Email Newsletters: Build Your Emails Like a Journalist [Strategy Template]

Nathanael Yellis By Nathanael Yellis • Last Updated December 23, 2021

Every time we think email is dying, it returns.

The latest return of email is the reemergence of newsletters. From Substack and Revue to legacy publishers, every journalist seems to have an email. For freelancers, it’s because paid email subscriptions are the way to monetize social followers. Even employed journalists’ Twitter accounts link to an email subscription. Twitter bought GetRevue (which is my preferred email newsletter platform). Upstarts like the Morning Brew and Axios are building media companies around people’s inboxes. From The New York Times to The Atlantic, legacy media companies are selling email newsletters.

Why is email back? I think it’s because unlike websites, apps, and feeds, email is a neutral place where people already are and they are used to making it through their inbox. That habit is really hard to create in other online experiences.

Competing for attention in the inbox is tough: when every business and journalist sends a newsletter, how can yours stand out?

Media newsletters have great content, but often a vaguely defined audience. Vice versa for more digital marketers: they know their audience (precisely!), but marketing emails are usually thinly veiled sales pitches.

Want a New Year's resolution? Make this the year that your organization’s email step up its game:

  • Stop cookie cutter newsletters
  • Cut impersonal corporate-speak
  • Don’t ask for anything before offering something

In other words: approach your emails like a journalist. Build something so good that people would pay to get it.

Media emails work because they are personal (from the writer), offer value (whole article in the email), and make the actions requested secondary. If your emails are personal and improve the recipients’ day, then you can compete with the Substacks of the world. If not, then you’ll get drowned out.

What Makes a Good Email Newsletter

I can see why journalists turn to Substack. Casey Newton, one of the better tech beat writers, founded an outlet called Platformer in September of 2020. His piece on a year being a one-man media company, called “What I learned from a year on Substack” is excellent: the glimpse at the publishing side of the business is interesting, but I found the lessons he learned about his subscribers far more compelling. For example, he thought interviews with tech’s big bosses would be compelling, but they weren’t. Getting to know an audience and learning to serve them is the sine qua non of any decent email newsletter.

And, of course, I like the work the writers at The Dispatch publish. But email newsletter can be more than media outfits.

Here’s an example of a marketing email run in the newsletter style: Marlow’s “The Challenge” (a sample post). This one works well because its subject line shows clearly the message’s action/focus so you can decide if you want to dive in further. In addition, the email has:

  • Prior to the body, the estimated read time
  • A quick explainer of the importance/impact of that day's focus
  • 3-step instructions on how to practice it yourself
  • Pro-tips and additional relevant resources

What don’t they do? Make you click through to their website to read the article or get value: it all happens in the email itself. They probably do drive some clicks–and those are the people actually interested in their services.

I’ve also grown to like author Gracy Olmstead’s “Granola” (here’s a sample of her monthly sends). The monthly cadence seems like something a real person could maintain–and it makes the first day of each month a bit of a highlight for me. The email is long, thoughtful, and links widely to essays, podcasts, or recipes she likes, and then lightly and subtly promotes her book or other paid offerings.

These are emails it takes a lot of time to write, but the experience of receiving and reading them is truly delightful. Subscribers are much more likely to trust your emails if the emails themselves offer something more than a sales pitch, and that’s the strategy of emails as newsletters.

How to Rebuild Your Emails as Newsletters

To help make this practical, I created a quick template to help you cast your emails as newsletters. It’s a series of questions about your audience, topics, tone, and tactics. The answers to those questions will help you assemble what I’m calling an “email newsletter charter,” a one-sentence purpose statement for your email.

I went through the questions for my email “Reading”, a weekly missive that I send to friends and professional acquaintances on technology and cultural topics. I’ve been sending it since 2015, it has had ups and downs, and the template helped me figure out why the newsletter works.

To see my answers, you can look over my shoulder in this Google Doc. Here’s the resulting purpose statement:

Email Newsletter Charter for “Reading by Nathanael Yellis”

Audience

We will send an email to …

I email my professional network

Cadence

… every …

every Friday

Theme/Topics

… on …

a set of 3-5 good links on marketing technology, politics, religion, or personal interests

Tone/Approach

… with a sense of …

with an intro covering my thinking on the topics from the links

Goal

… to help us _____.

to help us stay connected and for my work at HubSpot to be top of mind for them.

Newsletter Strategy Template

(The link above is to a copy-able Google Doc.)

Approaching email newsletters like a journalist requires a rigorous commitment to the audience and a big investment of time in topic selection, link curation, and the writing itself. But it’s worth it! The investment is table stakes for earning attention in people’s inboxes.



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