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Announcing the SystemsThinker.com Newsletter (& What I Learned While Creating It)

November 24th, 2014 by Howard Ditkoff

A few weeks ago, I launched something new.

It is one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t create it sooner, even years ago, although perhaps I just couldn’t have really done so yet at that time.

Now that it is finally launched, I consider it one of the most important things I’ve ever done in the history of this website and my involvement in the online world.

And now I want to announce it – along with some background information about how it came into being and what I learned in the process – to you, my readers, as well as to the world.

The Newsletter/Email List: A Crucial Feature

I started this website in 2003.

Over the years since, as new website features and functionalities popped onto the scene, I adapted this site to patch on and incorporate those that I found useful once I learned about them.

For example, in 2007, as Wordpress became more and more established, I added this blog section to the site to take advantage of some of its benefits.

When sharing tools became increasingly popular, I added the buttons you see in the sidebar and at the ends of some pieces on the site to let people easily share pages they find worthwhile via their social media or social bookmarking accounts or by email.

One feature that I learned a lot more about in the last few years is the newsletter/email list option. This is a feature that allows people to subscribe, usually by submitting their name and/or email address through a form on your website, so that you can then send them information directly by email, whether on a regular basis or at specific times when you have news or updates to offer or both.

(Note: Some of you reading this are subscribed to receive updates on posts or comments as they are added to this blog. Among those that are, some have chosen to receive these updates by email. The newsletter feature that I’m describing is separate from, in addition to, and much more in-depth than that blog subscription service.)

Many of the people I look to as experts and really trust when it comes to advice about operating on the web run a newsletter. And I’ve been subscribed to many of their newsletters over time.

I learned from them about how important it is to offer this feature. Many of them focus heavily on their newsletters and even call it central to what they do because of the various beneficial activities that it allows you to carry out, including:

  • Capturing, in a sense, some portion of the traffic that flows through your website, rather than simply losing access to those visitors forever once they leave your site

  • Offering special content, unavailable to anyone else, to those that subscribe
  • Sharing information with subscribers over time in a more strategically sequenced fashion
  • Instantly contacting many interested people with announcements when you have new projects or events about which to inform them

Carrying out all of these activities, if done well, builds relationships with your subscribers over time, strengthening the connections and communication channels between you and them, and increasing the likelihood of all sorts of mutually beneficial opportunities arising.

And, using the proper services, you can automate much of this ongoing communication process very efficiently.

The email newsletter also offers several more benefits, such as:

  • Reducing your reliance on fickle traffic sources, such as Google, that can dry up at any time as algorithms change and rankings of your pages drop. Once you’ve built a strong email list with committed subscribers, that cannot be taken away from you even if Google or other traffic sources never send you another visitor.

  • Providing a means by which to direct visitors that may have only seen part of your website, through links in relevant emails, to other parts of your site. This generates repeat visitors and awakens these visitors to valuable content they may otherwise not have discovered.

And there are still more benefits of the email newsletter that I could discuss, both for the person operating the newsletter and for the subscribers – a true win-win situation.

From the trusted experts, I not only learned how important it is to run a newsletter, but I also learned how it could be done.

It Was Finally Time

There was a point a few years ago where I was so convinced of the crucial importance of the newsletter/email list service that I was advising others about how indispensable the feature was for their online efforts and business. I even told them it was the most important asset they would have. I insisted that they create a newsletter and build their list and they had tremendous success with it.

Yet I still didn’t create one myself, at least not for this, my main website.

Why not?

Because, for a couple of reasons, I just didn’t feel ready.

One reason is that I knew it would require more work and energy than I was prepared to redirect from other endeavors toward this one at that time.

But, looking back, I now realize that the more important reason is that there were some philosophical issues that I still needed to resolve in my own mind before I could create the content that I really wanted subscribers to receive – the content that I’m now able to create.

The timing just wasn’t right yet.

But every day, I saw that people came to my site, enjoyed it for a while, and then left. A handful would email me and get in touch. But most, even if they enjoyed the material, would never make contact again.

Glancing over my site’s past web statistics, I realized that I had had hundreds of thousands of visitors since I began tracking analytics well and who knows how many more before that. How many of them would have liked to stay in touch – might have remained in touch now for years – but had simply lost connection with me and my work because I didn’t offer them a way to subscribe? How many opportunities of all kinds had never materialized due to the lack of this feature?

