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The Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Newsletter and Email List

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The Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Newsletter and Email List

By Pat Flynn on

At the beginning of the year (2010), I started a newsletter here on SPI and used an eBook I wrote, eBooks the $mart Way, as a free gift to help generate more leads. Three months later, I had over 2,250 people signed up for the newsletter and it averaged about 30 new subscribers a day.

I have no previous email list to compare these numbers with, so I can’t say for sure whether those are stellar numbers, or just average—but either way, I’m very happy with the results and would love to share with you how it’s all done, especially for you beginners out there.

Update (January 2016): This post was originally written in early 2010. It is currently being updated to reference ConvertKit (as opposed to Aweber) as the email marketing tool that I use and wholeheartedly recommend.

If you’re interested, you can read more about Why I Switched from Aweber to Infusionsoft to Convertkit. In that post, I’m very honest about my experiences and interactions with Aweber and its team, and I encourage you to check it out!

For further reference, here are a few more posts and podcasts I created in late 2015 on email marketing and ConvertKit (plus a video):

Thank you for trusting me with your time and business!


P.S. I’m currently seeing an average of 225 subscribers per day, and have accumulated more than 143,000 subscribers! Imagine if I had started sooner! That said, you are in the right place, so keep reading!

What is a Newsletter, and Why Would You Want to Offer One?

Before I get deep into the how-to of building a newsletter, I’d first like to address what a newsletter is, and why you might want to think about offering one for your blog or online business.

For the sake of this post, I’ll be talking only about email newsletters. Some websites, especially those doing business in a specific niche, offer a print newsletter, which is a fantastic way to keep in contact with customers and subscribers through “snail mail” (mail that is sent to your home address), but that’s a whole different ballgame that I have yet to experience.

When you set up an email newsletter, you’re offering your audience a way to subscribe to get emails from you that contain informal news or broadcasts that you send out. This is usually in addition to the content you already have on your blog or online business website, and totally separate from an RSS feed subscription.

Now, you might be wondering: “What’s the point of offering a newsletter subscription to my audience, if they can already subscribe to my blog’s RSS feed?”

Good question.

The short answer is: the email list.

By offering a subscription to your newsletter, you’re giving yourself the ability to capture email addresses, which is something that you cannot do with an RSS feed. It’s important to capture email addresses because:

  1. It’s a great way to communicate with your audience on a more personal level. There’s just something about receiving an email from somebody that makes it extremely effective at getting a point across, or making people take some kind of action.
  2. An email list will never die. In other words, if you have an email list, you will always have a way to communicate with your audience. Blogs and websites can die. RSS readers and feed subscription services could vanish. But, those email addresses will never change and you can always keep your audience informed of what you’re up to, even if you go completely off the radar.
  3. It’s where the money is.

Regarding #3, you may or may not have heard this expression before: “The Money is in the List.”

It’s an expression that has been used in the internet marketing industry since the birth of email (or “snail mail” for that matter), because it’s true. However, you have to be careful if you’re going to try and use your email list to make money online.

Like with any platform that you use to communicate with people (a blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), the moment that you start to become “all about the money” is the moment that you might will end up losing credibility (and the respect) of your followers. That’s why I make sure that in whatever I do online, helping and informing people come first. I’m speaking from experience when I say that if you can make your primary goal helping others, the money will come your way.

Online karma does exist!

Does it Have to Be a Newsletter?

You can set up an opt-in form to capture email addresses on your website and only email your subscribers when you need to—but let me tell you why I think this is a bad idea.

Imagine signing up for my free eBook and never hearing from me again until months later, when you finally get an email from me promoting some kind of product.

You would probably do one of the following:

  1. Forget who I was and think my email is spam.
  2. Unsubscribe from the list because you’d realize that there’s really no point of being on it.
  3. All of the above.

What you write in your emails doesn’t have to be “news”—it can be about anything really. But, it’s important that you consistently contact your subscribers and provide them with some kind of useful information in order to keep them around. All it takes is one click to unsubscribe from your list.

What’s the Difference Between RSS Email Subscription and the Newsletter Subscription?

This is actually the most common question I get about newsletters and email subscriptions, so I’m happy to address this here publicly.

email-rssThe RSS Email Subscription (through services such as FeedBlitz, which is something you can setup within your FeedBurner account) is a way for your readers to get your blog posts (and only your blog posts) emailed to them. This is convenient for many people, especially those who work 9 to 5 who like to catch up with their favorite websites at work, who are unable to use a standard RSS feed reader.

