Lessons learned from running a weekly newsletter

Yesterday marks the one-year anniversary of my weekly Laravel News newsletter. I managed to send a new issue almost every week and only missed two because of vacations. I had no idea what I was doing in the beginning, and still every week I’m learning something new about the science behind newsletters. In this post, I want to share some of the behind scenes on running the newsletter, a few stats, mistakes I made, and lessons learned during this first year.

If you are not familiar with Laravel News, it’s a link blog where I share interesting tips, tutorials, interviews, and packages from within the Laravel community. Almost every weekday I have new posts and keeping up can be a challenge. The primary reason I started the newsletter was to lump all these posts together and give subscribers an easily scannable weekly digest, but I didn’t want to automate because you can always tell when newsletters do this.

The newsletter is created for developers, and this group is notorious for not easily giving up their email address, so I thought just giving a list of links wouldn’t be valuable enough. To combat this, I felt a unique angle would be to write a long form opening that included tips and other items I didn’t publish on the website. This was a huge time investment, and I would spend hours writing, editing, and editing again. Because of the nature of email I only got one shot and after hitting send that’s it.

About mid-year I sent out a survey to subscribers asking for feedback, and the responses that came in was eye opening. A lot of people didn’t want to read long-form text in their emails, they said the design was lacking, and they wanted more images. Up to this point, I never included any images because of the way I was manually building out each issue in horrible nested HTML tables.

Here are two issues comparing the start to what it looks like today:

As you can see, it went from super minimal to more visually pleasing, and that made a big improvement in click rates. Here is some of the feedback I’ve received from subscribers:

https://twitter.com/Pixelnated/status/564608821734408192

Growth

The first issue went out to 356 subscribers, and it had a crazy 86% open rate. I remember how bummed out I was on this percentage. I thought it should have been higher. It wasn’t until I spent some time researching open rates that I found out the percentage was high and open rates will continue to fall the more subscribers you get.

First Newsletter Stats

For comparison here is a screen shot of last weeks:

Recent Newsletter

It’s still averaging in the 60% open rates which based on Mailchimp’s stats is very high. I’m sure as the list grows this number will continue to decline and with 6,000 subscribers mine is very much on the small scale.

The actual growth of the list has been slow and steady, and I relied heavily on word of mouth and just asking people to sign up on social media:

Monthly Growth

Mistakes I made

Spending hours and hours on those early issues drained me almost to the point of just giving up and automating the whole thing. To add insult to injury, those are the issues when I had the smallest number of subscribers.

The second biggest mistake is I wanted to save money in the beginning and hand rolled everything myself. This caused way more work than the amount of money I saved. I had almost every email app installed on my computer, iPad, and the phone so that I could test. Even with all that testing, every week I’d get a reply telling me the design was messed up on their email client.

Lessons Learned

Every week I still build out the email by hand, but instead of messing with HTML tables I switched to a WYSIWYG and that alone has saved me so much time. I wish I had done that much sooner.

I also started streamlining the process of building out each issue by taking the extra few minutes and adding images when I create a new post on the blog. The types of content Laravel News covers isn’t conducive to images, so I build the images using free stock photo sites, with text overlayed. By spending this extra few minutes it saves a lot of time.

The call to action is so important for generating signups. I tried using wording such as “Never miss out”, to using a play on Eloquent with Newsletter::subscribe([email])->save(). Where email was an input field and save was a button. Just as a fun FYI the play on Eloquent generated higher signups. However, the best call to action I’ve used is a free e-book offer. No one can resist free.

Above all ALWAYS put your subscribers first. I do my newsletter with different sections: a lead in with the best item of the week, then other interesting links, and finally I close out with what I call the “Sunday Seven” which is seven resources completely unrelated to the primary topic. This section is my personal spot where I can share things I find interesting and add my witty commentary. By having this section, it keeps it fun for me.

Finally, subscribers do like the personal touches and like to feel the email isn’t just robotic. I’m not saying to go overboard but just humanize it with your personality. Here is a tweet quoting one of my closings:

Conclusion

With this first year in the book, I’d like to come back next year with at least double the list size and continue making it an excellent resource. If you are interested in the Laravel framework be sure and subscribe. You’ll get a free e-book. 🙂

Lessons learned from running a weekly newsletter

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