It started to eat away at me how wasteful it was that I wasn’t offering an easy way for those readers that found value in my work to stay in touch, build a stronger relationship and receive more information over time. It got so frustrating that I eventually stopped looking at my analytics anymore because I started seeing them as a running tally of lost opportunities flowing through our fingers because there was no mechanism in place to bring them to fruition.

Finally, I reached the tipping point and couldn’t put it off anymore.

So in April of this year, I finally started working on putting together my own email newsletter subscription service for SystemsThinker.com.

(Note: The rest of this post goes into detail about the process that went into setting up my newsletter and what I learned in that process, including tips that might help others wishing to set one up, before describing the content of my newsletter emails and offering you the chance to subscribe. If you simply want to subscribe, at any time, you can just do so using any of the forms on the site. Look in the top left of my sidebar or scroll down to the box at the end of this post.

Or just subscribe using this form directly below.)

Choosing an Email Service Provider

The first order of business in creating the newsletter was picking a company through which to gather and store my subscribers’ contact information and deliver my emails to them. I did a ton of research on the subject. I could write an entire post about this decision-making process and what I learned in the course of it. And I will share a little insight into some of the email service providers (ESP’s) I considered later in this post.

But, in the end, for a variety of reasons, my initial choice was to start with the free 30-Day trial from GetResponse.

Creating the Initial Emails

The next task was putting together the initial set of emails, including the email subscribers receive when they first sign up asking them to confirm their subscription and the first batch of autoresponders – emails delivered automatically at specific points after someone subscribes – beginning with the email welcoming them to the list once confirmed. I wanted to make sure to have content for a number of weeks already prepared in the pipeline before anyone signed up.

I worked extremely hard to make all of these emails the best I could make them. I really put my heart and soul and sweat into this first batch of emails for my subscribers and, as a result, I believe some of the best writing I’ve ever done, and the best expression of what is behind my work and my worldview, is represented in them. Toward the end of this write-up, I’ll talk more about the specific content that is in these emails that you receive when you subscribe.

Newsletter Setup and Challenges

With the initial emails written, it was time to properly enter all of this content into and complete the setup of my GetResponse account. Unfortunately, this process was plagued by quite a lot of technical difficulty. I could write another entire post about these difficulties which would be very detailed and complex. But just to give a basic explanation, the problems mainly had to do with this:

Due to the nature of my email content, there are a number of text elements – bullet lists, numbered lists, blockquotes, etc. – that I need to use in formatting my emails. When I used these elements, they would show up properly when I would test viewing the emails in most email clients (e.g., Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL, Gmail, Outlook, Thunderbird, etc.) and on most devices (e.g., desktop computers, tablets, iPhones, Android phones, etc.). But for each element there were one or two clients or devices on which the formatting would be flawed.

It’s hard to even explain how frustrating the situation became. GetResponse’s support staff was almost completely unable to help me resolve any of these problems. I spent most of my free 30-Day trial fighting with them trying to get straight answers. This is when I first reached out to some email specialists, both directly and through an email design forum, to try to receive some assistance from them. But I was simply unable to get these problems fixed at that point.

Because I went through such an ordeal interacting with their support staff, GetResponse agreed to give me a second free month in which to try to get my emails working correctly. But even with that extra month, I still couldn’t solve all the issues holding me up and they still couldn’t help me. Suffice it to say, my summer of 2014 will be remembered as a nightmarish montage of fruitless encounters with GetResponse’s support that left me unable to move forward with launching my newsletter – the newsletter I was already so regretful of not launching sooner.

As I went through this maddening summer, I came across, as well as talked with, several other people that also had similar terrible experiences with GetReponse’s support.

It got so bad that, at one point, I deleted everything from my GetResponse account and attempted to switch email service providers.

Trying Other Email Providers

Determined to find a better service, I went back to researching the other email service companies again.

I played with an account on MailChimp.

I went to AWeber at one point and even entered a lot of my data there, planning on switching to use them long-term. But, unfortunately, AWeber couldn’t offer certain features that I really wanted.

I eventually reached out to some more email specialists for advice. After talking with them about the issues I was having and considering all the factors, I realized that I simply couldn’t do what I really wanted to do with my newsletter anywhere but with GetResponse.

