How to run a popular newsletter

I want to take you on a behind-the-scenes look at my mailing list, which drives the bulk of revenue for products I create to give you some Mailchimp design inspiration.


The Sunday Dispatches has been my weekly newsletter since November of 2013. The goal has never been growth, sales, or some sort of world domination scheme involving robots (or to a lesser extent, aliens). My focus has always been telling stories to the folks that might enjoy them, and hearing their stories, too.

I do a lot of research, listening, and communicating with this list because I like to know what you’re all working on, thinking about, and even struggling with. It informs the topics I write about, and sometimes even the products I create. My Mailchimp design inspiration comes from simplicity, like my favourite email newsletter.

Mailchimp is what runs the list. It has always been what runs the list. I get lots of emails about why I chose Mailchimp over Infusionsoft, Aweber, Campaign Monitor, robotic carrier pigeons, etc. For me it comes down to three things: it’s easy to use and maintain each week, it looks gorgeous to work with, and the company has my back.


My mailing list is my biggest “service” expense for running my company. More than my licence to Adobe’s Creative Cloud ($420/yr), and much more than hosting (which is around $350/yr). And technically, it doesn’t generate any direct revenue because it’s completely free to join and all the content I share with the list is completely free as well.

What my list does do, and why I continue to spend money on it, is promote my work in a way that I feel comfortable with. Curious about my writing but don’t want to buy my freelancer course yet? Read my list for a while to get a taste. Get a sense of my style, focus, and knowledge for free. Don’t know who won the Super Bowl? Well, for that my list probably can’t help…

Sure, once or twice a year I have something available for sale, but mostly I focus on telling a new story every week. The footer always links to what I’m working on and that drives enough sales to cover the costs.

Now onto the nitty-gritty of expenses per year. These are approximates since some costs change due to list size and some aren’t always constant (like illustrations).

  • $2,800 — Mailchimp
  • $2,500 — copy editing
  • $5,300 total per year

That doesn’t include my time either, which if I billed out at my normal rate of $150/hr would be around $15,000 (two hours a week for writing at minimum). And that doesn’t include conversations and replies to subscribers, which is typically two hours a week (because I get 100+ emails a week from subscribers).

Growth & numbers

  • First month: 46 subscribers
  • First year: 2,360 subscribers
  • Second year: 10,860 subscribers
  • Currently: 35,096 subscribers
  • My open rate for emails hovers around 50%.

When I started out, just like everyone else, my list had zero subscribers. Quickly though, I was able to build up the numbers by doing a few things:

  • Changing my website to focus entirely on my list. That meant removing comments, removing sidebars, removing social sharing (this actually increased the shares I get for some reason) and making it very clear that the ONE thing I wanted people to do if they came to my site was sign up for my list. Seriously, if you look at you’ll clearly see my list is my #1 priority.
  • Focusing on value on the list. My mailing list is mostly useful articles on topics my audience wants to learn about and a few times a year a straight-up promoting my products. That means pretty much 50 out of 52 weeks of year my subscribers get awesome content that shows up in their inboxes before it shows up anywhere else on the Internet. They appreciate that and tell their own audiences.
  • Changing every point of contact to mention my list. That means my email signature mentions my mailing list, my byline on every article I write for anyone else or any publication mentions my mailing list, and every social media profile I have mentions my mailing list.
  • Listening to my current audience. I routinely survey and talk to subscribers to see what they’re working on, what they’re struggling with and what they want to know more about. This helps me write the type of articles that get, “how do you keep knowing what I’m thinking about?!” emails.

The number of people I’ve deleted from my list is 8,487. That’s almost half what my list is currently. Every few months I run a report to see who hasn’t opened the last 10 emails and I delete them. Sure, I could keep them to pad my numbers, but I pay for each subscriber, so I’m not going to pay for people that aren’t paying attention.

I also delete people who are mean or rude. On average I get 3–4 nasty/mean unsubscribes a week and typically one person complaining about how awful of a writer or person I am. Or how I’m a narcissistic robot/alien who’s mean to carrier pigeons. I need them on my list as much as a fish needs a bicycle.

Top subscription sources

Oddly, the best place for me to gain new subscribers is when I send out newsletters. This is because people share links to those newsletters, and I’ve got a bit of writing that only non-subscribers see at the top and bottom of each newsletter asking them to sign up.

