Jane Friedman

What Should You Put in Your Email Newsletter?

by Christmas w/a K | via Flickr

The following post is an excerpt from Email Lists Made Easy by Kirsten Oliphant (@kikimojo). This is the third post in a series about email. You can also read about why you should start an email list and how to customize your forms.

If you struggle with what to write in an email, you’re not alone. You may be publishing two to three books a year, or writing blog posts three to five times a week, but email seems to build a crazy mental roadblock to creativity. The self-doubt and negativity shifts into overdrive.

Writers often get paralyzed by email the way elephants are scared of mice. (And yes, Mythbusters sufficiently proved this to be plausible.) We wonder things like:

Calm down. Deep breaths. Consider email simply as another piece of content for your readers. You can create content, right? I thought so. Then you can write an email without freaking out. I promise.

Most of the time, we overthink it. If you’re producing content elsewhere but struggling with email, reframe it. Get rid of the pressure and whatever weird, heavy expectations you have placed on email.

Stop thinking of it as email, if it helps. Write your emails in another program instead of your email service provider’s draft area. The worst thing you can do is take a nosedive into some melodramatic self-shaming spiral. Email is not some impossible task.

Yes, email is important. But it’s email. We read and send it every day. You can do this. I’ll say it again: calm down.

Let’s make this a little more simple and accessible. After spending more than a year being a total nerd and studying email, I found that usually they fall into five categories.

Chances are that you will utilize more than one, but if you are sending out something on a regular basis, you’ll want to choose your main style. Consistency, after all, is key. Let’s dive a little deeper into the pros and cons of each style and you can see which one would be the best match for you.

Category 1: RSS Feeds

An RSS feed is an automatic feed that hooks your blog content to your email service provider. You can make choices like how often to send (with every post or as a roundup each week) and whether to include full posts or a shortened (or truncated) post where people have to click to read more on your actual blog.

Pros: Easy setup and little work on your part. Can get people reading your blog.

Cons: Removes the personal aspect from email.

Can I be frank with you? If I sign up for your email and you start sending me RSS, I will typically unsubscribe. Especially if it’s a truncated feed where I have to click to read more. I feel pretty strongly that RSS feeds are wasting some of the best features of email, namely the personal aspect.

Some people choose a truncated RSS because their main revenue stream is ads and they want to drive traffic to their blog. If this is you, check your click-through rates. If they are significant and you are getting real traffic from RSS, then keep doing what works. Amazon affiliate links are also a big no-no in emails (according to Amazon’s policy) so if you utilize a lot of Amazon affiliate links in your posts, you may consider truncating.

Unless RSS is super effective for you (with a stellar open rate and click-through rate), I am going to take the potentially polarizing stance that RSS should be a last resort.

That being said, I am subscribed to a very few RSS emails that I open every single time. I subscribe to the RSS for Jane’s blog, for example, but she also has the Electric Speed email, which comes out a few times a month. (You can see her preferences for her email here.)

Some people know they want to read a blog regularly, but may not think about it unless they get an email to remind them. But more often than not, inboxes are crowded enough without an automated stream of blog posts.

Category 2: Teaser to a Blog Post

This is an email that lets readers know a new blog post (or content elsewhere) has been published. If you want to drive traffic to your blog and have readers read there, this might be a more effective option than an RSS feed.

Pros: Can drive traffic to your blog. Keeps the personal aspect. Typically not a long email.

Cons: More work than RSS. Can take some good copy to get people clicking. Not a practical option if you write more than two posts a week on your blog.

If you really want to use email for blog traffic, this can be a much better option than RSS. The main reason is that it allows you to still be personal and develop the relationship and trust with your readers. It does require more work than RSS because it isn’t simple automation, but if you are prioritizing email as a part of your overall strategy, writing a good teaser email is worth your time.

An effective teaser email lets the readers know what the post will be about, using intrigue and curiosity to urge people to click through and read. Many bloggers say that they see a spike in traffic directly related to when they send an email.

If you are not seeing great results with this type of email, learn from some of the best. Ramsay Taplin from Blog Tyrant sends teasers (after an initial autoresponder series) and so does Kim Garst. Study their email copy.

Category 3: Sales and Promotion

These emails are exactly what they sound like and probably make up the majority of the junk email in our inbox: they are emails trying to get you to buy something.

Pros: Can result in income.

Cons: Can alienate your readers or promote unsubscribes. Are hard to do well.

Chances are that you will send at least some sales emails if you write books or sell any kind of digital products. If you are an affiliate for products as well, you may send this kind of email. But you shouldn’t only send this kind of email. If you do, chances are people will lose trust and unsubscribe or simply stop opening.

You don’t want your emails skipped. It’s like the boy who cries wolf—send too many of these sales emails, and people stop opening. They don’t believe it’s a really good deal, because they know you’ll send another promo next week. You are training them not to open your emails because they expect you to sell every time.

A warning about disclosure: Though your inbox is pretty hidden, disclosure still matters. When you are using an affiliate link (reminder: don’t use Amazon affiliate links in email!) or any link that may result in you making money, you must disclose before the outbound link.

Even if the FTC hasn’t cracked down on this (yet), you will be breaking the trust of your readers by not disclosing. I discovered that a lot of free summits and webinars people promote are actually affiliate links. The event is free, but if you buy anything after clicking through, that person gets a commission. That really made me lose trust in the people promoting. I might have been happy to purchase something that would support my favorite people—but not if they seem to be hiding it. Follow the law. Disclose. Don’t be smarmy when you sell. (For more on disclosure, read this post on common mistakes.)

Category 4: Personal

This is the most common kind of email that bloggers and writers send. Like an email from a  friend, it typically contains updates or a more personal message.

Pros: Takes advantage of the personal connection. Unique content that feels exclusive.

