How to start your own media newsletter

The highly prescriptive and opinionated Splice guide to setting up your own email newsletter

A good email newsletter is about starting a conversation. Design: Rishad Patel Illustration: unDraw
A good email newsletter is about starting a conversation. Design: Rishad Patel Illustration: unDraw

You’re a journalist or a social media manager or a comms business lead or a media distribution analyst or a media startup. Or whatever — but you have a point of view. Maybe you read what’s roiling out there in the whirlpool that is contemporary media. You might have that gift of curatorial oversight to string it all together; that editorial bullshit-meter to separate fact, opinion, and fiction; and the ability to write some of it yourself.

It’s time to do a newsletter.

This is a highly-prescriptive and opinionated guide to the principles of setting up your own email newsletter, not a technical manual. At Splice, we currently use MailChimp (because it’s free for your first 2,000 subscribers; we’re now well past that mark and on a paid plan), but you’re welcome to use Campaign Monitor, TinyLetter, Drip, ConvertKit, Substack, or others.

WHY NEWSLETTERS?

Simply put: It’s a direct channel to your audience. Even intimate, as far as media goes. You’re speaking directly to someone, in their inbox. You’re earning the right to interrupt their day by providing something useful, or at least interesting.

For many young reporters — and this is an emerging trend — it’s a way to write in a personal voice, in a personal style. It’s also a way to demonstrate your domain expertise, something you don’t often get under a big masthead.

But there is another good reason: You own your data. It’s not Facebook’s. It’s yours. You know who your readers are, you have their email addresses, and you get to talk to them directly without an intermediary.

Your list is made up of real people who have allowed you into some of the most prime real estate in the world: their inbox. Respect that. Design: Rishad Patel Illustration: unDraw
Your list is made up of real people who have allowed you into some of the most prime real estate in the world: their inbox. Respect that. Design: Rishad Patel Illustration: unDraw

YOUR LIST

Your audience — your subscribers — is where it all begins.

Your list is arguably the most important part of anything you do with your newsletter. Basic human decency is a good way to think about it: your list is made up of real people who have allowed you into some of the most prime real estate in the world: their inbox. Never abuse this privilege. Treat them with respect, don’t spam, and don’t take them for granted.

Above all, trust matters. Don’t underestimate how easy it is to lose it. Go out of your way to explain how you’re using their email details. Are you passing it to third parties? Disclose. Don’t sell their privacy for profit, and if you must, then inform them in clear human language, don’t hide it in 4-pt bullshit legalese.

Do you know about ten people — friends, industry peers you actually know, your aunt — who might be interested in your newsletter and who won’t mind being added to your alpha list? Ask them if it’s okay to send them your first newsletter, and add in their email addresses. This is the beginning of your list.

Managing your list

If people aren’t opening your newsletters, it makes no sense to keep them hanging around. It doesn’t matter how many subs you have if they’re not opening your newsletters. Maybe they’re just too polite to tell you. Maybe they can’t find the unsubscribe button, or are too lazy.

So prune regularly. Ultimately, your open rate is more important than your total subs. Remember, you want to be loved, not liked. So get a glass of wine (it’ll be painful!), sort out your subscriber list to show the people who haven’t bothered to open your newsletter in the past few months, and unsubscribe them. No shame.

Building the community

A newsletter isn’t just an email. It’s a membership card.

Announce your new subscribers. It does two things: it makes them feel part of a great community and it shows everyone else that you have great readers. Social validation is currency.

Along the same lines, take the time to thank people for the insights (or links) that they’ve given you. You have a powerful stage here to introduce people to the community. Use it.

How do you give more to your members? Remember, it’s not just a newsletter. Find a way to get them discounts to conferences, tools, and other interesting opportunities. Negotiate for promo codes. Maybe a free month on Trello. Take them out for a beer. You’re not just curating content; you’re opening doors.

CONTENT

Start the conversation

There’s no point in building a community if you’re not going to start a conversation. The first time is when you’re telling people why they should sign up and what you’ll do for them. The second time is when they actually do.

See that new subscriber confirmation that came your way? Now you have an email address — and the permission to talk to that person. Use it respectfully. Drop them an email to thank them. Then ask simple questions to get the conversation going: How did you come across this? What do you do? Don’t leave it to your email platforms to do this. Auto-responders are overrated.

For Splice, this has been one of the best things we’ve done. Sure, it takes a bit more time. But you’re redefining scale here. We’ve found that a simple hello has led to amazing conversations (sometimes IRL). Sometimes we’ve found new projects to work on together. Sometimes we’ve found a new idea that we can’t shake. It’s amazing.

In the newsletter itself, take every opportunity to tell people that they can just hit reply. Reply if you like this. Reply if you want our latest presentation. Reply if you want to grab a coffee. Go out of your way to show that you’re accessible.

What’s an email editorial policy?

Well, think of those ten people on your alpha list. What problems could they have that your email may solve for them? What stories or articles do you think they would be interested in? What fresh thing could you bring them that they haven’t already had flung in their faces because of some gratuitous retargeting algorithm? It’s about relevance.

Remember, this is email in 2018, which, if you’re like most people, is hell. At best, it’s a to-do list. At worst, it’s filled with Reply All cretins saying “k thx” and people trying to sell you things.

Be the reason people want to open their inbox.

