Tech, Writing

Sophisticated and powerful tools for email lists and e-newsletters

In an online world obsessed with viral video and social networking, the simple, functional email list can seem downright dowdy.

What is it, after all, other than a list of email addresses for sending out periodic messages?

In fact, email lists can be a lot more complicated and multifaceted than you might think (and more useful, too). Forget about creating lists with your garden-variety email program and adding or removing names and addresses on your own. Instead, today’s email lists are often powered by sophisticated web-based services to help businesses, freelancers, nonprofits and other organizations send out everything from political action alerts to announcements about sale items to elaborately designed email postcards.

You can do this, even if you’re a technophobe and email marketing neophyte, and you can do it for free (or close to it). That’s true whether you’re hoping to have a newsletter for your kid’s soccer team or you’re thinking your growing businesses demands new ways to connect with customers.

Using a web-based service for managing lists provides a number of advantages over an ad-hoc, do-it-yourself method. Consider these features and tools:

  • the ability for readers to sign up, change email addresses, and unsubscribe on their own
  • automated tools to check for invalid email addresses, send confirmation and welcome emails, and help you comply with anti-spam laws
  • web-based software to help you design your newsletter and provide readers the option of receiving the email as a plain-text email, an email that’s specially designed for mobile devices, or a so-called “HTML email,” allowing for a more elaborate design
  • special charts, reports, and other analytical tools to help you track who’s opening your emails, what links they’re following, and who’s unsubscribing
  • customizable templates that have been tested in a variety of email programs, meaning it’s less likely your readers will run into formatting glitches when reading emails

So what’s the catch? Though plans vary from one service to another, you’ll typically be able to have an inexpensive (or even free) account if your list is rather small, in terms of subscribers or emails sent, but you’ll pay more as your list grows and you send out more frequent emails.

Consider the offerings of MailChimp, a service used by everyone from bloggers and consultants to major companies like Intel, Marriott and Staples. A free account with MailChimp provides access to the service’s features, but you’re limited to 100 subscribers, you can only send mass emails six times per month, and your emails will include a MailChimp logo.

MailChimp’s paid monthly plans vary, depending on the number of subscribers. The least expensive is $10 per month, for up to 500 subscribers, while you’ll pay $150 per month for a list with up to 25,000 subscribers. Another option, a pay-as-you-go plan, lets you spend “email credits” for every email sent.

The MailChimp website is particularly friendly for those who have never experimented with email lists. Videos are provided to explain just about every aspect of creating an email list, from a 30-second overview to more detailed videos on designing templates and reviewing reports.

The ins and outs of email lists can actually get rather complicated, depending on your organization’s needs. After all, big companies have web marketing professionals who specialize in email marketing campaigns. MailChimp offers a free guide for web developers charged with customizing an email newsletter. The guide covers topics such as design, spam filters, and “how to code HTML emails so they won’t break,” among other topics. It’s 64 pages long.

But if you just want a list for your PTA group or consulting firm, you can have that, too. Just search around a bit to see what service suits your needs. Along with MailChimp, the leaders include Constant Contact, iContact and VerticalResponse.

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