By Mark Walker published March 29, 2017

How to Create a Brilliant Newsletter People Want to Read

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I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but newsletters are hot right now.

They receive far less attention than the latest whizzy technology, like live video, personalization, and interactive content. But that doesn’t mean they’re not incredibly popular and incredibly powerful.

Take for example theSkimm, a newsletter with a daily roundup of interesting articles. Launched in 2012, it has amassed over 4 million subscribers.

Newsletters work for business-to-business brands too — with AppSumo, an email list offering regular deals, having over 700,000 active subscribers.

The blog you’re reading right now — Content Marketing Institute — is ticking toward nearly 200,000 subscribers, a huge number that helps it to continue engaging readers on a regular basis.

Even The New York Times, one of the most venerable media establishments in the world, is big on newsletters, running no less than 33 (and launching more), with an average open rate of 50%. If that doesn’t legitimize newsletters as a major force, then I don’t know what will.

Why are they in vogue?

For readers, newsletters offer an easy way to stay in touch with their favorite brands or media sites. No searching on Google and no having to scroll through overly busy social media feeds packed with ads.

Newsletters are delivered regularly to their inboxes. With simple filters in popular email applications, all the rubbish is kept out of the way, so what people want to read is easier to discern these days.

For senders, newsletters are a powerful way to stay top of mind with readers, providing a direct route to getting their attention. The best newsletters — the ones readers value the most — get an almost automatic open because readers want to see what goodness is inside that day.

The best newsletters get an almost automatic open — readers want to see what goodness is inside. @jfdimark Click To Tweet

How can you create a newsletter that gets opened every time you send it? Consider these eight strategies with best-in-class examples.

1. Go super curated

One of my absolute favorite newsletters is ReadThisThing, a super-curated daily email that highlights just one piece of brilliant journalism. It picks from a wonderfully diverse range of topics, sources, and formats, so each day is genuinely a nice surprise.

Read-This-Thing-newsletter

This element of surprise is one of the foundational principles of Hooked, the psychological model (and book) by Nir Eyal, for building loyal audiences. He refers to it as a “variable reward.”

But don’t be fooled into thinking curation is easy. Even ReadThisThing tried to include more content because it found it too difficult to leave out so many great pieces of journalism. But after reader feedback, ReadThisThing reverted to its one-story-only model. Curation done well really is a service to readers that they’ll thank you for. Remember, less is more.

2. Let your personality shine

Newsletters feel inherently more personal — like a personal letter. Don’t waste that unique ambience by sticking to impersonal corporate speak.

A brilliant example is CB Insights, which sells expensive business intelligence to corporate venture capitalists and other senior business leaders. You would expect straight-laced content, but it’s far from that.

Each newsletter is signed off with “I love you,” and is generally packed with irreverent and sometimes cutting commentary, directly calling out critics or offering random observations.

CBINSIGHTS-newsletter

Does it work? Well it now has over 240,000 subscribers, a thriving business, and from my personal perspective, it is one of the highlights of my inbox every single day.

3. Offer value

Finimize (Finance for Our Generation) is a newsletter I recently signed up for. It’s a great example of a newsletter that offers value because it succinctly explains to me the two biggest business or economic news stories of the day before I reach the office.

It only takes three minutes to read, but it explains what’s going on, what it means, and why I should care. I feel like I’m up to speed without having to leave my inbox — very handy on a crowded commuter train with sketchy roaming data.

Finimize-newsletter

4. Make it personalized

The company I work for, Eventbrite, recently updated its newsletter to offer personalized event picks based on the recipient’s preferences and order history. It’s algorithmically generated, meaning it can scale to all recipients. It’s spot-on with what it picks each week, even with relatively limited data. (My event attendance history is sparse right now. I’m a dad, so I don’t get to go out that much anymore.)

.@Eventbrite newsletter personalizes event picks based on recipient’s order history, says @jfdimark. Click To Tweet

Eventbrite-newsletter

5. Keep it fresh but focused

Every Friday I receive “Your Friday Five” from a small London digital agency called Zone Digital. I always find something that’s different and has otherwise escaped my attention despite religiously reading dozens of articles a day the rest of the week.

Friday-five-newsletter-Zone-digital

Zone Digital keeps its sources fresh, which means I’m never 100% sure what I’ll see in the newsletter each week. However, I do know it will be centered on digital innovation and future technology so it’s always going to be right up my street.

