By Thomas “@chaibypost” M
It wasn’t so long ago that internet pundits declared email dead. Social media had eaten the internet. There was no better way of sharing your work with the wider world. But then the algorithms came and they changed the dynamic. While social media remains the central way to gaining new audiences, actually reaching that audience is another matter. And so, email came back. Email cuts through the algorithm, letting you directly reach your audience again. And also, unlike social media followers, you can keep your mailing list even if your platform of choice gets bought by an incompetent, malicious billionaire.
This GDC talk does an excellent job explaining why you should have an email list. It’s about 30 minutes long and is jam-packed with useful advice. Just watch it, trust me, and you hopefully won’t need more convincing.
This article is about how to start using email as a game designer and what services could help.
First, let’s talk about your goals when starting to build your mailing list. I know marketing has eaten everything so the lines aren’t clear anymore but it’s worth thinking about whether you’re interested in blogging or specifically creating a sales funnel. This has various repercussions – from how often you send emails, what you put in your emails, etc – but for this article, I think the key difference is something called automations. Automations are basically ways of programming emails so they are automatically sent to people who meet certain conditions. Something like, “When a person signs up, they should receive these five emails, one per week”. You can also segment your audience and send them different emails, compare headlines through a/b testing, and so on. Newsletter services don’t usually have features like this. When someone signs up to a newsletter, they get the same emails as everyone else at the same time. It doesn’t get more complicated than that.
Second, let’s talk about costs. Sending emails costs money. Most places will offer some kind of free plan up till a certain low limit of subscribers but they’ll then start charging you something like 30$ per month for a list with more than 1000 people.
Substack is first because you’ve probably heard of it. It’s a venture capitalist-funded, tech company whose pitch is that they make it simple for you to get paid writing a newsletter. The two big reasons to use substack is that it is completely free (they make money only if you start charging) and it has social media-style tools for growing your audience that nobody else has. Though one caveat on that front: it definitely exaggerates the number of subscribers it has generated for you so don’t take it too seriously. In terms of general features, it is very easy to use, has a clean interface, and gives you very basic analytics. It is very obviously designed around writing and not marketing. Also, it’s important to know that Substack has platformed transphobic and anti-vax writers as well as just employed generally shady business practices.
If you want something free and simple like substack and don’t look like you’ll cross 5000 subscribers soon, you could use TinyLetter.
Buttondown is the indie alternative in this list. It’s run by one person, has excellent customer service (by that same person I believe), and generally allows you to do everything you want a newsletter to do (and a little more). It’s a slick product. But there’s no real free plan. You pay 9$ for up to 1000 subscribers, and then 30$ if you go above that. You can run a paid newsletter very effectively through buttondown and it’ll probably work out cheaper because they charge you a fixed amount versus Substack’s commission.
If the price is fine with you but you want a more full-service website along with your newsletter, check out ghost.org .It’s a slick open-source platform that does both blogging and newsletters (even paid ones) very well. I’m currently on substack but if I ever started a patreon or had some other steady way of supporting the newsletter, I would probably move to buttondown or ghost.
If you have a large mailing list or want to get serious about digital marketing and want those automations and other tools, then you probably want to use one of the services below. I don’t have a lot of experience with these tools so I’ll keep my impressions brief.
Mailchimp is here because it’s probably the biggest name in the business. It has a very sophisticated set of tools – you can build templates for different kinds of emails you might send, you have serious analytics, the ability to run campaigns of various sorts targeted at different cross sections of your audience, and so on. There’s a lot here! The big problem with mailchimp is that its charges increase with the size of your mailing list. While their rates are competitive, it can become a pain in the neck over time. As your mailing list grows, it gets more and more useful – but also more and more pricey. This is why most small businesses will eventually delete emails from people who subscribe but never open or interact with their emails.
Sendinblue is similar to mailchimp but its charges do not change with the size of your list. The basic Starter plan has a very basic feature set which is all you need when you’re starting out. If you ever need automations and things like that, you could potentially upgrade to the Business plan. In fact, sending emails is only the beginning with these tools. They do stuff like SMS marketing, facebook ads, and other things.
If you don’t have a large list but want access to features like automations for a cheaper price, you can check out Zoho Campaigns.
Regardless of which service you pick, once you’ve set up your mailing list, you want to put in your website and social media and your itch page. Don’t hide it away!
Thomas’s game design work can be found at https://notrueindian.itch.io/, and you can sign up to his indie games newsletter at substack