Here on SPI, I used to offer this option in a link at the upper right hand corner of the page. Now, I link to my RSS feed on the home page, but encourage people to subscribe to my newsletter in more places on my site.

The newsletter subscription is totally separate from the content of your blog. With it, you have the ability to email your subscribers whatever you want, whenever you want. Again, it’s a more personal way to communicate with your readers and you can utilize that ability for marketing your own products, affiliate products or just simply driving traffic. The possibilities are endless.

Yes—people will have to sign up twice if they want your blog content and newsletter both sent to their email. And even though many email list services have the ability to send out broadcasts that contain your blog’s RSS feed, I’d much rather keep those things separate so that people can have the freedom to choose how exactly they want to receive your content.

Now that I’ve answered the most common questions, let’s get down to business…

How To Start Your Own Newsletter Subscription

Understanding the Process

First, it’s good to know exactly what happens once someone signs up through a form on your site. Here’s a diagram below that outlines everything that should happen:


As you can see, there’s quite a bit involved, but I’ll help you through the entire process below. Please note that rectangles represent webpages, and circles represent emails.

Step One: Sign Up For a ConvertKit Account

You have many options when it comes to signing up with an email marketing service, but ConvertKit is by far the best in my opinion. I personally use it, and have been really impressed with the ease of use and quality of customer service.

ConvertKit is definitely the way to go.

You not only have the ability to set up email automation sequences (or Courses, as ConvertKit calls them), but you can divide your list into categories according to user preferences. I implement this by asking people where they are in their journey of building their online and/or passive income businesses. Then, based on their answers, ConvertKit places them into a category so they will receive a series of emails that will benefit them the most.

Step 2: Set Up Your First Email List

After you register for your account and sign in, you’ll be taken to your control panel. Now, we need to set up your list!

First, click on “create and manage” lists:

create-and-manage-listsSecond, fill in the settings for your list. The “From” Name:, and “Address” are all things that your newsletter subscribers will see when they get your emails. The “List Name” and the “List Description” are mainly for you for organizational purposes.

Lastly, the “Contact Address” is the address that is in your account settings. It will be shown at the bottom of each of your emails, as required by law (the CAN-SPAM Act). If you’re on my email list, you can see this address at the bottom of my emails, which is my business address. If you don’t have a business address, that’s okay – you can simply insert your home address, but just know that whenever you send an email to your subscribers, your address will show up – so you may want to use an address other than your home address if possible.

list-settingsStep 3: Setup Your Confirmed Opt-In Email

A confirmed opt-in email is an email that gets sent to people immediately after they subscribe to your newsletter. This email contains a link that is used to confirm that the person is indeed a human and is someone who is interested in joining your list. Also, it helps you make sure that the email address that they entered is valid, and not a fake one that they used just to grab a hold of whatever freebie you might have to offer.

You are given the option to turn this feature off, but it is not recommended for the reasons mentioned above.

This email is usually already pre-written for you, but you can customize it a little if you wish, just to make it a little bit more personable. Here is a snapshot of mine below:

confirmation-messageYou may have noticed at the top of the email a piece of code that look like this:


This is code that can be inserted into any of your emails (both in the subject line and in the body), which will automatically convert into the person’s name who you are sending an email to. In fact, there are several different types of codes that convert into various kinds of text. You can normally find a drop-down menu with all of your options next to the field where you are writing your emails, which look like this:

list-drop-downAnd here is a link that shows us all of the variables and what each piece of code converts to.

Moving on…

Step 4: Set Up Your Success Page

Below where you customize your confirmation message, you’ll see an area marked “Success Page”. This is where you insert a URL back to your website which is exactly where your subscribers will be taken after they click the confirmation link in the email (Thank You Page #2 in the Diagram):

success-pageOn this page, which you’ll have to create on your own website/blog first, you can do a number of things:

  • Thank the person for their confirmation.
  • Welcome them to your newsletter, and announce that they will be shortly receiving an email from you.
  • If you’re giving away something like an eBook, for example, you can let them know that links to their gift will be included in the next email.
  • You can ask your new subscriber to “white list” your email address so it will not be blocked by spam filters.
  • You can provide a way to easily contact you in case they have any issues regarding your newsletter.
  • Advanced: This is also a great opportunity to add in an offer for either a product that you already have for sale, or an affiliate product related to your niche.

