Rethinking social media, the internet, and email newsletters for creators in 2018

I’m just old enough that email newsletters made my career possible. And I’m starting to think that they’re going to save us indie creators and freelancers all over again in the coming years.

Back in 2002, when I was taking my feature film Robot Stories around to film festivals, I’d pass around a notebook and collect email addresses from every audience I spoke to. By the end of our festival run, we had no real budget for publicity for our theatrical run, but we had a few thousand email addresses. And that was better than gold. I sent out email newsletters every week, asking our amazing supporters to get their friends in whatever city we were visiting next to come see, come see! And they did!

As the years passed, I sent out fewer and fewer newsletters and spent more and more time on social media. Social media was easier, and let’s be honest — it was more fun. At first it seemed like we were all just goofing around on Twitter, telling ourselves it was good publicity but mostly just cracking jokes. But Twitter proved its enormous value when I started doing Kickstarters. Without Twitter, we’d have been hard pressed to drum up the kind of support we did for Code Monkey Save World, The Princess Who Saved Herself, ABC Disgusting, and Kickstarter Secrets.

But with each passing day, the culture and administration of Twitter seems to get more overwhelmed with negativity and harassment. Something’s going to break. And when it does, where does that leave all of the creatives and freelancers who have put so much of their outreach efforts into the site?

And it’s not just Twitter that’s the problem. Just the other week, Patreon rolled out a new fee structure that killed the incentive for backers to make $1 or $2 pledges. Thousands of creators absolutely rely on those low dollar pledges — and some folks lost dozens of backers overnight. Patreon has since apologized for and cancelled the changes. But the episode demonstrates what we should always remember: any or all of the sites that we depend so much on could get ruined overnight.

The situation is made even more stark by the FCC’s determination to destroy net neutrality, which would allow internet service providers to throttle speeds and block access to sites they don’t like. So what happens if your business model as an independent creative depends on Kickstarter and your ISP throttles Kickstarter? It doesn’t even have to be your ISP — if anyone’s ISP throttles the site you depend on, you’re not going to reach potential backers as easily and your project could fail.

So in recent weeks, I’ve been thinking about the need to reach readers and fans without having to rely on the Twitters and Patreons of the world. And I found myself thinking about my good ol’ email newsletter. I’d let it fall into disuse partly because it was administered through my old webhosting company using 2005-era technology. So I started exploring newer email newsletter services like MailChimp and TinyLetter, both of which seem fine. But MailChimp’s formatting tools felt a little too complicated to me. And both MailChimp and TinyLetter seem to automatically create an un-deletable web version of every newsletter. That doesn’t seem wonderful to me — not everything needs to live forever on the web, and I already knew I wanted to give subscribers occasional digital freebies that I didn’t want non-subscribers to be able to find online.

Then the very smart Cheryl Lynn Eaton told me about MailPoet, an email newsletter solution that works as a WordPress plug-in. Since my website’s run on WordPress, it was very easy for me to set up and work with MailPoet, and I had the peace of mind knowing that everything would live on my own server and I could delete whatever I wanted whenever I wanted.

I’ve been using MailPoet for almost a week now, and I’m pretty thrilled. I’ve had a few technical issues — today, the MailPoet mail server didn’t want to send out any emails, so I had to switch to my own webhosting company’s SMTP settings. I’m hoping that’s a temporary glitch — we’ll see.

But the big bonus is that I’m building a fresh email list and sending out beautifully formatted newsletters that are pretty darn easy for me to put together through WordPress. So far, my subscriber list is literally 1 percent the size of my Twitter following. But I’ve just been at it a week, and the longer and more consistently I put out newsletters, the more those numbers will grow. Furthermore, my strong suspicion is that someone who subscribes to a newsletter is five to twenty times more likely to actually buy one of my books than someone who’s casually following me on Twitter.

Most importantly, I’m building a list that will survive the collapse of any individual social network or internet service. I’m not at all planning to abandon all the other services I use overnight. Any tool that still works is a tool I’m going to use. But there was a point not too long ago when I was concerned with making sure I was pushing people who had subscribed to my email newsletter to follow me on Twitter. Now I’m realizing I got that exactly backward. I’m going to use all of these tools, but I’m going to use them all to grow my email list. Because as long as email endures, this list will endure, and I’ll have a way to reach my readers.

What’s old is new again, huh?

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

In the meantime, natch… subscribe to my newsletter! 😉

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