How I created an online newsletter - Updated

Earlier this month I started "Being Productive", a weekly newsletter from The Idea Pump focused on both original articles as well as curated content about productivity. I knew from the beginning if I was going to take this from an idea to a reality I needed a flow strategy. Creating a process and collecting a set of tools for the efficient curation of a weekly newsletter, managing mailing lists, and providing a clean and efficient format took planning and research (and more than a couple of mistakes.) Let's take an in-depth look at how this came about.

Getting everything in one place

The first challenge in forming Being Productive was answering the question of how to gather all the curated content into one location. For me this is a challenge because of the volume of content I go through in a given week. In the past I've written about my processes for "consuming mass quantities" of articles in a given week, but I never created a clear flow for sharing the cream of the crop. That oversight had to change for the newsletter to come into being.

News and information on the internet balance between immediate relevancy and a long term value depending on the topic. Since most of the topics I find about productivity pop up in my news feeds each day, I needed a way to get those articles out to people quickly and with a minimum of flow resistance. Here enters two of my tools: Feedly and Buffer.

Read all about it

Feedly is a RSS feed aggregator that took the place (for me at least) of the defunct Google Reader. Newsfeeds are updated constantly, grouped into categories I define, and marked for later reading or read immediately. Buffer is a content publishing tool for scheduling content releases to social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus (yes, it still exists.) Buffer publishing queues take the content you want to share and release it on a timed schedule based on what you set up in the system. One of the nice aspects of Buffer is the option to have Buffer determine when is the best time to post based on your followers' engagement.

So if we begin to look at this as part of a productivity flow we have:

RSS Feeds -> Feedly -> Buffer

If I were to stop there this wouldn't be a bad way to get individual posts in front of social media followers with a minimum of manual effort. However, the objective is the publishing of the weekly newsletter so there are more steps to be considered.

Bringing things full circle

Since the articles I have curated and written are all being shared to Twitter through Buffer, it occurred to me this could be the connecting pipe for the content to an online newsletter. Next step was to find a way to turn my Twitter feed into just such a newsletter. I looked at a number of automated tools to turn my feed into a periodical I could email to subscribers. The tool I settled on is a service called Paper.li.

Paper.li provides gathering feeds and content from multiple sources into an editable "newspaper" that can be read on demand. At a bare minimum, you can configure Paper.li to automatically "publish" a newsletter on a scheduled basis from the content sources you designate with no additional curation or work from you. Now since I share various types of content to my Twitter feed, not all of them productivity focused, I need to be able to pare down the content to only the most relevant and interesting each week. An added benefit is not having to worry if conflicts arise and I can't provide that extra level of touch and know the newsletter will still be generated.

Paper.li provides a clean, easy to manage interface for curation and design resulting in a professional looking newsletter accessible from my own domain (news.theideapump.com). But yet, this wasn't quite the end of the requirements. Not only did I have a newsletter but I still needed a way to efficiently get the newsletter into my subscribers' inboxes each week. At this point the flow looks like:

RSS Feeds -> Feedly -> Buffer -> Twitter -> Paper.li

Email is not dead

The last step was managing the email subscriptions and sending. For this I turned to a tool I was already familiar with, Mailchimp. Mailchimp is one of the most popular email management tools on the market. It has a powerful and well designed interface allowing not only for sending and managing email campaigns but also tracking email lists and generating analytics from the results.

The primary reason I turned to Mailchimp for this is the feature in Paper.li to automatically generate your newsletter as a Mailchimp campaign rather than having to do this manually. While not perfect (I haven't found a way to have this happen truly automatically but I'm working on it,) the Paper.li / Mailchimp integration is a big step towards smoothing the flow for the newsletter. In the end my flow process is:

RSS Feeds -> Feedly -> Buffer -> Twitter -> Paper.li -> Mailchimp

Now you may be looking at this and say, "Good grief that's a lot of moving parts" and you'd be correct. If I wasn't taking advantage of other features at each step in the flow it would be overkill for the creation of a weekly newsletter. If you're familiar with these tools you could also call out points of flow efficiency improvement such as loading the RSS feeds directly into Buffer or Paper.li rather than passing through Feedly (something I may eventually try) but one of my key drivers was to use the tools I had already in place when possible.

How much time does this really take each week?

If we look at the amount of time it takes for one article to go from RSS feed through the entire flow and wind up in the newsletter we get:

RSS Feeds (0) -> Feedly (2) -> Buffer (1) -> Twitter -> Paper.li (1) -> Mailchimp (0)

(Numbers refer to minutes taken)

Each article yields roughly four minutes of effort, so a newsletter published with 10 articles takes about 40 minutes from beginning to end during the week. From a flow evaluation that does seem to be a bit much, but when I look at it more closely I see that 50% of that time (Feedly -> Buffer) can be done from my mobile device which means I can do it whenever and wherever I am and not have to dedicate a block of time for the work.

All in all I've found this flow to have several benefits:

  1. Content for the newsletter is gathered quickly and efficiently.
  2. The publishing queues for Buffer stay full because I know not only am I sharing content but I'm also staging content for the newsletter.
  3. The result has a consistent message across social media, my web site, and email for anyone interested.
  4. I have eliminated a number of manual touch points that could result in mistakes or missed content.
  5. The flow is efficient and consistent making it easy to repeat.

The Being Productive Newsletter is going to be a long term addition to the information I make available to people looking to be more productive. Without taking time to design and test a productivity flow that works for me and the goal as a whole, it would become just another good idea with a flawed execution.

If you're curious what the end result of this flow looks like, check out Being Productive at news.theideapump.com. Better yet, you can subscribe right from the newsletter and make sure you get all this great content delivered to your inbox every week. Now can you be much more productive than that?

Two Month Update

I've discovered a few of things about my process over the last two months:

  1. The process still runs at the same speed as it did in the beginning.  Typically you expect these processes to either increase in throughput or reveal unplanned bottlenecks but neither has been the case.  Well, that's not totally true...
  2. Curating the actual newspaper is easy enough, but it needs to be prioritized since it's time sensitive. With that in mind I'm rolling back the frequency of the newsletter to every two weeks to reduce some of the demand.
  3. I haven't been seeing the response or sign ups I had hoped, but that's likely a mistake of promotion or structure on my part.  I'll be working on that as well.
  4. Paper.li is a smooth, efficient tool. However, they don't give you a great deal of design flexibility (goes along with the smooth and efficient part I assume) and I'm mentally struggling with that limitation for now.

We will see if the changes I'm making to my process help or hurt the future of the newsletter.  Only time will tell for now.