Newsletters are on the rise again. Many businesses are turning to email in order to better reach their audience. One of the success stories is The Skimm with more than a million and a half subscribers, $6+ million in funding and a 45% email open rate.
BuzzFeed also runs several newsletters. They are split in different topics such as “news”, “books”, “parents” and “food”. Frequencies they are sent on vary. Some are sent daily. Some twice weekly. Some once per week. BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos writes:
“For e-commerce sites, mailing lists are a huge driver of revenue. For media websites, a well-done newsletter can be a crucial source of traffic. Consider this: the amount of traffic BuzzFeeds gets from our newsletters is almost as much as we get from Twitter. Not just our own Twitter account, but all of Twitter.”
“Why email and why now?”, you may be asking.
New tools such as Google’s Inbox and Slack have helped people get better control of their inboxes. This has improved the signal-to-noise ratio and allowed more time and space for quality content. Google Reader shutdown has contributed to less feed reading which also meant more reading being moved to the inbox.
We all use email a lot and check our inboxes many times every day. Email is one of our daily habits. Email is conversational. Email is personal; it is addressed to the person on the other end. It is slow, it doesn’t stream by and disappear the way social media posts do. All this contributes to a high reach and engagement.
Email is also very low-tech and very limited. It is easy to run even without tech and programming background. It can be a great format to gain traction for your idea.
Could your next project be a newsletter? Definitely. This post is here to help you start a newsletter that people look forward to getting in their inboxes. Here’s how to turn blunt, mass mailing into sharp personal communication.
Six steps to a newsletter that’s done well
- Figure out what your unique concept is. What topic do you cover? You should have a common thread to keep it all together and focus on a very specific topic. This is very similar to finding a topic for your site; see my complete guide here. What is your brand and what does it stand for? How would you sum it up a brief, one-line tagline?
- Sign up for a mailing service. MailChimp is the largest email service online and used by most of the popular newsletters to send their emails. More than 8 million people use it to send more than 600 million emails daily. MailChimp features many different templates and themes for you to create beautiful newsletters without any tech know-how. You can use it for free while you have less than 2,000 subscribers and can send up to 12,000 emails per month. If you grow and become a larger newsletter you can upgrade starting from $10/month.
- (For a simplified version of MailChimp without too many features other than you being able to send emails to people who have subscribed to your list, take a look at Tiny Letter.)
- Register a domain name. Come up with an attractive name. Make it brief, catchy and memorable. If possible it should be appropriate to the topic of your newsletter, but don’t necessary make it so descriptive that is sounds generic.
- Build a landing page for your newsletter where people can learn more about it, see a preview and subscribe. Use WordPress and one of the beautifully focused landing page themes such as Parallax to automate this process and make it as quick and simple as possible. WordPress is an open-source tool and is free to use. It powers more than 60 million websites, which is more than 20% of the web. It even features a MailChimp plugin that makes it easy to integrate your mailing list within your website.
- For your domain name and website setup I recommend WordPress. It’s open-sourced and the most popular content platform in the world. If you need a more detailed guide on registering a domain name and setting up a WordPress design take a look at my step-by-step instructions here.
Refine your concept to differentiate yourself
Here are some pointers on how you can refine your newsletter concept in order to make it more unique and attractive for people to subscribe to:
- What is your tone of voice? Informal tone with friendly and inviting language works well in emails as an inbox is a very personal space. Informal tone of voice makes the reader feel as though they are hearing from a friend. Think about how you can add more of your personality into your newsletter.
- What is the format of your newsletter? Try not to be too unfocused and cluttered. Many of the most popular newsletters are published in a very clear, minimalistic and digestible format. Stories are presented in a roundup format and are bucketed into categories for easy reference and skimming. Some are more long-form focused with only one full article per email. Which one will you be?
- How can you differentiate yourself? Very Short List invites new editors daily in order to curate the newsletter and bring new points of view. Think Clearly is sent in a refreshing format as its actually hand written. Amazing Airfare sends great travel and flight deals. Most newsletters are text-based, could you embrace multiple multimedia formats such as pictures and videos? How can you keep it new and fresh?
- Remember always to focus on quality as your product is everything. Your primary focus should be to deliver true value to your subscribers in each and every email that you send. Most successful newsletters deliver value and do not sell by sending advertising and product pitches disguised as content. By getting quality right your engagement will be high and your subscribers will grow organically through word of mouth.
5 most important landing page elements
For your landing page it is important to be succinct and to-the-point as people are impatient and need a good reason to stick and subscribe to something. These are the elements you should make sure your landing page contains in order to attract visitors to subscribe:
- Be specific, explain the concept of your newsletter in a simple tagline and tell potential subscribers what they can expect from you.
- Are you a daily or a weekly or another frequency newsletter? Tell people how often they should expect to hear from you and at what time of the day. Try not to overwhelm people with too frequent emails as some might not want to subscribe to something being sent too frequently.
- Provide an actual preview of the latest newsletter edition for the visitor to see what it all looks like. You can even provide the full archive for them to go through if that’s what they want.
- Tell them about yourself and why they should give you access to their inbox. Not everyone wants to give away their email address easily. You need to win the trust of a potential subscriber. Why are you worth their time?
- Allow people to easily subscribe to your newsletter with a clear and simple call-to-action and a hassle-free sign-up process.
An example of a very simple and minimalistic landing page that works from Mister Spoils:
For more conversion ideas, take a look at my landing page guide here.
