26Aug2010

1120 Subscribers in 2 Days: My Foray into E-mail Newsletters

I'm a dabbler in the tiny, yet barely profitable, "developer news" industry with my sites Ruby Inside, Rails Inside, RubyFlow, Mobile Orchard and coder.io. Yesterday marked the launch of my latest experiment in a different medium: Ruby Weekly, a weekly e-mail newsletter for Rubyists.

Why

I've first envisioned a weekly Ruby newsletter in February 2009 and bought rubyweekly.com then, but it's only over the last six months I've been convinced of the value of e-mail newsletters. Key influencers include Jason L Baptiste, with his e-mail newsletters are still a serious business roundup, and Startup Digest's "e-mail mafia" piece and their how to start an e-mail newsletter company article.

I finally took the plunge due to four concerns:

  1. Competition. I've noticed, perhaps erroneously, that when I decide something's a good idea and don't do it, I'll see other people doing well with the same idea just weeks or months later. This is probably confirmation bias talking, but it's annoying enough for me to jump on to ideas quickly now (though this is not exactly an all-new idea anyway).
  2. Experimentation. 11 years ago I edited e-mail newsletters for Internet.com and eBoz.com - that's my experience with e-mail. It seems a great time to look at what's involved from start to finish and get a grip on something that seems to be becoming a hot topic (making newsletters for other people sounds like an interesting job, if nothing else).
  3. Captivation. Things I've read indicate that e-mail can enjoy a higher rate of engagement than the Web. To me, it makes sense. If I know I have 1000 people on a list and 700 readers have definitely opened my latest newsletter, that's a solid motivator to keep the readers happy. I have a hunch people might develop warmer, fuzzier feelings toward an e-mail newsletter they like than a blog, but I have no evidence for this (yet!)
  4. Promotion / Money If I have, say, 1000 people whose Inboxes I reach regularly, I can more easily launch new projects. I can't guarantee they'll all be interested in what I have to offer, but it'll get better results for less outlay than throwing a banner up on my sites or taking out some Adwords. Top Internet marketers all seem to have e-mail lists for this purpose. Ultimately, I want to write e-books and produce screencasts for my audience (software developers, mostly) to buy. It's a win-win because my subscribers get what they want and I get an audience I know could be interested in my wares.

    Another alternative some people take is putting advertising in their newsletters. Targeted e-mail newsletters can get far better CPMs than equivalent Web sites. I could probably approach one of my Ruby Inside advertisers and charge them $50 CPM without too much trouble. But I want to keep Ruby Weekly "clean" for now. Advertising should never be started too early and, besides, I need the motivation to work on the products I want to sell instead!

The launch and the response

I threw open the doors to Ruby Weekly on Wednesday (August 25) and I've picked up 1120 subscribers in the two days since. I'm grateful to all of them and hope to keep everyone pleasantly informed. It's a far better short-term result than I'd imagined!

My "launch" started in a surprising yet low-key way. I posted a vague tweet the night before the "proper" launch and about 120 subscribers came through that avenue alone - the value of having a loyal following on Twitter! Twitter provides a quick and easy way to test new ideas and get the social media kindling alight. People who follow me include a lot of Hacker News and Reddit users and they frequently submit and vote my stuff up - without my asking, too!

Further posts on Ruby Inside (which has ~24,500 feed subscribers) and RubyFlow then got the floodgates opening. Yes, getting 1000+ subscribers in two days is a lot easier if you have a sizable user-base to promote your list to ;-)

Once the first public issue went out, the reviews that came back on Twitter were better than expected (though I'm keen to get good, critical feedback too!) Some commenters on Ruby Inside couldn't see the point of having an e-mail as well as a blog but, ultimately, it's just not for those people.

How the newsletter works

The technology behind the newsletter is basic. I created a one page Web site at RubyWeekly.com that gives a visual indicator of what people will receive (though this is just a mockup, the real thing looks different!) and invites people to subscribe. It converts awesomely and I think the image helps a ton. The form then feeds e-mail addresses through to MailChimp, who I'm using to deliver the newsletter and handle the list.

The focus for generating the newsletters themselves was to be as quick and easy as possible, so I've already built a simple template based system that lets me easily build newsletters and get well formatted HTML and text versions I can copy and paste into MailChimp. MailChimp's automatic HTML to text system leaves a lot to be desired (though it's "OK") so having my own hand-built templates is a boon. The issues themselves are written in a structured YAML-based format and are run through a Ruby script that uses two ERB templates which output text and HTML versions I can copy and paste into MailChimp. Simple as that.

I have a wishy washy video (with background music, sorry about that.. I left it on while recording) that shows off my templates and sucky Ruby code for the curious:

Where next?

So where next? Well, it's the hard part - creating those products and services that I can encourage my readers to buy. Ay, there's the rub..

That said, I have one other e-mail newsletter project currently in progress (but unreleased). Almost two years ago, I wrote a popular comment on Hacker News about how to promote your startup. I plan to elaborate on those ideas and present practical demonstrations of how to promote your startup in a regular e-mail newsletter. If this interests you, follow me on Twitter @peterc for the next week or two and I'll be tweeting the URL to the project. You can always unfollow me again afterward ;-)

Comments

  1. Eric Davis says:

    I thought the music was a hidden easter egg.

    Good luck with the project, I'm starting to go back to simpler technology as I get busier. Email has always been the easiest thing for me to manage.

  2. Caius Durling says:

    To me the music is perfectly natural - over at Brightbox we have an unwritten rule that all screencasts have to have a really dodgy music soundtrack to them. They've ranged from dragonforce to Miley Cyrus at 4x realtime. Makes for interesting viewing :D

  3. Sebastian Marshall says:

    Hey Peter,

    Sebastian here, "Lionhearted" on Hacker News. Congrats on the subscribers, that's pretty amazing. Have you read this?

    http://jasonlbaptiste.com/startups/email-newsletters-are-still-a-serious-business/

    Jason is crazy smart and maybe there's some inspiration in there on what you can do going forwards with your newly minted list.

    How much is the cost to store the list at MailChimp now, if you don't mind letting us know?

    Best,
    Sebastian

  4. Chris McCann says:

    Peter, congrats on the success of your newsletter so far! And thanks for referencing our email mafia article :)

    Would love to chat over the phone someday about email newsletters. send me a note chris (at) thestartupdigest.com

  5. Peter Cooper says:

    @Sebastian: $30 a month, technically. But.. I have a list of 1700 coder.io launch subscribers which bumps me up into the $50/month plan now :-( .. once coder.io "launches" I can delete that list. Ultimately, though, the more subscribers the better, really.

  6. Lessons from running the Ruby Weekly newsletter so far says:

    [...] numbers. I previously wrote about how I got 1120 subscribers in 2 days and the subscription rate has tailed off since then. It's now up to 2173 subscribers and I'm happy [...]