If you’re interested, here is my Success Page.

Note: The “pass subscriber info (for personalizing this page)” option you see is an advanced option that allows you to insert certain pieces of code on your own website that can convert into things like the subscriber’s name, for example.

Note #2: Thank You Page #1 as shown in the diagram is setup when you create a web form that you insert onto your webpage. I’ll talk more about this in a second.

Understanding “Follow Up” Messages

A followup message is a pre-written email that gets sent out to your subscribers. The first one is always a welcome email that is sent out immediately after they click the confirmation link in the first email that they receive. An unlimited amount of additional followup messages can be pre-written and setup to be sent out in certain time intervals that you can customize. This is where the term “autoresponder” comes from, because after new subscribers sign up for your list, they are automatically sent the series of followup emails that you create in the time interval that you set.

So for example, I have about 15 pre-written emails with killer content that are timed to be sent out every 7 days. It doesn’t matter when you sign up, you’ll be taken though the series of emails from the beginning. I add about 1 new followup message every week, just to keep content fresh and expand my “autoresponder series”.

To create your Welcome Email and any additional followup messages, you can simply hover over the “Messages” bar at the top, and click on “Follow Up”, and then click on “Add New Followup Message”:

follow-upStep 5: Writing Your Welcome Message (Follow Up #1)

Your first followup message is always sent out immediately after subscribing, so it’s always good to put some kind of welcome message within this email. In it, you might want to include:

  • A formal welcome and thank you for signing up for your newsletter.
  • Any links to any freebies that you might be giving away.
  • What to expect in the newsletter (i.e, what your subscribers have to look forward to).
  • Again asking your subscribers to “white list” your email address.
  • A way to contact you.

You can add other things if you’d like, but as far as a welcome email followup message goes, those things are pretty standard.

Now, when you write your first followup message, you’ll notice that you have the option of writing an email in html format, or plain text format:

html-vs-plain-textAweber recommends writing your emails in plain text, because plain text emails can be read by those who cannot receive html messages. However, I’ve ran split tests before and the open rate (the percentage of emails that you send out that get opened) are virtually the same. This is why I choose to write HTML Messages instead, because I have a lot more options to dazzle up my emails.

When I say “dazzle” up, I simply mean having the ability to make words bold or italicand underlined, which you cannot do in plain text format. You also have the ability to add color and even some fancy looking templates with html, but I don’t want my emails to look like a newsletter you’d subscribe to from a retail store.

It’s really up to you though.

Step 6: Send Yourself a Test Message

After you finish writing any email, you should always send yourself a test message first so you can see exactly what your subscribers are receiving from you, and so you can re-read your emails and check for any errors too.

After you save your messages, you’ll be shown a screen that lists all of the messages you have in your autoresponder series. To the right of each message, you’ll see the following options:

testThe “Spam?” number you see there is a rating that is given to each of your emails that show you how “spammy” your email is. It’s based on a number of things, including some of the words you write in your email, as well as the number of links you include (and what they link to), but if you write an honest email, even if it includes a few links, you should have no problems at all. A high score will be a good indicator that your email may be blocked by some your subscribers’ email programs.

When you click on “Test”, you’ll have the ability to send a test email to any email address that you want. If after you receive your email you want to update or change a few things, you can always go back and click on your message to edit it. Make sure you save it for any changes to actually take place.

Step 7: Setting Up Your Opt-In / Web Form

The web form is the form that you will place on your blog or website to collect email addresses. The one you see here on SPI was custom built for me by my web designers, but you can actually customize really well using the built in web form builder within Aweber.

Click on “Web Form” at the top, and then “Create Web Form”:

create-web-formThis will load a “web form generator”, which gives you the ability to choose from several options, fonts, colors, etc. to create your own form. You can play around with this until you finally come up with a design that you like. Remember where you will be placing this opt-in form on your website, as this will have an impact on the size of the form that you create.

Many people, including myself, choose to place an opt-in form in the sidebar, mainly because it gets shown on every single page. However, you can create multiple web forms for several different pages of your site, like the one I created on the page where I explain more about my eBook.

