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.
Even the New York Times’ David Carr said email is “very much on the march” as a publishing technology.
So let’s take a look at the big picture first, then at how to set up the technical operation.
Developing an Email Newsletter Strategy
Getting started with an email newsletter is simple and also free, but let’s review a few principles before getting to the technical aspects.
Decide on your frequency and stick to it. Your efforts will be doubly successful if you’re consistent with your timing. 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. If you choose a low frequency (bimonthly or quarterly), you run the risk of people forgetting they signed up, which then leads to unsubscribes. The more familiar with your work your subscribers are (or the bigger fans they are), the less likely you’ll encounter this problem. High frequency is associated with list fatigue, when people unsubscribe or stop opening your messages. Fatigue is higher with weekly or daily sends, so daily sends tend to be more appropriate for news- or trend-driven content. For example, Alexis Madrigal does a daily send called 5 Intriguing Things.
Keep it short, sweet, and structured. 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 a 2x/month newsletter Electric Speed that focuses on specific digital media tools and news of interest to writers.
Be specific and honest about what people are signing up for. You should create a newsletter sign-up form that tells people what they’ll 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 or to an example (after you’ve sent out a few).
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?
For example, in each monthly newsletter, bestselling thriller novelist C.J. Lyons offers a Q&A with another novelist. This accomplishes several things: it offers something appealing to her readers, who are thriller fans; helps out another novelist, who gets increased visibility to an audience of twenty-thousand-plus subscribers; and gives Lyons a means to serve her community in a valuable way.
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:
- Have a unique subject line for every send to differentiate the issues.
- 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 not three times.
- For really important items (anything that requires an action step), use a high-impact visual: a high-contrast box, an accompanying image, or a button.
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—or what happens after you get started and discover you need to evolve.
Starting and Building an Email Newsletter List
Before you start building an email newsletter list, you need to have your own website or blog. You could start by putting out calls on social media, too—Rusty Foster’s media gossip newsletter “Today in Tabs” got its start that way.
But in 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, have tried TinyLetter, and used CampaignMonitor when I was at VQR. All of these services offer very similar features and pricing. I like MailChimp because it’s easy for non-tech people to use and is free until you reach 2,000 names.
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 automated 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; Ann Friedman’s emails come from “The Best Lil’ Bungalow in Los Angeles CA 90026 USA.”
- 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. (See this site’s footer area for an example.)
- 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 (or other RSS-based media), 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, such as MailChimp and TinyLetter, 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.
Long-Term Growth and Management of Email Newsletters
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 five 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 stuff I liked. This past year, I more strongly focused on digital news and tools I’ve discovered that have the potential to make authors’ lives more easy, efficient, or productive. I’ve also created two additional lists for people only interested in my blog content. The incredible thing: there is almost no overlap between these three lists.
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:
- 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.
- Over time, segment your list to better target your messages. Most email services offer very sophisticated segmentation tools, which allow you to send to a specific type of subscriber. You can segment your list from the get-go by asking people for more information during their initial sign up (give people several options that ask them their preferred frequency, focus area, etc), or you can make an executive decision by segmenting some subscribers (e.g., the low open rates) onto their own list to prevent list fatigue. More lists or more segmentation doesn’t necessarily mean more work for you; rather, you are better targeting your messages, and sending most often to people who are highly engaged, and very selectively to those who are not.
- 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?
- 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?
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.
- 5 Ways to Quickly Improve Your Email Newsletter Performance
- No Unicorns: The Right Way to Grow Your Personal Mailing List by Paul Jarvis (99U)
- For a strategic overview of how emails can be used as part of an author’s book launch campaign, read Ed Cyzewski’s post here at my blog.
- How to Create a Self-Paced Email Course by Paul Jarvis (Smashing Magazine)
- Copyblogger offers a free ebook on email marketing