Starting Your Own Newsletter or Ezine

Tips on running your own newsletter, ezine, or mailing list.


Starting Your Own Newsletter or Ezine

by Christopher Heng, thesitewizard.com

Even if you already have your own website, where you can of course publish whatever you want, there are some good reasons for running a newsletter or mailing list:

Such newsletters are useful both to you (as a web designer) and to your readers: you get a chance to reach your audience with your information, and your audience gets the information they wanted (which was why they subscribed in the first place). There's also a side benefit: some of your readers will return to your site to check out the new stuff mentioned in your newsletter.

Running an Electronic Newsletter or Ezine

There are basically two things that you need when running a newsletter:

  1. You need a way for visitors to your site to sign up or leave the mailing list.

  2. You also need a way for you to post to the entire mailing list.

Incidentally, as you can tell from my words above, I'm assuming here that you already have a website. If this is not true, you may want to read How to Make / Create Your Own Website: The Beginner's A-Z Guide for more information on how to start one.

Using a Third Party Service

The easiest way to run a newsletter is to let a third party mailing list service handle the dirty work, freeing you to concentrate on your content. There are both commercial and free mailing list hosting services available. You can find a list of free mailing list hosts from thefreecountry.com's Free Mailing List Hosts page. I have also reviewed a few of these services in the past, including a review of Topica and one of Yahoo! Groups

The advantages of using a third party service (whether commercial or free) are:

  1. Hands-free — you don't have to bother about managing the list itself. Things like bounced mail, subscriptions and unsubscribes are handled by them. Some of the services also archive the old issues of your newsletters automatically.

  2. Confirmation of subscription — all the mailing list hosting services that I know of actually send your subscribers an email requiring them to confirm before they are added to the list. Although you may think this is a hassle that may cost you some subscribers (such as those that can't be bothered to reply to the confirmation request), it is actually useful because it will help prevent cases where a person's email is used to subscribe to a list without his/her permission. At least, you won't be accused of spamming anyone.

  3. Publicity — A not-so-obvious advantage comes from the publicity the third party service may give to your list. Some mailing list hosts, most notably the free ones, display a list of ezines or newsletters people can subscribe to on their website. I have actually got new visitors to my site (and new subscribers) coming from people browsing such sites. They saw my newsletter listed there, checked out my site and subscribed to the ezine.

  4. No additional software needed — you do not need Smartlist, Majordomo, Listserv, or PHP/Perl CGI access. All you need is to sign up.

If you use a third party mailing list service, you may encounter the following disadvantages:

  1. Cost. The commercial mailing list hosts are somewhat like web hosts, charging either a monthly/yearly fee or charging according to the number of messages you send, bandwidth you use, number of subscribers, etc.

  2. Advertising. If you use a free mailing list hosting provider, your subscribers may be subject to third party advertising. They often automatically inject an advertisement into your newsletter or ezine each time an issue is sent out. This advertisement is understandable of course, since the service has to recover its costs some how.

  3. Control. You do not have total control of your list when you rely on a third party mailing list host. This is especially the case with the free mailing list hosting providers. There was one time when I wanted to concatenate two mailing lists using a free mailing list host (now no longer operating) but found that there was no real way of doing it without forcing all the subscribers of one of the lists to reconfirm their subscription again, even though they had already confirmed their subscription when they first subscribed to the original newsletter.

  4. Reliability. You are dependent on the reliability of your mailing list host.

Using Your Web Host's Mailing List Software

Another way to run your mailing list is to use the services provided by your web host. Most web hosts provide you with the facility to run your own mailing list. Some provide fairly sophisticated automated systems that can archive past issues of your ezines, send requests for confirmations, handle subscriptions and unsubscribes without your intervention, etc.

Using your host's mailing list software has the advantage that it is free (or rather, you have already paid for it as part of your web hosting package) and is (usually) ad-free (ie, no advertisements are inserted). Depending on the software your host uses, you also have quite good control over the list: you can add subscribers, remove them, block certain subscribers, change the confirmation messages, etc. In addition, the automated system also frees you from the chore of manually adding and removing subscribers.

The disadvantage is that some web hosts impose a limit to the number of subscribers you can have in your list. This is to prevent their mailing servers from becoming overloaded from messages emanating from your list.

Running Your Own Mailing List Script (Perl / PHP / ASP /etc)

There are also numerous free mailing list Perl scripts as well as PHP scripts that allow you to run a mailing list from your website even if your host does not provide mailing list facility for your account. For example, you can find some on thefreecountry.com's Free Perl Mailing List Scripts and Free PHP Mailing List Scripts pages.

