Note from Jane: The following post, originally from 2015, has been updated and expanded.
Early in actor Bryan Cranston’s career, when his gigs were primarily composed of guest-starring TV roles in Matlock and Murder, She Wrote, he sent postcards to casting directors about his upcoming appearances. He told the New Yorker, “I knew 99 percent of them wouldn’t watch, but my face and name would get in front of them, and it would plant the subliminal message ‘He works a lot, this guy!’”
Later on, when he received three Emmy nominations for his role as the dad in Malcolm in the Middle, he took out “for your consideration” ads promoting his work. He said, “The whole idea is to put yourself in a position to be recognized for your work so opportunities increase. False humility or even laziness could prevent that.”
If Cranston’s career had begun in the Internet era, his communication tool of choice might have been the email newsletter rather than the postcard. While email lists have many uses (from selling your books to delivering paid subscription content), their most immediate use for freelance writers and authors is to keep readers and professional connections informed about what you’re doing.
Regular email contact with your readers creates a long string of impressions, so that your name stays at the forefront of their mind. When an opportunity arises—a book club needs a new book to read, a publication is searching for a freelancer to hire, a journalist is looking for a good interview subject, or a conference needs speakers—people are far more likely to think of you if they frequently see your name.
Because most people are overwhelmed with unwanted email, it may seem counterintuitive to categorize the email newsletter as one of the more effective, even intimate, forms of digital communication. However, email has so far proven to be a more long-term and stable tool than social media, which is constantly shifting. Emails can’t be missed like a social media post that disappears in readers’ feeds as more posts follow it. You truly own your email list, unlike Facebook or Twitter accounts. And if you use people’s email addresses with respect (more on that in a minute), those addresses can become resources that grow more valuable over time.
So let’s take a look at the big picture first, then the technical bits.
Developing an Email Newsletter Strategy
Decide on your frequency and stick with it (at least for a while). Your efforts will be doubly successful if you’re consistent. For example, freelance journalist Ann Friedman (no relation) sends an email newsletter that reliably arrives on Friday afternoons. Weekly is a common frequency, as is monthly, but the most important criterion is what you can commit to. Warning: If you choose a low frequency (bimonthly or quarterly), you run the risk of people forgetting they signed up, which then leads to unsubscribes. However, the more familiar your name is to subscribers (or the bigger fans they are), the less likely you’ll encounter this problem.
It’s OK if your emails are short and sweet. Hardly anyone will complain that your emails are too short; the more frequently you send, the shorter your emails should probably be. It can also help to deliver the same structure every time. Every newsletter Ann Friedman sends has links to what she’s recently published and what she’s been reading, plus an animated GIF of the week. I send out my free newsletter Electric Speed every two weeks with a list of digital tools and resources I’ve recently discovered.
Be specific and honest about what people are signing up for. You should create a newsletter sign-up form that tells people what they get if they subscribe. The sign-up for the Brain Pickings newsletter by Maria Popova says, “Brain Pickings has a free weekly interestingness digest. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles.” It’s also helpful to link to your newsletter archives so people can read first before committing.
So what do you put in this newsletter?
The only limit is your imagination, and while the intent is to keep your name and work in front of people, you also want to keep things interesting—which means trying to provide value or otherwise focus on other people or quality content.
Ask yourself: What do you love sharing with other people? What are you already curating or collecting? What do people ask you about all the time? What do you have special insight or expertise on?
The most common content strategies
- Media consumption list. This is where you curate the best stuff you saw, read, listened to, ate, visited, played, and so on. Austin Kleon’s newsletter is a media consumption list. Many newsletters ultimately can be boiled down to: Here’s the cool stuff I think you might be interested in too. This is a great approach for beginners.
- Behind the scenes. This is where you offer a peek behind the curtain of your current project, bringing fans along for the ride, giving them exclusive access to your creative process. This usually only works if (1) people are avidly awaiting your next book and want to know what’s coming, or (2) you’re a celebrity author, and/or (3) you’re very entertaining at writing about such things. Not everyone is.
- Content driven. This is less common because it takes more work: it’s where you deliver original content for just your email newsletter. But it does pay off over time. You might run author Q&As if you’re a novelist, offer how-to articles and tips if you’re a nonfiction author, or share short stories, poems, or brief essays. If you put a lot of original content into your email newsletter, you can always revise or repurpose it later into a book.