Returning to GetResponse

So, in September, finally committed/resigned to making the best of things using their service, I ended up re-entering all of my information and settings back into my GetResponse account.

Completing the Setup

Finally, after a huge ordeal – and I do mean huge – complete with more fighting with GetResponse’s support staff, more reaching out to email specialists and, above all, learning a bunch of email coding myself, I managed, through enormous amounts of testing, testing, testing, to figure out ways to format all of the text elements I needed to use so that they would look correct on the various email clients and devices. It was tormenting for a few months getting to that point, but, at last, I had everything essential sorted out and, for all the challenges encountered throughout the process, I was actually pretty happy with the result.

Publishing the Initial Signup Forms on my Website = Launch!

Now that the initial newsletter content itself was all up to my standards and ready to be delivered, it was time to provide a way for my website visitors to subscribe to the email list and receive that content. First, several weeks ago, I just put in place the forms you see at the top left of my sidebar. (Perhaps at some point this layout will change, but, as of this writing, you should see them there.)

The moment I put those forms in place, opening signup to the public, the newsletter could be considered officially launched.

I’ll never forget waking up the next day to see that my first subscriber had signed up. It was a great milestone for me.

Additional Signup Forms

Once the newsletter was in motion, I wanted to provide my visitors with additional opportunities to notice the ability to subscribe and to easily do so. So I added another subscription form to the resource box that, as of this writing, you’ll see at the bottom of many articles and posts on my site. I also added forms to a few other locations.

The creation of the resource box was another surprisingly challenging ordeal. It took a lot of work, as well as learning a little bit more website coding that I hadn’t really done before, to get it laid out so that it looked consistent across various web browsers on various devices.

But, after all that work was done, everything was in place for the time being.

My Newfound Expertise about Email Lists/Newsletters

Having survived this often exciting, often terribly frustrating, process, I’ve become very informed about the whole world of email lists and newsletters.

I thought I’d share a little about what I’ve learned for those interested in it or considering starting or working on their own email newsletter. If this doesn’t interest you, feel free not to read this section and to just skip to the next section to learn about the specifics of my newsletter, including what it offers and how you can join.

I’ve studied the entire process by which several of the most successful online personalities, including the ones whose opinions I respect and trust the most, run their newsletter systems.

I’ve become even more aware of how important these subscription features are and of the amazing potential they have for accelerating the emergence of all the benefits of online interactions. I’d call them, in some ways, the holy grail of the online world.

I’ve learned quite a bit about the various email service providers available and tried several of them. So I know many of the pros and cons and strange quirks of a lot of them (and they all have pros and cons and strange quirks – none of them work perfectly for the purposes of every user.) I’m willing to share about that.

Below are just a few comments about each of the providers with which, after this process, I’m most familiar. For disclosure’s sake, the links to each are affiliate links so if you use them, and eventually choose to become a paying customer, I will receive a small commission, which is very appreciated (though the service will not cost you any more than it would otherwise have.)

One nice thing is that most of these providers offer a free or extremely cheap trial period. So, if you are interested, you can try any or all of them out without much, if any, initial cost to you.

GetResponse

Again, this is the provider I ultimately ended up using for this website’s newsletter. I can sum up GetResponse simply: amazing features at wonderfully affordable prices with terrible support. And I know I’m not alone in my views about any of these three aspects.

So, if your particular campaign calls for the features that they offer, I recommend GetResponse. But I can only do so with the caveat that you need to be aware that you might, when possible, have to fix some of the problems that arise yourself or find someone to help you do so. Over the last several months, I’ve figured out how to fix the issues that were posing the greatest roadblocks in my own newsletter campaign – issues that GetResponse’s support staff either could not or would not fix or tell me how to fix. But it took a lot of time and energy to resolve them.

My needs were kind of extensive. So, if your newsletter is simpler than mine, perhaps you won’t face as many challenges with GetResponse as I have. And if you do run into problems using GetResponse, depending on which ones they are, I might be able to help.

Maybe in the future, GetResponse will improve their support. But that can’t be relied upon. So you have to take the poor support into account in making your decision.

Given the quality of their product and the fact that I think they have the best prices around, especially for what you get, I can hesitantly recommend them provided that you go into the situation fully informed and know that I may be able to offer you advice if you need it.

As of this writing, GetResponse offers a 30-Day free trial that does not even require a credit card.