Owing to the nature of such software, these scripts often require your users to subscribe and unsubscribe only using the web interface. Some scripts support the double opt-in of the mailing list providers: they automatically send an email to the subscriber with a special URL that they must click on to confirm their subscription; others simply send subscribers a message with information on how to unsubscribe and the like. You will often have to handle the bounced mail yourself by manually deleting the subscriber from your list when you received bounced messages.

Running Your Own Newsletter from your Email Software

Sometimes, if your mailing list is small, it may be possible to use your email software to manage your list. Some email software have sophisticated mailing list management facilities. Others are designed with mailing lists in mind.

The advantage of this method is obvious: you are not dependent on your web host nor do you have to pay a third party mailing list host to handle your list.

The disadvantages of this are:

  1. If you are not on a permanent internet connection, you will have to frequently connect to the Internet to receive the subscription requests and unsubscribes, so that your email software can process these in a timely fashion. No longer can you be reticent about collecting your mail on busy days. In fact, you really should process subscription requests within a few hours of their being sent, otherwise some people might forget they have sent those requests and not confirm your confirmation notice (or complain about spam to your ISP).

  2. You have to manually delete subscribers for bounced messages.

  3. Depending on the size of your list and the type of your connection (eg, whether it is a dial-up line or broadband), you may have to spend hours connected to the Internet each time you send an issue of your ezine or newsletter: your email software has to send your newsletter to every email address in your list. If your list is large, you may end up spending hours just sending an issue.

What to Write?

What should you put in your mailing list or newsletter? That's really up to you, of course.

Some people hold discussion lists (where even subscribers can contribute to the list). Others use it as a place to make product announcements. For example, my Logtime mailing list was designed for users of the software to receive notification everytime a new version is released. Another use for the newsletter is what I do with the thefreecountry.com's newsletter: subscribers receive periodic issues telling them of new free webmaster and programmer resources that I find, prior to my posting them onto thefreecountry.com. Or you could send articles to your subscribers, like what I do with thesitewizard™ newsletter.

Incidentally, I would suggest that your newsletter contain things useful to your readers rather than just one long string of advertisements. My personal policy is to not to send out an issue if I don't have anything significant to say rather than to send out a useless issue.

Update (9 January 2008): Note that I no longer send the email newsletters mentioned above. If you want to stay updated, please use the news feeds for thesitewizard.com and thefreecountry.com instead. See the news feed FAQ if you don't know how to subscribe to news feeds. Subscription is free, and no personal information (such as email address) is required. All you need is your web browser.

Formatting Your Newsletter

You can publish your newsletter using HTML or send it out in plain text.

Sending your newsletter in the HTML format allows you to format your newsletter with fonts, colours and even embed pictures. However not everyone appreciates HTML email, and some even filter out all HTML mail on the grounds that such email are most likely to be spam. HTML messages tend to be larger than plain text messages too, so if you're paying your mailing list provider according to bandwidth used, you may want to factor that into your calculations.

If, however, you choose to send your newsletters in plain text, here are some tips to help you get the maximum effect from your newsletter:

  1. Most newsletter publishers advise that you should write your plain-text messages with a maximum of 65 characters to a line. If you write more than 65 characters to a line, some of your subscribers' email software will wrap the line at the 66th character, resulting in your hard work appearing mangled.

  2. Put space between each paragraph.

  3. You can emphasize a particular word by enclosing it in asterisks: eg, *recommended*.

  4. Although you might think that you can underline things using the hyphen or underscore character, remember that some of your users may be using fixed pitched fonts while others may be using variable pitched fonts. This means that the length of your lines will vary according to the type of fonts they use. If you insist on using hyphens, use it to separate one section from another rather than as the underline character. Again, keep those lines within 65 characters.

  5. When you put links in your newsletter, just put the unadorned link without any HTML tags, like the following:

    http://www.thesitewizard.com/

    Most modern email software and web email interfaces will automatically make that into a clickable link. AOL's email client does not however. The latter require that you write an HTML link for it to be clickable.

  6. When you give email addresses, prefix it with a "mailto:" tag, like the following:

    mailto:subscribe@example.com

    Again, this will be rendered as a clickable link by most modern email software.

Update: You may also want to read the following article: The Changing Face of Email Newsletter Publishing: Tips for Newsletter Publishers

Get Started!

You probably have enough tips to start you off on your own newsletter here. The rest of the stuff pretty much depends on what you want to do with your newsletter.

Happy writing!

Copyright 2000-2014 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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