Last year, I was sitting in on a meeting with a small retail company that had hired me to redesign their website. Their CEO was considering revising the company’s newsletter, and wanted to brainstorm ideas. He asked the room, “What kind of newsletters do you guys subscribe to?” Crickets. A moment passed. Then he asked, “I guess no one likes newsletters?”
I have my own newsletter, and I consider it a valuable resource for my audience. You can subscribe on this page, and I’ll make a charitable donation if you do – but I’ll understand if you don’t. Why? Because no one likes newsletters.
So what’s wrong with newsletters, and furthermore, is there a way to make one that doesn’t suck?
The Unspoken Problem
We’ve all received newsletters we never subscribed to. 99% of newsletters are like irritating mosquitoes that we try to swat away from our inboxes. That’s because many businesses sign you up for their newsletter without your consent after you’ve been in contact with them for something else. Most newsletter services forbid this and you shouldn’t do it. But many small businesses don’t see an alternative way of accruing subscribers. People seem to consider this to be a rule they’re allowed to break. It’s not.
Other services, of course, sell your email after you’ve submitted it to someone or something else entirely (BTW, did you win that free trip to Hawaii?). So newsletters get a bad rep. How can you overcome the inherent disadvantage of a maligned medium?
How To Make a Newsletter that People Like
Come to think of it, there are only two newsletters that I personally subscribe to. I’m going to use them as examples – this is not an endorsement and I don’t expect you to care about the same content that I do. What’s important is what they’re doing right: here are four of those things.
1. PRIORITIZE THE READER
One of the two newsletters I subscribe to is the Crossing Wall Street Market Review by Eddy Elfenbein. I like his newsletter because it’s all killer, no filler. Each one is dense with information that I’m interested in and looks like it took a week to write. It is released weekly so I know when to expect it. It’s reliable and I have no doubt that the author prioritizes usefulness to the reader over his own self-promotion.
2. DEFINE YOUR AUDIENCE
If half of your newsletter is geared towards your potential clients, and the other half is addressed to colleagues in your industry, you might have a split personality on your hands. To half of your audience, half of your content sounds like alienating inside baseball. To the other half of your audience, half of your content sounds like super-obvious condescension. You may have just earned yourself a 100% unsubscribe rate.
Pick one demographic and focus on it with the precision and unrelenting white-hot force of a laser. Okay, maybe skip the unrelenting force part, but precision is good.
3. MAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF
Creating a newsletter and building a mailing list are a pain in the neck. If it feels like a chore, you’re likely to avoid it. If you can simplify the task or make it fun, you’ll be in good shape.
One way simplify things is to newsletter-ify your blog. Take, for example, the newsletter from Ruben at Bidsketch. Ruben’s newsletter is really just a notification system for his blog. The emails use the blog post headline as subject heading (example: ‘What to do when a client disappears’). When you open the email, you see a 2–3 sentence synopsis, no images, and a simple text link leading to the post. You’re likely already running a blog – so why not simplify your workload by combining the forces of the blog and the newsletter? Note that Ruben’s headline also has a defined audience; it is clearly aimed at freelancers.
4. INCENTIVE. DUH.
This is the most tried-and-true newsletter advice in the book. The sky is blue, online shoppers love free shipping, and newsletter subscribers love an incentive to sign up. Give away a freebie like an e-book or your first-born son (just checking to see if you’re paying attention), and people will be more likely to give your newsletter a chance.
Even if you get newsletter subscribers in the door with an awesome gift or useful download, you’ve gotta keep them coming back for more. Ideally, your resource is truly useful for them (not just a marketing tool for you) and they’ll tell their friends about it. You’ll likely need to combine the attributes mentioned in this article in a way that is personal and enjoyable for you.