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It's been about 1.5 months since I launched this newsletter and started writing online consistently. It's been a wonderful journey thus far. I've met great people, joined communities, and learned a lot about what it takes to build an audience.
I've also come across "resource overload."
If you're at all into apps and tools you know what this is. It's that need to want to look into every single tool that is posted on Twitter about how to start a newsletter and then going down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos and blog posts explaining why it's the best tool to do what you want and how you can set it up.
The obvious problem with this (that I know but yet still neglect) is that tools are a means to an end. The end, in this case, is taking ink to a page (metaphorically, lol) and writing to put my ideas out into the world. Your output should be your goal is what they say, and I agree with them.
However, I'm also someone who enjoys the process of learning about new tools and why specific people choose one tool over another. I mean let's be honest - I write a newsletter literally called Tools for Growth!
So in this week's issue, I'm going to take you through my journey of understanding the landscape of tools that are out there to start a newsletter in 2020.
Some caveats and notes up front:
I decided on Substack pretty quickly out of the gate because I know that I have a tendency to fall into what I call "tool paralysis" where I spend most of my time analyzing which tool to use instead of writing. However, I will still tell you about what I'm thinking as I grow my writing and audience and the tools that are potential options for me in the future.
At the time of writing this guide, I have 7 published articles and have 39 total subscribers. I know this isn't a lot but it's where I am in my journey (100 subs by the end of 2020?!), and I think it's important to have thoughts from writers early on in their writing. Here's my fun growth chart:
With that said, I want to be transparent about these numbers so that you know where I'm coming from and that I have a lot of growing to do myself in this space.
Formalities out of the way - now let's get into it!
I learned the above from a webinar hosted by Nathan Baschez and Li Jin of the Everything Bundle featuring Nathan Barry. I thought Nathan's response to the question around newsletter fatigue is so true.
Right now it seems like everyone and their grandma has a newsletter. I feel the same way. However, this is primarily because everyone I follow on Twitter is a part of "productivity Twitter" where newsletters are king. Sometimes I go over to #medstudenttwitter, another part of the birdy app I like to visit. And guess what? No one is talking about any kinds of newsletters there. It's just a bunch of students complaining about all the tests they have to take.
The moral of the story: newsletter fatigue isn't a real thing for most readers out there. It may feel like it to us but that's only because we are at the center of it. So if you're thinking about starting a newsletter - do it.
Newsletter vs Blog: What's the Diff?
Alright let's start with some (of my own) definitions.
A newsletter is a piece of writing that is delivered to an audience via email.
A blog post is something that lives on a website.
Blog posts can be sent to an audience via a newsletter. Newsletters can be posted on a website as an archive.
Do you get it?
They are basically the same thing. It doesn't matter.
That was facetious but an important point to make. However, I will say that there are some structural differences with how people treat a blog vs a newsletter in terms of organization. Here are the two camps I've found:
Creators who keep their blog and newsletter separate. They have a newsletter that goes out each week and is more or less an aggregation and curation of content they have read, learned from, or want to plug. On the other hand, they keep their long-form essays separate as individual posts on their website. Examples of creators who do this are Salman Ansari, Brandon Zhang, and Nat Eliason.
Creators who write a newsletter each week (or whatever cadence) that is their sole post. This is essentially how the Everything Bundle operates with Dan Shipper and Nathan Baschez. Once you sign up for it, you get a detailed, New Yorker style article via their newsletter a few times a week. If you go to their site, it’s just an archive of all of their newsletters.
I don't think it matters which camp you’re in because you can build an audience both ways. I personally am in the second camp where my newsletter is my weekly blog post. I do this because right now I only have time to write one post a week (#medicalschool) but maybe in the future this will change.
My belief is that going the second route where you are at least sending a newsletter each week even without long form individual blog posts that live on their own is the way to start. The biggest thing is to start writing.
An email list is the Holy Grail
If you're thinking of getting into newsletters, then I'm sure you've heard that there is nothing greater than building an email list that you can keep with you for the long haul.
Because an email list is your personalized, self-selected, opt-in network. These are people who have trusted you with their email because they care about what you have to say and what you are dying. They are also the people most likely to support your work. So when you have a new course or e-book or even merch (!!), this is where you can go to market it.
An email list is your road to 1,000 True Fans (I had to).
Can we finally talk about the tools?
Okay, I know what you're here for. The tools for growth (see what I did there?) - so let's dive in.
