Sure, they’ve always been a thing, but let’s be real — today’s newsletters are not your grandpa’s newsletter. And they’re serious stuff: You need to be in the game and your audiences’ expectations are high. Readers demand fresh, relevant content, and reward those who provide it with valuable metrics and will follow the sender’s lead.
Need proof? Look no further than the venture capital pouring into Substack.
Need further proof? In 2019, Wired.com reported that a visitor referred by a newsletter was 20x more likely to become a subscriber than a visitor referred by search. Vox readers referred by a newsletter spend an average of 110 seconds on the site, compared to the 40 seconds of Facebook visitors. (We could go on.)
Inboxes are inundated, yes, but the challenge is worth the reward. Whether you’re aiming to launch a newsletter, or are looking to add some juice to your existing communications, the strategy for cutting through the noise is the same:
- Know what’s out there.
- Determine what works, and what doesn’t.
- Take “what works” and make it your own.
Lucky for you, we’ve taken care of the first two.
Step 1: What’s Out There
To get our sample set of communications, we asked our entire team to gear-up and go on the prowl. For weeks we collected newsletters as they landed in our inboxes, then analyzed each one, comparing and contrasting them to one another. Ultimately, we landed on the following categories — think of them as three distinct appeals:
If you’re going ‘rich,’ you’re going big. For Type Directors Club (top) this meant a single stylish and abstract animated gif accompanied by a concise 200 words. William Blair (center) committed to the idea with one high-contrast photograph and two sentences of copy. Investment News (bottom) hits you right away with something unexpected — Iceberg Licking Society?? — and impossible not to click on.
While the length of copy varies, all three share two things in common: A single strong headline and a single bold, rich image.
“Reliable” means establishing yourself as the authority. As the most abstract of the bunch, this concept can take many forms, but the effect on the reader is the same: This sender knows what they’re talking about. They’ve done the homework and aren’t afraid to say, “You need to know this.” Daily Skim (top) goes with a single topic, and presents the information in a conversational Q&A style. CNN (center) proudly declares, “These are the 5 things you need to know today.” Adobe (bottom) leans on white space and crisp illustrations to make their case, and adds a simple and clear CTA cherry on top.
The variety of examples helps illustrate the room for creativity. They all exude savvy and curated vibes, focus like a laser on exactly what they want the reader to know, and position themselves as an authority the reader should rely on.
Keep it “real” by putting people front-and-center. Looking at the examples, the visual component is obvious: Lead with pictures of people! Beyond that, we saw examples of organizations leading with photographs of their employees and leadership in traditionally unflattering fashion (e.g. candid, ambient lighting, mobile camera quality).
But don’t be fooled. This approach is about much more than imagery. It’s about stories. Stories of real people, of challenges their audience can relate to, answers to questions their audience likely has. Wells Fargo (top) spotlights beneficiaries of their social and outreach programs. Merrill (center) opts to promote an upcoming panel by playing down the logo and featuring the speaker’s faces rather than type treatments or graphic design. The Hartford (bottom) includes close-ups of hands and glasses to emphasize the personal — the human.
Step 2: What Works
The strengths of each approach come with requirements: If you go “rich,” you’ll always need a single story or message worthy of the inbox real estate, as well as an a-typical and eye-catching image. “Reliable” requires a strong and well-founded point of view, which can sound deceptively simple. The “Real” appeal is in relatable stories, and means you or your subjects must being willing to put yourself (and your face) out there.
With that in mind, let’s look at some do’s and don’ts for each:
- Make sure the image has high-contrast and full (but not gaudy) saturation. That image needs to be cut out of the reader’s screen. Also make sure it reads on mobile; if there are small details that are important to the image’s meaning, choose something else.
- Consider animation. Even subtle motion can do wonders for separating your comms wheat from the inbox chaff.
- Limit word count. Let the image be the hero. If the body has more than 75 words, make sure the case for each word is airtight.
- Trust your instincts. This approach is going to feel uncomfortable. You’re going to second-guess it. But you’ve landed on this approach for a reason, and your gut can be surprisingly insightful.
- Don’t over-position. Audiences’ malarkey radars are more attuned than ever. Be honest about where your authority lies, then play to it.
- Think story first. A compelling image loses its impact almost immediately if the story doesn’t back it up. Likewise, an inspirational story can make a seemingly average photograph infinitely more beautiful. If you think for a moment, you likely can recall examples you’ve seen of both.
- Don’t be scared of scuff. The realest images often aren’t the most polished. You do need a standard — blur and especially pixelation can reach an unacceptable point — but your audience will forgive image quality if it hits home.
Step 3: Make It Your Own
It’s time to put your newfound knowledge to work! Compare these various approaches against your organization’s mission, brand proposition, target audience and communications goals. Perhaps you can use one “out of the box,” or maybe you see a way to combine two?
We’d love to hear where you’re at in your newsletter efforts, and what you’re seeing in the competitive landscape. If there’s an opportunity for us to help, don’t hesitate to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org — we can always find a few minutes to chat.