6. Go niche

Newsletters, perhaps more than any other format, allow you to go really niche.

Newsletters, perhaps more than any other format, allow you to go really niche, says @jfdimark. Click To Tweet

Take for example Disturbances, a super niche newsletter that meditates on the nature of dust and how it can be “a method for seeing the (end of the) world – from space dust to sandstorms, the domestic to the digital.”

Disturbances-newsletter

You see, you don’t need huge audiences for your newsletter to be valuable, you just need the right people — those who care and who are engaged.

In fact, HubSpot removed 250,000 from its newsletter database to ensure that it was only sending it to those who actually wanted to receive it. Otherwise, what is the point?

For smaller businesses, niche has another advantage — most email service providers offer free use of their software for smaller databases (2,000 for MailChimp), so your niche audience newsletter might not cost any money at all.

7. Be exclusive

Speaking of money, one way to keep people opening your newsletter is to get them to pay for it. Most people tend to be more committed to things they’ve made an investment in, particularly a financial one.

This is an approach taken by Ben Thompson, the author of Stratechery, who offers his readers the chance to receive an exclusive daily email with his take on the most important news of the day. He charges $10 per month or $100 per year.

Stratechery-Daily-Update

8. Keep it pure

I’m saving the best for last. For those of you who love writing, newsletters could really be your thing. You don’t have to write with SEO in mind or in a click-bait way to rise above the noise on social media.

This is your chance to have a pure, honest conversation with your readers, and if they appreciate it, they’ll reward you by opening up your newsletter each time it’s sent — no reliance on Google’s black box or Facebook’s ever-changing algorithm.

Newsletters are a chance to have a pure, honest conversation with your readers, says @jfdimark. Click To Tweet

You send; they receive. And if you follow some of the tips above, then you’ll build up a loyal audience of readers — and that’s what every content marketer wants after all, isn’t it?

Want to be one of the 180,000+ subscribers to the CMI daily newsletter or weekly digest, which includes an exclusive letter from founder Joe Pulizzi? See how well we follow these tips. Subscribe today. It’s free!

Cover image by Viktor Hanacek, picjumbo

Author: Mark Walker

Mark Walker is an experienced B2B marketing leader and award winning content marketer. He’s a prolific blogger and speaker on all things digital, marketing, and content; and he loves to learn and connect with others interested in the trends shaping our future. Mark writes at swotnot, a blog that looks at the intersection of technology, marketing, and business. Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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  • http://bigwaterstudios.com Trina Gold

    Once again, great info, easy to digest – leaves me wanting for more. I’m not a candidate for a newsletter but many of my clients are. Thanks for making me look good.

    • http://welivecontent.com/ Mark Walker

      You’re welcome, glad you found it valuable!

  • heidicohen

    Mark–I agree a high quality newsletter for a highly qualified audience trumps other forms of content marketing. Even better you can get into the reader’s content inner circle. Happy marketing, Heidi Cohen–Actionable Marketing Guide

    • http://welivecontent.com/ Mark Walker

      Thanks Heidi! I definitely like that idea of being in their ‘inner circle.’

  • Ravi Pateriya

    Nice article Mark, I agree on most of your points, what is your thought on the length of the newsletter? I would certainly want to increase my subscriber base and engagement with the audience.

    • http://welivecontent.com/ Mark Walker

      As with all questions around how long or short something should be, it kind of depends – on your audience, your goals etc. – for example if your goals is to deliver great value and get a brilliant open rate, then you could send a long one with all the content and the value contained in the newsletter. However if you’re looking to get clicks and to drive traffic back to your site (where you might have additional gated offers to help nurture leads), then shorter probably works better. The key is to know your audience, know your goals and then experiment to find the right mix.

      • Ravi Pateriya

        Thanks Mark, as a marketing manager, I always believe in growing my audience organically and add value. I strongly believe that it is always P2P (person 2 person) instead of heavy marketing jargons B2B or B2C, you can’t sell without adding a value. In order to know the audience, what strategy do you suggest?

        • Saumitra M Ghotikar

          Liked it. P2P

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    Excellent article. I have read dozens and dozens of articles about how to create really good newsletters. They were all the same: boring. This one was full of great ideas and quite honestly, got me interested in reading the article and wishing it were a newsletter