One year of the MarsBased newsletter: data, learnings and lots of unknowns
Captain's log, stardate d337.y38/AB
After a year of sending our monthly newsletter, it's time to review how it's been and reflect on what we've done right and wrong.
How it all started
In 2018, as I was setting the goals for the marketing area of MarsBased, I began thinking about having a newsletter. I thought our friends and close circles could benefit from it, and it might help to re-engage our past clients and other potential customers.
However, we had too much on our plate, and at first, we discarded it. We were organising more events than ever, and doing other marketing actions that gave me more than I could chew.
At the time, I was behind the newsletters of Startup Grind Barcelona and I was also curating our local Startup Digest issue. So I knew a thing or two about newsletters: I knew it does not take long to curate a simple-yet-effective newsletter. Moreover, with our philosophy of less is more, it shouldn't take much time once per month.
Fast forward to May - barely five months later - where we decided to kill a couple of the aforementioned marketing initiatives to repurpose our efforts somewhere else, and I began thinking about a newsletter again.
Why? For two different reasons.
The first one is that I began asking around to clients, friends, community members and so on whether they'd subscribe to it.
I didn't have a clear idea of what would be in the newsletter, but I thought we'd include some of our blog posts, maybe a piece of news or two about our field (mostly web development), discounts for our events, and maybe some fun facts about our company. Most people said yes, or at least why not.
Second, I once read a saying that goes like this: if you want to have a good newsletter today, you should've started one year ago. I can't find who coined this sentence originally, and I'm not sure I'm quoting it exactly, but you get the point.
Much like a blog, a newsletter takes time to settle and to build an audience around it, so I decided to take action and ship something really spartan for the first issues, just to get started and to create momentum.
Remember that, as Reid Hoffman says, if you're not embarrassed by your product, you've launched too late.
And so, it began.
I am far from being a marketer, so I know the bare basics.
Further, all the newsletters I have been curating for the last 7+ years have run on bespoke platforms, so I had literally no experience with Mailchimp or any other email marketing platform.
We created an account on Mailchimp, and decided to give it a go.
Even though I was willing to start with a plain text email, just to test and start learning, there were people in our team extremely embarrassed by how plain it looked, and decided to give it a really good look & feel, so this is how our first newsletter ended up looking like. Truly stunning from the get-go.
That's it! No more tools than a standard Mailchimp account.
Newsletters take time to grow, especially if you don't really growth-hack it.
Ours, as our philosophy dictates, is purely organic. Some companies trick people into subscribing by requiring to subscribe before downloading a specific content (an ebook, a pdf containing some research, a report…) while others have it as their main communication channel.
For us, it is just another channel to communicate with our community and potential customers.
For now, you can subscribe to the newsletter via the form on our page or else when you sign up for our Slack for startups in Barcelona, where we ask if you'd like to be signed up to the MarsBased newsletter (optionally, of course). About 66% of the people opt in, which is a good sign.
Hence, we decided to start a monthly newsletter, easy to read for everyone, with a business-casual tone, which would inform of our progress as a company without trying too hard to sell.
Only time will tell if we've succeeded in doing so!
Numbers & growth
Exactly one year after the first issue, we reached 500 subscribers. Although this doesn't sound like much, it is a remarkable quantity of subscribers, considering our philosophy and the way we run it: no growth-hacks, no ads, no pushing and no rushing.
Let's take a look at further detail!
- Looks like people don't like reading newsletters during holidays.
- Notice the descent in June-July and then again in December-January.
- We peaked on the months surrounding our second annual Startup Grind conference in Barcelona and timidly again this year's.
- Coincidence? No idea why this happened. They're also the months with more work activity.
- However it may be, 2018 September, November and especially October kicked ass.
- Our best month in click-through rate (CTR) has been March this year.
- May last year we did a lot of testing, so that's why we had lots of views and clicks, so that one doesn't count.
- On average, a 3.5% is good. That is our minimum (save for a couple occasions). Sometimes we go up to 10%, which is a lot.
- In terms of Open Rates, we're averaging a 25% which is pretty good, if not really good, for our industry.
- In our peaking months, we have reached up to 40%. I believe this happens because we're still managing a small audience.
- Look how good is our open rate compared to the industry average:
- We're always using the same template, so it's as easy as duplicating the previous issue and rearranging the blocks to add the new content.
- On average, it takes us one hour to prepare an issue of our newsletter.
- I'm sure this can be automatised, but we don't want to overengineer this too early.
- Makes sense to be strong in Barcelona, where we are based in, and around Silicon Valley, as I have a strong network there too, and we've got a few clients.
- Madrid is next in our sales targets, and coincidentally, we have already subscribers there. Good sign.
- Surprised about Canada. I don't know why this happens, but maybe we're big in Canada?
- We've got a lot of friends, past employees and freelancers from southern Spain, so seeing Murcia in the top five isn't all that surprising.
- 5% of the people register directly on our website.
- The rest come from the Slack form I mentioned previously.
- We added the form on our website pretty late (about one year ago), and it only pops up when entering the blog, if I recall correctly. Hence the low conversion. We don't want to bug people with an intrusive pop-up. Not our style.
- We traditionally share big news, a couple of blog posts, our next Startup Grind Barcelona and an optional content (an interesting article from another website, a good tech talk on video, a survey, our appearances on press, a new chapter on our Playbook, etc.)
- When you start a company, there's not much you can share. Being a company that's five years old and is pretty active, we've got a lot of content to share.
- We keep track of the content we've shared on a Google Drive spreadsheet to avoid sharing stuff too frequently.
- We count how many times we've shared every content and when was the last time we included it in the newsletter, to avoid repeating content too much and too early.
- As I mentioned, we started sending a monthly newsletter.
- After a year, we started sending it twice a month:
- The first week of the month, I send a generalist newsletter, with our news, our next events, our appearances on press and our latest blog posts.
- The second issue of the month is a special issue on something. I collect our best stuff regarding a certain topic and I include it in a newsletter.
- I've done two special issues so far: Angular and stuff for corporates.
- Since we've increased the frequency, we've seen more engagement in terms of replies, but not in CTR or open rates. However, it's too early to tell.
Last, but not least, I want to share my views on what we've done right, and where we've messed up.
Take this (and the whole article) with a pinch of salt, as I am not a marketer nor an expert in anything I'm writing about in here.
- Look & feel: Our template looks really good and gives the impression of being a solid company.
- Simplicity: We include just a few articles per issue but really good ones. Less is more.
- Consistency: We haven't skipped a month since we launched so our audience gets used to receiving it always on the same days (first and third Tuesday of every month - yes, Tuesday because it's the day of Mars in Roman mythology)
- Authenticity: The content is educational and useful and the sales-y stuff is reduced to a minimum.
- Actionable: Strong visuals, short texts and clear call to actions favour user interaction and reduce the feeling of "what should I do with this?".
- Too late: By starting on our fourth year, I think we have started too late. Better late than never, I guess.
- Timings: The first months, we didn't stick to a fixed date, so we were constantly missing the deadlines and perhaps confusing our audience.
- Lack of expertise: We're most likely missing out on some real basics because we're developers, not marketers, and therefore don't know much about the newsletter world.
To sum it up, I am proud of what we have achieved so far. It's taken less than a year to get our first deals from the newsletter and we know that really qualified people read it religiously.
Even though we could do more and better, by taking some courses or by running it on a better platform than Mailchimp, we're good like this. Our focus is somewhere else and the way we run it really fits our core values and our modus operandi as a company.
We are, however, open to learning more about this world and about your experiences and learnings with your newsletters, so please share them in the comments section below!