Introducing the MergeLinks Newsletter

I set out to launch a side-project in under 24-hours. I wanted to choose something obtainable. Something where I could start small and grow as what I built attracted new users. The end result is the MergeLinks Newsletter, a weekly email of curated links to articles, resources, freebies and inspiration for web designers and developers. Here’s a quick overview of the time I spent launching my side project.

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A little backstory

One of my goals this year was to start an email newsletter. I have read a few great stories and experiences of others experimenting with a 24-hour challenge format, most notably Nathan Barry and I thought I would try to apply this technique to this project. I didn’t document the progress as well as Nathan did, but I hope that this blog posts gives some insight into my process.

Honestly, I was less interested in the idea of ‘launching something in 24-hours’ and more concerned with just executing and seeing my simple idea through to launch. I’m keen on the idea of executing and shipping but I have let too many personal projects lay dormant. So I sat down with a fresh cup of coffee and started to refine my goal and define some parameters which would help me define if my efforts were a success or failure. Here’s what I came up with.

My goal:

My Goals was to create a email newsletter that I would want to subscribe to – Something that I would look forward to receiving once a week. It was important to me that it looked great on any device but I didn’t want to burn a lot of time coding a responsive email template up front. I knew I could always come back and do that later. I was concerned with aesthetics but I also wanted to make sure that design didn’t get in the way of shipping.

My Steps
Here is what I decided I should focus my energy on next:

– Choose an audience and a content type
– Choose an email marketing platform
– Choose a name
– Write a short description
– Purchase a domain
– Create a logo
– Design and launch a landing page
– Define my process for curating and organizing content
– Beg and plead for some early subscribers
– Send out the first newsletter

Taking Action

I began jotting down ideas and answers to my questions and quickly determined that I would be launching a weekly email targeted towards web designers and developers that contained a curated list of timely links to thought-provoking articles, resources, tutorials, and inspiration. This was in fact something that I would like to receive and I felt like email was the right tool for delivering this content. I also felt like this would benefit me, because I don’t have a really good system for cataloging important resources online. MergeLinks was also scratching my own itch as it allowed for easy browsing of my each weekly email I sent.

Choosing the tools

I had chosen my audience and my content, now I needed to research and choose an email marketing platform. I looked at CampaignMonitor, Awebber, Emma and MailChimp. I wanted a free solution that I could set-up and customize quickly. I needed to be able to send responsive or mobile friendly emails without too much extra leg-work. Plus a good user-interface design and user-experience was a must.

I ended up going with MailChimp because their free plan was more then I needed to get started, the interface was excellent and the reporting looked to be sufficient. After looking through their pre-made templates I decided that they all imposed ‘too much design‘ for what I was looking for so I ran a few tests with their drag-and-drop visual editor. The MailChimp visual editor is really easy to get the hang of and you can start by selecting one of several pre-build boilerplate layouts. I did run into a few quirks with the interface and I think MailChimp has some opportunities to further improving the tools and the experience. That might be an interesting follow-up post in the future. But don’t let that comment leave a sour taste in your mouth. That team did an amazing job on their product and I choose it because I felt it was the best.

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Choosing a name

I have started plenty-a-side-project only to get hung up on choosing a name. This was not going to be the case this time. However after some brainstorming and domain searching nothing was quite clicking. I struggled with it for a bit but soon realized I was peeking into a rabbit-hole and needed to come to a quicker decision on the name. I looked back at my domain registrar and saw another domain I had already registered. mergethemes.com is a domain I registered with the intent of starting a small WordPress theme shop. I do still plan to pursue that goal, and I thought maybe this newsletter could be the precursor to MergeThemes. So thus, I had a name, MergeLinks. The domain was available, so I swooped it up and began setting up my hosting account with WP Engine.

Refining my Elevator Pitch

I wanted to write a brief description of what the email was all about so potential subscribers knew exactly what they were signing up to receive. I wanted to say who it was for, what it would contain, and how often they would receive it. Pretty simple right? This what I came up with:

MergeLinks is a weekly email of curated links to articles, resources, freebies and inspiration for web designers and developers.

