Newsletters 101: How to get opened, read & clicked

There’s marketing magic happening when people ‘opt-in’ to receive your newsletter. They want to hear from you! But are you making the most of that opportunity? Here’s how to write a newsletter that builds relationships that build businesses.

Email marketing: Cutting through the noise since 1991

In 2015, RedCrow Marketing found that the average person saw between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements each day. Though more recent numbers aren’t available, it’s safe to say that the number has risen.

How many do you remember seeing today? Just this morning? Maybe one retargeting ad for those trousers you’ve been considering.

But we can’t just ignore emails. At a minimum, we have to read their headlines to decide whether to delete, mark as spam, or actually open them.

Still, the number one reason people unsubscribe from emails is that they simply get too many. It’s called email fatigue, and marketers and small businesses are trying everything they can think of to stay in the inbox.

“Given how much spam and cc'd dreck we get, people fiercely guard the sanctity of their email. They don't opt to receive more unless they mean to read it.”—Rise of the Newsletter by Clive Thompson, Wired

It’s the emails we request—like coupons or updates from our favorite stores, or newsletters that help us do our jobs or live our lives better—that gain our notice.

Still, in the war for consumer attention, email newsletters have the edge, because we opt in. We say “yes, I want this in my life.” And that is a powerful place to start, when you want to get people to eventually buy.

The Newsletter Renaissance

Newsletters hit big in the 1990s when they, and the internet, were new. And then they kind of disappeared for a while, relegated to providing actual ‘news’ from companies (which was really fairly dull).

But in 2010, Phil Kaplan launched TinyLetter, a tool that made running a newsletter simpler, and the Newsletter form began to take off again.

It was different this time. Very different.

Unique, even.

Newsletters today are like snowflakes—they all fall under the same category, but individually, they’re completely different. They serve different purposes, increasingly specific audiences, and have completely different designs.

Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter began as a platform for young women to discuss feminist issues and has grown to more than 400,000 readers.

Get your voice heard with these bright and captivating newsletter templates

The Ann Friedman Weekly is just two paragraphs with texts and links, written by freelance journalist Ann Friedman. The first paragraph is “This week” and shares a personal story or Ann’s thoughts on current events. The second paragraph is what she’s reading that week with links to each article. It’s essentially a ‘roundup’ style newsletter of curated content that she created to engage and grow her readership. It works because her readers know she’s directing them towards content she, personally, finds interesting.

Ann Friedman Weekly uses custom headers for its newsletters

Create the right email header for your brand with these templates

Weird, quirky, eclectic newsletters littered with GIFs do well, like TwoBossyDames.

Create inspired designs for your newsletter with these nature-themed graphics.

Extremely personal, thoughtful, text-only reflections on individual writers’ lives find an appreciative audience, like Madeleine Forbes’ The Seasoned Year, which she writes about her experiences living on an off-grid smallholding in Portugal. It’s about reconnecting with the cycles of the year and living a bit slower. It’s a beautiful read I never miss, no matter how busy I am. Especially when I’m busy.

Invite your people to join your online community with these cozy announcements

And then there are the more practical newsletters about businessy things. The one I write, Sunday Brunch with Nichole, is about building online communities around software-as-a-service products. My newsletter is text-heavy, but segmented out (much like a blog post) with header copy, original images, and GIFs.

Get your #girlboss on with these business-ready templates.

My can’t-miss industry newsletter is Talia Wolf’s weekly email from her company GetUplift.

Talia Wolf is one of the best conversion rate optimization experts in the world. She’s the go-to person for marketing with emotion, and was recently voted one of the most influential voices in conversion optimization. She’s taught CRO on the stages of Google, Unbounce, MozCon, and ConversionXL (among others), and co-founded Conversioner before running GetUplift, a CRO consulting and training company.

So when I tell you that her emails are good, I want you to understand just how good, and why I have a collection of them in my swipe-file.

Design-wise, they’re deceptively simple. Just text. But that text sucks you in.

Get Uplift uses mostly text on their newsletters, but uses formatting like bullet points to emphasize ideas.

She starts with a personal story that’s related to the useful thing she’s going to teach you (when you click over to the main post), and then she lists bullet points of what you’ll learn. The purpose of this short and sweet approach is to get readers to click through to the blog, or the interview, or the video. And it works, every time.

What do these incredibly diverse, unique newsletters have in common? Each one has a niche audience it serves. Each delivers content that’s relevant to that audience - stuff that interests them, informs them, makes them happy.

