Starting an Email Newsletter: Why to Do It and Which Service to Use

A sprouting seed in soil

by U.S. Department of Agriculture | via Flickr

Today’s guest post is the first in a series about growing an email list, by author Kirsten Oliphant (@kikimojo).


More and more authors now talk about the importance of growing an email list of readers. But I also hear from many people who are totally frustrated with email, from growing the list size to increasing open rates.

Often people start a list without knowing exactly why or what to do with it. (This is exactly how I started my first list four years ago, by the way.) Email can be your most powerful asset as an author, but you need to be intentional if you want results.

In this series, I’ll walk you through some of the places people get stuck to help you get the most out of your list. To start, let’s take the conversation back a few steps to discuss why email is important.

The Why of Email

With new social media platforms cropping up every month, email seems a little redundant—or even oddly ineffective, since it doesn’t have the same reach; you may have 200 email subscribers and 2,000 Twitter followers. We also know just how crowded our inboxes are. I delete plenty of emails per day without even opening them. So why spend time or money on an email list? Here are a few significant reasons.

Email Is Permanent

Social media is a fantastic tool for authors. We can connect with our readers in ways that were not possible even ten years ago using Twitter or Facebook or Pinterest. The problem is that we don’t control the connections. We are subject to each platform’s changes and algorithms. My Facebook page, for example, typically shows the posts I write to less than 10 percent of my followers.

There is no algorithm on an inbox (usually!). You have access and control that you have on no other platform. You can download a spreadsheet of your email subscribers and their emails at any time. In that sense, you own your list—something you can’t say for your Facebook likes or Twitter follows.

Email Is Personal

Even though email is a one-to-many message in terms of experience, it feels like one-to-one. We don’t tend to let too many people in our inboxes, crowded though they are. We pass out follows on Twitter or likes on Facebook much more easily, knowing we will not be bombarded with content as a result. When someone signs up for your list, they are taking one more step to connect, which means they are likely a more engaged fan.

Email comes to that most personal space. An email from your favorite author could sit in your inbox right next to an email from your mom. If you have your email set up so replies go directly to you, then that one-to-many communication really does become a one-to-one conversation. The private nature of the communication lends itself to a more real and lasting connection to your readers.

Email Is Effective

With low open rates (20 percent is a pretty decent open rate across industries) and even lower click-through rates, email can seem just as difficult as fighting with the Facebook algorithm. However, while you don’t have control over whether someone opens your email, at least they will at least see it.

You can improve your effectiveness by establishing trust, setting expectations with your readers, and sending valuable content. Ultimately, the control is in your reader’s hands to open or not, but creating an email strategy and being intentional can up your open rates and engagement.

After spending a year really working on my content and the relationships I have with my readers, I have seen my open rates double to an average 40 percent or better. This spring I made $500 in a single afternoon sending one email to a small, targeted portion of my list (less than 200 people). In his book Your First 1000 Copies, Tim Grahl shared that, in helping an author with marketing, for every one book the author sold on social media, he sold ten through his email list. Once you get your list working, it has a much better return on investment than most social platforms.

Getting Started with Your List

In case anyone is totally new to this concept, I want to be clear that when we talk about an email list, this does not mean sending an email through your Gmail or Hotmail account. The CAN-SPAM Act outlines a clear policy that you need permission to email people with marketing-type content and that there should also be an easy unsubscribe option. Using an email service provider not only increases your deliverability rate, but it keeps you on the legal side of things by handling permission and the unsubscribe links.

Email Service Providers

We are in an age of choice. You could easily choose from a half dozen reputable email service providers (ESPs) and have just as many people telling you which one is the best. The real question you need to answer is which ESP best suits your needs, long-term goals, and budget. Each provider has its own strong points and different price points. I’ll do a brief breakdown below of some of the most reputable ESPs.

MailChimpfree for up to 2,000 subscribers (does not include all features)

MailChimp is a great starting point because you can grow up to 2000 subscribers on the free plan. It is very user friendly and has easy templates with lots of great features, such as adding social share icons or creating clickable buttons. If you want to use features like autoresponders (a series of emails that send automatically in sequence when people sign up), you will have to upgrade to a paid plan. Once you get to 2,001 subscribers, you’ll jump to $30/month.

