By Marcia Riefer Johnston published March 13, 2018

How the Best Newsletters Get – and Keep – Readers’ Attention

best-newsletters-keep-readers-attentionNobody wants more email. Yet, as a marketer you want your prospects to want more email – to want your newsletters, at least.

How do you create a newsletter so compelling that people not only subscribe to it but also continually look forward to receiving and reading it?

Scott Monty, CEO and co-managing partner at Brain+Trust Partners, has a few thoughts on this conundrum. Aside from publishing his own weekly newsletter, The Full Monty, he enjoys reading and evaluating other newsletters. He shared some of his favorites – and his reasons for liking them – at Content Marketing World in his talk How to Build and Maintain an Audience with a Remarkable Email Newsletter.

Try a little cleverness

Who says your newsletter can’t make people smile?

Scott points to The Hustle, which describes itself as “a daily email with a handful of the important stories in business, tech, and culture that you should probably know.” The Hustle makes it onto Scott’s list of favorites because, he says, “it’s brief and speaks to me in colloquial language.”

The colloquial language gives the hard facts a touch of cleverness. Here’s an example from The Hustle’s version of a story about Lyft, the on-demand ride company. The writer holds little hope that Lyft will succeed in its attempt to serve sparsely populated areas. “Will you really be able to hail a ride in the remote reaches of Alaska after a long day of ice fishing and dog-sledding?” At the end, the link to the full story on The Hustle website has this label: “Your ride will be here in 177 minutes.”


The Hustle doesn’t stick to just the facts. The editorial team throws in content that delights them. For example, Scott looks forward to the weekly section called Friday Shower Thoughts, which has all the wryness of a Steven Wright routine. Scott says, “The Hustle builds in this cadence, this expectation, so that I know what I’m going to get when I get to that section of the newsletter every Friday.”


In your newsletters, build in a cadence so your readers know what they're going to get, says @scottmonty. Click To Tweet

Here’s a snippet from a Hustle story about The New York Times that caught my eye because it gives a twist to the first joke I ever heard.


This not yet 3-year-old newsletter has more than a million subscribers and boasts open rates of 40% to 60%.

Is your newsletter all work, or does it include a little play?

Deliver news in new ways

Besides providing news stories worth reading, consider how you might get inventive in your delivery.

Quartz has one of the most inventive news apps out there,” Scott says. It delivers bite-size news in a style that mimics the behavior of text messages, complete with text bubbles that float up as if someone is speed-typing them, GIFs, and buttons that readers click to choose what happens next.


Readers have three types of choices to indicate what they want to see next:

  • The small blue arrow to the right of a text bubble brings up the full story, which may be on the Quartz website or on another site.
  • The blue button at the bottom left brings up a few bubbles on related stories.
  • The blue button on the bottom right brings up a single bubble on an unrelated story.

As I played with the Quartz app – I mean, as I did research for this article – it took me a while to catch on to the way the two blue buttons work. The left button icons relate to the content of the preceding story. In the screen shot above, for example, the paper-and-pencil icon represents Warren Buffet’s letter, and the bag of money represents the topic of money. If you click that button, you see more Warren Buffet stories.

The button on the right (in this case, “next”) means you’re done with Warren Buffet. Clicking this button means, “OK, Quartz, what else you got?”

The IM-like delivery isn’t the only reason people have downloaded the app over 1 million times in two years. This fresh approach has certainly contributed to its success.

Another factor, according to Quartz’s Director of Communications Sona Rai, is the way the app has been showcased in the Apple app store and in Apple’s physical stores for its augmented-reality capabilities.

The @QZ app's IM-like delivery is one reason for its 1 million + downloads. @ScottMonty Read more >> Click To Tweet
HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: Learn more about the Quartz story, How to Grow Your Audience from Zero to Millions in Less Than Five Years

Tell stories you’re passionate about

It’s obvious and worth restating: Readers won’t be drawn to your content if you weren’t drawn to it first.

Josh Spector takes this wisdom to heart in his newsletter, For the Interested, another of Scott’s favorites. This newsletter – “a weekly collection of 10 ideas to help you learn, do, and become better at your work, art, and life” – points readers to recent articles that Josh has either created or curated.

His premise is simple: “I collect ideas and love to share them.” He doesn’t publish anything unless it first sparks his own interest.

When I hopped over to the website to see whether this newsletter is all that Scott made it out to be, one of Josh’s picks caught my eye: Craftsmanship—The Alternative to the Four-Hour Work Week Mindset. I read the article top to bottom, including this line: If you “think of a business as a series of hacks and transactional relationships, you’ll never amass the expertise that your future self and future businesses need to succeed.”

This piece – curated by Josh – touched something in me. The author argued eloquently for the possibility of people finding deep satisfaction in their work, as opposed to looking for ways to do less of it. I was inspired, and I was reminded of the pleasure that my writing can bring me when I’m not fantasizing about chucking it all to go off to an island and read books all day.

I see why Scott trusts Josh’s judgment and looks forward to the For the Interested newsletter every week.

Do your stories inspire you?

Do your stories inspire you, asks @marciarjohnston. #storytelling Read more >> Click To Tweet

Develop your nose for news

As tempting as it may be to use computer science to figure out what content to publish, the most important algorithm remains a discerning human being.

Scott declares his favorite newsletter to be Next Draft by Dave Pell, self-proclaimed managing editor of the internet. “Dave has more tabs open every single day than you could dream – more than you’ve opened in the past week,” Scott says.

Dave has so many testimonials for his newsletter that none of us has enough sticks to shake at them. To see what I mean, go to Next Draft and scroll down.

Keep scrolling.

Eventually, you get to this statement from Dave:

I am the algorithm. Each morning I visit about 75 news sites, and from that swirling nightmare of information quicksand, I pluck the top 10 most fascinating items of the day, which I deliver with a fast, pithy wit that will make your computer device vibrate with delight. No bots. No computer algorithms.

Fancy that. The managing editor of the internet relies not on big data or digital algorithms but on his singular, analog, non-scalable nose for news.

The internet's managing editor curates with his singular, analog, non-scalable nose for news, says @ScottMonty. Click To Tweet

If you’re curating content, how much time do you invest in sniffing out the best stories?


Whether you’re starting a newsletter or reinvigorating one, take a few tips from newsletter lover Scott Monty:

  • Try a little cleverness.
  • Deliver news in new ways.
  • Tell stories you’re passionate about.
  • Develop your nose for news.

What else do you do to bring in new subscribers and keep the old? 

Here’s an excerpt from Scott’s talk: 

Please note:  All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Capture great insight from speakers like Scott Monty in person. Attend Content Marketing World 2018. Register today and use code BLOG100 to save $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

Other posts by Marcia Riefer Johnston

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