I'm obviously a little biased here since my newsletter is hosted on Substack. But I really do think they've built something that lots of people can easily use.
Start writing fast - You get both a website and newsletter that takes minutes to set up. There are a few things you can customize (new subscriber message, color scheme) but the idea is to go from 0 to writing in no time.
"Free forever" - Well kind of. There is no monthly fee for using Substack which is great for creators who are starting out. However, if you ever decide to make your newsletter paid then Substack gets a nice cut of 10% plus a small fee that you have to pay to Stripe who handles the payment processing. However, you can always export your email list and sell courses or products directly to your subscribers.
Built in community and resources - There are a lot of writers on Substack and the company puts together good resources (and even fellowships) for their writers. It feels to me like a cleaner and better version of Medium, where you're joining a bigger group but have your own home on the web.
Minimal customizability - There is no custom CSS you add to your Substack so for the most part (besides the colors), your website looks just like every other Substack blog out there. This makes it harder to differentiate yourself and make it your own brand. Furthermore, there are no custom domains (yet), so every newsletter must use the name.substack.com format.
Low discoverability - From what I've seen and heard, SEO for Substack isn't great. I think this is something that the company is obviously working and has to in order to surface more of its writers on the web, but it's just not there yet.
The new kid on the block offers some good options but at a price.
Customizability at its peak - No-code customization is what Webflow is all about. You can build your site in any way that you want so that it will be a true representation of you.
Ease of use + resources - As part of the no-code movement, Webflow is very easy to use. You have to know a little bit about the box model and how HTML and CSS work but it's very easy to pick up. Furthermore, they have wonderful, humor-filled videos at Webflow University where they walk you through everything about using the app.
Good SEO - Again, I don't know much about SEO but Nat Eliason suggests using Webflow in his blog post about How to Start a Blog that Changes Your Life. If it's good enough for Nat, it's good enough for me.
$$$ - All the goodness comes at a price and not a cheap one. A site with a content management system for a blog with run you $16 a month, something that can definitely be overwhelming when you are just starting out.
Since Webflow is just a place to build your site, you'll also need a newsletter management system that can plug into the site. We'll discuss those next but that also means more $$$ and more set up.
This is the newsletter management system marketed for individual creators. The company has grown tremendously over the years and for good reason.
Simple templates - While Mailchimp is known for having lots of template options and customizability, ConvertKit gets rid of the noise. Their whole philosophy is that simple templates do better than complex ones so there isn't a need for extravagance. If that sounds like something you agree with, then this may be for you.
Free 1k subscribers - I think it's vital for tools to be free for small creators starting out. Using ConvertKit for free until your first 1k subscribers is a great perk (though after that the price does jump up based on your total number of subscribers).
Low customization - What may seem like a feature to ConvertKit, may not vibe with your style. They're okay with that and you should be too. If you want more customization and templates then this isn't for you.
You need a site - ConvertKit does offer free landing pages, but you'll need a place to store your writing (hence Webflow above). ConvertKit plugs into a lot of sites like Squarespace and Wordpress so if you already write on one of those platforms you can plug and play.
We can't talk about ConvertKit without talking about the other big product in the field. This is the tried and true old school email newsletter platform that is still going strong today.
Templates on templates - Mailchimp touts itself on its templates and the ability to customize whatever you want. If you want a vast array of options then this is the go to.
Free 2k subscribers - Not to one up ConvertKit (but actually to 1k up them), you get 2k free subscribers when you first start using Mailchimp.
Overly complex - If the ConvertKit manifesto is correct then not only is Mailchimp harder to use because of all of the options, the outcomes are also not as great. This of course is hotly debated but something to consider.
You need a site - Same thing as ConvertKit. However, Mailchimp does have many more integrations which is definitely a selling point.
Wow that was a lot! There are a lot of tools, ideas, and frameworks out there when it comes to starting a newsletter in 2020. I've only touched on the aspects that have come across my journey so far. I know that there are many other options out there (Ghost, Squarespace, Wordpress, etc.) but I wanted to keep this as brief as possible for those starting out.
Twitter has also been a great source of inspiration for me so I'll leave you today with some Tweet threads I found helpful.
Thanks for taking the time out to read this week's post! I hope it was helpful to you. If you think that someone else could benefit from it, please do send it over to them. I'd also love to keep sharing my work with you. If you like to read about productivity apps and systems, then please do subscribe below!