Well, friends, I’m pleased to report that instead of putting it off for most of 2019, I decided to tackle one of this year’s toughest goals head-on: creating my author newsletter. Most people in the publishing world will tell you there are couple of things you have to have in today’s digital age if you want to be successful. An author website. Check. Social media account(s). Check. A blog. Check. An author newsletter.
Why do I need both a blog and an author newsletter?
It’s a bit like that “why do I need social media and a website?” question. The answer is, because they serve different purposes. The website is yours. Its fate hangs on whether you maintain it, whereas your social media account rests in the hands of someone else. It makes a great way to connect, but if your account gets hacked or deleted, there goes all that work.
A blog and an author newsletter serve different purposes too. In this case, and unlike social media accounts, they’re both yours. They’re also both public, in the sense that anyone can access them, and they can both be sent to subscribers. But the difference is, a newsletter only goes to your subscribers. Nobody else will see it. This gives you the chance to be a bit more personal and to form a deeper connection with your readers than through a blog.
Now, being honest here, the thought of setting up an author newsletter hasn’t exactly been high on my “want to do” list. Tech stuff isn’t really in my skill set. It’s so much more fun dreaming up my next plot than slogging through “how to” articles. But the closer I get to publication, the more it makes sense for me to put in the effort now.
So, for today’s post, I’m going to share what I’ve learned so far about the basics of using Mailchimp. I picked Mailchimp for two main reasons: 1) I’ve heard of it before, and 2) it’s free for up to 2000 subscribers.
And off we go!
Step 1: Sign up for a free account at mailchimp.com.
Turns out I already had a Mailchimp account (haha), but it had been deactivated (no surprise there). As long as you have an e-mail address and some basic personal info, creating an account is pretty straightforward.
Step 2: Let Mailchimp walk you through creating a list and designing your first e-mail.
Once I created my account, Mailchimp very helpfully tried to walk me through the basics of getting things started. In that first whirlwind hour, they wanted me to create a subscriber list and design my first e-mail. Honestly, I can’t remember which they tried to get me to do first, but I know creating the list was right near the beginning.
While I do have subscribers to this blog, I’ve never expressly received (nor asked for) permission to e-mail any of them a newsletter. Basically I’m starting from scratch. So I created the list, following the instructions, but left it empty. Later on, after you design your signup forms, new subscribers will automatically be added.
When you set up the list, Mailchimp suggests you use a name that will be easily recognized by your subscribers, like the name of your business. As writers, our business name is pretty much the same thing as our writer name. I ended up choosing “Author Kellie Michelle Parker,” but just my name, or something like “Kellie’s Author Newsletter,” would also have worked. Whatever you pick, it’s kind of a hassle to change later, so choose wisely.
Next stop is Mailchimp’s e-mail campaign set-up. You have a choice of several templates, depending on what you think you’d like for your design. When I first went through the set-up, I started right in on my newsletter. I’d gone to a great talk by Ann Kroeker at the 2018 Breathe Writers’ Conference, and she talked about the importance of creating a basic design and sticking with it, both in terms of images and content.
Diverting over to Canva, I put together an e-mail header to upload into the Mailchimp template. Then I came up with a rough overview of the different sections I’ll include, and uploaded a few more images.
At this point, though, I realized creating my first newsletter wouldn’t do a whole lot of good with only myself as a subscriber. It was time to figure out how to create a welcome e-mail and a signup form.
Step 3: Create a welcome e-mail.
While not strictly necessary, a welcome e-mail provides a personal touch to the end of what feels like a very automated signup process. And, thanks to the magic of Mailchimp, you can set it up to send automatically to new subscribers. Just think, after your initial work to write the e-mail, you’ll be able to personally reach out to each new subscriber without even thinking about it.
To start a new e-mail, click on “Campaigns” on the top menu of your Mailchimp dashboard. It should show the draft of the first e-mail you started. There’s a button near the top on the right-hand side that says “Create Campaign.” Choose this to get started. A box pops up asking you to label the campaign. Instead, select “Automated” on the top menu and then the box for “Welcome new subscribers.” Then you can follow Mailchimp’s directions to name and write your message.
Step 4: Create your signup page.
Congratulations, now your new subscribers will get an awesome personalized e-mail. But that doesn’t do you much good without any subscribers. How can people sign up to receive your newsletter?
