More Confessions of an E-Newsletter Publisher

The most widely read article I wrote this past year was Anatomy of an E-Newsletter Launch. It gave a blow-by-blow account of the steps I took before publishing the first issue of WordBiz Report last July.

I’m not sure why this topic piqued so much interest. Was it because I was disarmingly forthcoming? Let’s put it this way: Would a guy ClickZ columnist tell you about the mistakes he made? Probably not.

People love to hear what really happened rather than an official version that makes the writer look like an unassailable authority. Readers also love it when ClickZ columnists take a stand, sound opinionated, and stir up a bit of controversy.

So here’s the end-of-the-year installment in the diary of an e-newsletter publisher. Call it a blog. Call it a confession. Call it a rant. You’ll get the good, the bad, and the, er, missteps. Plus, some notable triumphs.

Since launching WordBiz Brief, the first e-newsletter that ties copywriting (the words) and content to the bottom line, my subscriber base has grown to just over 4,000 (not bad after only five months, especially considering the events of this fall). I now publish an HTML version as well as a plain text one. I’ve moved from a monthly to a bimonthly publication schedule.

I’ve got subscribers in several dozen countries, from Australia and Brazil to Hungary and Korea, with titles ranging from “chief tea fetcher” to senior vice president. E-marketing luminaries such as Seth Godin have praised the e-newsletter. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Here’s a look behind the scenes.

Developing the HTML Version

Despite having written two articles recently on why you should consider using an HTML e-newsletter vendor, I decided — stubbornly — to develop an HTML template from scratch.

I emailed my talented Web designer a bunch of sample HTML e-newsletters, noting what I did and didn’t like about each one. Then, I drew up a list of requirements (had to reflect the look of my Web site, be easy to skim, etc.). General instructions were to produce two versions, one open and airy with a lot of white space. The second design was to be a clearly delineated “box.”

He complied, doing a great job. I sent the two mock-ups to several dozen discriminating colleagues asking for feedback. The “box” won, hands down.

Then we tweaked… and tweaked some more. I could bore you with design details (using background colors to make different areas of the e-newsletter “pop,” for example), but I won’t. Suffice it to say that this was a heck of a lot of work and took a lot of time. Was it worth it? Read on…

The Hassle of Sending HTML and Plain Text

It turns out that producing a high-quality e-newsletter in two formats is twice as much work. Here’s why: First, I’m a perfectionist and secretly love to dabble in HTML code. Second, writing for a text e-newsletter and writing for HTML (i.e., for a Web page) is different.

For the HTML version, I write shorter copy, use embedded links, and pay attention to how it looks on the page. (That’s the perfectionist part.) For text, the copy is automatically longer because the URLs need to be spelled out and “click below” instructions added. A good-looking text e-newsletter has its own format issues: spacing, line length (65 characters), and ASCII dashes and slashes to separate articles from sponsorship ads. This matters to me.

I know, I know… a number of the application service provider (ASP) e-newsletter vendors I mentioned can “simultaneously” create text and AOL versions while you’re typing merrily away into your HTML template. Have you ever really looked at the text versions created this way? Ugly.

What Next?

I’ve gotten a stream of kudos on the HTML design. Dozens of subscribers are switching from text to HTML. But something’s got to give here. The majority of my subscribers are still signed up for text. Will I lose them if I turn my text version into a message that says “click here” for HTML?

What about the bottom line? I’m investing time and resources in an information product that is not, as yet, yielding a decent return on investment (ROI). Sure, this e-newsletter has value as a marketing and lead-generating tool. But other revenue models are also possible, including sponsorships and paid subscriptions. You can bet they’re on the table for 2002. Oh, and don’t forget to sign up (you get my free Guide to Killer Copywriting!).

Stay tuned, and have a happy and safe holiday.

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