Decoding newsletters, part one. The value of curated newsletters.

Newsletters, yes, newsletters are the best editorial innovation of our times.

The rise of digital platforms disrupted the news media in many ways, but one of the most acute was the declining role of publishers as curators. Newspapers – as TV news shows still do, although with fewer viewers year after year – do not only collect news: they order and give structure to the stories, telling you what is important, what is urgent, what is a side story.

Getting the right information – not all information, not the quickest information, but the right information – is still a crucial element of the value that readers, listeners and viewers expect from publishers.

When taken out of context – as simple URLs to put in front of users – news and stories become little more than a commodity or subject to the curation power – algorithmic, therefore irresponsible, if not highly manipulative – of platforms.

The battle publishers are fighting now is this: to recapture their curatorial power and let it be one of the value elements of a new relationship, and business model, with readers. That is why publishers use podcasts and newsletters so intensively. That is why some of their best creative energy goes to developing new and better offerings of newsletters.

Newsletters rose to new relevance. For many people in search of a curated experience and fed up with the noise of social media, newsletters have become a powerful new habit.

We live in troublesome times, with too much news and too much confusion. Every morning, you wake up and could be overwhelmed by information in less than an hour after sipping your coffee. But a good morning newsletter orders the universe. It says: <Look, this is important to start your day>.

What is valid for the publisher-reader relationship, that matters also for marketers and corporations. They generate content every day: they need to nourish their relationship with prospects and customers, and by doing that face the same challenges – to show value by curating the information experience they deliver to them and fighting their worst competitor: the noise.

That is why there is a lot you can learn from editorial newsletters. And that is why it is time well spent, the one you take to get inspiration from what publishers do. This post is the first of a two-part “back to basic” exploration of editorial newsletters by type, purpose and best practices.

A standalone product, not (only) a retention tool.

Newsletters are a standalone product. Do not obsess over driving readers to your website. Good newsletters convert without manipulating or forcing clicks, but delivering value. It is a value that readers can get without leaving the newsletter. 

Remember: receiving a newsletter has become the equivalent of a newspaper landing on your front door. Giving your email address to someone to receive a newsletter is like to open your house door: for doing that, you need to trust the sender. 

The purpose of a newsletter, in three bullet points: 

  • To curate information so to deliver relevant content. Be the trustful source.
  • To nourish the relationship, i.e. to improve loyalty and to prove the value you deliver to your customers.
  • A door opener: a first step to engage with future subscribers a/o customers 

The value for readers:

  • Relevancy. What I read is what I am interested in. 
  • Remove the noise. Newsletters and social feeds compete against each other. And you know what side I am on, don’t you? 😉
  • A means for personalisation. As a user, I select a set of newsletters to create my preferred information portfolio. 
  • Convenience: newsletters live in-the-pocket and on-the-go. They thrive in a mobile-first world. 

The value for publishers and for marketers:

  • There is no personal data more valuable than the personal email address you collect from newsletter subscribers. 
  • Newsletters are a powerful channel to collect feedback, constructive critics and suggestions. They work much better than a FB message. 
  • Many publishers still underestimate the direct monetisation opportunities of newsletters. They should learn from Axios: its revenues come mostly from newsletter sponsorships. 
  • Compared to social media traffic – often with high churn, low engagement, too much about single clicks and only sporadic visits – the visitors you get from newsletters subscribers are “premium”: they have a higher propensity to become paid subscribers, they are more loyal and read more, take part in a dialogue, and they are more open to sharing their data with you if you have significant value to deliver in exchange.

Want to launch a newsletter? Start from this.

1. What is the purpose of your newsletter? 

  • Reaching new audiences vs engaging existing ones. 
  • Showcase some content a/o introduce to some features. 
  • Brand building. 
  • Serve local communities. 
  • Create a context for placing branded content or advertising or sponsorships.  
  • Decrease the customer churn rate.
  • Speed up the commercial funnel and convert prospects. 

Whether you are a content creator, a publisher or a marketer, an editorial newsletter can have multiple purposes, but a multitude. Make clarity now on what your newsletter goal is. It will make it easier to develop it. 

