Automating my newsletter creation process

Automating my newsletter creation process

A glimpse into how I create my monthly email newsletter. In this post, I discuss my discovery, automated review and curation process.

For the last 10 months I have been publishing a monthly curated email newsletter (Creator Club), consisting of almost 2.5k subscribers at the time of writing this. Over this time I have been trying to find ways to optimise my workflow to reduce the time each month I spend searching, organising and reviewing content.

Recently I have been asked by a few subscribers how I manage to sift through all the content and create the newsletter each month. So in this post i'm going to do exactly that.

This isn't my first newsletter. In 2016 I wrote a bi-weekly newsletter for NoCode for about 4,000 members - until I later sold it in 2018. Since then I had been fighting the urge to create a newsletter and in October 2020 during the height of lockdown I decided it was the perfect time to start my first personal newsletter.

I started the newsletter for the same reason I started NoCode back in 2016. I was spending countless hours a week discovering incredible content, tools, resources and hacks and thought others might also find this highly curated content of interest during their journey to create online products.

I’m an internet explorer tasked with discovering the latest online creative content.

With so much online information constantly fighting for my attention I had to build a filter of sorts to quickly sift through the content I think that's most relevant to me. This process allows me to quickly discover, review, filter, store, organise and create my newsletter each month in a highly efficient manner.

The easier the process the more likely I am to consistently publish each month.

Discovery Process

When you create a curated newsletter like mine you need a consistent stream of interesting content flowing your way consistently. To put things into perspective, 4.4 million blog posts are published everyday. That staggering figure is only for blogs.

The issue is, i'm not looking for the type of content that Forbes, TechCrunch, Business Insider etc churn out each minute of the day - anyone can find these. I'm looking for content created by the independent creators themselves, the folk in the trenches sharing real insight - not the journalists using clickbaity titles fighting for keywords (no offence).

Fortunately, there are a number of fantastic sources I have found over the years. So to find the content i'm looking for I need to dig a little deeper than most.

Over the years I have found some great sources and creators. But instead of visiting their blogs each week to check for new content I use a mixture of RSS feeds to gather the content for me as and when they publish it. It's like having a small team of virtual assistants working 24 hours a day for free.

For those of you who aren't familiar with RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds - in short, each time a site publishes a new piece of content, details about that content—including the full-text of the content or a summary, publication date, author, link, etc are sent to a reader of your choice. They have been around for as long as I can personally remember but i'm always surprised how many people are unaware of them. Check out this great post by Zapier for more info about RSS and automation.

I currently use two free RSS feeds. Stoop for curating all the email newsletters I subscribe to (great hack to avoid cluttering your personal or work email inbox) and Feedly for gathering content from a select number of content creators I follow. Most mornings and evenings I will check both feeds and skim-read the content. If I find something interesting I save it to Pocket and if I don't I simply remove it from my feed.

Feedly pocket integration

As well as the RSS feeds I also use twitter to find content from some of the folk I follow. When I find something interesting I use twitters bookmark tool to save it down - but unfortunately, I can't automate this as Zapier doesn't support bookmarks. Other sites I also check regularly are IndieHackers, Hackernoon, Medium, Reddit, Substack, Producthunt and Hackernews to name a few.

Organisation Workflow

newsletter sources

Right let's get to the tools I personally use as part of my organisational workflow. Firstly, I'm actively trying to keep my stack pretty lean. I'm a sucker for jumping around to the latest shiny new tool and then get quickly overwhelmed with the amount of tools i'm using. So now i'm actively trying to keep it to a few tried and tested tools that work for me.

I have been using Pocket for at least the last 10 years and love it. I still use the free plan as it does everything I need it to. The mobile app and Chrome extension act as my bookmarking tool across the internet. Anything I like the look of but don't have the time to review I just save to Pocket with a click or tap. This includes videos, podcasts, blogs, images, tweets basically anything I find online. But saving all this content can start to become messy when you don't organise it.

This is where Pocket becomes really handy. They have a great feature called 'Tags'. Now anything I send to Pocket with the tag 'Newsletter' can be filtered and isn't mixed with all the other content I save down that isn't relevant to my newsletter.

Pocket homepage

But, once again, this can also become messy after a while. I soon amassed 100's of bookmarked content tagged as 'newsletter'.

This is where the next tool comes in - Airtable. I created a super basic Airtable base in which I can store all the newsletter content I'm considering for my next post. This allows me to clearly view all the content I am considering for my next newsletter by triaging through each row and updating the status to rejected or confirmed. Every couple of days I jump into my Airtable base and chronologically review each piece of content labelled as 'To Read' and once finished decide whether to include it by adding 'rejected' or 'confirmed' status labels.

Automated Airtable newsletter database

Instead of manually copying and pasting the fields from Pocket across to Airtable I use Zapier. Zapier is basically the internets digital duct tape for no-coders. Setting this up took a matter of minutes. If you want to do it in seconds and have a free Zapier account already then you can copy this Zap using this link.

