Create Your Own Newsletter

The pros and cons of simple services for sending periodic email

Welcome! I'm spotlighting useful services for sending a newsletter in this post and a follow-up. Read on for pros and cons of various platforms, whether you’re aiming to reach thousands of readers or just a small group.

Last week I wrote about Excalidraw, Autodraw and other new tools for drawing and creating visuals that look like they’re hand-drawn 👩‍🎨. Want some new stuff to listen to? I posted recently about journalism podcasts, new music sites🎧 and audio for relaxing.

First, a few newsletter resources:

🎏Streamline your newsletter reading with these apps
🧑‍💻 Explore cool tools for newsletter readers & writers in a Twitter list
👀 Browse a collection of newsletters about journalism


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Substack
Ideal for writers seeking a simple, free service

Substack is what I use for the newsletter you’re reading right now. I considered several alternatives, including Mailchimp, Revue and ConvertKit.

Having relied on Substack for more than a year now, I recommend it for those who want to focus on their writing rather than on figuring out complex platform settings.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Substack’s co-founder, Hamish McKenzie, for a few years. And Substack has supported scholarships for a program I direct, the Journalism Creators Program.

Here’s why I recommend Substack: It's easy to use. Once you’ve written something, you can send out your first note in 10 minutes. It requires no technical expertise. There’s almost nothing to set-up, other than giving your newsletter a title, which you can change later. And because it’s free, it’s a great way to experiment with an idea. Send something to a few friends and see how they react.

Features 👍

  • You can write and schedule posts to go out later

  • You can embed YouTube videos or social media posts

  • You get a basic analytics dashboard. That informs you about what percentage of people open up your email and click on particular links.

  • You get the equivalent of a blog that readers can visit to see past posts

  • You can use Substack to host a podcast. Or to send audio posts to your readers.

Pricing: Free. No service fees. I send this note out to >5k readers as of July 2021 and I haven’t paid Substack a dime, because I haven’t turned on paid subscriptions. The cheapest Mailchimp plan would cost me $79 a month. The only time Substack takes money from writers is if/when they charge readers. Substack then takes a 10% cut of whatever you earn, which seems reasonable. Payment processing by Stripe costs another 3%.  

Limitations 👎

  • Substack lacks advanced automations, like sending a series of emails to people who click a button expressing interest in a particular subject.

  • You can’t run A/B tests of subject lines as you can with Mailchimp and other services. Those tests help you figure out which of two subject lines is stronger, what send time yields a higher open rate, or which content is more appealing.

  • You can’t create templates to speed up the workflow of creating new posts. A workaround: create a template-style draft post, then copy and paste it into a new post each time you write.

For most people sending out a personal newsletter, these limitations are insignificant. The Substack team has been growing and they’ve been improving the tools lately, including more refined metrics and new design options. 

Notable publications that use Substack

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Mailchimp
Ideal for marketers and big brands

Mailchimp, one of the most popular email service providers, is aimed at brands, not writers. Its templates lean toward marketing, as do its features.

  • It has a broad set of powerful features, including useful A/B testing. You can send one subject line to one group of readers and another subject line to another group of readers. Then Mailchimp will measure which performed better and send the more successful one out to the rest of your audience.

  • Mailchimp also has helpful landing page templates for making it super-easy for people to sign up for your newsletter.

Limitations: I find its user-interface clunky. It can be confusing to use at times if you’ve never set up a newsletter. And if you don’t need its advanced marketing capabilities it’s much more expensive than other services, particularly if you’re comparing it to a free service like Substack.

Notable publications that use Mailchimp

Revue
Ideal for curation newsletters

Revue, recently acquired by Twitter, is easy to use and well-designed for newsletters that emphasize curation. It lets you save articles and other links as you go through the week, then pull them automatically into your newsletter draft.

Features 👍

  • A great Revue feature is pulling in links you’ve saved on other services. That makes it easy to create a curated newsletter with links you’re shared elsewhere.

  • You can grab links you’ve saved to Pocket or Instapaper, for example, or things you’ve shared to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Pricing: If you do charge for your newsletter, Revue now takes only 5% of your revenue, half of Substack’s rate. That’s a big drop since the Twitter acquisition. If you don’t charge for your newsletter, it’s free to use Revue.

Limitations 👎

  • Underwhelming design options. You can’t do much to customize the way your newsletter looks.

  • Revue publications tend to have a cookie-cutter appearance, especially for the landing and archive pages.

Notable publications that use Revue

Letterdrop
An emerging alternative platform 🖊

Letterdrop is a new offering that helpfully lets you plug in other Web services, something Substack doesn’t do. Its founder Parthi Loganathan launched the service out of the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator.

When I spoke with Parthi to learn about the service, he seemed passionate about helping writers develop paid newsletter businesses. Letterdrop has resources for working with sponsors or advertisers, something Substack discourages. For writers interested in finding potential newsletter sponsors— or sponsors interested in finding newsletters— I recommend Swapstack, a helpful platform for that.

Letterdrop also has other new features tailored for those writing about finance. The service is still in its early stages, though, and features are still taking shape.

Notable publications that use Letterdrop

Share Wonder Tools: Useful sites & apps for creative productivity

If you’re in California and interested in building something new, apply this week to the new three-month Media in Color Creators Lab program. Or spread the word to others who might benefit. My team at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism is collaborating with Media in Color to help Californians create new local and niche sites, newsletters and podcasts.

  • Have another newsletter service to recommend? Reply to this email or add a comment below. A follow-up post will address additional services.

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