Indie Publishing
Field Notes

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How I personalise Offscreen’s launch newsletter

Posted on Jul 19 2017 in Production

Email is a medium most of us have written off during the rise of social media. Yet, as a small business owner there is not a more powerful marketing tool than a well-maintained newsletter list. I'm an avid Twitter user too and I do get a lot of referrals from re/tweets, but it pales in comparison to the visits, sales, and replies I get from email campaigns. (By the way, Facebook as a promotional tool is completely useless unless you are willing to turn your messages into paid ads which, in my opinion, always feels a bit disingenuous.)

For the launch of issue 17 I sent out an email to the ~10,500 people on my 'Offscreen Updates' list. This list is separate from my weekly Dispatch list and I usually only email subscribers of that list once or twice in between issues to inform them about the status of the next issue. If you have ordered anything from the Offscreen website in the past, you've been added to that list automatically. As such, this list consists of current and past customers – some are just following along passively, some buy issues occasionally, some are active subscribers of the magazine.

Four months in between issues is a long time to remember what you last ordered, so I use my launch newsletter to inform everyone about their individual order or subscription status. Here's how I make that email as relevant and clear as possible...

Disclosure: I'm using MailChimp, a current Offscreen sponsor, for my newsletters. It's possible to achieve similar outcomes with all major email marketing providers. This post was not commissioned or paid for by MailChimp.

Adding merge tags to the subscriber list

My custom order management system is connected to MailChimp via their API. This allows me to sync the following data about each customer to my MailChimp list:

Besides the obvious ones, like email and name, I also sync the number of the issues they bought (ISSUES), the type of subscription they have (SUB) and an authorisation code (AUTH). The auth-code is a string of numbers and letters unique to each customer. I use this auth-code to enable existing customers to log into their Offscreen account, but I can also use this code to send them to the Offscreen checkout page with their shipping details pre-filled.

List segmentation

I use MailChimp's list segmentation feature in conjunction with merge tags to split the list on two major groups:

Group A: those who have already ordered issue 17.
Group B: those who have not (yet) ordered issue 17.

I then create two slightly different email campaigns for each group.

Existing customers and active subscribers to the magazine (Group A)

All customers who have already ordered and paid for issue 17 (e.g. active subscribers) receive an email that shows the following note:

Here's where the auth-code comes in handy because I can include a link to the customer's account – no login required.

Live preview of this email

Past customers and passive newsletter subscribers (Group B)

For those who have not (yet) bought the latest issue, I display a call to action to purchase the issue and/or subscribe. I split this group into two more sub-groups: 1) those who have previously ordered something on Offscreen and have an existing auth-code, and 2) those who haven't bought anything before and are just following Offscreen as a newsletter subscriber.

All customers since our relaunch have an existing account (auth-code) and so I can add their auth-code to the checkout URL which pre-populates the order form with all their shipping details. This speeds up the checkout process – they just have to add their credit card or PayPal account credentials.

Those newsletter subscribers who haven't bought anything recently get a standard set of links without any pre-filling magic.

Live preview of this email

And that's pretty much all. I think getting a clear status update about your previous order/subscription goes a long way in regards to a great customer experience. If you know a little bit about email marketing and merge tags then the above won't seem overly fancy to you. It just requires an email list that is in sync with your customer database. If you never heard of merge tags before, here's a quick intro by MailChimp. I can highly recommend using them to make your newsletters more relevant and useful to your subscribers. Happy emailing!

Issue 17 now available

Posted on Jul 18 2017 in News

🚀🎉 Today we're launching Offscreen Issue 17! 🚀🎉 There'll be two major shipments this week with the first one happening later today. Order now to be part of the very first batch leaving our warehouse in Berlin.

If you have purchased anything from us before, please check your inbox. The email shows whether a previous purchase of yours includes this issue. Obviously, as a subscriber you will automatically receive every new issue, but it's worth checking your account occasionally anyway to make sure that your shipping details are up-to-date. Can't find the email? You can always check your order history/status on my.offscreenmag.com.

