Helpful hints for a roll-your-own email newsletter?
April 16, 2018 9:42 AM   Subscribe

At work we are trying to systematize the way we reach out to our contacts to inform them about what's going on. Services like MailChimp, etc., have been voted down (more on that below) so we need to build our own.

I work for a very small organization that offers skills courses and other help to a vulnerable group, but our offerings are really irregular, because they depend on very unpredictable funding. So what happens is people come by or contact us, asking about upcoming classes, but most of the time we can't give them any information right away. We add them to our list and promise they'll get any emails we send announcing new courses. But sometimes it's weeks before we've got a new course to announce, and meanwhile they think we've not followed through, and often they'll start contacting us again, using up a lot of scarce staff time sending out replies that say, nope, still nothing. So the idea is to have a monthly newsletter that people can count on to inform them of all the current news - on planned/upcoming courses, as well as updates about other organization activities. The tricky question is how.

Because of some of the work we do and the particular community we work with, there is a LOT of concern about privacy, especially related to keeping close control over our own mailing list. Without going into a lot of detail, suffice it to say we've had quite a few discussions about using tools like MailChimp or others to make an e-newsletter, but that's not happening at this point. Which leaves me needing to do this with other tools.

Anyway, my vision of this is that our subscribers would get an email with short, clear headlines or maybe a 1-2 sentence text, with a link to fuller information online where useful. I want to keep it short because I think we have a better chance of the user reading it if they can scan the email quickly when it first arrives. A key point is that the vast majority of recipients will be reading this on their phone, so it's also really important that whatever we send looks good on multiple platforms without much effort on our part. Ultimately, this should be some kind of combination of alert email and newsletter, so people get timely information but also stay updated on our work, so they feel an ongoing connection to our organization, even when they’re not directly involved – we’re hoping this will help us build donations from previous participants to support future work.

I would love to have any suggestions or helpful hints for handling this. A simple, formatted email might be enough, but The Powers That Be also want it to be pretty. So it should probably have an image or two. Also (if I can convince The Powers That Be), I’d like to keep an archive online, so people can easily check back old info.

Any ideas or tools that people think might be good here?
posted by leticia to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
  1. You can host your own mailing list. My organization does this. We've got a bog-standard Dreamhost account for about $100/yr, and you can create all the mailing lists you want on that. They can use your domain name and everything. If you want an announcement-only list, use a discussion list and set the list to "emergency moderation," and then mod through the legit posts (Note: DH also offers "announcement lists," but as I understand it, these are a nightmare to manage). However, the mailing-list software DH uses (Mailman) is kind of dated and crude, and in the past, we've had a lot of trouble with legit list traffic being treated as spam or otherwise diverted by major e-mail services.
  2. That's why we're in the process of moving all our lists over to Google Groups, which doesn't seem to have these problems. You've got finer-grained moderation controls. You also can use your own domain if you pay for Google Suite (formerly known as Google Apps for Your Domain), $5/mo.
  3. You can use whatever e-mail templates you want on your e-mail. I recommend you find an existing template you like and buy it. The key phrase you want to search on is "responsive e-mail template." Writing an e-mail template from scratch is…not something you want to attempt if you value your sanity. Just pay money and make the problem go away.
  4. Each of our e-mail blasts is usually a roundup of several individual posts; we've got a web form on our (Wordpress-based) website where people can create individual posts. An editor can basically flip a switch and let these go live on the site as blog posts, and also receives them as individual e-mail messages, which can be copied-and-pasted into the blast.

posted by adamrice at 10:06 AM on April 16


Well you can use Nuevo Mailer, which will do everything you want including HTML newsletters. It is worth pointing out though that the security of the hosting and thus of the email list becomes your problem and it doesn't sound like your org has teh technical expertise or funding to secure and monitor it. As far as I've ever been able to tell, MailChimp etc has never had a list leak. They're HIPPA complaint, and you probably won't be. They're going to be a lot better at this than you are.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:10 AM on April 16 [7 favorites]


Maybe take a look at some of the social justice webhosts and their recommended providers. Mayfirst is really serious about movement work and data security, so it might be worth taking a look at their hosting packages to see if anything there works for you.
posted by snaw at 10:14 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


I'm a developer and I've built two different scheduled email delivery tools and subsequently managed the mail server that sent out the messages.

Do not do this yourself.

