Choosing an Email Newsletter System

Looks at various ways to set up and manage an email newsletter mailing list, including hosted solutions and off-the-shelf software.

SwansA regular email newsletter is a good way to keep in touch with your site visitors and encourage them to return to your site. If you run an online business then it's also perfect for telling existing and potential customers about your products or services.

With an email newsletter, visitors add their email addresses to your mailing list (usually via a form on your website), then you regularly send an email message to all the subscribers on the list.

There are many ways that you can set up and run a newsletter mailing list. In this article you'll explore 3 broad approaches:

  • Hosted services that run on a third-party server
  • Off-the-shelf newsletter software that runs on your own server
  • Sending your newsletter using your desktop email program

Hosted newsletter solutions

The easiest approach to building a mailing list and sending newsletters is to use a hosted service. Most services have a monthly fee, and if you have a large subscriber list then this fee can be quite high. However if your newsletter is an effective marketing tool then it's usually worth the expense.

Most hosted options give you the ability to track and report on how many messages were sent, how many messages were opened, and how many readers clicked the links in the newsletter. They'll also handle bounces (undelivered messages) automatically, removing addresses from your mailing list as appropriate. Another common feature is A/B testing, which lets you send out 2 different versions of your newsletter and measure which version gets the best response. All of these features make hosted solutions perfect for email marketing.

Usually you can add or import subscribers via a web-based interface, and you can also add a signup form on your site so that your visitors can add themselves.

Hosted services have another advantage, too: Most of them have agreements with major ISPs and webmail providers to ensure that their email messages aren't marked as spam. This means that you'll probably get a higher delivery success rate if you use a hosted solution.

Popular newsletter services include:

  • AWeber — This service is good if your focus is on marketing to your customers (or potential customers). As well as a standard newsletter service, their autoresponder option lets you send out scheduled follow-up emails to your subscribers — perfect for offering more products to existing customers, or for getting customer feedback.
  • MailChimp — This service makes it easy to produce great-looking email newsletters, with lots of lovely newsletter templates (or you can design your own). It also lets you create multiple lists and autoresponders, has reasonably good tracking tools, and claims a 97% delivery rate.
  • VerticalResponse — Gives you lots of options to help you create your newsletters, including templates and a wizard. Also has solid reporting and tracking tools.

Off-the-shelf newsletter software

If you don't want to pay a monthly fee to send your newsletter and manage your mailing list — or you'd rather have more control over your newsletter — then you can install list management software on your own web server. There are many great free packages available. Here are some of the more popular ones:

  • Dada Mail — This software has been around for years, and is pretty stable. It's designed to be installable on practically any type of server, including shared hosting. It's easy to set up and use (the documentation is great too). It has a plugin (called Mystery Girl) for processing bounce messages and pruning your mailing list.
  • phplist — As with Dada Mail, phplist can run on a wide variety of servers. It can cope well with large lists, and it reliably sends out newsletters in the background even after you've closed your browser. It has a WYSIWYG editor for composing HTML newsletters, and can track which emails were opened.
  • Mailman — This is another solid mailing list manager that's been around for years. It's capable of managing both announcement (i.e. newsletter) lists and discussion lists (where anyone can send messages to the list). It has more of a learning curve than Dada Mail or phplist, but once everything is set up it's very stable and does a great job.
  • You may well find that your current server has one of the above packages already installed. If not then you may be able to install one of them using your control panel. Ask your hosting company for advice.

    Before sending out your first newsletter, be sure to check with your hosting company if there are any restrictions on sending bulk email from your server. For example, some hosting accounts limit the number of emails that may be sent per hour. In this case you can throttle your newsletter software's sending rate so that it doesn't exceed this limit.

    The DIY approach

    If you don't have the budget for a hosted solution, and your list is small (a few hundred subscribers at most) then you can, at a pinch, use your desktop email software to manage your list and send your newsletter.

    Most email software has an address book or contacts feature where you can add subscribers to a group. When you're ready to send your email, add yourself as the To: recipient, then add the group as BCC: recipients (this prevents each member of the group seeing everyone else's email addresses).

    The drawbacks with this approach are:

    • It can be cumbersome to send your newsletter, deal with subscription and removal requests, and manually remove bounces from your list.
    • Some ISPs and webmail services will treat as spam any bulk email that isn't sent directly to the recipient using the To: field. This can result in a lot of copies of your newsletter ending up in people's junk mail folders.

    Summary

    In this article you've looked at 3 main options for managing your mailing list and sending out your newsletter:

    • The hosted option is great if you want ease-of-use, reliability, a high delivery rate, and marketing-related features.
    • Off-the-shelf software is a good free alternative to a hosted solution, and is perfect if you're on a tight budget.
    • Sending via your desktop email software can also work if your list is small and you don't mind the overhead of manually processing subscriptions, unsubscriptions and bounces.

    Hopefully you now have enough information to decide which type of system you want to go with. If you need any more advice on choosing a newsletter setup, feel free to ask a question below.

    Good luck with your newsletter!

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    Responses to this article

    3 responses (oldest first):

    11-Oct-10 12:03
    There are 1,000s of email marketing solutions, finding one is the easy part. The hard part, especially for the do-it-yourselfer, is finding the time to research, write and edit articles, and find and manipulate digital images, do the layout, and consistently deliver a quality newsletter week after week or month after month.

    The one suggestion I have is to plan out and write 3 months of content in advance. Time flies by and this will help you keep delivery on a consistent basis. Also, be sure to have permission to use photos.

    Have fun.

    [Edited by pcstokes on 11-Oct-10 12:04]
    12-Oct-10 03:51
    @pcstokes: That's a good tip. It's always good to keep a stockpile of content, as newsletter deadlines have a habit of creeping up on you.
    26-Jul-11 06:11
    A regular email newsletter is a good way to keep in touch with your site visitors and encourage them to return to your site. If you run an online business then it's also perfect for telling existing and potential customers about your products or services.

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