Cons: Can take time to write. If not compelling or well written, people aren’t compelled to read.

This is one of the most common styles, especially for bloggers, but if not done well, most hit the trash pretty quickly. (Speaking of trash—can we trash the term newsletter? Let’s refer to this type of email as personal style.) I think sometimes the reason so many people choose this style is because they think this is what email is supposed to be.

Because this personal style is so common, writers often get stuck in a box and don’t produce fresh content. Without something unique (whether that’s writing style or content or format), people lose interest. They have seen a million emails like this. In my experience, open rates tend to be lower for this style compared to the value/educational emails.

So why write a personal-style email?

When done well, these are some of my favorite emails to receive. They read like exclusive letters and make me feel special for being on the list. They evoke emotion and resonate somewhere below the surface. I feel close to the writer. I feel like I’m a part of something by being in his or her community.

Think of the emails that are in this personal style in your inbox. Which ones are compelling to you? Can you pinpoint why? Sometimes, if you already have a big audience, people may not care so much what you write because they just want to hear from you. (Think: celebrities or people who already have a rabid fanbase.)

If you’re going to choose this style, try to think outside the box. Create your own style and infuse your writing voice. Consider a theme for these emails. Think about how you can infuse the elements of great storytelling. Great stories have a beginning, middle, and end. They draw the reader in from a strong opening hook. Why not consider how you might use these kinds of elements in your emails?

This can be an effective style of email to send, but you have to find what makes your email stand out in an inbox that may already be flooded with [shudder] newsletters.

Category 5: Educational

These emails typically contain tutorials, case studies, or a collection of links to other valuable content. They teach or help solve a problem.

Pros: Higher open rates. Meets a felt need. Can establish your authority in a space.

Cons: Can take a lot of work. Require you to collect resources or provide your own.

One of my favorite examples of this type of email in blogger circles is The Useletter from Amy Lynn Andrews. She packs a ton of helpful content into a tiny email. She uses intrigue with her links, which always makes me want to click. She still infuses them with her personality, so it establishes a connection with her audience. People look forward to The Useletter. I know this because I constantly hear people talk about it.

If someone’s talking about your weekly email, you’re doing something right.

As with the personal style, you can’t just send your own version of The Useletter and expect it to work. You need to consider what is the right content for your audience and how to package that in the right way for them.

If you plan to send this kind of email, keeping track of links or resources or ideas in something like Evernote is going to save you a lot of time. You can’t just wing it. This email may take some time to craft, but can really have great benefits with your audience. My weekly value-driven email, the Quick Fix, has an average 40 percent open rate.

Find content that will solve the problems of your audience. Start collecting ideas, links, and tutorials. Then consider how you can structure the emails in a way that’s unique to you.

How to Choose Your Ideal Content

Now that we’ve walked through the five types of content, how do you decide on your content strategy? Circle back to why you are using email. Are you trying to drive traffic? Make sales? Establish a long-term relationship with readers? Typically it will be a combination of a few reasons.

your why + your audience’s needs = the ideal style of email for you

Whatever you decide to send, keep it consistent for a few months before making any major tweaks. But realize that, at some point, you may need a shift or rebrand. Give a survey once a year (or more) just to those subscribers, asking what they like and don’t like. Use analytics from your email service provider to see what has the highest open and click rates. Take note of which emails garner the most response. Learn what you can about them from the send time to the content inside to the subject line. What made those emails work? How can you repeat that?

What about Frequency?

Frequency is a Goldilocks problem. You don’t want to send too much, or people will think you are spammy and unsubscribe. You don’t want to send too little, or people will forget who you are and unsubscribe. You need to find the just right kind of frequency for your people.

Some of this depends on the type of email. If you’re sending teasers to blog posts, you’ll send these when you write a blog post. And you don’t want to send too often, which is why I would recommend doing teaser emails only if you post around two times a week.

your why + your type of email content = the perfect frequency

If you get any of these things wrong, don’t sweat. You can always rebrand or pivot. Let your readers know that you’re switching directions. Not everyone will be on board, but if you’re intentional in trying to reach your ideal audience, this can have a great impact and also weed out any readers who may not be your ideal.

A Common Writer’s Problem

One thing that writers often do is create content based around writing itself, with tips and tools and links to resources. Rather than reaching an audience of readers, this cultivates an audience of writers. There will be overlap, as writers are often avid readers, but there is a distinct difference between creating an audience for your fiction works, for example, and your nonfiction works about writing.

This can help you build a big list, as lists tend to grow more quickly when they meet a need or solve a problem. But this kind of audience is not necessarily the same as the audience who might read your fiction. In an interview I did with Joanna Penn, she told me that the crossover between her fiction and her non-fiction (about writing) is only 10 percent. While fiction readers may love to get a glimpse at your real life or writing process, don’t accidentally build the wrong kind of audience; make audience-building part of your overall strategy.

If You Still Aren’t Sure

If you’ve read through this post and still aren’t sure what you want to send your readers, do some research. Sign up for your favorite writers’ email lists. See what they send. Consider how this matches up with what you hoped they would send.

I can tell you that I have been very disappointed with many writer email lists. For the most part, I’ll sign up and get nothing until a book launches. Nothing makes you feel less like a person and more like a number than emails only when that person needs something (like money) from you.

What do you wish your favorite writer would share with you in a weekly or monthly email?

What writers are really killing it with the emails they send?

What content on your blog or Facebook page or other social platform gets the most engagement? What emails have you previously sent that had the highest open rate?

If you can find answers to these questions, it may help you hone your content. Remember that in the end, you are simply sending an email. You should be intentional about your content, but don’t let email become something so huge in your mind that you never actually send anything.

What kind of content have you tried? What has been effective for you?

For more insight into sending meaningful email, check out Email Lists Made Easy.