In the past few years, the ITAA email newsletter has grown from a list of a few dozen folks who regularly came to events into being over 700 people across Illinois and by archers across the US as a way to keep up with our archery community here.
The newsletter tool that we currently use is MailChimp. It’s free up to lists of 1000 addresses, and it has all of the great features of the professional tool that it is. If we required complex tools and stats about exactly who was opening and responding to our emails, they are available. As it is, it’s a convenient, powerful tool, for free. That fits the bill. MailChimp also hosts an archive of your past newsletters. If you share that link on your web page, then new members or non-subscribers can still get the information you send out.
Here’s a quick overview of how it works, and how I use it, and what I think about to keep it consistent. A friend who runs her business through MailChimp got me started with it, so I’m just passing along her knowledge.
There are some legal issues with mass emailing. Messing them up will put you on the wrong side of the CAN-SPAM act of 2003. Fortunately, this is an area where MailChimp has you covered for the legal grounds — providing the necessary “unsubscribe” mechanism, etc, to let people remove their addresses from your list.
What remains are courtesies. A good newsletter will grow in popularity and usefulness. A poor one will rot unread in spam folders.
Create a free account at MailChimp (mailchimp.com)
You will see that MailChimp dashboard consists of Campaigns, Templates, Lists, Reports, and Automation. I skip Templates and Automation. And most Reports. I live a simple life.
The basic MailChimp workflow is to
- Create a new newsletter (MailChimp calls them Campaigns).
- Make sure it will display well in several email readers
- Select which List to send it to.
- Test the Campaign by only sending to a few testers.
- Send it to everybody
- Get a Chimp High-Five.
- Check back later to see that people are receiving and opening your Campaign.
Who are you sending to?
Start in the Lists section. This holds list (or lists, if you want) of email addresses that your newsletters will go out to. Once you have a list, you can assign a Campaign to use that list. The Campaign will use the List at the time it is sent, not the time the Campaign is created. So you can edit the List and Campaign right up until you hit send.
There are three ways to populate a List:
- Import your mailing list.
- Manually enter names and addresses.
- Set up a sign-up form on your web site so people can add themselves.
If you have an existing list of newsletter email addresses, start with that. If not, start with the emails of folks who have come to your events in the past. If you are a state association, use the emails from your state’s USAA memberships. This is an allowed usage of that contact information. But to be courteous I would add a note to the first few newsletters explaining how and why you obtained their addresses, explaining why you hope the newsletter is useful to them, and reminding folks how to remove their address if they aren’t interested.
What are You Sending? – Campaigns
In the Campaigns section, there will eventually be a list of the email campaigns you have created and sent. I find it easiest to create one that I like, then just replicate it to create the next one. Setting them up from scratch is work I’d rather avoid. So my April Newsletter begins life as a copy of my March Newsletter. Just be careful to change all of the Marchs to Aprils.
My regular monthly newsletters are filled with news, reviews, and sometimes have the official announcements that a tournament registration has just opened. Those tend to have high click percentages. Some are special newsletters updating folks on when the bi-annual board meeting is. Those are, understandably, less click-happy.
I typically replicate a newsletter a week before I send it out, and then I move into the new one anything that won’t fit in the current one. I also add placeholders for myself to add in expected content ideas throughout the month, so that it’s ready by the next month.
I tend to aim for sending newsletters on the 1st of each month, but sometimes a newsletter is either delayed by my schedule or (rarely) accelerated by needing to announce a tournament registration. So this winter I’ve had a few months with more than one “monthly” newsletter.
MailChimp Campaign Tools
- For your first Campaign, click the button labeled “Create Campaign”.
- In the dialog box that comes up, write the name you want for this Campaign. Choose “Regular” for Campaign Type.
Campaigns have 5 phases to fill in:
You can always back-track through these phases to change the choices you’ve made, without losing what you’ve done in later phases.
Choose the List that you want to send this Campaign to.
You can choose to use the Whole List or a segment of that list. Choose the Whole List. You can use the fancy segmented list tools later.
When done, click Next
Here you can edit things like the Campaign Name, the subject line that the email should have, and what email address replies should go to if people reply to the newsletter. There are many tools and options, some of which are restricted or required on free accounts like I have. You can do cool things like use known names associated with email addresses to personalize each email. I don’t do this.