- News and events. This is ideal for people who have a lot going on with their career, with many resources or opportunities that readers might be interested in.
- Informal personal writing. Such newsletters are typically informed by what happened to the author in the last week or two, or by recent headlines. Some can pull this off beautifully. I am not one of them. Anne Helen Peterson does this well, and combines it with a link roundup.
Handling Subscriber Fatigue
Because the word is now out about the power of email marketing, it may feel like every journalist and author has a newsletter. You may receive several a day and have little time to read them all. Study your own behavior with such emails: How much do you read? What catches your eye? Where’s the value that prevents you from unsubscribing? Assume subscribers won’t open every message and will skim your content. For this reason, it’s important to:
- Craft a unique subject line for every send to differentiate the issues. (It’s possible to successfully break this rule; just be cautious about doing so.)
- Make your content easy to scan at a glance, assuming that makes sense for the content you’re sending. Subheads, lists, bolded text, and other visual cues can help readers quickly find what interests them.
- A table of contents is essential for lengthy newsletters, and sometimes even short ones!
- Include important links at least twice. If you use HTML in your newsletters, buttons work wonders for any call to action (e.g., a link to buy your book).
Because so many newsletters focus on “great things I’ve read/consumed”—which adds to people’s time burden—be sensitive to the commitment you’re asking from readers to pay attention and take your recommendations seriously. Is it possible to go against the grain and save people time? What if your readers want to simplify and don’t need more stuff to do? See the end of this article for more suggestions about long-term growth and management.
Starting and Building an Email Newsletter List
Before you start building an email newsletter list, it’s best to have your own website or blog. While you could start by putting out calls on social media, too, over the long term, social media calls aren’t the best solution, since they require active marketing on your part and are reliant on time-based feeds and platforms controlled by others. Putting a sign-up form on your website (see instructions below) is an essential marketing strategy: the list should grow without you having to do anything, assuming your site gets even a small amount of traffic.
Aside from your own website, the only tool you need is a formal email newsletter service that automates the subscription process, stores the subscriber email addresses, and archives newsletter issues. Some of the most popular services are:
I use MailChimp partly for legacy reasons—I’ve been there for 10+ years now. It also happens to be free until you reach 2,000 names. That said, the more economical choice, and the one favored by authors, is MailerLite (free until 1,000 names). Substack is most popular with journalists, freelancers, and others who think they might charge for their newsletter in the future.
Most email services work on a double opt-in basis. This means that when someone subscribes to your newsletter, she has to confirm again (by clicking on a link in an email) that she truly wants to subscribe. This is a best practice and will avoid your building a poor-quality list.
This brings up one of the biggest rules of running an email newsletter: While it is possible to manually add names to your list (without confirmation), never add someone unless she gives you permission to do so. The No. 1 reason email newsletters get a bad reputation is because people break this rule all the time. Just because you connect with someone on LinkedIn or through a conference, or she posts her email address on her website, doesn’t mean you have permission to add that person to your email newsletter list.
Before you start sending or publicizing your email newsletter, take care of the following housekeeping items.
- Customize your subscribe/unsubscribe forms. You can customize the header, the text, and what information you collect from subscribers. To get the highest number of sign-ups, you should only ask for the email address and subscriber name (and even make the name optional). However, you can ask for nearly any kind of information you like, and use that information later to target your messages to specific subscribers. That makes your list more valuable, but it will reduce the number of sign-ups. You can also customize the confirmation, thank-you, and unsubscribe messages that people receive.
- Decide what mailing address to use. Federal law requires that anyone sending email in bulk or for marketing purposes include an unsubscribe option (this will be included automatically in your messages), and also a physical mailing address. Individuals who want or need to maintain privacy often fudge on this without repercussions.
- Add the sign-up link or code to your website. Regardless of the service you choose, it will provide you with several ways to offer your sign-up form to subscribers. Generally, you either link to the sign-up form directly at your service’s site (e.g., MailChimp), or you can embed the sign-up directly into your website—on a page, a post, or on a header, footer, or sidebar area. You don’t need to know or understand code to do this; providers like MailChimp give you the code to paste into your site and it works automagically. You will get more subscribers if you embed the sign-up into your site.
- Decide whether to include an “ethical bribe.” Some people offer a free digital download to entice people to sign up for their email newsletter. While this will definitely boost your sign-ups, it can also lead to lower-quality names, or people who will unsubscribe once they have the freebie.
