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Tips to increase reach and keep it legal

An email newsletter is a great way to stay in touch with customers and keep them coming back. But it's not as simple as just sending out a mass email — it only works if you do it right (and it could get you in trouble if you break the law).

If you've been considering starting an email newsletter, you're probably like most freelance or home-based entrepreneurs. You have no idea where to start! Take a deep breath and we'll walk you through it.

Step 1: What is your newsletter about?

This is usually the hardest part. What you do for a living isn't as important as what your customers or potential customers want to know. Remember that your newsletter is only valuable if it actually helps someone. So if you're a social media consultant, instead of talking about high-level social media metrics, consider content that explains how to get the most out of your LinkedIn presence. That's right, give away some secrets!

Don't give your clients a handbook on how to do everything you do, but do give them great advice that establishes you as a real expert in the field. After following your advice for several months (or even years), they may suddenly realize their needs are out of their DIY ballpark.

Don't just send them email after email that tells them how great you are and asks them to hire you. If it's appropriate for your business, discount codes or coupons are great! But don't overdo it. That's what makes people hit the unsubscribe (or worse— spam!) button. Give them content they'll look forward to. If you're not sure what to send, ask other customers what they'd want to see.

Step 2: Build your list

It's tempting to purchase lists, but the reality is, those only work if you get them legally and you know what you're doing. The best way to build your email list is to ask customers to subscribe. Within certain legal limits, you can actually email customers without permission, but we always recommend getting it. Not only do you ensure the most interested people are getting your newsletter, you don't risk the consequences that can come with being marked as spam.

The best way to build your list is to give people a way to subscribe at all times. Put it on your website, tweet it, post it to Facebook and LinkedIn and more. You can start an email newsletter sign-up list before you have the newsletter. Plenty of email newsletter service providers provide free sign-up templates you can use.

Step 3: Choose a service provider

Whatever you do, don't try to start a newsletter by creating a list in your email client like Microsoft Outlook or Apple Mail. That's a quick way to get yourself sent to everyone's spam filter or worse (like having your domain blocked entirely by certain email providers). That's because at one point, spammers did exactly that! They'd grab a slew of ill-gotten email addresses and just shoot out an email.

A reputable email service provider, on the other hand, has relationships with email service providers like Yahoo, AOL and Gmail (among others). They guarantee a certain level of legal compliance (see below) and just plain courtesy.

There are a lot of great and inexpensive newsletter services out there. Our favorite is MailChimp. It's super easy to use with templates, the ability to upload custom designs and the same tracking features you'll see with most services. But they have a "Forever Free" account that's great for most freelancers and work-at-home moms. As long as you have fewer than 2,000 subscribers, you can send a total of 12,000 (that's six emails per subscriber or more!) each month.

But you should also check out ConstantContact, iContact, AWeber, Campaign Monitor, GetResponse, Emma and more! The key is to find one that does everything you need it to and fits in your price range.

Step 4: Follow the law

No matter what you decide to do, there are laws regarding why and to whom you can send newsletters. The law is called "CAN-SPAM," which most reputable newsletter service providers make sure you can't violate. Just to let you know how seriously the government takes the law, CAN-SPAM stands for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act.

There are so many rules, but the first ones to learn are these:

  • The "from" line has to be accurate — you can't mislead your prospects in any way
  • The subject line should accurately reflect what's inside the email (no bait-and-switch allowed!)
  • People have to be allowed to unsubscribe (the unsubscribe has to work unless it's literally something beyond your control) — you have to process these opt-outs within 10 business days (don't send another message until all opt-outs have been processed) and these opt-outs last forever unless you receive consent to start sending them again. The unsubscribe link must be "clear and conspicuous" and should appear at the end of the email, as that's where everyone puts it — you just can't hide it with clever phrasing or bury it in other notices.
  • Your newsletter has to have a valid postal address (your physical location or your U.S. post office box).

As you can see (and this is only a very small percentage of what the CAN-SPAM law actually says), the government isn't messing around, which is why it's a good idea to go with a service provider. But choose wisely. Both you and the newsletter vendor can be held liable by the federal and state government, and email service providers who experience issues with your emails can also sue. The federal government can order you to pay up to $16,000 per violation (that's per message) in addition to what the state and email service providers can seek. Even if you only have 50 people on your list, it can add up fast.

Step 5: Does it work?

Most newsletter vendors have plenty of metrics to help you determine your reach and who's actually engaging. But at the end of the day, it only matters if it's working. It can take months or more to determine if it's really working, so be patient. But if you're getting negative feedback (people frequently deleting without reading, being marked as spam and more), consider making some changes.

Above all else, read everything you can about writing great newsletters from blogs like Mashable and Copyblogger. Don't make changes without listening to the experts.

More tips for work-at-home moms

How to set pricing for your home-based business
Do work-at-home moms really need websites?
Everything I learned about business I learned from Gordon Ramsay

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