Building a web-first newsletter

We recently launched our brand new newsletter, The Index. We wanted to operate a little differently than most other newsletters; The Index is web-first, not email-first. This means you can subscribe with a specific RSS feed or if you prefer, get the content of issues straight in your inbox.

Sure, a lot of newsletters provide a web version of each issue, but their driver is very much email. There’s a problem with that: people’s inboxes are over-saturated. We don’t want to add to that noise—or at least provide choice—so instead, we are aiming for an ideal reading experience for everyone.

RSS is back still here

RSS actually never went away, but it is re-emerging and gaining more and more popularity. That wasn’t always the case, though.

RSS exploded in usage in the early 2000s, in the aftermath of the infamous dot-com boom. Unfortunately, a combination of monolithic social networks like Facebook and Twitter monopolising content sharing across the web and Google sunsetting Google reader in 2013, gave RSS’ popularity a big hit.

Luckily for us all, podcasting has played a huge role in its long term survival because almost all podcasts run on RSS. As hard as some of the larger media companies try, no one can achieve a monopoly on podcasts. It’s why your favourite podcast host will say something like “Subscribe on [insert media company name] or wherever you get your podcasts” at the end of an episode.

You can look at podcasts as a sort of microcosm of what the web could have been, had it not been for Facebook and Twitter. Podcasts maintained their decentralised status, even when big players in media, like Spotify, tried desperately (and still do) to centralise them.

The web is, though, starting to verge back to decentralisation. It was already happening, but Elon Musk’s purchase—and swift route to destruction—of Twitter in 2022 really accelerated it.

In response to Musk drastically cutting the Twitter workforce by around 2 thirds, huge waves of people started moving over to Mastodon. If I were to describe Mastodon in one sentence, it would be a bit like Twitter, but instead of interacting on the same platform as each other, you all have your own email address of sorts, and interact from wherever you want. This is because Mastodon is completely decentralised and operates on multiple different servers (instances).

What also happened—especially in the tech industry, that we at this studio operate in—is that people started taking control of their content and publishing on their own websites again. Naturally, people wanted to keep others up to date, so RSS has started stepping back into the mainstream.

How this all led to our newsletter choices and how we did it

Ok, with a bit of context, you can probably see why we made the decision to go web-first. We love the web here at Set Studio and are really happy to see blogs coming back, especially. The web is our primary focus and we specialise in building truly excellent websites that work for everyone, so really, it wasn’t a surprise that we went down the web-first route for The Index.

When it came to planning out how to build everything, we needed to break down exactly what we wanted to achieve:

  1. Easy publishing
  2. Scheduled publishing
  3. Automated email sending of new issues
  4. A canonical route to the web article

Easy and scheduled publishing

Our site—as simple as it currently is—was built with Eleventy, which is a static site generator (SSG). SSGs are fantastic because—especially in Eleventy’s case—they produce a very light output. This is critical when your aim is to build websites that work for everyone. The problem with SSGs though, is out of the box, they don’t have the publishing power that a content management system (CMS) like WordPress does.

WordPress has been around forever. In fact, my first ever proper client project in 2008 was a WordPress site. Even then, WordPress was very well established and had been around for a long time.

A mix of lots of internal experience with WordPress and it doing everything we need it to, right out of the box, paved the way for a very easy decision to go with it.

Scheduling was a very important aspect for me personally. This is because I tend to write most of our content and I do so in batches, or in set blocks of time. Being able to schedule the publishing of content and essentially forgetting about it is a big deal for me. WordPress does that right out of the box.

What WordPress also does really well is RSS feeds. With zero code from us, WordPress generates a specific RSS feed for our newsletter. This is because the newsletter is a category of our blog, rather than a particular type of content. This leads us nicely to…

Automated email sending of new issues

With the most important part in place—a web-first newsletter—we could explore how to send emails to people. We had three options on the table:

  1. Roll out our own system that took the content from the blog posts, then emailed it to a subscriber list
  2. Find an existing email marketing / newsletter platform that would allow us to send the content to it, so it could email a subscriber list
  3. Find a WordPress plugin to send the newsletter

The first option is a minefield of complexity and technical issues because we’d have to write so much code to manage subscribers and send out issues. It’s certainly doable, but we’ve got enough experience internally to smell the danger of this approach.

We also explored WordPress plugins, but again, they felt very heavy and somehow, fragile.

A big worry for us on both of these options was the safety of our subscriber list. A list of emails is very valuable to nefarious actors, so we are duty-bound to protect it. Especially with GDPR regulations, too.

Luckily, we stumbled upon Buttondown. It’s a very nice, minimal newsletter platform. The real appealing factor for me though was that they have an API. Perfect!

Well, I thought the API was perfect, until I dug into the documentation and discovered they have automation services built in. Rather than posting a request to Buttondown to instruct it to email our subscribers: they can monitor an RSS feed to do it all automatically. With zero custom code, we suddenly had ourselves a completely automated email system because our newsletter already RSS as a first class citizen.

Another perk to this is that you can insert a link to the blog post itself, because that’s in the RSS feed. That solves the need for a canonical link back to the content.

ButtonDown’s interface, showing our RSS automation setup
ButtonDown’s interface, showing our RSS automation setup

For now, we’re also using ButtonDown’s signup form for new subscribers. In the longer term, we’ll bring the form into our site, so users get the best possible experience and continuity.

Wrapping up

We really wanted to share how we built out The Index and we hope this article demonstrates that with some planning and importantly, finding simple solutions to complex problems can result in a delightful outcome.

You can subscribe to The Index’s RSS feed here, or subscribe to the emails here.

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Hey there, we are Set Studio.

We’re a small but nimble, distributed design and development studio

The web is truly global, so our rare combination of highly technical and highly creative designers produce stunning websites that work for everyone.