Issue 17 includes insightful, intimate interviews with...

  • Tom Loosemore – Founding member of the UK’s Government Digital Service, the government organisation behind the groundbreaking GOV.UK.
  • Heather B. Armstrong – Known to most under her pseudonym 'Dooce', she's one of the web's most successful bloggers.
  • Jason Santa Maria – Design and typography aficionado and co-founder of A Book Apart, he's currently creative director for Slate.
  • Ashwini Asokan – Co-founder of Mad Street Den and outspoken proponent for creating an ethical and legal framework around Artificial Intelligence.

You can find all the details on our issue details page.

This issue would not have been possible without the support of our generous sponsors: Abstract, Adobe Typekit, Adobe Creative Residency, Craft, Harvest, Hover, MailChimp, and SiteGround. And of course, a big 'thank you' to all Patrons of this issue.

Don't forget to share your feedback and photos via Twitter and Instagram once you've received your copy in the mail. Any questions, just contact us. Enjoy your read!

The Disaster Factory

Posted on Jul 12 2017 in Essays

This essay by Greg Knauss first appeared in Offscreen Issue 8 (now sold out).

I’m a programmer, and therefore live in a world of worst-case scenarios. Networks fail, hard drives crash, and those troublesome human beings persist in disgorging all sorts of nonsense into every interface my software has. Computers are incredibly complex and delicate systems, and they fail in dramatic and unexpected ways, without warning, every day.

No, no, I’m fine. My eye twitches like that all the time.

In an environment as insanely chaotic as our modern technological infrastructure – made up of the most advanced science we have, and often held together with chewing gum and good intentions – the only rational response is a deep and abiding paranoia. Experience has taught me to see my software as a writhing mass of Achilles’ heels, a horrific Shoggoth, every line of code a potential disaster. And so I wrap each in a thick, protective layer of negative assumptions, so that when things do go wrong – and they will – the program can (best case) recover quickly or (worst case) not actually kill anyone.

I wish I was exaggerating. Twenty years ago, a few weeks into my first professional programming job, I read a story about the software in a certain type of X-ray machine. An overflow bug had been found, and the upshot was that the machine had been accidentally mega-dosing every 256th person it scanned, effectively giving them cancer. Paranoia doesn’t seem response enough.

By the way, don’t mention this at parties. People tend to look concerned and then sidle away. And never follow up with the story about the rocket that exploded because of a misplaced semicolon.

But programmers – engineers of all stripes – can’t afford to look away. They need a relentlessly negative outlook, to come up with the most horrific thing imaginable, add contingencies to prevent it, and then invent something even worse. It’s what keeps our mechanised world ticking along, what keeps most catastrophic failures safely theoretical and leaves computers merely frustrating instead of murderous. While most have heard of Murphy’s Law – “Anything that can go wrong, will.” – only the nerds know Finagle’s corollary: “...at the worst possible moment.”

Hug a coder, folks. They could use it. Because what the software industry calls ‘best practice’, psychologists call ‘catastrophic thinking’, and it’s awfully hard to spend ten hours a day worrying about disaster and not have the aptitude you develop for it follow you home, like sentient toxic sludge from a grade-B monster movie. It can infect your relationships, your personality, your real life.

For me, it took years to even see that it was happening. Unanswered phone calls became car accidents. Marital tiffs became grounds for divorce. Heavy traffic became late arrivals became missed opportunities became career stagnation became destitution. Anxiety at the omnipresent but-what-ifs grew until the entire world was shadowed by the spectre of inevitable but unrealised doom. The true pleasures of the real world – serendipity, trust, joy, love – became suspect, not to be believed, traps waiting to be sprung.

