Set up an email newsletter, they said. It’ll be easy, they said.
As of this writing, I have spent nearly a week in trying to figure out how to set up an email newsletter that delivers a free story as a thank-you for signing up.
Sounds easy enough, right? After all, people do this kind of thing every day. I guarantee you’ve signed up for email lists and newsletters in order to get the free download of something. I know I have.
For logistical reasons, it’s generally recommended that instead of trying to manage an email newsletter manually, people who wish to communicate this way use one of the many companies that specialize in this. I started by identifying two that seemed reasonable, Mailchimp and ConvertKit. Among other features, both offer free plans if you have fewer than a certain number of subscribers, usually 1,000 or 2,000. Mailchimp looked promising because it was the only one I could link to my WordPress site, although it turned out that I couldn’t use the Mailchimp plugin without upgrading to a plan that costs nearly $300 per year. (I currently pay $48/year for this site.) Luckily, WordPress has recently worked out another way to let users connect to Mailchimp, which was a point in Mailchimp’s favor.
Even so, after some poking around online, I decided I’d check out ConvertKit, mainly because it claimed to be for “creators” (which, as it turns out, is not the same as “creatives” a/k/a writers and artists). Also, I attended a webinar about email newsletters in general, and the presenter offered a link that would let me sign up for a free ConvertKit plan, so I did.
The first thing I realized was that email companies use words differently from the rest of us. Segments, tags, merge tags (which are different from tags), onboarding, automations, lead magnets, campaigns—all terms that are probably familiar to marketing professionals, but Greek to a mere author. (For a start, when did “automation” become an item that can be pluralized? Not to mention, what is an “A/B testing campaign”?)
I decided the easiest way to deal with this was to sign up for their free webinar. I assumed this would show novices how to start from scratch.
I assumed incorrectly.
This webinar, which lasted more than two hours, was designed for people whose entire livelihood revolves around sending out email newsletters. One of the presenters was a ConvertKit employee; the other was a guy who is a professional emailer. (Who knew this was even a thing?) I quickly got lost in the fog of what they were talking about.
So, I tried a different approach. I have long relied on the wisdom of Joanna Penn, so I went to her online tutorial. She made setting up the email list on ConvertKit look simple. Half an hour later, I boldly set out to create my own starter email.
Two hours later, I was more confused than ever.
At this point, I went on Facebook and posted in a writers group about my challenges. The advice of one of the people was simple: use Mailchimp.
So I decided to switch. (Remember, these were both free plans.) Like ConvertKit, nothing about Mailchimp was intuitive, much less user-friendly. Both assume a level of familiarity with marketing and technology that I do not possess.
With the help of Google, I soldiered on. I watched more tutorials. Even the ones that seemed to be basic merely clicked through “do this, do that” without ever saying why those choices were being made so I’d know if they were the right choices for what I wanted to do. Other tutorials were three or four years old which, of course, is ancient in the world of technology. (I searched for “Mailchimp for Dummies”; turns out, the closest match was written in 2014.)
Finally, I thought I had it. It was difficult to tell, because if there’s a place where they say, “Okay, this is the first response somebody will get when they sign up, and this is the second where they get the freebie,” I haven’t found it. (Side note: the signup page will be here on this website. That is, if I can ever get everything to work properly.)
I hunted around Mailchimp until I found the help page. (Actually, I Googled “mailchimp help” and followed the link because I couldn’t find it on the site.) Like so many businesses these days, they don’t actually want to help you. At least, they don’t want to have a conversation with you, whether on the phone or through chat. They have a bunch of articles available, but if you need specific help with a specific problem, you’re probably out of luck. I tried initiating a chat, but the only response came from a bot. I told the bot I wanted a person, and it cheerily responded that it had emailed the team and they would get back to me. (The last time the help team emailed me, all they did was to send links to the above-referenced articles.) I tried a few more times to get it to connect me to a person (sort of like yelling “customer service!” at the automated voice on the phone until it transfers you to a human), and I ended up with nine automated emails telling me I had a ticket number and someone would email me.
So, not impressed with Mailchimp.
(Editorial note: as of 10/18/20, still no word from Mailchimp. Becoming more unimpressed by the day.)
At this point, you may be thinking, “Why are you going to all this trouble? You already have this website and blog. You’re on Twitter and Instagram. You have a Facebook author page. Plus, you have Tuxedo Cat Press, which has its own Facebook page, website, and Twitter account. Why do you need an email newsletter on top of all that? Shouldn’t you be spending your time writing instead of messing around with this garbage?”
Besides the obvious (namely that everybody who knows anything about independent publishing says it’s essential), an email newsletter feels like the easiest way to let people know promptly what’s going on. For instance, if I can get the email list up and running, subscribers will be the very first to know when pre-orders for State v. Claus go live.
Unfortunately, I can’t say when that will be. At this point, I estimate that I’ve spent (wasted) at least fifteen hours in the past week trying to set up what should be a straightforward email newsletter list. I still get tons of marketing emails every day, so clearly somebody knows how to set up this kind of thing, but that somebody doesn’t seem to include anyone working in support at ConvertKit or Mailchimp (if in fact anybody actually is working there—so far, I’ve found no evidence to that effect).
For the time being, it looks as if you and I will continue to communicate through this website, my Facebook author page, Twitter, and/or Instagram.
If anything changes, I promise you’ll be the first to know.