AWeber

The best part about AWeber is that it has been carefully designed to be very user-friendly. The worst part about AWeber is the same. In their zeal to make their product simple for less technically-savvy users, and to protect those users from even the possibility of becoming confused by the presence of certain advanced features, they have removed the capability for sophisticated users to customize their newsletters in more complex ways.

I know of some very successful online personalities that use AWeber to run their email newsletters. AWeber even served me well on a project that I ran for another website on which I worked some years back. So it can certainly meet your needs if you run a basic newsletter.

On this particular newsletter for SystemsThinker.com, however, I needed some features that AWeber couldn’t offer. But if you have relatively basic, straightforward needs, AWeber is a fine choice for you.

As of this writing, AWeber offers a month-long trial for just $1.

MailChimp

Overall, MailChimp looks to me like a reasonably good choice for many people. I know a few people that use MailChimp and really like it. Like AWeber, MailChimp didn’t offer some features that I wanted on this particular newsletter and that GetResponse did offer. But for many people, MailChimp’s features will be more than sufficient.

One thing that stood out to me about MailChimp is that there seem to be more email specialists that are familiar with customizing it than with any other provider I considered. So if you do need help with your MailChimp account or newsletter, you will find a lot of capable people that you can turn to.

As of this writing, MailChimp not only offers a free trial, but you can sign up for a Forever Free account. With this account, you can send up to 12,000 emails a month to a list of up to 2000 subscribers at no cost. There are certain features that you can only use once you are a paying customer. But the Forever Free account can be a very nice way to start a newsletter and get it off the ground with no up-front expenses.

Others

Some of the others ESP’s out there that you can consider, and that other people I know about use, but which I never actually tried myself, include:

And if you want a comprehensive system that includes a larger suite of sales and marketing tools along with the email service at a much higher price, most people I know use:

If you look into these providers, do your research on the features they offer, how they calculate your total number of subscribers in order to determine your billing price, how easily you can import users if you switch to them from another provider and all sorts of other issues worth knowing about.

I’ve learned from my experience and from talking to and reading about it as described by others that coding emails in such a way that they work properly and consistently in the various email clients and on the various devices out there is incredibly difficult. I have gained a lot of respect for the email designers and coders that do this often painfully tedious work. It is so much more difficult than coding for the web where everything is a lot more standardized across browsers and devices. Only someone who has attempted this feat of making emails that are widely compatible can truly appreciate how maddening it can be.

I compiled a rolodex of some really skilled email specialists that can help people optimize their lists and their email coding. I will keep their names on hand in case anyone needs them.

I became familiar with some great resources like Litmus and Email on Acid that many of these specialists and others use to efficiently test to see how their emails will look on the various email clients and on the various devices. (Some of the services actually offer such an email testing service as a built-in feature in their regular user accounts. For example, GetResponse has a preview function based on Litmus available for users at no extra charge – just one of the features I really like that led me to ultimately stick with them.)

I also discovered the Litmus Community Discussions forum, one of the few places where one can ask very technical questions about email design and coding and have them considered by a number of specialists at once.

I’ve learned a lot of tricks of the trade that people use to attract newsletter subscribers.

I’ve also learned about the types of content that can be shared in the email newsletter format and the different ways it can be structured.

I don’t use all of the possible methods that I’ve learned about in this site’s newsletter. I run it the way that I want to and that I feel is optimal, which means that I pick and choose what is comfortable to me and what I feel is appropriate for the purposes of my audience. But I have gotten a glimpse of a lot of the ways that other people run their newsletters, so I can share some of the possibilities with anyone interested.

I hope that, in addition to considering subscribing to my email list, you’ll consider starting or working on your own and that this information can help you take your first steps or take your next steps toward improving what you’ve already started. Know that you can get in touch if you’d like any help with it.

What Do You Receive When You Sign Up for My Newsletter?

So, having said all of that about email newsletters in general, let’s talk about my newsletter – the SystemsThinker.com Newsletter – and what it offers.

Again, for all of the challenges I encountered during the setup process, I’m actually quite pleased with the result.

Right now, the newsletter goes out regularly about once a week. Once in a while, I may send out important announcements or updates, in addition. But the number of emails will always remain relatively small.

But I try to make each email count. Each one is substantial..

The emails contain content that isn’t available on the website, but only for newsletter subscribers. Some emails may discuss topics that are also discussed on the website, but even in those cases, the topics are covered in ways that add to the understanding provided by the material on the website. Other emails discuss topics not really discussed on the website at all.

