by an additional 13 people — a very interesting statistic to have. The service can also track clickthroughs from your newsletter to your various sponsors’ sites, if you have sponsors. This is another useful statistic to have for marketing purposes.
Pricing. There are three ways services charge. Some charge by the piece of mail. If you’re sending out newsletters or promotions infrequently, this may be the way to go. The next option is to pay based on the size of your list. You can send out as much as you want under this model, but as the list grows, the fee increases. The final model is paying per month by the total number of messages sent or by the total number of bytes sent. One provider, Xpedite, which offers a service called MessageReach.com, also charges each time a recipient downloads a file that resides on their servers or clicks on a clickthrough link. It’s difficult to give you hard numbers for each of these services, since they typically have sliding scale pricing. The two things I would note is that you can avoid set up fees altogether. Most providers don’t charge one. Also, if you don’t have your newsletter layout in place, you can frequently use a template provided by the service provider. Some charge for this, but most providers that offer templates don’t charge. You’ll still have to do considerable customization to the template to make it look professional, so I would not pay for a template. I’d rather hire a graphic artist to produce a customized template in the first place.
Tune in next week to read about outsourcing the entire enterprise, including content development. After that, I’ll cover handling bounced messages, unsubscribe requests, and vacation mailing — boring but essential. While we’re on the topic of boring but essential, I’ll give you a test plan for your newsletter campaign at some point down the road. I’ll cover the pros and cons of personalizing your newsletter, since you’re probably already wondering about that. Another column will focus on lining up advertising or sponsors for your newsletter. So much to look forward to!
Note to Readers: My editor tells me that there are still some of you who haven’t subscribed to the newsletter version of this column. What are you waiting for? Where else are you going to find this kind of immediately useful information for free! All we’re asking is that you subscribe to the newsletter version, which comes into your mailbox weekly. After I complete this series on publishing your own newsletter, I’ll be writing a series on developing your own viral marketing program. Can you afford to miss that? Subscribe now by clicking here and don’t miss anything.
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Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine marketing, Web, and graphic design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," published through Peachpit Press. Shari's areas of expertise include site design, search engine optimization, and usability.