One of the first things you are told to do for your writing business is to set up an email list of readers. I talked about why writers need an email list in a previous article.
When you are sending one email at a time with unique information for that individual, it is true that you must handle it on your own. However, if you are growing your email list correctly, you will soon be sending mass emails to thousands of readers and sending them one at a time would be more than a full-time job.
There are programs that incorporate the ability to send mass emails from your website. That is one alternative. However, I would argue against those plugins and programs. Unfortunately, we live in a time when there are many bad players in the marketing arena. Spam is rampant and the last thing you want is for your domain to be marked as a spammer.
In order to be whitelisted, there are many hoops to jump through. Some you have to do on your own like prove you are who you say you are. All quality vendors will require this. But other whitelisting requirements require a substantial investment in technology infrastructure that most authors cannot afford. This includes the ability to send email quickly, to check that the email entered is legitimate, to stop robot spammers from getting to your emails, to meet all the governmental regulations around the identity of the sender, to use the correct opt-in forms, and to gain appropriate consent and be able to prove it when someone lodges a complaint.
For me, the best approach has always been to use an email marketing services provider that meets all of those regulations and is a consistently whitelisted provider. Any providers that are not whitelisted are likely to have your email end up in junk and spam folders. The most important function of a good email hosting service is to ensure that your emails do not end up in the spam or junk folder of the recipient, or are marked as untrustworthy by their security programs.
What to Look for in a Good Email Provider
A good email hosting and marketing service will allow you to easily create engaging email newsletters with an intuitive interface that doesn’t take months to learn. If you are visually inclined, a “drag & drop” solution would be best for you. If you prefer something that looks like basic email with a way to do some formatting and add a picture or two, then drag & drop may not be as important to you.
You should be able to easily send bulk emails that are personalized (e.g., first name if you’ve collected it). Most services provide this.
You should be able to target specific groups of readers without a lot of work. For example, I write in three fiction genres and in two nonfiction areas. It is really useful to be able to send an email only to those who want to hear about my fantasy books without sending to the authors on my list who only want to hear about author marketing.
The email hosting service will provide an easy interface to manage your contacts, segment users into groups, and track the performance of your email marketing campaigns. (e.g., how many people opened the email, how many clicked on your offer — call-to-action)
You should have easy access to customer service if you have questions or problems in implementing the product. Sadly, it is rare that a provider will give you a phone number to call. However, most good providers do have an instant chat and a support ticket system. If the problem is not resolved quickly, they will then either call you or give you the number of a support person who will work to resolve your problem.
If you have more than a couple of books (or articles) you may want a way to introduce funnels and follow-on marketing through triggered automation sequences. An example of this is when I offer a free book, I then follow up with a series of timed automated emails to that individual asking if they enjoyed it, letting them know what else is available in the series, telling them about other related products like an audiobook, and giving them alternate buying options like a boxset. These are known as automation sequences. I’ve had an automation sequence as short as three emails (for general onboarding), and as long as 13 emails over a one-year period for a continuing series of books.
The most robust systems track individual subscribers and report on every engagement they have and even what call-to-actions they’ve clicked on. An example of this is below.
The bottom portion of the screen shows the email history for a single subscriber. This reader first joined my email list through a Facebook Ad targeted to readers of romantic women’s fiction novels. She entered a sequence attached to that ad of several emails. Read from the bottom up and see the dates for spacing.
That sequence of six emails ended with an invitation to join my Launch Team (some people call this a street team). She accepted that invitation as evidenced by her completed form titled Launch Team displayed in the top half. Once she completed that form, it put her into a different automated onboarding sequence only for those who completed the Launch Team form. It has also tagged her as a Launch Team member so that when I send out emails just for that group, she will be included. All tags attached to this individual are in the black box on the right.
The email history for this person shows that she has opened every email I sent her (solid blue dot next to email) in a six month period. She has clicked on the call to action in two emails — one to read and review an ARC for my Thanks for Love novel and another to purchase a novel in my Sweetwater Canyon series.
Not everyone wants this level of detail about their readers. Because I run campaigns for different genres, it is helpful for me to know this. If you write only in one genre then it may not be necessary to have this level of data. When your list is a homogenous group of fans you can get away with sending the same email to everyone.
Getting this level of email service costs more and takes more time to manage. So the first question to ask yourself is what are you going to do with the data? Then ask if you have the time to act on what you learn? Data is wonderful! But if you do nothing with it you are paying for more service than you are using.
Three Types of Mail Hosting Services
There are plenty of people who have the BEST mailing list system in the world. Just ask their sales people. In my mind, there are really three types of Email Marketing Systems to consider.
Basic or minimum. This provides barebones delivery and data analysis. They tend to have some targeting but not the capability to combine targets. The data analysis is basic, such as number of opens and clicks but no way to track who clicked. No availability of automated sequences or funnels.