But the realisation that I was unconsciously extrapolating to the worst-case scenario in my personal life has helped me enormously. Anxiety defeats the rational mind by preventing a sensible examination of itself; it panics you into action at the expense of introspection and self-assessment. But assessment – the quiet, sensible consideration of risks, outcomes, costs, benefits – is vital to a well-lived life. Reward comes from risk, and a life without risk is a life spent under the bed, cowering.

It’s well-worn common sense that programmers need a break from the keyboard every once in a while. They should be standing and stretching and refocusing their eyes. They should get regular exercise and eat right. They should probably not have the local pizza place on speed-dial.

But programmers should also take a break from programming, from the mindset it inspires and the rationale it requires. Stepping away from the machine is both a physical and mental act. Seeing the world afresh, with clear and unswayed eyes, is as important and rejuvenative as a long walk or a good night’s sleep. Just as programming requires the world to be viewed as endlessly dangerous, perpetually teetering on chaos, actually living in it often calls for the exact opposite.

Because the world is a beautiful place, your friends and family love you, and the warm sun in the sky isn’t going to go nova anytime soon. Probably.

Enjoyed this essay? Buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

Save Yourself

Posted on Jul 05 2017 in Essays

This essay by Greg Hoy first appeared in Offscreen Issue 10 (now sold out).

Not too long ago, while sitting in my office, I took off my glasses, put my head in my hands, and cried. It was the culmination of the toughest year of my working life, and more specifically, of my fifteen years of running a company. As I squinted into my dark, brackish palms, I had visions of laughing with my co-workers over a drink after sales pitches, celebrating project launches, and laying carpet squares, prepping our beautiful new office. It all came rushing back in a Vaseline-lensed retrospective.

If you invest a lot of time in something you’re passionate about, it becomes a part of you. For me, that passion happens to be running a company. And after a while, you have no longer a say in the matter. Whether you’re cutting grass, driving, or sleeping, you’re thinking about just one thing. It’s an involuntary response, like breathing. Or recoiling when you see Guy Fieri.

Back then I knew I had to start my own company, because I was so often disappointed by other people I worked for. They didn’t take time to get to know you. They were short-tempered. They didn’t participate in the business anymore. And while I sensed they once inspired people, I saw little evidence of it myself. They appeared beaten down.

So I decided to create the company I longed to work for. In the beginning, it was just a small group, and it felt like family. We had fun, and things felt effortless. I sold the work, managed projects, and designed websites. We were swamped with opportunities, so much so that we had the luxury of selecting the clients we wanted. There was almost no overhead, and the projects paid well. The industry was still blossoming, and while we weren’t a big fish, we were one of only a few in our pond.

At one point, the opportunist in me realised that hiring more people would enable us to take on more work. Soon, we were ten, then fifteen. People would ask me, “How many people do you want to grow to?” and I’d respond, “No more than twenty, that’s for sure.” In 2011, we had a headcount of twenty-four. A merger and an additional business partner later, we’ve added ten people on top of that. Before I knew what hit me, we had multiple layers of management, closed door strategy meetings, and multiple project teams. We relied on messaging systems to communicate instead of speaking to one another face-to-face. It led to unconstructive backchannel communications, conflicting roles and responsibilities, and people not taking vested interests in one another – myself included. A young employee once came up to me and said, “I had no idea you were once a web designer. I just saw it on your LinkedIn profile.” Of course he didn’t. It was maybe the third conversation we’d had, and he’d been with the company for almost a year.

While all this was happening, the web design field was changing dramatically. Things were getting crowded. We found ourselves competing against our own alumni. Sales cycles started to take forever, clients pulled budgets, and contracts became more restrictive. You can see where this is headed. Lots of employees, not a lot of work. The math makes your next decision for you.

My teary-eyed moment came shortly before I finally accepted the fact that everything I loved about those early days was gone. And several of my long-time colleagues have since echoed the same. The camaraderie, the ability to anticipate each others’ every move, even the trust – it all felt like a chore to encourage and maintain.