Mail delivery is a nightmare. If you roll your own system I guarantee a sizable number of subscribers will never see your emails because they're going straight to the spam folder, if they're being received at all. It will also cost you more to try to maintain a mail server and manage the tools than it would cost to pay for a third party service. This is a problem that is basically only solvable at scale, and your org clearly isn't big enough to solve it.

Find a MailChimp or Constant Contact or whatever service that will meet your privacy requirements and has a nice nonprofit rate, create a nice "welcome to the newsletter" message that will be sent to new subscribers to let them know how the list works, and let somebody else deal with the actual sending of mail. Trust me. You don't want to do it.
posted by fedward at 10:57 AM on April 16 [17 favorites]


Can you clarify something?

You say you are looking for tools to send an e-newsletter, but do not want to use "tools like MailChimp". But any tool that sends an e-newsletter is going to be, by definition, in some way a "tool like Maiclhimp"

Can you clarify more what your specific concerns are about using Mailchimp? I think that would help in making recommendations.
posted by ManInSuit at 11:22 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


We add them to our list and promise they'll get any emails we send announcing new courses. But sometimes it's weeks before we've got a new course to announce, and meanwhile they think we've not followed through, and often they'll start contacting us again, using up a lot of scarce staff time sending out replies that say, nope, still nothing.

The answer to this problem is not a newsletter, it's a status page. You want a way that users can think "oh I haven't heard anything recently, I wonder if that class is on yet", and then find out without talking to your staff. I assume you already have a website - put a "current class offerings" page up, give it a "last updated at: " note so people know they're looking at up-to-date information, and tell people who ask that you will email them when it comes up, and they can also check www.mysmallOrganization.com to see any updates.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:30 PM on April 16 [4 favorites]


The answer to this problem is not a newsletter, it's a status page.

And maybe, if people in this community use it, Facebook (especially if you post instructions on how to get a notification for everything your page posts). Love it or hate it, it's a household brand for a reason.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 7:26 PM on April 16


The replies above have strengthened my argument to my team that we really should go with MailChimp or something like. But if I still can't sell them on it, I think I can sell them on the "status page" solution. This is easy for us to maintain, and I think if we are good about keeping it up to date, our community can learn to count on it.

ManInSuit asked what the concern was about online newsletter services. One of the main concerns I heard is not knowing who has signed up for the mailing list. Some of the concerns I've been dealing with are not necessarily reasonable - like people just not liking the idea of "giving" our users data to this outside program - so I don't know if there's a good way to address those kinds of concerns.

In the end, this may just boil down to us doing a very simple regular update email, perhaps with some links to online content, rather than any kind of visually interesting newsletter. :/
posted by leticia at 7:51 AM on April 17


ManInSuit asked what the concern was about online newsletter services. One of the main concerns I heard is not knowing who has signed up for the mailing list.

But you'll be able to see who has signed up in MailChimp, and probably a lot more about them than you'd ever know from your own bespoke solution.

Some of the concerns I've been dealing with are not necessarily reasonable - like people just not liking the idea of "giving" our users data to this outside program - so I don't know if there's a good way to address those kinds of concerns.

It sounds like some of the people involved in making this decision don't really understand the pros and cons of the options. Which makes me suspect they don't fully understand all the downsides of rolling your own solution, which fedward described well.

I think it would be worthwhile trying to make these clearer. They see a big fear of "giving data away", which you wouldn't be doing - no one else takes it from you. And they don't understand all the difficulties of setting up and maintaing your own solution, because it's just email, and everyone uses email; how hard can it be?! Very.
posted by fabius at 1:29 PM on April 17 [2 favorites]


I'm a board member for the local chapter of a professional organization. Our chapter pays several thousand dollars a year for a website management service. We also pay for a MailChimp account and use that to send our emails, not the mailing functions from our website management thing, because MailChimp is much better in terms of security and handling bounces and opt-outs.

It might be useful to push back against the naysayers. If they don't know enough about how the process works to be able to articulate actual concerns, maybe those concerns aren't real.
posted by Lexica at 4:31 PM on April 17


In the end, this may just boil down to us doing a very simple regular update email, perhaps with some links to online content, rather than any kind of visually interesting newsletter.

For many people (myself included) the main utility of mailchimp isn't that it makes visually interesting newsletters. It's that it manages things like adding/removing members, and, especially, actually sending the emails in a way that works. As others have mentioned here - bulk mail delivery is hard. Mailchimp makes it easy by taking care of it for you.

If you have a large number of subscribers (more than, I dunno, a few dozen?), you may find that a "simple, regular update email" quickly stops being very simple.
posted by ManInSuit at 6:01 AM on April 18


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