How to bring a content-heavy newsletter into the modern day?
July 21, 2014 11:21 AM   Subscribe

I write a newsletter for an environmental nonprofit and would like to modernize it. Right now we print a simple PDF and then straight-up email said PDF to electronic subscribers. Our subscription list is managed by Excel and yours truly. MailChimp seems great but I haven't seen examples that have long articles. This isn't a marketing campaign -- it's more like a very short newspaper or magazine. How can I take a content-heavy (4-6 articles, anywhere from 350 to 800 words each) and send it out electronically in the most efficient and practical way?

The newsletter is primarily targeted at outside for-profit organizations. Some articles cover current events, like new regulations or events, others are more "behind the scenes," such as explaining industrial processes. Right now the publishing procedure is the same that it's been since.... 2001? We print a single 11"x17" piece of paper back to back and folded over once to create a single sheet booklet of 4 pages and email the PDF to electronic subscribers. This is obviously outdated, but I'm having trouble figuring out how to modernize it.

MailChimp seems obvious for the mailing list management aspect, but the fact that we are content heavy makes me rethink this. There are many beautiful mailchimp examples, like those with photos of recipes and links to a website that contains the full recipe, but none that have a full-length article in the body of the email. I'm not sure if posting full articles in a single email is even advisable. Emailing short snippets of an article and hosting the full article on our website is possible, but I'm having a hard time imagining how it would look. Just a full remake of the mailchimp campaign in html? Another PDF?

We also still need to retain a hardcopy print version, so whatever route I go down needs to be easily transcribed into an easily printed document.

Does anyone have any ideas on the best way to format a content-heavy newsletter, and send it out to a small distribution list? Any examples someone could point me to of how other organizations do this? We don't need any of the tracking services that ConstantContact and the like provides, but we're technologically limited so the more we can rely on a 3rd party service, the better.
posted by breccia to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Subscribe to TidBITS and see how they're doing it. They've been doing the same online newsletter for 20+ years.
posted by Wild_Eep at 11:33 AM on July 21, 2014

Blogs were made for this.
posted by catalytics at 11:34 AM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Long-format magazines I see tend to put the actual articles in a blog where they can also spread by social media, and then set up the email circulated to include just a headline and a paragraph of lead copy that links out to the relevant article in the blog. Digg's newsletter (don't judge me!) does this, and I find myself clicking through surprisingly often.
posted by Andrhia at 11:36 AM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure if posting full articles in a single email is even advisable.

It really isn't, especially if you want your readers to get to the second article. Thinking of it more as an abstract than a snippet will help you accept the email containing only part of your content.
posted by headnsouth at 11:36 AM on July 21, 2014

I agree with everyone else - best practice is a headline, a brief excerpt and a link back to your site. It makes it easier for readers tosend specific links to others who might be interested (include "share" links on the email and the website, if possible). There is also the issue of deliverability and tracking - with mailchimp, you'll know that people are receiving the email, and over time you can get a feel for what content is most popular based on clicks.

You don't say how big your list is but as I'm sure you've read, mailchimp is free up to 2000.
posted by cessair at 11:42 AM on July 21, 2014

Another benefit to putting the full articles on the website (as HTML) is that they live on and spread well after the newsletter is old news. A website of regularly published relevant content is the single best thing you can do for SEO, so you get that benefit essentially for free.
posted by COD at 11:49 AM on July 21, 2014

If you handed me that set of requirements and told me to solve the problem for you, I'd start by setting up a WordPress blog.

I'd solve your archival requirements with something like this plugin.

Then I'd create a MailChimp* account and make use of the RSS-to-email feature to automate sending your newsletter quarterly (or whatever) based on whatever is new on the blog since that time. If you don't want this automated and you're comfortable hand-writing the summaries, you can really use any ESP for this. Just use snippets and links to keep the email relatively short.

I'd have the email send short (1-2 paragraph) excerpts with links to the full articles.

* - Disclosure: I work there
posted by toomuchpete at 11:50 AM on July 21, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far, everyone. The RSS-to-email/blog suggestion is a good one, but a big hurdle that I failed to mention in my question (and honestly hadn't considered until now, yikes,) is that everything we put out must be approved by a handful of higher-ups. Pushing several articles out in one single file means they can review in bulk, rather than sending each article one at a time. I could try to find a workaround but we are pretty big on red tape here.
posted by breccia at 11:57 AM on July 21, 2014

I use Constant Contact for pretty much this very thing. I write a newsletter for the early childhood school that we send to the parents every week. There are 10 classrooms so I have to have 10 blurbs about what each classroom is doing. It looks like a newsletter, too, with pictures I can insert. It's really user-friendly and fairly intuitive, especially if you have any experience at all with blogs.

I also have to have the newsletter approved by higher-ups, and CC lets you send a preview copy to several different people. After it's been approved, you schedule the newsletter for release via email, either immediately or for a time in the future.
posted by cooker girl at 12:23 PM on July 21, 2014

I do something like this at work, and we do as suggested by cessair and others - headline, summary and link for each article/resource, which is hosted elsewhere (in our case they're mostly on someone else's website rather than ours).

We use Flexitext (sigh) but I think it's much like Mailchimp. I'll MeMail you a link so you can see some examples.
posted by penguin pie at 12:26 PM on July 21, 2014

It takes a bit of doing to manage the permissions, but you can set Wordpress articles so that they can only be seen by people with certain logins. So you could post them, but post as private so that only those with the right logins can see them, construct the newsletter, and then send the ones who need to approve a draft.

Or you could send the content of the articles as separate attachments, so that the body of the email is the formatted newsletter (with links that don't really work) and then to read the articles they just need to open the files. In this scenario, they have to trust that you'll format the final blog posts correctly, but if all they want to do is read the text, that's easiest.

If you do this, just don't let a bunch of Word code get into your blog posts.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:04 PM on July 21, 2014

Best answer: Expert level: I've had the misfortune to produce a regular e-newsletter at every nonprofit in my career so far. I feel your pain.

Here's what I recommend:

1) Pick out your e-marketing vendor. Yes, I know it's not marketing. Doesn't matter. Get something inexpensive that allows you to manage contacts, subscribes/unsubscribes, layout, and distribution. Investing a little bit here makes it all easier.

2) Continue compiling the copy in a single document for approval - I usually draft and edit in Word, and send the full thing to my higher-ups in Word, since that's what we're all most familiar with.

3) Once it's approved, take each article and post it as a separate article/page/post in your org's website/blog. Depending on how you do things, this might be an easy way to create a news archive on the website.

4) Make yourself a simple email template with some kind of header, the date, and a list of your articles with the title and a short teaser blurb, and a link to the corresponding page/post/whatever. Maybe a corresponding image if you're feeling fancy.

You definitely shouldn't be putting whole articles in an email, or mass-emailing all your content in a single PDF attachment. Doing this in HTML gives you a more interesting, readable email, gives you more flexibility (do you ever need people to register for events? provide feedback? etc?), and allows you to get some data on who is reading and what they're interested in. And you don't need to just have a replica of the MailChimp template on your website - you want to direct people to the specific articles/pieces of content they indicated interest in by clicking.

A lot of your potential e-marketing vendors will have good white papers and best practice guidelines for putting together newsletters, and I highly recommend checking them out. It doesn't have to be onerous, and you don't have to drastically change how your approvers get and approve copy before it goes out. Just, as someone upthread mentioned, don't get Word gobbledygook into any of your HTML editors.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 1:11 PM on July 21, 2014

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