If your email is structured mainly around a content policy of “here’s some cool stuff I read around the internet that I think you might find interesting” (this is actually an excellent editorial policy, and one of the main reasons people send good email, if you think about it)  then do it well enough so that they have the benefit of your specific take on the subject — even if they have seen the stories elsewhere. An informed opinion is a rare thing, and can be a valuable addition to ones reading habits.

Your email content policy could also be “here are 3 things about media tech you need to know this week to make you the smartest person at the conference after-party”. Do your research. It can be a good idea to mix it up: structure your content to include a variety of media, opinions, and sources. It may sound obvious, but if you’re linking to articles, podcasts, and videos, make sure you read, listen to, and watch them first.

Don’t make it complicated. Some of the best email I’ve received — including email for work — discusses a single idea well. Your newsletter content may just be “people in media news this week” to be relevant with your audience.

Brevity is a good thing.

Nobody wants to read your novel on email. Keep it short. How many articles or items should you have? You will find your sweet spot if you do your research, experiment, and ask for feedback.

The best newsletter design is built around how easy it is to read. Design: Rishad Patel Illustration: unDraw
The best newsletter design is built around how easy it is to read. Design: Rishad Patel Illustration: unDraw

DESIGN

Here’s your chance to add text drop shadows, lots of stock images of happy people leaping at sunsets, and buttons saying “Click here!!!!!”

(That was a joke. Please don’t do this. Thanks.)

The best text size is a readable one.

Good design solves problems, so think about all the email you hate, and why you hate it. Up there on my list of emails I hate are the ones you have to pinch-zoom on mobile to read. Make your email responsive, and make sure that text size is readable. For Splice emails, we use Arial at 19px, which is pretty massive, but our readers are mostly journalists and media execs who are used to working with large screenfuls of the stuff, so we like to make it easy for them.

Align things well.

Email, like the rest of the web, is mostly linear, so keep your alignment consistent for a better reading experience. Remember not to centre- or right-align (for left-to-right scripts) large chunks of text.

Get the hierarchy right.

Structure your headlines, body text, images, links, and other elements so that your reader knows intuitively where to start reading, which stories they can dig into or just snack on, what’s clickable and what isn’t, and where one story ends and another begins. This works when you have a lead story or image that anchors the page well, usually at the top. Delineating sections clearly with spaces or lines or color will make for good vertical rhythm and some very grateful readers.

Remember the skimmers and the scanners.

Some readers skim, which means they’re okay just to read your summaries without clicking through to the link, and some scan the text, picking up on key words and headlines, especially if they are high in visual hierarchy (bold, caps, underlined, differently-colored text, etc). I love newsletter segments that are written and designed in a way that gives me the gist of the story even if I don’t click the link to read the whole story. This allows me to decide how much time and attention to give that email for that moment. Then I can choose to actually come back to it and read the two or three things in more detail after my meeting. At Splice, we have people reopening our emails several times, sometimes months after we’ve sent them.

So kill that clickbait.

Allow for a complete summary of the story in your newsletter. One of the best ways to disrespect and alienate your reader is to leave them hanging: “These Three Newsletter Hacks Can Win You Millions of Subscribers — and a Flat Tummy!!!”

Use images, including illustrations, infographics, and icons — but only if they add to the story.

It’s best to leave images out if they bring nothing to the table. Nobody will ever write to you saying they miss the grip-and-grin group photo. Take or draw your own pics, if that’s something you do, or check for Creative Commons image usage on Flickr, use free images from Unsplash, or sign up to Shutterstock or iStock. And again, this should be obvious, but do not steal other people’s images from the internet because studies have shown that stealing is wrong.

Use a call to action.

What do you want your readers to do? Sign up to the newsletter (it may have been forwarded)? Forward the email? Buy a tote bag? Flatten their tummy? Make this simple (don’t have more than one main call to action) and clear (put it on a button) or just simply-worded text.

SPREAD THE WORD

A good way to get read is to allow your reader plenty of ways to spread the love to their own networks: use social media buttons in your newsletter so it’s easy for them to forward, follow, like, share, pin, and tweet.

On your end, get active on social media by picking that one lead story from your newsletter campaign this week, and putting it out there. Include a link to your last newsletter and get that call to action going: Subscribe!

MEASURING SUCCESS

When in doubt, go for love, not likes.

In email land, that means asking yourself bluntly: Do we matter to you (open rate)? Are we useful (new subscribers)? Do we give you what you want?

Sometimes, success could be as simple as getting a reply. Sometimes it’s finding out that someone else recommended the newsletter.

But most often, success is actually getting the damn thing out in the first place — because you’re passionate about your subject, you care about your readers, and because you show up with the best thing their inbox has seen that week.

The Splice newsletter principles

  • Your subscriber list is your product. What you do with it is a service.
  • Cultivate a personal, open connection with readers.
  • Design to be read and to be useful.
  • Take every opportunity to start a conversation.
  • Measure what matters. Go for love, not likes.
  • Don’t lose that trust.
  • Treat your subscribers as members.
  • Don’t just curate. Create opportunities for your readers.
  • Social validation matters. Showcase your members.

Rishad Patel is a product and design professional. He is the co-founder of The Splice Newsroom and is responsible for developing the company’s products and services. Follow Rishad Patel on Twitter.

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We’re Alan Soon and Rishad Patel, and there’s more about us here.

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