When done, click Next
Here you can choose a layout and design template from a collection of ones that MailChimp as ready made for you. These are professionally designed, and work well for establishing a good reliable layout that your readers will be able to interpret easily. Confusing layouts look unprofessional and make it harder to communicate with your audience.
I use the layour labeled Basic -> 1 Column. Like I said, I keep life simple.
This is where I spend most of my time. This is where the newsletter gets written.
The design area is composed of content blocks. You can move these blocks around in your layout. Clicking inside the blocks brings up the content editor where you can add text, images, links, movies, etc.
I’ll go over my own newsletter content philosophy later. For now, just try moving some blocks and editing some text.
Make sure to add a text description into the “Default Header Preview” block, and change the title of the “It’s time to design your campaign” block. We’ll need those changed for the next step.
When you’re happy with how content blocks work, click Next.
The Confirm area shows you a summary of the settings for this Campaign. Here you can review your settings quickly to see if you want to change anything major. It’s a good place to catch mistakes before you click Send. Everything should be green here.
One area that is tricky is the Plain-Text Email section. This is a check that MailChimp does to make sure that people reading your email as just text will have the same information as people reading it as html with images, movies, etc. If this section is yellow, click on Edit and click “Regenerate From HTML”. This will re-create the text edition of the email.
Preview and Test
Use the Preview and Test tools to view what the campaign will look like on phones, tablets, and various email readers.
You should also send a test copy of the email to yourself and a few proofreading partners before you send it out to your whole community. Otherwise, you may need to send a correction email, which is always embarrassing and creates extra inbox clutter for your recipients.
Once you’re happy, you can either send the campaign immediately (MailChimp will add it to the queue of emails from other senders that it is currently sending), or you can schedule your campaign to be sent at a particular time and date.
The ITAA newsletters follow a pattern established in years past. It’s not the most modern format, but it serves its purpose, so I like it. Some Newsletters grow to be nearly the length of a small magazine. But I try to split those off into multiple months.
The basics are to choose a color scheme (ours are sky blues) and stick with it. Even the background color is a muted sky blue. I also put a Divider block in between every single content block. That establishes a visual rhythm that helps signal when the content topic is ending, and the next one is beginning.
When writing a content section, I try to start with a big logo of the club or organization that the content is related to. ITAA, USAA, World Archery, local clubs, etc. I keep a copy of each of their logos, and add to keep a sense that this isn’t just the state org’s news, its news of every club and member.
Here is a zoomed-out view of what the ITAA newsletters look like while they’re being written.
They always start with the same pattern.
- The default text block describing this is the monthly newsletter of the ITAA
- The Social Card showing the ITAA Logo and Name
- A big reminder link that people can view this email in a web browser instead of just their email reader. Some email readers cut off of the bottom of the newsletter, so people sometimes can’t read the whole thing there.
- A Letter from the President — the current org president summarizes recent events, special links, and calls attention to upcoming important things for people to be aware of.
- The yellow and green highlighted lines are way of remembering what contents I intend to put into a newsletter. I mark them green once I’ve completed them.
- This letter always ends with the org’s motto — Shoot ’em Straight.
- Then a state news item — an upcoming state tournament, results and photos from one that just finished.
- Use a two-column content block to highlight two upcoming club events.
- Misc other large news
- Small continuing news items — encouraging folks to become certified instructors and judges,
- Upcoming Events – copy of the giant list of all upcoming events that I’ve ever been emailed about
- Associated Links – links to clubs, shops, and orgs that are run by ITAA folks.
- Mandatory MailChimp CAN-SPAM compliance block — this contains the leglaese, copyright information, etc.
There is so much structure each month, that it’s much easier to start from a copy of the previous newsletter than to begin from scratch each time.
Who is Reading This? – Reports
Mailchimp will report on the percentages of recipients who open your newsletters, and the percentage that click any of the links in the newsletter. If people open them in most modern email readers, MailChimp will receive a notification of it. But some readers will block that notification.
Those percentages will likely be pretty low, especially if you initially populate your list with USAA membership addresses. If you want, you can use the tools to prune away addresses that never open your newsletter. But you run the risk of pruning addresses that are just being read through readers that disallow the notification.
Mailchimp can work with SurveyMonkey to send out surveys in your newsletters. That’s for another day, but it’s an option to remember.