2. What is the intended audience? 

We need here the same level of clarity. Targeting is key. If you have already audience/customer/buyer personas, use them to describe your newsletter readers. You might need to adjust those personas to understand better their information needs. Why shall they have an interest in reading your newsletter? What is their “Job-to-be-done”? 

3. What job must your newsletter do? 

  • What role will your newsletter play in their life? 
  • Help readers to sort out what matters most –> aka the “Digest” newsletter.
  • Help them to be the first to know something –> aka “Fight the FOMO syndrome”. 
  • Make it easier to understand complex topics? –> The “explainer”.
  • Give readers something they can apply to their daily life? –> aka the “Utility”
  • Help to learn something new and to improve –> aka “life hacking” and “instructional” newsletters.
  • Five minutes on the light side of life. –> The “entertaining newsletter”.
  • Strengthen readers identity? –> aka “Connection”, “Belonging”.
  • Save time for your readers –> aka “Optimisation” (The “news, bur shorter” of Vox).
  • Prepare readers to what comes next –> aka “Agenda setting”.
  • Help to live better in the local community –> aka “Local pride”, “Sense of community”.
  • Feeling in sync with the times –> aka trend-awareness or trend-setting.
  • How to spend your free time –> aka “What to do in..”.
  • Start a debate/conversation –> aka “Social impact”, “Drive action”.
  • Save money –> aka “Deals”.

The list can be much longer than that. Find the job your newsletter must do.

That will be the foundation of the content development and format design, whose pillars are: 

1/3 Topical focus, breadth of content. 

It is easy to derail with content. You start with a focus and end with miscellany. It is the biggest mistake most content marketers still do with their blogs and newsletters. To avoid that: stick to the purpose and to the job your newsletter aims to do. Remember that good newsletters bring back curation to the forefront of media. As curated experiences, they make a deliberate choice on what to feature. That choice is part of its positioning and value proposition. 

2/3 Voice and personality.

The best newsletters have a distinctive voice. You read a newsletter, and you know who is behind. More and more, the tone of editorial newsletters is developing into a very personal one: the voice of a friend, albeit a smart and clever one. 

That personality must be clear from start to finish. It begins with a subject line that not only previews the content but sets the tone. Serious, lighter, empathic, or ironic. 

In the next two issues of this newsletter, I will provide you with some links and example. But to start, look at one of the most successful newsletters startups in the USA. 

  • The Skimm, a millennial-female oriented small media empire, has been sometimes criticised for being oversimplistic. However, the very personal, “Let-us-take-a-cup-of-coffee-together” tone of voice, made the Skimm newsletter rock among the thirty-something ladies, and not only.

3/3 Format and reading experience. 

I will cover the newsletter formats and reader experience in the next newsletter issue. For now, consider that a newsletter – as a habit-forming product – must let readers know what to expect. As a digital editorial product, it should develop by trying things out and making errors. But that does not mean you can surprise your readers too much and too often. 

First, let us consider these foundational elements: 

  • More text or more visuals? What about sound and audio files? 
  • To read in-the-mailbox or to skim and click to reach content on the web? 
  • More narrative (Such as the most New York Times newsletters) or more bullet-point-by-bullet-point (such as Vox Sentences or Axios)? 
  • A curated digest of existing content or some/most/all content created explicitly for the newsletter? 

Answer these questions from the beginning. It will help your workflow and resource planning: what about photo sourcing, audio editing, curation queue, one or more writers, dedicated or not? 

Finally, how will you measure the success of your newsletter? To decide on measurement, you need again to remind your newsletter goal. 

You need not obsess about dozens of metrics: focus on the ones that matter to your goal. 

Not all newsletters need to have lots of people clicking to get to your site every time. Not all newsletters need to have a 100% open rate. Some metrics are not straightforward, but they are crucial: do you aim at producing a change in readers’ behaviour? Do you want readers to write back to you? 

How important is it to have a percentage of your readers are so engaged to share the newsletter with their friends? Hint: when something like that happens, that means you have done a fantastic job. To share links on social media is vanilla. People share stuff on social without even reading it. To share a newsletter is a real endorsement. 

In the next posts: 2/3 A taxonomy of newsletters: format and reading experience. 3/3 Ten things great newsletters do: inspirations for your next project.