Zapier is basically the internets digital duct tape for no-coders

Zapier pocket to Airtable Zap

Now, each time I save something to Pocket with the tag 'newsletter' applied, Zapier picks it up and transfers it neatly to my newsletter base in Airtable without me lifting a finger.

Pocket Chrome Extension with Tags applied

Newsletter Creation Process

Now that I have decided on the content I want to feature the next stage is bringing it all together in the newsletter CMS. Admittedly, this part of the process is pretty manual for the time being. However, if you want to take it to the next level and become a black belt in Zapier and automate the creation process then check out Michael Gill's incredible step to step tutorial. I personally like to write out a summary for the content I include and this part can't be automated. Yet .... (hello GPT-3).

Currently I use Revue for my newsletter. I've been Revue since my NoCode newsletter days back in 2017. It's simple to use, no frills, has some super handy integrations which help speed up the creation process. As you can see below, there is a handy integration panel that allows me to connect to Twitter, ProductHunt, Medium and Pocket. If I want to add anything from those platforms I can simply drag and drop the content into the newsletter designer and it will pull across the title, description, image and link.

Once I have added all the content, links and products in this months newsletter I begin typing up in my own words a quick synopsis and link to the creators twitter bio.

Revue email newsletter dashboard

Each month I spend roughly 16 hours discovering and listening, watching and reading content. I don't see this as being a huge amount of time given I would be doing this anyway.

It then takes me about 3 hours to write out the synopsis and intro to my newsletter and a further 30 mins to an hour to come up with a subject title. I then spend about 30 minutes proofreading it (i'm awful at spelling and grammar) and typically schedule it to go out on the first Wednesday of the month. The tried-and-tested approach of sending out email newsletters is in the middle of the week. Most data also suggests sending emails between 1-3pm (9-11am is recommended as well).

I have also started recording an audio version of my newsletter each month which takes about 30-40 minutes to record and upload via Soundcloud (no editing - just one take).

I think over time as I get more efficient in the writing process I can reduce the time down further. However, I'm still experimenting with the format most months and keep a close eye on my metrics (Open/ click-through rates) as well as reading the feedback I get from my subscribers. It's still very much a work in progress.

I'm sticking with a monthly newsletter as it stands. Why? Because it takes me a while to source and create it each month. I highly value people's inboxes and I NEVER want to spam anyone with invaluable content for the sake of just showing up. Perhaps over time I might want to consider publishing it twice a month and cut the content down but i'm really enjoying the monthly cadence and from what I can see so are my subscribers.

However, there is still room for improvement in my current process. A few things I'm currently considering to improve the process:

  1. Trialling Feedly's Leo algorithm to automatically sift through the content via the RSS feed and surfacing the most relevant content that fits my determined criteria. You can check out a demo here.
  2. Consider combining Stoop and Feedly - essentially choosing just one RSS reader.
  3. Reducing the amount of content featured each month. It's a packed newsletter and at times I feel it could be a little overwhelming to read.

Parting Wisdom

If I could give a few pieces of advice for anyone considering creating a newsletter it would be:

  • Make sure you find the topic you will be discussing or the content you are sharing interesting to YOU - otherwise you will get tired and give up.
  • Show up consistently. Decide on a manageable frequency and stick to it for a while. This gives you enough time to work on your process and refine it. Start with bi-weekly or monthly. If you find this is manageable and your metrics are strong then consider making it more frequent.
  • Survey your subscribers. Find out who they are, what brought them to your newsletter, what do they want to see more or less of, what interests them.
  • Always ask your subscribers to provide feedback at the end of your newsletter. Make sure your just a reply away (NO no-reply email addresses)
  • Don't be afraid to remove inactive subscribers. If they haven't opened your last 5 newsletters I doubt they will open the sixth. Don't carry dead weight and don't get too obsessed with the classic subscriber number vanity metric. It's how many people open it and how many click-through to any links that matter.
  • Treat each newsletter sent as an experiment during the early stages. Try new subject titles, days/times to send it, format, layout and content. Ask your subscribers to provide their feedback and iterate from there.

Newsletter Stack

  • Pocket - Saving content from my mobile device and via the Chrome extension
  • Airtable - Storing all the newsletter content i'm considering and need to review
  • Zapier - Linking Pocket to Airtable
  • Revue - Newsletter creation tool
  • Feedly - RSS feed I use to scour blogs I follow
  • Stoop - RSS feed for the newsletters I subscribe to
  • SoundCloud: Hosting my audio podcast version

All of the tools above have extremely generous free plans. As it stands I currently don't pay anything for this stack and workflow.

Do you have any suggestions on how I can improve the above process? Reach out and let me know. I'm always looking for suggestions.

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