Tech, Writing

Sophisticated and powerful tools for email lists and e-newsletters

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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.


Let the iPhone moviemaking begin

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I haven’t actually gotten a chance yet to try out iMovie for the iPhone 4, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m a fan of iMovie on the Mac, and I’m also a fan of the idea of moviemaking right on the iPhone—that is, using the iPhone for the whole shebang. Shooting video. Editing video. Adding titles, transitions, and other effects. I’ve used the excellent app ReelDirector for this—and that’s still a great choice, especially if you don’t have an iPhone 4—but I’m really excited about Apple diving into this arena with iMovie.

Here’s an example of a movie made with the iPhone and iMovie:

“Apple of My Eye” – an iPhone 4 film from Michael Koerbel on Vimeo.


Geeking out in the outdoors

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I’m usually pretty low-tech when I head out to the great outdoors. For running, I’ve got a Timex Ironman watch; it can register 100 splits/laps, but that’s nothing compared to all of the GPS and heart-rate monitors for runners. For hiking, well, I don’t really take any technology, aside from my phone, and I use that mainly for capturing images for my photoblog. But plenty of people do love to geek out with technology when they’re hiking, cycling, and whatnot, and I wrote about some of these in a recent column.


Got the iPad on my mind

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I’ve been thinking (and writing) about the iPad a lot these days. I got one on Saturday morning (yes, perhaps the most uber-nerd thing I’ve ever done—that is, waiting on line for the iPad), and then set off to use it, test it, and write about it, all by 4:30 p.m. That column, with my initial thoughts, appeared promptly online at and the next day in The Star-Ledger. Then I used it over the next several days, and I basically ended up trying to answer the question a lot of people want to know: Should I buy one? I answered “no,” though it’s a no with many, many caveats, as I actually love the iPad, and I do think, as I wrote back in January, when it was announced, that it’s likely to transform our ideas of what computers can and should be.


I feel sorry for my bookshelves

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Until now, I haven’t bought many e-books. Yes, I’ve read a few on the Classics app for my iPhone, and experimented with other e-readers, but I just haven’t felt like I was ready to buy my books in e-versions. And then I watched Apple’s newly released video about its iBooks app and iBookstore for the iPad. I’ll be getting an iPad very soon, and for the first time, I’ve started to think I might end up preferring to buy a book on the iPad, rather than a traditional, print version. But what about my bookshelves? Will will this mean they’ll just be a relic? That they’ll be packed with all of the books I’ve bought—until 2010? To be honest, I find that prospect sort of frightening, yet I also see it as inevitable.

I never buy CDs now, and I imagine there will be a time—this year, next year?—when I won’t buy all that many non-e-book books. Yes: I feel sorry for my bookshelves.


The iPad as your only computer?

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I’ve been wondering: Will it be possible to use the iPad as your only computer?

I can easily see the iPad making sense as the computer-of-choice for lots of people. Kids, for instance. Or teenagers. Or college students. Or anyone else who would like something lightweight, portable, and without the administrative and maintenance hassles of a Macintosh or a Windows computers. That describes just about everyone, of course, but not everyone will be able to do without software like Excel or Photoshop.



Shortcoming or genius? The iPad does away with traditional files

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Steven Johnson has an excellent essay in Time about the iPad, its shortcomings, and what we might (or might not) see in future updates. As he says:

The iPad interface — like the iPhone’s — tries to do everything in its power to do away with documents and files. There is no Finder or root-level file navigation. It’s apps, apps, apps, as far as the eye can see.

Read more: Apple iPad Shortcomings Spark Questions about Updates.


The iPad: Everything you know about computers just changed

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Well, that’s how I opened my Star-Ledger column about the iPad: “Everything you know about computers just changed.” Not really because of the iPad itself, but because of the way you interact with it. As I say in my column, you can sum this up in one word: touch. The more I use my iPhone, the more I see touch technology, like Apple’s multitouch interface, as being the key to computing in coming years. As I put it in my column:

The iPad signals the moment when computers changed from being bulky products tethered to desktops and power cords to thin, portable devices you can carry in one hand and slip into a backpack.

Sure, there are lots of questions about the iPad, and complaints (too heavy; no camera; no Flash), but this is just the initial version, and we can expect it to get better and better. With its ability to connect to Apple’s wireless keyboard, I expect I’ll be using an iPad as my main computer.


Predicting what columns I will write in 2010

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Hm, what will I be writing about in 2010 for my Star-Ledger column?

That’s the topic I tackled in my last column for 2009. I tried this a few years back, and it was a fun way to write a “trends to watch” column—essentially imagining the news before it happens. And there’s a lot to look forward to—in particular, a Google phone, an Apple tablet, and Google’s cloud-computing operating system. Read more in my column.