You Should Have an Email Marketing List

A couple of months ago I wrote a post suggesting that indie developers set up a customer mailing list. I figured that it is such an important topic that it was worth revisiting.

This post is a sort of grab bag of suggestions and tips.


There are so many good reasons to have an email marketing list:

  • If somebody comes to your website, or downloads your application but doesn't buy it right away, they can join your mailing list, and get to know you and your company a bit more. And then, perhaps, become a customer.
  • You will have a base of current and potential customers to notify of your upcoming products and releases.
  • You can cooperatively promote your fellow indie developers' software programs. By introducing cool software to people on your list, they will appreciate you, as will your fellow developers.
  • You can provide tips and tricks for the users of your software.  Even if your subscriber doesn't own the software you mention, they will see that you are proactive and helpful to your customers, and be more likely to become a customer in the future.
  • Your subscribers may want to forward your emails to other people, thus netting you more subscribers.
  • You have a base of people to solicit ideas from, have take polls, sign up for beta testing, etc.
  • You can show off some of your users' productivity. For instance, we like to spotlight a couple of customers' Sandvox-built websites each month.
  • You can keep your company and your products in the back of people's minds.

Some General Suggestions

Don't just make your newsletter for your customers.  There are a lot of people out there who may not need your software, but are curious about what you are up to, or maybe are looking forward to the next great application you write.  These are your potential customers, and you are much more likely to sell to them than to somebody who you are hoping will wander onto your website.

Make your signup form easy to find on your website. Really easy. You want to capture people who are just window-shopping, not really in the buying mood.  Catch them while you can! 

(I have gone to some indie websites, knowing that they had an email list, but sometimes it took me 5 minutes to find the form, or I gave up completely!)

Also make it easy to sign up from within the program.  Take a look at how apps from Panic or Karelia prompt you to join up when you launch an app for the first time. If you are using Campaign Monitor, check out Tony Arnold's solution. If you are using MadMimi, check out the similar solution from Justin Williams. If your mailing list doesn't have an API, you can invoke a signup by just simulating an HTTP form submission programatically.

Give people an incentive to sign up. Remember that if you are asking people to do something, they are asking themselves "What's in it for me?"  Sure, some people just want to be in the loop, but why not make it a sweeter deal? There must be some digital asset you can give them, or make for them.

Rich or Plain? Most newsletters I've found are rich text, though some, like Rogue Amoeba's, are plain text.  A plain text message might be more likely to get past people's spam filters.  You can certainly spruce up a plain text message with a lot of headers, separators, capital letters, etc.

I prefer the rich text approach — you can do so much more with graphics and formatting. As the thumbnails in this post show, each newsletter has a unique look, just like websites. Some are graphics-heavy and some more more text-based. Some have a sidebar and others don't. Light or dark.  Short or long.  Take your pick!

Of course, you have to realize that not everybody will be loading the images in the message you send them.  Make sure the images are nice, but not essential. An email that is one big image, as Apple tends to send, is not particularly useful! (One technique we started using after I saw it in a message I received was to put a request to enable image loading as part of the "alt" text for the messages's banner image.)

To get the best of both worlds, you should consider sending a message that both a rich text and a plain text variant embedded.  If your newsletter is being sent out in rich text, Make sure that your mailing will be readable as plain text. In Choose View → Message → Plain Text Alternative ... or toggle with ⌘⌥[ and ⌘⌥ ].

Craft your subject.  I've seen advice suggesting you put something in there to invoke curiosity, and invoke a benefit to the reader. A date, though, helps indicate something that is timely.  Just don't sound spammy. MailChimp has some good tips.

Send Frequently Enough. I've signed up for several newsletters over the last few years, and yet there are many well-known companies that either have never sent me a newsletter, or it's been so long I can't remember.  If you are going to go through the trouble of getting subscribers for your newsletters, make use of it!  Send out emails as regularly as possible, with a minimum of six to eight weeks in between.  That's a minimum — I personally think it's better to be closer to once a month, and if you actually have something interesting and newsworthy to say (e.g. in a busy industry, or perhaps you have a lot of apps, or you have other things to mention), I think every 2 weeks is just fine.

What's important is to be consistent.  If people are used to hearing from you every six months, and then you start sending out emails every couple of days, it's probably going to be unwelcome!

Track your inbound links. Links to your website will appear as if the user just typed in the URL into the browser if they are direct links to your site.  Instead, put in some google analytics tags; this tool will help you generate the links. Now you can distinguish which of your site visits are a result of your mailing.  (If you have any other links to your site that are not from other web pages, you should consider this as well; e.g. from your own application, or Bodega.)

Ideas for Content

A sidebar is kind of nice so you can have "standard" items, which are probably going to be constant from month to month.  Contact information, download links, social network links, etc.

Optimism Software has some nice features in their newsletter. One is a "forward to a friend" feature, in conjunction with a coupon code for a discount. They also have badges for connecting with the company on Twitter and LinkedIn (another good item to add here would be a FaceBook group or Fan page.)  They also have a section on their blog, with a couple of links to recent items from the blog.  Very engaging.

Every bulk mail is supposed to have information at the bottom with a link on how to unsubscribe.  Koingo Software has some very clear information about what's on file: your customer ID, your name and email address, your latest IP address, the date you signed up, and so forth.

Email newsletters seem to do better when they are from a person, not a company.  Devon Technology's emails have an actual (image) signature, and that just seems classy.

For the actual body of the message, it's probably going to be similar to what you might put on your blog.  Announce your product updates and new products, of course, but if you just have one or two products, that may not be enough to keep the newsletters interesting. Besides, it might not be interesting if your newsletters are all about you.  Can you come up with something that is more interesting to your users (or potential) users?

For instance, your customers and friends might want to hear about other Mac software that you recommend, as I mentioned in the list earlier.  If you're mentioning another product and you have an affiliate relationship with them, that's great — but just make sure it's something you really do recommend and you're not just doing it for the stream of income.  Or, you can do what we do a lot is to just mention apps from other developers for the good karma of it all, because you like them and you want them to succeed.  They might return the favor some day!

Spam Prevention

If you are sending out your newsletters yourself, be sure to make sure your messages won't be looked upon as spam. Look for some spam analysis tools.  Send yourself some newsletters and if you have SpamAssassin installed, take a look at your ranking.  If there are any spammish aspects to your mailing, try to solve the problem! You probably aren't going to trigger any content filters unless you are trying to be really clever or repetitive, but you should make sure your sending domain has a correct SPF record, your headers are all in order, you have your own unique IP address that hasn't been used for spamming, that your fixed IP address is not part of a block of residential IP addresses, and so forth.

If you are using a commercial bulk mailer for your mailings, they will probably take care of a lot of the technical aspects, though you will want to make sure that your domain name as the "from" address is properly registered with them.  Check out your provider's anti-spam documentation and make sure you are complying as much as possible.

If you have been collecting a list of customers for a long time and haven't emailed them yet, or at least since your purchase, you may want to tread carefully.  Generally the rule of thumb is that if you have done business with somebody in the last year, it's OK to send them a message.  Then again, if it's been more than six months and suddenly your out-of-touch customers find that they are getting periodic emails from you, they may not like it.  Perhaps a better way would be to gingerly send out a message and state very clearly that they are getting this because they are your customer — remind them explicitly.  And make it very clear that they are welcome to unsubscribe using the link at the bottom.

Where's Your List?

I'm always interested in seeing how my fellow indies are doing their mailing list. If you have a list — whether it's been around or you're just setting it up, leave a note in the comments with the URL where I — and fellow readers of this blog — can go sign up!

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