Typically, people collect just the name and email address of the subscribers, although depending on what you do and what niche you’re in, you can add different fields, including phone number, address, or any customized field that you’d like. Some people don’t even grab the names, and simply ask for an email address, although if you do this you won’t have the ability to use the {!name} code for personalizing your emails, which we talked about earlier.

Additional Tip:The default text within the submit button is simply “submit”. I recommend changing this text to something better that either tells your potential subscribers what they are getting, or is an actual call to action. For example, on my own buttons I have “Free Instant Access”, because it’s describing the free access you get to my eBook.

The Settings

After you’re happy with your web form design, you’ll need to customize your settings. Under the settings tab, you’ll see the following screen:

web-form-settingsThe Form Name is a unique name for the specific form you just created. This is mainly to help you keep track of each of the forms you create.

The Thank You Page is the “Thank You Page #1″ that is in the diagram that I showed you earlier. This is the page that people arrive at immediately after clicking on the “submit button” while the confirmation email is being sent to them at the same time.

You have 5 options of what you want to happen to your subscribers at this point:

thank-you-page-optionsThe first three options are pages on Aweber that they’ve created for our convenience. They each let the subscriber know that an email will be sent to them that contains a confirmation link that they must click in order to subscribe to the newsletter. The Audio and “Smart” Video Versions are cool because they tell the user exactly what to expect and what links to click, so there is no confusion. However, understand that many people may not be able to listen to audio, or may not have the ability to watch a video (i.e., people subscribing while at work who have restrictions on internet access).

I choose to use a Custom Page because it keeps the subscriber on my site. Here is what you should include on this page:

  • A short note that a confirmation email has been sent to them that contains a link that they must click.
  • You can include pictures of what the link will look like, just to avoid any confusion.
  • What to expect after they click the confirmation link in the email.
  • A notice to “white list” your email address so their spam filters will not block your emails.
  • Advanced: This is again a great opportunity to add in an offer for either a product that you already have for sale, or an affiliate product related to your niche.

What you decide to happen to your subscribers at this point is really up to you.

The Code

After you design your web form and finish with the settings, you’ll need to grab the piece of code that you insert onto your website that will show the form to your visitors. It’s not as hard as you probably think.

Under the Publish tab, in “I Will Install My Form”, you can either grab the Javascript Snippet, or the Raw HTML Version of the code. It’s much easier to copy the javascript snippet because if you go back into Aweber and change your form, it will automatically update on your website. Also, you can keep track of statistics like impressions and signups easier too.

Here is a screenshot of what this screen looks like:

web-form-publishYou can see the code above which starts with “<script type” and ends with </script>. Copy and paste this code into your website where ever you want the webform to show up.

If You Have a WordPress Blog, you can use these two easy options:

1. Copy and Paste the Code into the HTML Editor for a Post or Page: If you want your form to show up within a blog post, or within a page that you create, you’ll have to copy and paste the code into the html editor, which can be found next to the “Visual Tab” in the upper right hand of where you write your posts/pages:


2. Copy and Paste the Code Into a “Text Widget” for Your Sidebar: If you want your form to show up in the sidebar, probably the easiest thing to do is go into your WordPress account, and under Appearance > Widgets, create a new “Text Widget” for your sidebar and copy the snippet into there, as shown below:


And that’s it! After you place the web form onto your website, you’ll then have the ability to begin growing your email list!


Before I finish up, I need to talk about broadcasts. A broadcast is a message that you send out to your subscribers that is not involved in the autoresponder series, meaning it’s not a pre-written email that gets sent out after a certain amount of time after people subscribe. It’s a one time email (although you can save it to broadcast again later) that gets sent to your list.

What you include in it is up to you, but note that your list will get this email in addition to whatever emails they may be getting from you from your followups. Many people use broadcasts to talk about “one-time” events, such as recent news, launches for products, etc.

You can write a broadcast email at any time, with the ability to schedule it’s delivery – just make sure you use broadcasts wisely.

Thank You!

I know this post is lengthy, but I wanted to create a one-stop resource for any beginners out there who may be interested in starting their own newsletter and building an email list. Now, you should have no excuse not to get started, because everything you need is right here.

Thanks again for your support, and if you’re interested in seeing what my own newsletter is like, please feel free to subscribe using the form below, and you’ll also get free instant access to my popular eBook, eBooks the $mart Way, as a free gift! Cheers!

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