PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 2015
by Jane Friedman, Columnist, Publisher’s Weekly
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 e-mail newsletter rather than the postcard. While e-mail lists have many uses (from selling your books to delivering paid subscription content), their most immediate use for writers and publishers is keeping readers and professional connections informed about what you’re doing.
Regular e-mail contact with readers creates a long string of impressions, so that your name stays at the forefront of their minds. When an opportunity arises—a book club needs a new book to read, 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 e-mail, it may seem counterintuitive to categorize the e-mail newsletter as one of the more effective, even intimate, forms of digital communication. However, e-mail has so far proven to be a more long-term and stable tool than social media, which is constantly shifting. Unlike social media posts that disappear in readers’ feeds as more posts follow, e-mails are seldom missed.
And you truly own your e-mail list, unlike your Facebook or Twitter accounts. If you use people’s e-mail addresses with respect (more on that below), those addresses can become resources that grow more valuable over time.
So let’s take a look at the big picture first, and then a look at how to set up the technical operation.
Getting started with an e-mail newsletter is simple and also free. A few principles are important.
Decide on frequency and stick to it. Your efforts will be doubly successful if you’re consistent with timing. 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 your subscribers are with your work (or the bigger fans they are), the less likely it is that you’ll encounter this problem.
High frequency is associated with list fatigue, leading people to 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.
Keep it short, sweet, and structured. Hardly anyone will complain that your e-mails are too short; the more frequently you send, the shorter your e-mails should probably be. It can also help to deliver the same structure every time. Every newsletter sent by the journalist Ann Friedman (no relation) has links to what she’s recently published and what she’s been reading, plus an animated GIF of the week. I send a newsletter twice a month that’s called Electric Speed and that focuses on specific digital media tools and news of interest to writers.
Be specific and honest about what people are signing up for. Your newsletter sign-up form should tell 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 and 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 another novelist, who gets increased visibility to an audience of more than 20,000 subscribers; and lets Lyons serve her community in a valuable way.
To minimize the likelihood of subscriber fatigue, study your own behavior with the newsletters you get. How much do you read? What catches your eye? Where’s the value that prevents you from unsubscribing?
Because subscribers probably won’t open every message and will skim your content, it’s important to:
- Have a unique subject line for every send.
- Make your content easy to scan at a glance (assuming that makes sense for it). Subheads, lists, bolded text, and other visual cues can help readers quickly find what interests them.
- Provide a table of contents for lengthy newsletters, and sometimes even for short ones.
- Include important links at least twice, maybe three times.
- For really important items (anything that requires an action), use a high-impact visual: a high-contrast box, an accompanying image, or a button.
Many newsletters focus on “great things I’ve read/consumed,” which adds to people’s time burdens. Be sensitive to the commitment you’re asking for and think about whether you might go against the grain and save people time.
Building and Caring for Your List
Before you start building an e-mail newsletter list, you need to have your own website or blog. You could start by putting out calls on social media, too, but in the long term, they won’t serve you best 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 site (see below) is essential. If the site gets even a small amount of traffic, the list should grow without you having to do anything.
Aside from your own site, the only tool you need is a formal e-mail newsletter service that automates the subscription process, stores the subscribers’ e-mail addresses, and archives newsletter issues. Some of the most popular services are MailChimp, TinyLetter, Constant Contact, Campaign Monitor, and AWeber.
All these services offer very similar features and pricing. Having tried TinyLetter, and used CampaignMonitor, I use MailChimp, which I like both because it’s easy for non-tech people to use and because it’s free until your list has 2,000 names.
Most e-mail services work on a double opt-in basis. This means that anyone who subscribes to your newsletter has to confirm subscribing by clicking on a link in an e-mail. This is a best practice and will keep you from building a poor-quality list.
It is possible to add names to your list manually without confirmation of the wish to subscribe, but don’t do it. You should never add someone who hasn’t given you permission to do so. The No. 1 reason e-mail newsletters get a bad reputation is because people break this rule. Just connecting with someone on LinkedIn or through a conference or by finding an e-mail address on the person’s website doesn’t give you permission to add that person to your e-mail newsletter list.
Before you start sending or publicizing your e-mail newsletter, take care of the following housekeeping items.
Customize your automated subscribe/unsubscribe forms. You can customize the header, the text, and the kind of information you collect from subscribers. To get the highest number of sign-ups, ask only for the e-mail address and subscriber name (and maybe make the name optional). If you ask for other information you can use it later to target your messages to specific subscribers, which will make your list more valuable but will also reduce the number of sign-ups. And you can customize the confirmation, thank-you, and unsubscribe messages that people receive.
Decide what mailing address to use. Federal law requires that anyone sending e-mail in bulk or for marketing purposes include an unsubscribe option (this will automatically be included in your messages), and also a physical mailing address. Individuals who want or need to maintain privacy often fudge on this; Ann Friedman’s e-mails come from “The Best Lil’ Bungalow in Los Angeles CA 90026 USA.”
Add the sign-up link or code to your website. Whichever service you choose will give you several ways to offer your sign-up form to subscribers. Generally, you link to the sign-up form directly at your service’s site, or you embed the sign-up directly into your website—in a page, a post, a header, a footer, or a sidebar area—which will get you more subscribers. You don’t need to know or understand code to do this; providers give you the code to paste into your site, and it works automatically.
Decide whether to include an “ethical bribe” such as a free digital download to entice people to subscribe. While this will definitely boost sign-ups, it can also lead to lower-quality names or bring in 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 and never 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.
Long-Term Growth and Management
If you’ve already experimented with e-mail 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 focused more strongly on digital news and tools I’ve discovered that have the potential to make authors’ and publishers’ lives more easy, efficient, or productive. I’ve also created two additional lists for people interested only in my blog content. The incredible thing: there is almost no overlap among these three lists.
Of course, 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. But you should also consider the following to boost engagement:
- Be direct and conversational with your subscribers: Ask them at the end of your newsletter to respond about what they liked or didn’t like. Ask them what they’d like to see next.
- Consider adding a reader-contributed segment to build response, interaction, and open rates.
- Over time, segment your list to target your messages better. Most e-mail services offer sophisticated segmentation tools that allow you to send selected messages to specific types of subscribers. You can segment your list from the get-go by asking people for more information during their initial sign-up (give them several options about preferred frequency, focus area, and so on), or by making executive decisions (e.g., deciding to make a separate list of subscribers with low open rates). More lists and more segmentation don’t necessarily mean more work for you, and they usually help you do a better job of targeting your messages and sending most often to people who are highly engaged while sending very selectively to those who are not.
- Use serialization, which can work wonders and which needn’t be daily (or even weekly). What could you do to hook subscribers into looking forward to the next newsletter? What could you divide into installments, or how could you leave people with a bit of a cliffhanger?
- Create a strong close. 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 scroll to the end just to see what’s there. How could you close your newsletters?
It’s easy to pigeonhole e-mail as a practical (even boring) means of communication, but it can be used as a creative publishing medium that’s easy to read, share, save, and later repurpose. What if you had a limited-time e-mail newsletter that delivered a specific story series? What if you changed the theme of your newsletter every month? What if a reader had to search for clues in each newsletter? Expand your idea of what e-mail can do.
Jane Friedman teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. Formerly publisher and editorial director at Writer’s Digest, she often gives talks about the publishing industry and the future of authorship, and she blogs at JaneFriedman.com.