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A Guide to Choosing Email Newsletter Software

Read Time: 8 mins
This post is part of a series called Building a Successful Freelance Email Newsletter.
What You Need to Know to Write Enough Content for Your Email Newsletter
How to Convert Newsletter Subscribers into Paying Clients

Back in the bad old days, many people would maintain email lists by hand: they would have a text file saved somewhere, with a list of email addresses. Then, whenever they were ready to send out a newsletter, they'd copy all those addresses into the 'to:' field of an email. There was no way to easily deal with bounced emails, unsubscribes or anything else that came up.

The right software can make a world of difference in managing your email newsletter. It can automate most of your responsibilities, letting you focus on coming up with great content that will bring in readers.

Deciding between the many options out there for running your newsletter can be a difficult prospect, but if you consider some key points, you can narrow down the field quickly. This will help you choose the best email newsletter software for your freelance business.

An Email Service Provider Versus Software

You can buy all sorts of off-the-shelf software to manage your email newsletters and the list of recipients you've built. You can also sign up for a subscription to a web-based application, often known as an email service provider.

On the surface, it may seem like you should immediately go with the standalone option, if only to avoid a recurring cost. But the costs may not be as high as you think they would be: many email service providers have inexpensive or even free plans for people who are just starting out.

When you factor in the value of your time, the math makes even more sense: it can seem like removing recipients who have unsubscribed and similar management tasks take practically no time at all. But a minute here and a minute there add up very quickly into quite a bit of time when you're dealing with a large subscriber base.

The cost of the time you might otherwise spend on managing your email list can be more than enough to balance out the price of a better quality of newsletter management tools. Email service providers are often able to provide more automation, as well as roll out new features on a very regular basis.

Their Reputation is Your Reputation

One of the dangers of going with a low-priced email newsletter tool is that if you're actually sending emails through their system (a common approach), then any problems with their service as a whole will reflect on you. We're not talking about technical problems here, either: we're talking about whether other newsletters using the same email service provider are getting marked as spam.

We’re not talking about technical problems here, either: we’re talking about whether other newsletters using the same email service provider are getting marked as spam.

The best way to avoid such problems is to thoroughly investigate the reputation of any email software you're considering. Most of the less reputable ones are obviously so, at least once you've run some searches for their names and any potential problems. But the better known options have a great reputation for a reason: they're prepared to do whatever it takes to resolve potential problems, preferably before those issues can impact your ability to get your newsletters into your audience's inboxes.

Sometimes, that may mean that you won't be able to operate your own newsletter exactly the way you'd like to, because some aspect of your approach matches up with typical spammer behavior. Consider this a blessing, rather than a curse: it means that you're being protected from getting marked as spam. You may have to find a better way to get the impact you were hoping for, but that better way will likely not involve anything that can be misconstrued as spammy behavior.

The Bells and Whistles

These days, many email newsletter tools go a lot farther than just managing your list and making it easy to send out emails. There are a lot of bells and whistles on every aspect of the process. It's hard to tell exactly which options you're going to want until you've been sending out your newsletters for a while. The options listed below seem to make the most difference, at least in my experience.

  • A/B (or split) testing: In order to make sure that you're putting together the best possible newsletter, you want the ability to test individual parts of the newsletter against one another.
  • Great HTML templates: Even if you're planning to come up with your own custom designs for all of your email newsletters, it's useful to have good templates to model your efforts after.
  • Analytics tools: At a bare minimum, you need information about how many readers opened your newsletters, clicked on links and otherwise interacted with your email. But some tools go a lot further now — you may be able to use a mobile app to track your analytics or even identify your best subscribers.
  • Segmentation options: Being able to divide your email list into individual sections, based on your subsribers' behavior, will allow you to target your audience much more specifically.
  • Integrations with your other tools: Depending on what other web apps you use to operate your freelance business, you may want some ability for your email newsletter software to talk to those other apps. Perhaps you want your blog posts to automatically be sent out to your newsletter or maybe you want to be able to pull information about your subscribers into your CRM app. Consider what ecosystem you're already operating in.

Someone You Can Stick With

It's crucial that you pick the email service provider you want in the long-term right out of the gate. Don't tell yourself that you'll try out the cheap option for now and move over to a better tool when you've got more readers. The process of moving a newsletter over to a new platform can seem easy, since most platforms allow you to export your list. However, importing all those email addresses is a different matter.

In order to avoid spammers importing lists of addresses that they may have bought or otherwise obtained inappropriately, most email service providers require some sort of verification that you have permission to email all those people. That can take the form of requiring them to opt in all over again. This process is practically guaranteed to push people to drop off your email list — something that you want to avoid as much as possible.

The only time it's really worthwhile to change which tools you're using is if there's something truly wrong, like your newsletters are getting marked as spam. At that point the pain of moving is less than the pain of not getting your message through in the first place. Luckily, those sorts of issues are rare with the bigger newsletter platforms.

The Big Players in Email Newsletters

There are two email service providers that are particularly well-known at this point: Aweber and MailChimp.

MailChimp has a flat-out free option, provided that you’re sending 12,000 or less emails a month to 2,000 or less recipients.

There are dozens of others out there, many of which provide integration with larger marketing platforms or client relationship management software. But odds are good that you'll hear recommendations for both of these well-known options. I've used both at different times and while I have a slight personal preference for MailChimp, both MailChimp and Aweber are easy enough to set up and use, even for someone who is juggling a freelance business while publishing a newsletter.

Unless you have a driving reason to use another newsletter platform, it makes a lot of sense to stick with one of these two options: They both take very good care of their reputations and have high deliverability rates (very few messages sent through either system are marked as spam). They also are continuing to add new features on a regular basis — and since they operate in the cloud, you don't have to continously update your software.

MailChimp has a flat-out free option, provided that you're sending 12,000 or less emails a month to 2,000 or less recipients. From there, the montly fee goes up: MailChimp's listed prices top out at $240 per month for 50,000 subscribers, although you can get a quote for email newsletters with even more subscribers. For the average freelancer, though, it's entirely possible to have a great newsletter that never requires you to move off the free plan.

Aweber, in contrast, charges a base rate of $19 per month, which lets you send an unlimited number of emails to 500 or fewer subscribers. You can try out Aweber for a month for one dollar. To add more recipients to your list, you'll have to pay the appropriate tiered subscriber fees.

These two options have fairly similar features, but very different interfaces. Before making your final decision, it's worth trying out each option and checking which one you prefer to work with — which one is easier for you to publish a newsletter through. It really is a matter of your personal preferences in which you'd rather work with.

If you've had a particularly good experience with another email newsletter tool, please mention it in the comments.

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