I feel like there’s a lot already written about why every online business should have a newsletter. It’s a subject that’s been beaten to death and all of the advice is essentially the same. Building a blog readership and gaining followers on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook are all nice, but building your list is the #1 thing you should focus on because…
- Everyone has email.
- Email is intimate and personal.
- People check their email multiple times a day.
- You own your list. Nobody can change the rules and take it away from you.
If you read about small business at all, you’ve read all of those points before, multiple times. I’ve said the same things myself.
OKAY! We get it. Newsletters are a must. We’d better start building our lists.
What people talk about much less frequently, if ever, is what this magical newsletter should contain. I find the standard advice to be rather vague:
- Write an intriguing headline.
- Offer value.
- Use eye-catching images.
- Make it short.
- Include a call to action.
Knowing all of that it’s still hard to pinpoint what, exactly, the newsletter should say. And perhaps even more importantly how can you as an already busy blogger, designer, and maker fit newsletter writing into your schedule in a sustainable way? The thought of having to sit down and write another post-length essay each week accompanied by even more gorgeous images? It’s just too much!
I succumbed to all of the newsletter pressure at the start of 2013 and set myself up on Mailchimp. I sent out some newsletters, but always felt guilty about it. Wasn’t I bothering people? I hate getting spammy emails pushing products I don’t really want and I hated to think I’d joined the ranks of the spammers.
It was time to put some real thought into this email thing. I needed to do research. My first step was to subscribe to a bunch of newsletters to see what other people were doing. For a few weeks every time I visited the site of a person or business I admired I signed up for their newsletter. All of the sudden I was getting a lot of newsletters! As they came rolling in I focused on noticing what I liked and didn’t like, which ones I opened every time they came and which ones just sat there unopened. I thought about frequency, content, images, tone, and the relationship I was building (or not building) with the authors through getting their messages in my inbox.
I learned a bunch of things. First, all of the standard advice listed in those bullet points above? They all ring true, which I knew already. More significantly I figured out the answer to my bigger question: what’s in all those newsletters that’s worth reading? The answer was two things, and they’re related: curation and commentary. The newsletters I liked the best contained a short, curated list of links to wonderful things accompanied by brief commentary about why those things are remarkable. Coming from a person that I admire, these prechosen “link packs” and explanations were like a treasured gifts I couldn’t wait to unwrap.
More than just pointing me toward awesome stuff I would have missed otherwise, newsletters that combine curation and commentary allow me to learn more about the author’s taste and sensibility. I got to know the author better week by week.
And weeks are important. I most valued, and best remembered, newsletters that came weekly, not monthly. There’s always new stuff to curate and comment on. I want to see it!
After loving a particular newsletter for weeks, and developing a deeper admiration and sense of relationship with the author, I wanted the option to buy something from them. I wanted to get something they’d made. Newsletters that didn’t include things I could buy from the author were frustrating.
The best part about my finding is that a newsletter centered around curation and commentary is sustainable for a small business person to create. Collect what catches your eye through the week, collate it together in an email, and compose a sentence about each thing. With a relatively small time commitment you can really pack a punch.
I highly recommend going through this exercise yourself, if you can. Make it a practice to subscribe (you can always unsubscribe) to newsletters written by people you admire and make an effort to notice how you interact with those emails when they come in. Use what you notice to guide you as you determine what the content of your own emails should be. To get you started, here are the five newsletters I ended up loving (in no particular order):
1. Handmade Will Save the World. Kelly Rand writes and teaches about the business of craft. She also has a hand in organizing Crafty Bastards and the Summit of Awesome. In her weekly newslettter Kelly sends you four links to articles about hand-making worldwide, plus three more about cute, fuzzy animals.
2. Austin Kleon’s Weekly Newsletter. This one was the starting point for me. When I realized that I never failed to open Austin Kleon’s newsletter I knew that I’d begun to figure out what great newsletter could be. Each week he sends you a list of 10 things he feels are worth sharing. I don’t know a ton about Austin, but I’ve gotten to know him through his lists.
3. Five Songs Friday. Hrishikesh Hirway is a podcaster who creates an excellent show about music called Song Exploder. Each Friday he sends you a list of five songs you should download. Each song is recommended by an awesome person who tells you one sentence about why they chose that song.
4. Hardly Working. Rena Tom is the founder of Makeshift Society, a co-working space in San Francisco and Brooklyn. Each week she sends you a link and some commentary on something she’s reading, eating, and coveting and someone she’s recently met.
5. Kim Werker’s Weekly Digest. Kim is a writer so this newsletter is heavier on commentary. In a few paragraphs you get a glimpse of her week as a writer and maker, followed by links to things that caught her eye and a sentence about what she thinks of each one.
At the end of my experiment I unsubscribed to a dozen newsletters that were too long, came too infrequently, or only pushed products. From the few that I hung onto I was able to figure out what my own newsletter should be. I enjoy writing it each week, it takes about an hour to put together, and I send it without guilt because I’m confident that it’s worth reading (want to subscribe? click here.). At the end of your experiment you might come to a different set of conclusions about what the content of a newsletter should be, and that’s awesome. No matter what, you’ll have a plan. And that’s important. Because you really need a newsletter, okay?
Want to learn more? Check out my ebook on this topic!