Eight best practices and mistakes to avoid
These are some of the things to keep in mind in order to run a more successful newsletter project:
- Most newsletters flop. Many don’t get enough subscribers. Many don’t keep the regular content schedule and become forgotten. Some become uninteresting and boring so people ignore them, delete them, unsubscribe from them or even put them into spam. You need to constantly work and tweak things in order to keep the open rates and clickthrough rates up and keep growing the subscribers.
- Work on your subject lines. Subject lines are like article headlines. They are the main point of contact and will help the viewer decide to click to view or click to delete. There’s no guarantee that your subscribers will ever open your emails which means that you need to work on creating interesting, inviting and clickable subject lines. Some newsletters keep it familiar by having the same subject line while others mix it up to keep it fresh. Experiment and see what feels best and works best for yourself.
- Use forward. One simple trick you can consider is forwarding. Forwarding an email with your own personal notes attached, can make an approach several times more effective. Next time someone forwards you an email, notice how quickly it gets your attention, and think back to this tip. Can you think of anything you can ‘forward’ to your audience?
- Think about your sender name. The other thing next to your subject line that people see in their inbox when receiving your newsletter is the sender name. Should the sender name be your full name? Should it be the name of the newsletter? Should you mix things up? Have a think about this and experiment to see what works best.
- Send a second mailer to those that didn’t open the first one. This is a “quick win” tip from Noah Kagan. Wait few days after the original email, consider optimizing the subject line but keep the body of the email same, and send it only to those subscribers who didn’t open the first version of the email. This will lead to higher open rates without much extra effort on your side. Test it and see how it works for you. It works for me.
- Allow social sharing in order to grow your newsletter. Emails are easy to share and people love clicking on that forward button. These organic shares from happy subscribers who are promoting your service to their friends will play a major role in the spread and growth of your newsletter. Add clear and prominent call-to-actions for them to incentivize sharing.
- You can use the “decrease in organic reach” in social media situation as an opportunity and explain to your audience what is happening and how you would like them to help. Be honest and explain them that they won’t able to get all the updates by liking you on Facebook. Inform them why that is and help them make the right decision by inviting them to subscribe to your mailing list in order not to miss any updates.
- Remember that quality content doesn’t reach far without you promoting it. Hopefully the above will help get your newsletter forwarded to more people, but you do need to promote your product early on in order to build the initial audience. I aim to spend at least half of my time promoting my work. Take a look at the list of places where I share and promote my content after publishing it.
How to make money from your efforts
The purpose of your project might be to provide amazing value to your audience but when you have an audience it also becomes easier to monetize your product. Here are couple of main monetization options for newsletters which can help you make ends meet:
- Generate revenue via brand sponsorships. Many of the popular newsletters have brand mentions in their emails such as “presented by” or “sponsored by” tagline. For example The Skimm that I mentioned earlier has large brands such as Netflix pay to run native ads. Think which brands fit your topic and your subscriber audience and reach out to them with your pitch. Fit them naturally in your newsletter without making the advertisement too spammy or salesy.
- Could you run premium, pay-to-subscribe newsletter? Do you believe that your newsletter provides such great value that people would pay for it? It might be worth looking into either offering a premium plan of the free newsletter or focusing solely on a premium newsletter. This way your subscribers are your customers and you do not need to worry about finding and pitching sponsors. Newsletters such as Caesura Letters, Stratechery, The Slurve and Death To The Stock Photo run premium editions successfully.
For more ideas on ways you can monetize your product, do take a look at all the alternatives here.
How to measure your success
Here are the main metrics you should keep an eye on in order to measure the success of your newsletter activities:
- List growth: How many subscribers do you have? What is the subscriber growth?
- Open rates: How many of your subscribers actually open your emails? Can you see a trend from email to email and what can you learn from it? Here’s a very handy email marketing benchmark that shows open rates and click rates. How does your list compare to these?
- Click rates: This is for those that feature links within newsletters. How many people actually click on links within your email? Link clicking is a sign that your content is relevant and engages people.
- Unsubscribes: Is there a sudden spike in unsubscribes to your mailing list? Can you identify what has caused people to want to remove themselves from your list?
- Keep experimenting and testing. It’s important to always be open to new ways of doing things, to keep moving, keep exploring different ideas and keep measuring the impact they have. This is also why the next section includes some of the best newsletters for you to learn from.
Top newsletters for your inspiration
Throughout this post I have already mentioned several impressive newsletters so I won’t repeat them in the following list again. Do have a scan throughout the post for their names and URL’s. Right now here’s the list of few more newsletters that I like and that I believe can serve as your inspiration.
Take a look at them. Analyse how they present themselves and what their content looks like. Think about how you can use some of their ideas in your own product. Let’s get started.
- Quartz: Morning brief for smart, busy people.
- Next Draft: Most fascinating news of the day.
- Data Science: Weekly newsletter featuring news, articles and jobs.
- Hacker Newsletter: Best articles on startups, technology and programming.
- Lefsetz Letter: First in music analysis.
- Goop: Gwyneth Paltrow’s food, shopping and mindfulness.
- Further: Health, wealth and wisdom.
- Brain Pickings: Weekly interestingness digest.
- Brain Food: Separate the signal from the noise of the internet.
- Ben Evans: Everything interesting in tech and mobile.
Have a site?
Do you already have a site but want to add a mailing list too? You can always plug your RSS feed into your newsletter via MailChimp and broadcast your new articles or a summary of your recent activity via email to your subscribers too. This allows you also to send more personalized emails to your list with exclusive content that’s not available on your main site. Take a look at my RSS to email guide here.
That’s it! More than 2200 words later you now have all the information and all the instructions you need in order to get started with your newsletter. Not only that, but this post has links to more than twenty other newsletters for you to get inspiration and ideas from. Get started!