In my consulting business, I’m a huge advocate of a dedicated page for a newsletter sign-up for all my clients. That’s because I see it work so well for myself and my clients who do it. We use that link in our social media profiles, in bylines for articles we write for other publications, and even in our email signatures.

Top list building tools

  • Guest writing (I no longer do this)
  • Linking to dedicated signup page from everywhere
  • Offering targeted incentives (I also no longer do this)
  • Giving away tons of free value (like a whole podcast about freelancing)

In the beginning, the biggest bumps in signups came from writing articles for other publications. The first piece I published in Fast Company got me close to 500 signups. My first piece for Smashing Magazine got around 300. What I’ve noticed is that the first time you write for a new publication is the best chance to gain signups. After that, their audience has already heard of you and signed up if they were interested.

Anytime I write, get interviewed, or create a profile somewhere, I always put my URL as (the dedicated signup page). I get as many page views on that as I do my homepage. I’d much rather people test the waters with my style before buying something, so I promote my list more than my paid products on my own website.

I’ve kept a pretty hard line about incentives and my own mailing list. I always figured the only reason I want someone on this list is because they want to read my writing and not just get some ephemeral PDF download they may not even read. That said, I have tried two incentives that did drive a lot of signups (but then, as I figured, a lot of unsubscribes as well)—both of which no longer exist.

Another tool that can successfully grow your list quickly is running a giveaway (I’ve done this for clients using the kingsumo plugin). If you know exactly what the type of audience you’re after will value, you can use that as a prize.


Most people forget that they can customize the messaging a new subscriber sees. The form, the confirmation email, the thank you page and the final welcome email are all editable for both design and content in most newsletter systems. I’ve spent hours and hours tweaking how people are onboarded to my list because I want it to reflect the list and my personality.

My welcome message talks about me being so pleased you joined the list I went out and got your name tattooed on my inner, left arm. It’s more fun than “Welcome to my list!” I also like it more than, “You’ve got 5 minutes to buy my products at a tiny discount, STARTING… NOW!!”

Sure, I have an offer to get my books at 50% off (pro tip: that link never expires), but the main focus of the first email is to show people that while this might be a list about working for yourself, creativity, and freelancing, I’m still going to have fun with it.

Why you should build your own list

You know what the #1 thing I hear from people who run a business or make money online?

“I wish I had focused on my mailing list sooner!”

Social networks convert horribly and come and go all the time (how’re those one million friends on MySpace working out for your business?!). Websites don’t have a way to force people to come back to them time and time again.

This is where email and newsletters come in. If someone gives you permission to add them to your list, you’re able to show up in a place they spend most of their time each day: their inbox. You get their attention at whatever interval you send out emails.

Mailing lists are simply the best way to capture and keep the attention of your audience. It’s why every single of the top people that make money on the Internet rely on their newsletters more than any other way to talk to their audience.

For myself, one guy who sells a few products a year, like I said at the start, my list is my primary revenue source. I don’t spend money on ads or paid promo, I’m not “Mr. Sales”, and I don’t do a ton of promoting on social media (I don’t even have accounts on Facebook or LinkedIn).

The first 5 steps to setting up your own mailing list

  1. Setup a free Mailchimp account.
  2. Add a signup form to your site in multiple places using a plugin like this one.
  3. Customize the email sequence for signing up for your list. Use language that sounds like you and make it more interesting, funny, smart, targeted than the stock language. This is found by clicking LISTS, then the name of your list, then SIGNUP FORMS, then GENERAL FORMS.
  4. Start writing epic content to share with your subscribers. Do this consistently (every week). Share one idea per email but prompt them to share your content with their own audience.
  5. Learn more about using Mailchimp to make money in my Chimp Essentials course.

Mailchimp design inspiration takeaways

Out of all the products I’ve launched over the years, this list has been my favourite. It’s also the only one I come back to week after week to build on.

I enjoy writing new articles each week because it helps me be a better writer. I don’t know how else to do that except to write more, and write publicly. It also helps me connect directly with you—the type of folks I enjoy connecting with.

This isn’t a one-off either, I’ve used the exact same techniques listed above to grow a second list for my freelancer course to over 10,000 subscribers in a few months.

We’ve all heard that mailing lists drive revenue and all that (and mine certainly does), but for me it’s a little more. I feel like after years of searching, I’ve somehow managed to gather up all my rat people in one place.