Back on your Mailchimp dashboard, choose “Lists” from the menu at the top. Here you should see your one list you already created. On the far right, beside the word “Stats,” open up the drop-down menu and choose “Signup Forms.” Select the first option, “Form builder.”
Here you can access all of your signup forms and automated confirmation e-mails. This page also shows the URL for your signup form. The signup form is pretty straightforward–it’ll appear at the bottom of your screen, with additional fields you can add on the right-hand side. Use the drop-down form at the top to toggle to the other forms, like the reCAPTCHA page and confirmation e-mails.
To be GDPR-compliant, you’ll have to include a mailing address. If you don’t want to use your home address, consider using a work address or renting a PO Box.
Now, how do you control which of these forms are used? Some of them are optional, like the automated final welcome e-mail, and some of them are only used if you choose double opt-in (where subscribers must click through on a second e-mail to confirm their subscription).
You’re still on the signup forms page for your list. Look at the menu again beneath your list name and find “Settings” at the far right. From there, choose the first option, “List name and defaults.” Here, you can check boxes to enable double opt-in, add GDPR fields to your form, and enable reCAPTCHA. You can also set up the name that will appear on your messages in your subscribers’ inboxes. Don’t forget to save your changes at the bottom of the page.
Step 5: Link to your signup page.
But how to get your shiny new signup page into people’s hands? The most common way is through your website. Many people use pop-up boxes, which are probably pretty effective. If you have a wordpress.com site, you can create a pop-up box on the customization page of your site using a widget.
Personally, I find pop-ups to be annoying, so I opted to copy my signup form URL and link text to it on my homepage. I’d like to find a way to embed the form onto my page, but I haven’t tried to figure out how to do it yet. I suspect that a wordpress.org site or other self-hosted site would give more options in this respect.
You can create a signup link in your footer or sidebar, though, using wordpress.com’s “custom HTML” widget. I titled mine “Join my newsletter” and wanted to link the word “Subscribe” beneath the title to my signup form URL. Here’s the HTML coding:
<a href=”your form’s URL”>Subscribe</a>
Type that into the content box, inserting your unique URL, and, like magic, it works! (Can you tell I’m not a computer programmer? 🙂 )
My guess is, you can probably create signup links through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media accounts on your bio page or homepage, but again, I haven’t tried yet. I was pretty pleased just to make it this far.
Also, on the note of gathering subscribers, many people use either a freebie or a giveaway as an incentive. I think it’s a great idea to let people know what you have to offer or to give a free sample of your work, so they see what they’ll be getting. After all, they can always unsubscribe later if they don’t like it.
At this point, I’d recommend signing up for your own newsletter to see how it works. (Or bribe your spouse/parent/friend.) If you created a unique welcome message e-mail, that should turn up within the time-frame you selected, either immediately or 24 hours later.
Step 6: Send your newsletter.
Now it’s time to go back to designing your newsletter. Consistency is key–you want to stay connected with your readers, but not harass them with an inbox full of spam. From what I’ve read, anywhere from e-mails every two weeks to quarterly are reasonable options. Many people say once a month is the sweet spot. Personally, since I already write two blog posts a month, I’m aiming for a quarterly newsletter. I want my newsletter material to be fresh and unique, and my brain can’t handle that much pressure every month.
Once you’ve got a plan in place and have drummed up some subscribers, time to get the ball rolling! Go back to “Campaigns” at the top of your Mailchimp dashboard. Select the draft you want, finish it, and then let Mailchimp walk you through sending. You can also send yourself a test e-mail to make sure the formatting looks right, and see a proof of your e-mail on different devices.
How was that for the quick and dirty basics of Mailchimp? Pretty sure a lot of more tech-savvy people than me have made YouTube videos and detailed blog posts about this topic, so if you have questions, the answers are out there.
If you want ideas for newsletter content, I’d recommend signing up for a few from authors who write in your genre. What does their formatting look like? What kind of content do they include? What do you like and dislike?
And of course, you’re welcome to sign up for mine. Even if you just want to check out the signup form, you can find it here or in the footer of my website. I plan on sending the first newsletter later this month.
If you have other thoughts or insider tips to share, feel free to leave a comment below!
Image credit: Pexels.com, CC0 license.