Medium/Small Business. This has most of the features anyone would need until they go beyond 50K readers. This level of system contains all the functionality listed above for delivery, automation, and targeting, along with significant analysis reporting. This is the level of email marketing service I’ve been using for quite some time. It provides me with the best combination of solid features and reporting, without the overwhelm of too much data that I don’t have time to monitor or act on.
Enterprise level. Luxury features and extensive analysis, used for large lists and hundreds of products. There are some authors who use email marketing systems at this level. They tend to have assistants or a contractor they pay to run their email marketing for them. I’m a data geek and I do love the reporting and data analysis provided at this level. However, I’m always trying to balance my love of data and the time I need to spend producing new products.
As expected, the pricing of the system goes up with each level as well. The Basic systems are free or very inexpensive. The Medium/Small Business systems cost more and once you are beyond 5,000 people on a list pricing can be quite different from one system to another. The Enterprise level (e.g., Keap, formerly InfusionSoft; Ontraport; Active Campaign; Hubspot) is the most expensive. I’m not going to discuss the enterprise level programs in this article because most people reading this article would not have that need or be willing to pay the price for these services.
The vast majority of new authors go with whatever is the least expensive — or preferably free. This can work for small lists and it can be a good choice for people just starting out and planning a slow build over many years. It is also a viable option for people who are testing and just want some time to learn the concepts and technology without having to pay for it.
However, the bigger your list gets the more difficult, and often more expensive, these initially free options become. For example, when I began with the free version of MailChimp in the first year I went from 400 people on my list to 4,000. I had to start paying and the cost for 4,000 was more at MailChimp than at other places with no free option or limited free options.
Also, the more diverse products you have (e.g., ebooks, paperback books, hardback books, audiobooks, boxsets of each type, courses, associated swag), the more need you have for understanding those different audiences and what they would like to hear from you.
Whenever I look at any software for my writing business, I ask myself: Where do I expect to be in two years in terms of fans and products? Then I buy the best solution I can afford for that expectation.
Whenever I look at any software for my writing business, I ask myself: Where do I expect to be in two years in terms of fans and products? Then I buy the best solution I can afford for that expectation. What I don’t want to do is to have to move all my data to a new system every year as I grow. I don’t want to expend the energy to learn the quirks of that new system, recreate my opt-in cards and website opt-in pages. It’s better to pay a little more, knowing I can grow into the system and will have a good sense of how to use it effectively as my list grows.
Suggestions for Email Marketing Providers
The way I’ve always approached selection is to list the features that are important to me. Then I look at reviews from sources that are not tied to the software company. I compare features to my list and choose one to trial with about 200 names of people who have agreed to let me use them as test subjects (a combination of family, friends, and readers). Some reliable review sites I’ve used are reviews.com, WPbeginner.com, hostingfacts.com, and trustradius.com.
I highly recommend doing that research for yourself before making a decision. I also suggest that you begin with a free trial for at least 30 days (or trail by using the free version if they have it). No matter the system and how savvy you are, it takes a while to get used to how it works and to see if it is going to serve your needs. Don’t judge it as awful if you can’t figure it out within the first couple of hours.
If you are frustrated, walk away and tackle it a couple of hours later or on another day. Start with a basic email, and then work your way up to other capabilities that interest you. After a couple of weeks or a month, you’ll have a good idea if it works for you or not.
Below I’ve provided brief summary comments on the ones I have personally used in the past decade and my journey to what I use now.
Let’s face it, MAIL CHIMP is the most popular and most widely known email marketing service provider in the world. This is where I started and I still feel comfortable recommending it particularly for people seeking a FREE platform. It is free to use up to 2,000 subscribers on your list and comes with some basic automation. It contains limited templates for creating emails, but it doesn’t take long to figure out how to use it.
Unlike most systems that use tagging to identify differences in segments and subscribers, Mail Chimp still uses lists. In other words, if you want to segment your fantasy readers from your romance readers, you must create two lists. This is an easy task, however, it does mean that some readers may get counted more than once. In my case, 25% of the readers on my romance list were also on my fantasy list. This means I was paying for those readers twice.
Because of Mail Chimp’s longevity in email marketing services, they’ve built a lot of integrations to other platforms such as websites and shopping platforms. Of all the systems I’ve personally used, they have the most integrations. I left MailChimp when I got above 5,000 readers on my list because it seemed costly for the features I was getting; I didn’t like paying double for my cross-over readers on more than one list.
MAIILER LITE is a very popular platform among book authors. When I’ve asked my colleagues what they like best there are always two things: 1) easy drag & drop interface for creating newsletters, landing pages, and forms for newsletter opt-ins; and 2) their price is among the lowest in comparison to other providers. I know authors with lists of 50,000 subscribers that are still very happy with Mailer Lite.
Mailer Lite provides all the things that Mail Chimp does with the addition of better segmenting and more autoresponder options. It is free to use until you reach 1,000 subscribers. Their analytics is limited and tagging of subscribers is basic but is still better than Mail Chimp and costs significantly less once you get beyond the free plan.
