A New Newsletter Is Born

The unstoppable force of very gradual progress comes to this site’s newsletter. Finding a simple new-post newsletter setup without paying too much wasn’t as easy as I expected.

Since its inception, if you signed up for updates on this site you’d get these emails every time a post went live:

These were handled using Jetpack, a WordPress plugin made by the same people as WordPress that handles many things including new-post emails.

Jetpack was easy to set up and free for my use case. Exactly what you need for a new side project because it’s more important (at first) to focus on the content and not the design.

I’ve never really liked the emails it sent out though. Some issues:

  • The design is, um, let’s say not my style
  • You can’t control the content, so the summary isn’t included for example
  • Any time I do a little custom HTML in a post the email goes bonkers
  • And the deal-breaker: The reply address is noreply@wordpress.com so some people reply and don’t know I don’t get their messages. (I could go on for years about how dumb the existence of noreply@ email addresses is, and in fact I stopped writing this post, wrote that one, and I will post that one next week!)

Email was always on the list to improve, so over the last couple of months, I picked away evaluating different options. Choosing the right one wasn’t as straightforward as I hoped.

Choosing How I’d Configure And Send The Emails

(If you don’t care about the technical details, you can skip down to the bottom to see the results.)

Jetpack handled everything so I was starting from nothing. To send email, you need two things: 1) an interface to configure when they send and what they contain and who they go to, and 2) a service which actually does the work of sending the emails to the people on your list. You can get interface+service together, or you can get them separately.

For the interface, I wanted something simple that I could manage in the same place as the rest of the site — the WordPress admin backend. Not wanting a complicated external service, that ruled out the obvious and powerful choice of MailShrimp.

I probably would have made an exception for ConvertKit to give it a try, simply because of all the wonderful things I’ve heard about it, but it’s too expensive. (It starts at about $40 CAD / month.) For a business where you’re actively building an audience, that can be a worthwhile expense. But again, this is a small side project I casually pick away at on Sunday mornings while not drinking my cup of tea because I like the idea of tea more than the drink itself and so always end up making myself tea but rarely ever drinking it.

Anyway, so the way to go was a WordPress plugin. Or some combination of a plugin-interface that integrates with a set-and-forget external service.

I ruled out any plugins that required me to use my own server to send out email. That’s a mess and crossed off a few of the popular ones like Email Subscribers & Newsletters and a few of the simple ones like Subscribe2.

I also needed the option to automatically send an email when a new post goes live. This excluded popular choices for manual newsletters like The Newsletter Plugin.

I’d like to say here that talking about WordPress plug-ins is pretty dull if you’re not actively searching for them. But I’m writing it all out anyway hoping this will help some folks somewhere someday.

In the end, I first chose MailPoet.

MailPoet is simple and in addition to the plugin, they also have a mail sending service. Like MailShrimp, MailPoet’s service is free for up to 2000 subscribers. For more than 2000 subscribers, you can upgrade to their paid tier, or switch to something like Amazon SES as a cheap mail sending service.

So for a blog where you need basic emailing like automated post notifications, monthly recaps, and/or an occasional newsletter, MailPoet seems like a pretty solid choice.

The one strike against MailPoet for me is the recurring cost of a premium license. If you want their premium features, you have to pay $100/year. Recurring charges are very much okay with me for their mail sending service, but if I choose to use Amazon SES or SendGrid for that, I only want to pay a one-time fee to unlock the extra plugin features.

If I keep using MailPoet, I’d love to support them with a purchase of the full software, even if I didn’t need the extra features. Software pricing foils me again!

Update after the first campaign: MailPoet was a huge letdown when the automated emails didn’t match the preview mail for the same campaign. I’m not sure how that’s even possible, but they must send live mail generation through different/additional programming logic. I’m very wary of using a system that would do that. I’ll probably be looking for a better solution, and I wouldn’t recommend MailPoet to anyone else because of that.

After a lot more digging, I came across Mailster. It’s a one-time fee (per site) but it was a lot more complicated than I need and templates are not free, nor is the editor is not for the faint of heart. It was, however, 50% off for Black Friday. $25 seemed like the right price so I gave it a go.

After some work to get the theme built in a new system, it came together pretty well. Well, not that well. It doesn’t really come with templates so I had to build the emails in an external service that you can build emails in, manually modify the code for some things like font stacks and weights that the editor didn’t support, and massage it all until it worked.

The New Look

After some configuring (and a small amount of hacking around MailPoet’s limitations lot of hacking using beefree.io and some good ol’ fashioned coding) I got the new emails looking pretty much exactly as I wanted:

It’s set up to mirror my site with recent titles and summaries, but with more emphasis on the newest post.

This is the email I’d want to get from a blog to which I’ve subscribed. It’s meant to have little content so it doesn’t take my time unless I have time to take. Instead, it’s easy to scan, easy to see if you’re interested in the latest post and easy to see weeks you may have missed because you were too busy when you got the last email and forgot about it.

If you’re signed up and you don’t get it, let me know. If you get it and it doesn’t look right, reply to it and tell me what’s wonky.

That’s right, reply to it. Because you can do that now, just as you should have been able to all along.

Once it’s settled, I’ll also update the theme page so you can download the MailPoet template and the special code you need to render the custom font so if you’re using this theme on your own site you can also have the matching emails.

This is way too custom now to share but in the very unlikely event that someone is using Mailster and the Burger Factory theme, hit me up and I might be able to help.

You can sign up and see for yourself right here: