MailChimp: A Primer for the Completely Bewildered

MailChimp is super-simple to use online software to help you manage e-newsletters…says me.

The folks over at MailChimp have put a lot of thought and effort into making it as easy to use as possible, but there is still a learning curve, as any new piece of technology will have, particularly for users who don’t spend their lives using web interfaces and building the Internet.

So I’ve created this quick and dirty, handy dandy little primer for anyone who’s interested in diving in but doesn’t know which is the deep end.

The Gist

To get started, you’ll want to head over to MailChimp and login (or signup if you haven’t created an account yet.)

Once you’re logged in, you’ll see a screen something like this:

screenshot of the initial mailchimp interface

The navigational items on the left largely sum up how MailChimp works. Let’s break them down, though we won’t go in order to help facilitate the explanations.

Lists are just that, lists of people you’ll be sending emails to. MailChimp is free for up to 2,000 recipients per month. You can have multiple lists, so if you run a pet store, you might have two lists: “Cat Lovers” and “Dog Lovers”, or “Customers” and “Wholesalers”. Or you might have a “Free Newsletter” and “Paid Subscribers” list, where the first has information you send out weekly as a way to entice recipients to get involved with your organization, and the second is some type of valuable information you send out only to people who’ve paid to be on the list or purchased a product from you in the past. We’ll get into more details about how to create Lists later, but that’s the general idea.

Campaigns are essentially “individual emails” that go out to a specific List. Each time you create an email, say “Christmas Savings 2014”, you choose which list it goes to.

Templates allow you to customize how your emails look, and then save those to use them again in future.

So Lists is where you manage who gets the emails, Campaigns are the actual content of the emails, and Templates are what the emails look like.

Setting Up a List

Lets setup our first list. Click “Lists” on the left, then click the dark grey “Create List” button near the top right of the page.

If you’ve already got a list, MailChimp will ask you if you’re sure that you want to create a new one. Feel free to read the explanation of Lists vs. Groups there, but for the purposes of this walk-thru, lets click “Create List” again to confirm.

Here’s a rundown of those options:

List name
This is primarily for your own purposes but may occasionally be displayed to users on signup forms, or when they unsubscribe.
Default “from” email
Who the email will come from, could be or or, etc.
Default “from” name
This is the name that will show up in email clients, examples might be My Business, LLC. or Tom @ Cats Co.
Remind people how they got on your list
A message like, “You’re receiving this email because you signed up at our craft fair.” or “You’re receiving this email because you opted in at our website.” Remember, adding everyone from your Gmail account or a list you’ve purchased or any other mass importing of email addresses where people didn’t specifically sign up to receive emails from you is not only a jerk thing to do, it can even be illegal. If someone didn’t ask to get info from you, don’t SPAM them. Doing so isn’t going to get you any more business, it’ll just tarnish your organization’s reputation.
You can choose to get updates when people sign up, either daily, or on a one-by-one basis, or no updates at all.

Once you click Save you’ll be able to add a few addresses manually, import a CSV file (if that’s something you have handy) of addresses, or just move on until people start signing up for your newsletter. It’s usually a good idea to at least add your own email address, so you’ll see the emails as they go out to your list.


Now that we’ve got a list, lets setup the general look of our emails via the Templates area.

Click Templates and then the dark grey Create Template button on that page.

You can choose from a ton of preset basic templates. Personally, the simpler the better I say. Less imagery, particularly images used to create effects like borders and buttons, means a faster downloading email and happier recipients. I almost always choose one of the Basic themes, for myself and my clients. However, you can also choose from some fancier Themes or code your own if you’re sly like that.

Choose the layout you want by clicking Select next to the design you want.

I won’t get into every aspect of how you can customize these layouts, MailChimp does a pretty good job at explaining it right on screen and everything is more or less drag and drop. Have a go at it, play around, upload a photo or two, your logo, whatever you want. The important part is that when you’re done, you click Save & Exit near the bottom right of the page. That’ll then provide you with your own custom template that you can use over and over again when creating Campaigns.


Once your list is setup and you’ve got a template, you’re ready to start actually sending out emails!

You’re probably getting pretty comfortable with how to move around MailChimp by now, so go into the Campaigns section and then click Create Campaign.

There are several types of campaigns you can set up, Regular Ol’ Text Campaign being the most common. Here’s a rundown:

Regular ol’ Campaign
The basic way to send out emails, most people will use this.
Plain-Text Campaign
This means no formatting, no images, nothing but simple text. For minimalist types, I suppose.
A/B Split Campaign
Allows you to send out two different emails, so that you can try out multiple subject lines or content and then see how the two fared against one another. For people who like to test, retest and test again.
RSS-Driven Campaign
This will allow you to enter an RSS feed and every time a new entry shows up in that RSS feed, it’ll get mailed to your list (immediately, daily, weekly, etc.). For example, if you write a blog, you could enter its RSS feed here and send notifications of new posts out to your subscribers.

On the next screen, you’ll choose which List to send it to.

Then you’ll enter some details about the Campaign.

Name your campaign
Nobody sees this but you.
Email subject:
This is extremely important! Writing a great email subject is make or break to get folks to open up your email address. Don’t use exclamation points. Don’t be a salesman. Offer something useful, give them a reason to click.
From name & From email address
You setup defaults for these when you created the List, but you can alter them if you really want to. Consistency is key, though, so I’d leave them as is.

All of the other options are, well, optional. Feel free to read through them all, but I typically just select “Track Opens”, “Track Clicks”, and “Personalize the To” field (if you collect First & Last Names for your lists).

Next you’ll select your template. You could always create a new one, but if you want to use the template you created in the previous step, click Saved Templates and choose that template from the list.

Then you’ll have the chance to actually write up your email’s content, add photos, links, whatever you’re trying to send to your subscribers.

Finally, you’ll have a chance to review everything and then either Schedule or Send your email. I typically Schedule emails based on the performance of past emails. For some businesses, 3pm on a Wednesday is the ideal time…for others early on Sunday morning. Testing, failing, testing again, that’s really the only way to know what works!

Wrapping Up

Blast away, compadre, but remember that people get a ton of email, so if what you’re sending isn’t incredibly useful and way above average, you’ll probably lose subscribers and potential customers may be turned off by what they see as more clutter in their lives. Creating great content for emails, that’s a completely different ballgame. Need help with that? Get in touch!

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