A final note about your list: Pay your readers the utmost respect by never selling their information or sending strong, impersonal sales and marketing messages (also known as blasts). Most people will sign up for your newsletter because they want to hear from you personally. Maintain subscriber trust by keeping the messages as intimate as possible and in your voice.
Other Types of Email Newsletters
There is much more to the world of email marketing and email content strategy. Consider if any of these models fit your work as well:
- RSS-based email newsletter. You can schedule and design emails to automatically send whenever a specific RSS feed is updated. In plain English, this means that if you have a blog, you can schedule daily or weekly emails to go out that include notification of new posts, excerpts of posts, or the full text of new posts. (Note: This functionality can be had for free through WordPress.com and Google FeedBurner, but you have no or very little control over what the emails look like and what content is included.)
- Paid subscription. Some services, like Substack, allow you to charge subscribers to receive your email newsletter. It probably goes without saying, but before you charge, think carefully about what content you’re providing that would motivate people to pay, even if it’s just a few bucks. In this scenario, your content shouldn’t focus on marketing yourself, but on serving a readership.
- Auto-responders. These are a way to automate a series of email messages that people receive in a very specific order upon subscribing. Common uses of auto-responders include self-study courses via email (which can be free or paid) and a series of introductory messages that help people understand your universe of offerings. Auto-responders make sense for writers with very complex or extended online content or offerings, and are also used by internet marketers to funnel people toward the purchase of high-value, high-price products.
Growing and Improving Your Email Newsletter
If you’ve already experimented with email newsletters, then you know the toughest part is long-term engagement and list growth. You can feel it when your list begins to stall, when even you aren’t that excited about putting out another issue. Don’t hesitate to shift strategy when your content feels stale and your metrics flatten or decline; your readers are likely suffering from the same boredom you are.
My own newsletter has evolved several times over ten years. It began as a periodic update about new handouts, worksheets, and presentation slides I had created for conferences. After two years, it became a general roundup of cool digital stuff I liked. This past year, I have extended its length to include reader-contributed suggestions as well as classified ads.
While you should pay attention to how your subscriber list responds to your messages (your open rates and click rates), since these indicate where reader interest lies, consider the following to boost engagement:
- Improve your sign-up copy. Saying “Sign up for my free newsletter” isn’t terribly exciting or likely to get you subscribers. Can you ask people to sign up without using the words “free,” “newsletter,” or “sign up”? Put the sign-up in your own voice, so that it speaks directly to your ideal reader.
- Be direct and conversational with your subscribers: Ask them at the end of your newsletter to respond with what they liked or didn’t like. Ask them what they’d like to see next. Consider adding a reader-contributed segment to your newsletter to build response, interaction, and open rates.
- Try a simple A/B test on your subject line. An A/B test is when you create two newsletters, but change one single quality, and test them against each other (by sending to a small portion of your list) to see which performs better. I recommend testing your subject line to find out what leads to better open rates, so over time you know exactly what triggers your readers to open your messages.
- Serializations can work wonders. This is why auto-responders are so effective for things like 30-day courses, because people are on the hook and looking forward to the next day’s lesson. If you’re a fiction writer or poet, you can use the same technique with readers or give yourself the same creative challenge. While it needn’t be daily (or even weekly), what could you divide into installments, or how could you leave people with a bit of a cliffhanger?
- Add bookends. The BoSacks newsletter, focused on the magazine industry, always begins with an interesting image and a quote, then ends with another, often amusing, image. Regular readers open up the message and scroll to the end just to see what’s there. How could you close your newsletters?
- Evaluate your image use. If your emails are primarily image-driven, then test how your emails look when the images do not load. Can people still see the most important information or calls to action?
It’s easy to pigeonhole email as a very practical (even boring) communication, but it can be used as a creative publishing medium that’s easy to read, share, save, and later repurpose into something else. What if you had a limited-time email newsletter that delivered a specific story series? What if you changed the theme of your newsletter every month (kind of like Grant Achatz’s Chicago restaurant Next, which changes style every few months)? What if a reader had to search for clues in each newsletter? Expand your idea of what email can do.
- No Unicorns: The Right Way to Grow Your Personal Mailing List by Paul Jarvis (99U)
- How to Create a Self-Paced Email Course by Paul Jarvis (Smashing Magazine)
- Kirsten Oliphant has written extensively about email marketing here at this site.