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A quick guide to building newsletters

A quick guide to building newsletters


In 2009, The Wall Street Journal declared email dead. “Email has had a good run as king of communications,” the newspaper wrote. “But its reign is over.” Well, wrong. Newsletters have been back for a while no and they are bigger than ever. However, there’s still a lot to be done. Sending an automated digest of stories is no longer effective in the increasingly crowded and competitive inbox.

Media companies have been rediscovering the power of email in recent years, optimizing and building out newsletters to amplify their work and create new connections with readers in their inboxes. TheSkimm is perhaps the most famous example, but other outlets and individuals such as Quartz, What the Fuck Just Happened Today?, and Ann Friedman have used email to grow a captive audience, develop diverse revenue streams, and establish new content formats.

In 2016, NPR Digital Media designers Libby Bawcombe and Veronica Erb did a comprehensive review of internal and external newsletters to figure out what works well in that space. This were their findings:

Properly launching a newsletter takes time and strategic thought about the type of email you want to create, the audience you’re trying to reach, how you’ll manage workflow, and more. News products, including newsletters, tend to succeed if they offer clear value to a specific audience.

You shouldn’t start a newsletter without thinking deeply: what are your goals? How will your newsletter complement — and differ from — newsletter products that already exist? When executed strategically, newsletters are ideal for reaching readers directly and for building regular engagement habits. When you don’t think about this objectives, you’ll get unsubscribes.

It’s interesting to bear in mind that most newsletters are built around one of these four things:

  • Identity — who you are, what you care about
  • Service — content and stories you want more of
  • Utility — content and stories you need more of
  • Personality — stories built around a specific person

Focus on one of them.

Another couple of questions you should answer is: Who are your newsletter subscribers? How do you want to serve that audience? What do they need from you? What’s your audience behavior towards newsletters? Are they used to them.

You are not going to send the same newsletter to American global health workers, K-12 educators in Spain, basketball superfans or young people who want to understand politics and don’t watch TV. You need to know their needs. Also, do they hang out mostly on Instagram? Do they listen to podcasts on Spotify? Do they read the Quartz Daily Brief newsletter? Do they tweet? Get insights on their digital behaviors.

After getting to know who your audience is you’ll have to concentrate on your newsletter as a product. These are some questions that might guide you:

  • What’s the personality?
  • How is the design going to be?
  • How often would your newsletter go out (daily/weekly/monthly) and at what time of day?
  • What are some ideas for the name of the newsletter?
  • What is the length?
  • What are the subheaders/sections you’ll break this into?
  • Who will write, copyedit, produce, and send your newsletter?
  • Who will analyze analytics?
  • How does this fit into your team’s workflow?
  • How will you maintain a healthy email list and monitor its performance?
  • How will you collect feedback from newsletter subscribers?
  • How often will you revisit your strategy?

Then you’ll need to move on to metrics to see how successful your news is and try to optimize it.

Some metrics to consider are: traffic to your site, list growth, open rates, click-to-open rates, engaged minutes (on site), revenue (from ads/consumer revenue). You’ll probably have to choose one of these as the key metric for your newsletter.

Also, think about call to actions and forms. How will your audience subscribe to your news? Pop-up forms? Embebed forms? Banners? You need to let them in!

Last step before sending: test your news. Email testing (also known as A/B testing) can be used to optimize your newsletter campaigns. Even varying the subject line in an email can lead to statistically significant improvements. In general, it is a best practice to test something on every email, even if it is something as trivial-seeming as a subject line.

#Bonus: Some resources you might find helpful.

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