The emails introduce and explore some of the key concepts, principles, phenomena, resources, techniques, methods, fields of study and ways of looking at the world that I’ve found most important and useful. Some of these may be ones that you have never heard about before. Others may be familiar, but we’ll take a deeper look at them. All of them have had a significant impact on my life. And a few of them, just by themselves, have drastically changed my life.

In some of the emails, I also provide background on the experiences and dynamics that have driven my quest for greater understanding and shaped my worldview and way of thinking. I think that some of you, who are on or have been on a similar quest, will relate and that the email content will put some of the insights that I share into context.

A wide range of material is covered from a systems perspective in these emails. But I’d say that, beyond the focus on systems science, the areas of exploration most commonly relate to personal development, psychology, philosophy and relationships.

I try in each email to prompt some consideration of how the content relates to various situations that arise in life and of how it may apply, in particular, to areas of your life.

While I know that not every email’s content will hit home with every reader, I hope that, for each of you, at least some of them will really satisfy your curiosity and make a difference in your life.

The goals of the newsletter, as I see them, are, ultimately, to:

  • Help you make greater sense, from a number of angles, of yourself, your relationships and why people and the world work as they do

  • Provoke new realizations and creativity
  • Bring to your attention tools that enable responses that can optimize health and sustainability
  • Expand the channels of communication and dialogue between myself and my readers for those of you that would enjoy that.

As I said earlier, I’ve put my heart and soul and sweat into writing the first batch of these emails. And I plan to continue doing that over time. They take a lot of work to create and a long time to get set up completely. I don’t write the quick, brief emails that many people do in their newsletters. These are really meaningful, in-depth emails with a lot of information in them. And I believe they contain some of my best work.

The Newsletter’s First Weeks

The first several weeks of the newsletter’s life have been great. I’ve had people signing up on most days and I’ve received some feedback from readers. It’s a huge relief to finally have this option in place and to know that visitors to my site that want to maintain a more regular connection with me can, after all of these years, finally do so.

The Future of the SystemsThinker.com Newsletter

I’m really excited at the potential of the newsletter over the coming years on many fronts, such as:

  • Providing information to readers that makes an impact

  • Building relationships
  • Enabling me to keep people informed about significant news in real-time much more efficiently than I can do through this website
  • Spurring all kinds of new opportunities

I’m very curious to see what ends up emerging out of it all.

So I will continue adding new emails full of quality content. I already have a whole plan of what I’d like to share for quite a while to come.

If the newsletter becomes popular enough, maybe I’ll do some fun or creative things that are only really great with a large enough audience like contests where I’ll give away something relevant and meaningful like a book to be chosen from the ones I most recommend or maybe some coaching. But we’ll see.

But, even if the newsletter attracts only a small audience, but one that is committed and very intrigued by the content, I’ll be happy.

My main hope is that the content I share will help people gain more insight and understanding.

Please Join the SystemsThinker.com Newsletter

If this sounds of value to you, give it a try.

If you’ve found any of the content on my website or discussions with me interesting and want to delve deeper into my thinking and the array of topics that I explore, this will allow me to stay in touch with you over time and provide more.

Again, for those of you already subscribed to my blog, this is a completely separate thing. The blog subscription just updates you when something is posted to my blog. This newsletter is an entirely different set of content that only people who subscribe can receive and that, unlike this blog, is not shared publicly. So even if you are subscribed to my blog, you should also subscribe to the newsletter if it interests you. (And if you’re not subscribed to my blog and want to subscribe to the newsletter, you can subscribe to the blog too if you wish.)

You can learn more about the newsletter and sign up for it on the newsletter page. Or you can just use the forms in the top left sidebar or in the resource box below this post (or wherever the forms are on the site if they’ve moved by the time you read this) to sign up.

Don’t worry. Subscribing is completely free. I won’t spam you or send out more than a reasonable number of emails (just one a week most weeks). I’ll never share your email address with anyone else. And if you change your mind later, you can always unsubscribe with a click of a button.

But I’m hoping you’ll find the content valuable enough that you’ll want to stick around and receive more for years to come.

I also hope that, if this sounds interesting, you’ll share it with others that might want to receive this content. Just refer them to the newsletter page or to this post.

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