I left Mailer Lite when they had a major hack three years ago and were down for nearly a month fixing it. I was in the middle of career-building with a number of advertising campaigns already scheduled to run. I couldn’t wait that long to be in contact with my readers and following up. I also figured if I had to rebuild it, I might as well rebuild it immediately somewhere else.
They did fix their system and stabilize it. My writer friends who stuck with them are very happy, and they have improved things in terms of templates. They are still the least costly for a medium platform than any other I’ve encountered. I would still recommend them based on their stabilization and the continued use by thousands of writers.
CONVERT KIT was initially built for bloggers; especially those bloggers who may also offer courses. That meant it didn’t have a lot of bells and whistles in terms of opt-in forms, fancy landing page templates, or drag & drop design. The idea was that bloggers and only needed a very basic square opt-in box and not a lot of fancy stuff. In addition, bloggers send out an email to their fans that primarily is a list of links to all their blog postings; and perhaps a giveaway PDF or an invite to a course.
What ConvertKit does exceptionally well is to track all the actions of individual subscribers. The example I showed above of how to track one subscriber was from the time I used ConvertKit. It is possible to segment people into many categories and to track every campaign across a diversity of users and actions. For those who are data geeks and have the time to evaluate and act on their findings, ConvertKit is amazing. For those who need the simple drag & drop templates, like beautifully designed pieces, and don’t want to understand much about how things work in the backend, ConvertKit will drive you crazy.
I left Convert Kit when I got to 12,000 subscribers because the price was a good 30% more than other similar systems. I was paying $149 per month then. I also realized that as much as I loved all the data analysis and the ability to tweak my campaigns, I didn’t have the time to do that and still produce enough books to keep my career moving forward. If I had more time or decided to hire someone to handle that part of my business I would strongly consider returning to Convert Kit.
ASE (Amazon Simple Email operating on Amazon web servers) with EASY SENDY PRO is the service I used for most of 2018 and half of 2019 because the low cost is amazing! Ultimately I decided to make a switch. The cost for the Amazon side of the system is $1 per month for 1,000 emails per day. That is unheard of in email providers. That means my list of 12K when I switched over was only $12 per month!
The downside of using the Amazon simple email alone is that it is quite technical to set up and get working. To get things like autoresponders and funnels working takes actual coding and calls to a database that contains your list. That is where Easy Sendy Pro comes in. It is a cloud-based platform, based in India, that sits on top of your instance of Amazon Simple Email. It provides a user-friendly interface for sending campaigns, segmenting lists, and using autoresponders. The Easy Sendy cost is based on list size. For me it is only $29 per month. So my total monthly budget was only $39. Nothing touches that for 12,000 subscribers.
There are two reasons I decided to leave, even though my cost would double or more. The biggest reason I’m leaving is that they don’t have mobile-optimized emails. Today the vast majority of my fans read their emails on a phone or tablet. That means what I have to be very careful with imagery and design so that it doesn’t look wonky on a phone or tablet. In fact, recently I’ve received some complaints about links not working in certain email systems like Outlook and Thunderbird on their phones — both popular among my readers.
The second reason I left is customer support. Once you actually get someone who can help, they are quite good. But getting to that person often takes three or four times of getting a response that says something to the effect of: “We tried it and didn’t see a problem.” This has happened several times, even when I pointed out exactly where the problem was and what was happening on the back end to make that problem. I think it is a combination of inexperience and people not completely understanding what is being asked. If budget is your number one concern, this is definitely the least expensive for larger lists. But be prepared to spend significant time with customer support when you have a problem.
I moved to GET RESPONSE in November 2019. I trialed it for a month and was very impressed with the features, the ease of the interface, and all the things it does. It offers almost everything that ConvertKit offered me in terms of segmenting, reporting on individuals and clicks, analytics and the automation sequences I want. It also provides a webinar service for up to 100 attendees with anything beyond the basic tier pricing.
It also gives me an easy to use interface for email templates, landing page builders, and a variety of opt-in forms. It is mobile responsive and it integrates with many third party lead generation software programs. All this at a price 40% less than ConvertKit. Prior to this for analysis, ConvertKit couldn’t be beat. I see this as equivalent but a lot less in cost.
Support is provided by live chat and email, and I’ve found them to be very responsive to questions. Their help section is full of free, well-written learning materials including videos, webinars, and how-to guides. The price begins at $15 for 1,000 subscribers. I would recommend this for people who anticipate wanting more targeting, tagging, and automation than they can get with MailChimp or MailerLite but don’t want the cost and technicality required of ConvertKit. It’s not a breeze to learn, but if you start working up from the basics and use their support videos and online chats, you’ll get there fairly quickly.
The key is to choose something! Better to choose and get started now (even if you decide later you need to switch) than to wait another year to get started.
The longer you wait, the further behind the curve you will be. It takes time to build your email list and to understand how to use whatever system you select to meet the needs for engaging regularly with your fans. It is the one thing you have control over in terms of reaching your readers.