What I learned about email newsletters: some advice for writers

Why write a newsletter?

Newsletters are the big things at the moment. Blog readership is down. So the logic of email newsletters is that people are more likely to read your content if you a) get them to subscribe to your newsletter because they are already making an investment, and b) send your content to them rather than expecting them to come to your blog.

The business owner/marketer idea behind newsletters is building an audience and collecting email addresses. It’s an owned audience, different from an audience built on a social media site. If you choose to move to a different email newsletter platform you can take your audience with you. If you choose to move to a different social media platform you have to start with no audience.

Does that strategy actually play out over time? We won’t know until the popularity of newsletters declines and we all move on to something else. The same idea used to be thought of for blogs and RSS feeds. If you really want to build an audience (because you have something to sell them) then do it through multiple channels.

I started subscribing to newsletters because I wasn’t getting enough good stuff to read just by scrolling through Twitter. So if you’re writing a newsletter that should tell you two things about me as an audience; a) I want to read good content, and b) I’m to lazy to go looking for it myself.

What should you write about?

Fixed or flexible subject? Should you write about only one subject (or one subject per newsletter and have multiple newsletters) or should you write about a few different things. As a reader, it depends on why I’ve subscribed. Did I subscribe to you because I think you’re an interesting person and I want to hear what you have to say, or did I subscribe to the subject because that’s what I’m interested in. Personally, I’d rather subscribe to someone who is interesting even if they sometimes write about something I’m not interested in. And typically, writing is interesting when its about the intersection of two things that don’t normally go together.

How often should you send?

Fixed or flexible schedule? Should you send your newsletter at same time every week or whenever you’ve got something to say? I’m sure most of the newsletters I get have a publishing schedule but I don’t pay enough attention to know. I’d rather get good newsletters than regular newsletters, but in most cases your audience won’t even notice (unless they are paying you) so don’t worry about it too much.

So writers have a choice: fixed schedule fixed subject, fixed schedule flexible subject, flexible schedule flexible subject, or flexible schedule fixed subject. How you choose depends on how much you have to write about and how much time you have to write it.

What makes newsletters unique?

Some newsletters aren’t really newsletters, they just an intro to a blog post and a link. These are missed opportunity. Only one of the newsletters I subscribe to does this and I hardly ever click the link. It’s ok to link to a blog post version of the newsletter (in fact I’d recommend it as it makes sharing or bookmarking easier) but the days of newsletters just being an acquisition channel have passed. Newsletters are a distribution channel.

Newsletters are less temporary than a tweet but less permanent than a blog post. Personally, I want content in newsletters that is of blog post quality, I don’t want to read stuff you’re testing out to figure out whether to write a blog post about it (and you probably aren’t going to learn anything useful if that’s your tactic because newsletters suffer from the information good value problem; I only know if it’s any good after I’ve read it, and so I’ve read it even if it was rubbish or the idea was nonsense).

Newsletters provide an immediate way to distribute medium to high quality content to an invested audience. Make the most of it.

What makes your newsletter unique?

It’s easier to stop going to a blog than it is to unsubscribe from a newsletter, but its still not that hard to unsubscribe from a newsletter. I guess there’s an argument for ensuring your writing stands out, whether through the subject matter, your take on the subject, your writing personality, or whatever it is that stops

Adding to the point above about whether I’m subscribing to you (the person with interesting things to say) or the subject you are talking about, I guess it’s a bit of both, but it’s you that makes your newsletter memorable. Of all the newsletters I subscribe to there are only a few where the personality of the writer comes out in the writing, and these are the only newsletters where I can tell you the name of the person who sends them. That might be an interesting measure of success; does your audience like ‘you’ enough to look you up on twitter and follow you without you asking them to?