Designing the logo

It was time to move onto to organizing some pixels. The first thing I wanted to tackle was the logo. In the back of my mind, I new I could create an amazing logo but I also knew that it was more important to have a logo, then to have an un-finished soon-to-me masterpiece. So I set out to create something simple. After a few simple pencil sketches I arrived at a simple icon featuring a rounded m and the word mark for MergeLinks. It was important to me that there was a good balance of stroke weight between the icon and the typeface. The logo needed to be able to stand on its own for favicon and social media profiles. I wanted to it be soft and approachable, but still give off a modern and techy vibe.

merge-links-logo-banner

Designing and Developing the Landing Page

Now it was on to one of my favorite parts of the project, the design and development. I sat down as I always do and started sketching out my basic needs for a landing page. They contained, the logo, a short description, an email input and some links to some social media sites, either to share or follow. Again, not too complicated. I tested a few different colors and ended up with a blue because I felt it was both inviting yet familiar in the web industry visual setting. I decided on a full screen approach and began mocking up the components in Photoshop.

My goal was to design and develop the landing page with a mobile first strategy. Again, easy to do for a one-page site. Plus I feel like that’s a great way to go about making things online. I started my mock-ups with a centered layout for mobile, but I knew that I wanted tablet landscape views, laptops and larger screens to get a left justified version. For the responsive grid I choose the opportunity to get a little bit more familiar with Bourbon Neat. So far I really like Bourbon and Neat. This was the second time I played around with the tools and things went really quickly. I added a bit of animated polish to the loading sequence and bam, the site was ready to launch.

Content is King

Its true what they say, content is king… or queen. Either way it’s important and I knew that I had to put some time and energy into thinking about how I was going to approach organizing and curating the content for the newsletter each week. Something I have been trying to engrain into my writing process to is to start each post with an outline and goal for what I want to convey with the post. So I set out to do something similar for MergeLinks. I created a list of general topics I would be interested in receiving in an email. I decided on articles, resources, freebies and inspiration. I wanted it to be weighted in favor of articles, resources and inspiration and focus less on freebies since there are so many resources out there for that already.

I set out to catalog and and index some interesting stuff online. I already had a smattering of links and bookmarks, stored in various different places ranging from sticky notes to to-to lists to basecamp comments. So I set aside some time and started moving everything over to Instapaper. I like instapaper and I was already using it to catalog interesting articles I found online. I already had the Instapaper bookmarklet running in my browser and on my phone so it required very little effort to start using it. So, I created a new folder and got to clicking and organizing. As I worked towards gathering enough content for my first issue, I started looking at the links of context to the other links in the email. I wanted to appeal to a fairly broad audience but I didn’t want to be too general. I also didn’t want to be group too many similiar links. For example, even though I love using sass as my pre-processor and I would find links to sass resources helpful, I didn’t want to include too many in the same email.

Next, I grouped my links, created my thumbnail images and started populating the email in Mailchimp. I was on my way to launching my side project within 24 hours and I was feeling good. I knew there was stuff I was leaving out and things I could have done better. I could have designed a better logo, or I could have spent some more time creating social media accounts and refining the seo for the landing page. But that was OK. I didn’t identify those things as being critical to launching and I knew I would eventually get around to doing those things.

Beg and plead for some early subscribers

It was time to reach out to my friends, colleges fellow inbox acquaintances and self-plug my new project. Initially I was a little hesitant about this because I didn’t want to come off as too skeezy pushing yet another email or service that someone should sign up for. However, I found that it came pretty naturally because I was passionate about what I was doing and I genuinely felt that what I had produced was good and the people I was reaching out to were likely to appreciate it as well. The response was terrific and I was able to add a few quality subscribers list.

Hitting the Launch Button

I was eager to launch. Everything was ready to go. I had done it. Yes it was a simple thing to do, but something I am proud of and am looking forward to growing. If you haven’t already please subscribe to the weekly email or send me some feedback via my contact form about with any suggestions for comments on the newsletter.