The Tech Stack for Independent Newsletters

Right now we’re in an email renaissance; everyone is starting a newsletter. I decided I wanted in on the action, but fell into a rabbit hole of platforms. I wanted such a specific set of features that almost no all-in-one solution could provide. If you were thinking of starting a newsletter, here’s what I’ve gathered from weeks of researching. 

The Default Option

Substack is exploding in popularity, and at the moment is the standard for people starting newsletters. It’s based on the business model of Stratechery, and even looks remarkably similar to it. The main issue is a lack of customization. Your Substack basically looks like every other Substack, and you have very little ability to sell yourself. You better hope that your content sells itself. 

Pros: 

  • Very easy to get started
  • Free

Cons:

  • Very little personalization
  • Minimum $5/month charge and 10% cut. 

The Techy Option

Ghost is a great option if you aren’t afraid of writing some code to build your perfect newsletter.. Of course you can use it without touching code, but you will be limited to the template that you bought. Some UI edits like colors and fonts will be simple, but anything more comprehensive will be mostly limited to web developers. 

Pros: 

  • No % cut from subscriptions
  • Nice templates, good for creating a landing page or full personal website
  • Great tech - if you care about speed and hipster platforms, this uses all the coolest frameworks
  • Open source, non-profit

Cons: 

  • Pricey option starting at $29/month
  • May require a lot of coding

Dead Simple Option

Buttondown is by far the simplest option. It is just for writing your newsletter and sending it out. You’ll probably need a separate landing page where you collect your subscribers but other than that, Buttondown provides everything you need to write emails and collect payments from subscribers. 

Pros: 

  • Cheap to start, and scale
  • Simplest email solution
  • Great writing interface; easiest to focus with. 

Cons: 

  • Have to figure out your own landing page

I Want Every Email Feature Option

Mailchimp is the most feature rich email platform out there. It wasn’t built from the ground up for personal newsletters, but it certainly has the featureset to accomplish that relatively simple task. It’s by far the best at managing cohorts, A/B testing, and a ton of other more advanced tasks. While the rest of the platforms are for making personal newsletters, Mailchimp is for sending every kind of email imaginable. 

Pros: 

  • A/B testing
  • Automatic social media posting
  • Contests/Surveys/Downloads/Payments/Automation/Scheduling
  • Built in landing pages if you want

Cons: 

  • Not pleasant to write newsletters in. 
  • You have to drag and drop in pictures, and then drag in a new paragraph. It isn’t a simple write and paste everything in this textbox type of deal. 
  • Expensive to scale. 

Other Considerations

You may want to build your newsletter around your landing page, rather than your landing page around your newsletter. After all, the landing page is there to sell potential subscribers on the newsletter, so that should be the focus right? The best options for landing page builders are: Webflow, Squarespace, Carrd, and Wordpress.

Webflow has the most customization, but a big downside is that blog posts in it’s CMS cannot be sent automatically using Mailchimp or the like. Squarespace’s can be, and it has a lot of features otherwise. Carrd is great if you just want a single page website to sell the newsletter. Wordpress will have a ton of features and can send the full newsletter from your blog, but is honestly a pain with all the extensions and plugins to manage. 

Zapier is an amazing service to consider when combining different platforms. For example Webflow doesn’t have any email options. What you could do instead is write your email in Mailchimp or Buttondown, and then make a “Zap” to post the content from that email onto your blog. Pretty simple to set up, and you’ll probably be well within the free plan’s limit of Zaps for this use case. 

What Does This Blog Use?

For me the best solution was to combine Webflow, Buttondown and Zapier. My landing page is built with Webflow. The subscription box will send emails to my buttondown subscriber list. Zapier will put whatever I send from Buttondown into a draft on my Webflow CMS. I double-check the formatting and then post it. 

This is not as seamless as Substack, Ghost or Mailchimp with a landing page, but it fulfills several important functions. First it allows me to make an amazing landing page just the way I like it. Substack has an incredibly boring and simple landing page which hardly allows you to convince anyone to subscribe without clicking “about”. Ghost would require a lot of code to set up, and considering the premium I’m paying for it, it’s not worth it. Also the customization in format isn’t as deep as Webflow’s. Mailchimp’s landing page creator didn’t cut it for me, and it was charging a lot of money for features that I would never need. 

What Should You Use? 

Substack is great, but the limited landing page makes it hard to recommend. For that reason I think Mailchimp + Landing page, or a Carrd website with any email service are the best solutions for most people. Ghost is great if you don’t need to stray too far from the template as well.