I have two young boys. When I see them every day, they look the same, and they don’t act very differently than the day before. But when I go away for a week and come back, they look so grown up. They say things I’ve never heard them say. Somehow, running a business feels the same way. My biggest challenge has been focusing on what’s right in front of me. To adapt with it, but to also appreciate it.

Today, our company is smaller. I’ve experienced what growth for growth’s sake is, and for me, it’s an unfulfilled prophecy. More people to enable more work didn’t make things better. And I was starting to show some of the negative traits of bosses I’d had in the past, the very people I tried to get away from.

The lesson I’ve learned is that you shouldn’t be afraid to stick with what feels right. The passion you bring to the table is directly dependent upon your level of happiness. If it’s all a chore, you have to figure out why. You may have even contributed to it. Own up to it. Then save yourself.

Enjoyed this essay? Buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

The Grip of Now

Posted on Jul 03 2017 in Essays

This essay by Ben Callahan first appeared in Offscreen Issue 12 (now sold out).

I recently got a chance to visit the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Most people know it as a Gothic church covered in gargoyles, the home of Quasimodo, or – for the architecture buffs out there – one of the first buildings in the world to use the flying buttress. While all of these tidbits of information are fascinating, what stuck with me was the history of its construction: it was started in 1163, and completed in 1345. It took almost 200 years to build, and it’s still standing 700 years later. Between five and nine builders are credited with the construction; most of them died before its completion.

What an odd thing, to commit your life to something you know you’ll never see finished. No addiction to the rush of shipping to keep you going, only solidarity with those working alongside you and the vision of something greater than yourself.

In the ’30s, the Empire State Building took just over a year to build. The Willis Tower in Chicago took three. The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, took a ‘seemingly endless’ six years. In our own industry, digital projects are usually measured in weeks or months. Today’s web workers will hold between twelve and fifteen jobs in their lifetime. That averages out to around four years of commitment to each job. And this is all made even more startling when we consider how long our work lasts. Basically, it doesn’t. Apps are outdated almost immediately with the release of new hardware and operating systems. The web is flying by. Our work is fleeting.

Ray Kurzweil wrote about the Law of Accelerating Returns back in 2001, suggesting that the rate of technological evolution grows exponentially. This means we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century. It will be more like 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate. His work explains why we can build amazing structures faster today than ever before. What it doesn’t explain is how this impacts us as makers: how the immediacy with which we can create changes us.

‘Good things come to those who wait.’ Everything in our industry pushes against this aphorism. From indispensible continuous integration tools to the latest web development frameworks, it’s all presented under the guise of making us more productive and better contributors. None of this is done with malintent, of course, but we’ve lost the long view. And with each push to production comes that shipping high. It’s self-feeding – a roundabout with no exit where we test how fast we can go and still make the turn.

Part of me wishes there were a balance to the formula, that the amount of time it takes to create something would directly impact its longevity. Of course, this is not true. And even if it were, it would be nearly impossible to measure. Miles Davis and his band recorded their album Kind of Blue in a matter of days, and the end result is considered the greatest jazz recording of all time. This was only possible because of the decades of experience each player had gained before they ever set foot in the studio. In a sense, they had been preparing for those sessions their entire lives.

Which makes me wonder, what are we preparing for?

If the things we produce are merely a symptom of who we’re becoming, maybe we should ask ourselves who that is. How do we implore the next generation of makers to take their time, to hone their craft, to see their current accomplishments as foundational to their life’s work? But also, how do we make them recognise that most things worth doing cannot be done alone? Like those who spent their lives building Notre Dame, we need to understand our role in the grand vision. Every product we release is a brick in a new kind of cathedral – one that connects us all, from its foundation to its spire. And it’s this architecture that holds us together, taking its strength from our diversity.

For you and me – for all of us – there is much left to do. Are you willing to commit, knowing that you’ll never see it finished?

Enjoyed this essay? Buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

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