And, each one has a personality behind it. A unique perspective, with attitude, to offer. They’re personal, and personable. They offer a sense of connection between the writers and their readerships.

How the heck can you do that?

Since Talia Wolf is my favorite newsletterist and conversion expert (who teaches entire courses on email marketing), I asked her to weigh in on what we can do to make our newsletters better. Here is Talia’s recipe for writing newsletters people open, read and love.

Decide on your goal

“Why are you writing this newsletter? Every email you send - newsletter or otherwise - has a goal, otherwise why are you sending it? The goal doesn’t have to be getting someone to buy. It might just be building a relationship - that’s a conversion goal too, of a kind.

Maybe it’s, ‘I’m going to get them to read my blog so I can establish my authority.’

Or maybe, ‘I want them to get to know me and build a relationship based on trust.’

Sometimes I’ll send emails without a link to anyone. Just content. Maybe it just says what’s going on in my life, or tells a funny story. If I’m creating a good relationship with people, then when I do need to sell to them, they’re going to be more open to it. They’ll feel good about it.”

Write for one reader

“You have to write for your reader - that’s what makes a successful email. You’re writing for them, to help with their pain.

My strategy when writing any email is to think about the value of this email to the reader. What will I help the reader do? That they need to do.

Then I think of one person in my life, who I know very well (my mom, a friend, a client or colleague), that if they read this, their life will improve.

When I go to write the email, I write “Dear Mom (or whoever it is)” and write it to her. Then I go back and remove the name, and there’s the email.

I write for one person only, every time. And it’s always someone different.”

Be yourself

“The once or twice I’ve tried to sound like someone else, it’s never worked. It’s tanked. For me, being my authentic self is the key. Just being Talia. The Talia who sometimes has spelling mistakes (because I’m not a native English speaker). If I make a mistake, I say so. And I think that’s why people feel more comfortable replying back to my emails and starting conversations.

In the past, when I had a startup company, I tried to write the email sequence but it didn’t feel authentic. It wasn’t my voice. And I could see the results (not good).

"Being able to write in my own voice is a crucial part. You don’t have to be an individual to do this - you can do this as a company too, but your voice has to have one, distinguishable personality.”

Be as helpful as possible

“Being helpful always comes back to you in some way. Readers forward these emails. Maybe later they enroll in one of my courses, or invite me to speak at an event.

All of that comes out of giving your readers information they actually need, cutting out any fluff, and making it enjoyable.”

Put the reader’s name in—but not at the beginning

“I like using personalization in a more advanced way. MailChimp lets you automatically insert the first name of your subscriber when you put in [name] text, and most people do it one way:

‘Dear [name],
Blah blah blah

But that’s not how we speak to each other. It doesn’t sound natural. It’s even off-putting. When you take that [name] out of the beginning and put it in the body of the email, it’s much more natural. Put it right in the middle, where it makes sense.

Then start your emails like a conversation with a friend.

‘You won’t believe what happened to me at the store last week, Nichole. It drove me nuts!’

That’s how we talk.”

You don’t have to be fancy

“Plain text, for me, always. The more basic you can make your emails look, the more personal it feels. As if it’s a Gmail you’re sending to your mother.

But some businesses and brands can’t do that. They have brand guides. But you still don’t have to have design-heavy emails. GIFs are fine. But design-heavy emails typically don’t get past bots and filters, where text-based, simple designs do.

Definitely add a GIF or personal photo when you can. Even when you’re writing for a company, you can personalize every communication by taking a snapshot of what’s happening around the office. Why not send an email with a photo of people working on the product to thank a new purchaser for buying?"

At the end of the day, the key to any email or newsletter you send is building a relationship.

The design you choose goes back to knowing your reader

“Ultimately, whether you go plain text or GIF-happy, lots of design or minimal - that decision should be based on your knowledge of your readers, what they want and what they need.

But it helps to think of design this way: Use design to help your reader find the most important information.

Use color and images as directional cues that tell the reader ‘If you read one thing, it should be THIS.’ If one sentence is important, don’t make it black - make it stand out in orange or red or blue. But stay consistent. Make your calls-to-action (ie. ‘click here’ buttons) all the same color, all the time. Because if you confuse people, they won’t click on anything.

That’s using design in a way that focuses on the reader, what they need, and helping them find it.”

Community Growth at Zest.is. Moderator at Product Hunt and Growth Hackers. Previously: Growth at Inbound.org. I teach SaaS Founders how to build, engage, and grow communities for their SaaS products. Check out my book: The SaaS Growth Playbook.