Mad Mimifree for up to 100 subscribers, then jumps to $10/month

Though Mad Mimi is owned by the giant GoDaddy, it seems to fly under the radar as far as ESPs go. This is another cost-efficient provider with a much better customer service plan than MailChimp (live chat during the week that is quick and helpful), and it comes with all the tools. The templates are not as intuitive as on MailChimp, but it is still very easy to use and affordable.

ConvertKit$29/month for up to 1,000 subscribers

ConvertKit is a fairly new kid on the block, but in the past year ConvertKit picked up steam when influencers like Pat Flynn jumped on board. With advanced features like tagging, detailed analytics on each signup form, and other automation, ConvertKit has the power of a larger ESP like Infusionsoft (which starts at $199/month) and the ease of MailChimp. If you want to be super targeted and detailed with your list and break up subscribers into different categories easily, ConvertKit has an amazing arsenal of tools. (Read more about why I use ConvertKit.)

ActiveCampaign$17/month (if you pay annually) for up to 1,000 subscribers.

ActiveCampaign is another ESP with great features like tagging and automation to help you be more intentional and targeted with your readers. Like ConvertKit, this is an ESP with some real power.

AWeber$19/month for up to 500 subscribers

AWeber has a solid reputation and is a favorite of marketers. They have fabulous customer service, but I feel like the back end is more than clunky in terms of creating custom signup forms and even in the email templates.

Constant Contact$20/month for up to 500 subscribers

Constant Contact is another trusted provider with good customer service and features, but they start out a little pricey. I signed up for a free trial and found that they lived up to their name: I received four phone calls in one week. That was a little too much constant contact for me.

Before making the choice, you should dig a little deeper, as some of the ESPs that start out a little cheaper become more expensive quickly. The threshold for price increases is different for each ESP, so one that starts cheaper might take a big jump in price earlier. You can always change providers as your needs grow and change. Think about price, but also think about your long-term goals.

Clarifying Your Goals

To choose a provider and create a successful list, consider the kind of readers you are trying to find. One of the biggest email myths is that all lists will grow at an equal rate or hit a certain milestone. This puts undue pressure on you and may put your focus too much on quantity and not quality of subscribers.

The reality is that some lists are harder or slower to grow. Lists for fiction don’t always grow at the same rate as lists that teach people how to write, for example. If you meet a need with your list, the growth tends to be easier. But realize if you plan content around helping meet a need, you will attract a particular type of person. This person may not be the ideal reader for your books.

Many writers have found success teaching people about writing or publishing. If this is one of your goals, understand that these are two different kinds of audiences. In a recent interview, indie writer Joanna Penn said that her fiction and nonfiction (teaching people how to write and publish) bring in about the same amount of revenue, but the crossover in audience is only about 10 percent.

Connecting with your audience can be a great thing, but keep in mind that your growth will depend on your goals. If you are planning to traditionally publish nonfiction, for example, having an email list and platform is much more necessary than if you plan to publish fiction. If you are an independent author, an email list will play a vital role in how you market your books.

Here are a few questions to ask as you clarify your goals:

  • What kinds of readers do you want to join your list?
  • What kind of books or projects are you promoting? (nonfiction, fiction, courses, etc.)
  • What do you want your list to accomplish for you? (book sales, readers, course sales, blog traffic, securing a book deal, etc.)
  • Do you hope to publish independently or with a traditional publisher?
  • What kind of content can you realistically put in a weekly or monthly email?
  • Will you have one list? Or do you have two content areas that require two lists (or segments)?
  • What kind of email content might help you reach your goals?

Even if you don’t have all the answers yet, I would highly recommend choosing the best provider for now and getting started. If you already have a list that is not performing or growing the way you would hope, take a step back. Answer some of the questions to clarify your goals. (For more on cultivating your audience through email, freelancer Paul Jarvis has some fantastic tips.)

What are your biggest struggles when it comes to email? What successes have you found?

"In this series, I’ll walk you through some of the places people get stuck to help you get the most out of your list. To start, let’s take the conversation back a few steps to discuss why email is important." -author Kirsten Oliphant's first post in a series about growing an email list

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Kirsten Oliphant has an MFA in fiction from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is the creator of the Free Email Course to help de-mystify email lists for bloggers & writers. She writes about authentic platform building at Create If Writing and interviews writers, bloggers, and other creatives on the Create If Writing Podcast. You can find her tweeting as @kikimojo or sign up for free monthly workshops on list-building, image creation, or other helpful training.

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