Eyeing the opportunity to add the term “thought leader” to your resume? Perhaps a curated newsletter written under your own name—rather than your association’s—could do the trick. Principled Innovation’s Jeff De Cagna highlights the lessons he’s gained from launching his own newsletter.
Associations know newsletters a lot better than most organizations. But is the organizational “voice” a bit old-hat?
In recent years, curated newsletters—often written by a single person—have become more common as part of our media diets. Today in Tabs, perhaps the best-known newsletter of the type, has become a staple of New York City media circles—despite the fact that its founder, Rusty Foster, lives in Maine. Digital strategist and former Obama campaigner Laura Olin has similarly drawn buzz for her newsletter Everything Changes, as has theSkimm, a daily news roundup written by two twentysomething Chicagoites.
(Disclosure: Outside of my association-covering gig, I run a newsletter, too. You mean you don’t have one?)
A new person to add to that list? Principled Innovation’s Jeff De Cagna, who back in April launched the Association Contrarian Report, a twice-monthly newsletter aimed at bringing new perspectives to the association world.
De Cagna is well-suited for this kind of newsletter: He’s known among association pros for his somewhat edgy takes on membership and similar topics—including this guest-blog series that ran on Associations Now a couple years ago. But the format creates a great balance for him—an ability to keep his voice active online without taking up a huge amount of time.
“I’m doing this because I have a sincere interest in pushing a different kind of conversation,” he explains.
De Cagna’s goal with the newsletter—which has thus far covered topics such as The New York Times‘ 2014 innovation report, an evolution of the auto industry away from car ownership, the move away from meaningless jobs, and (ironically) the forthcoming obsolescence of email—is not to round up a conversation, but to start one.
A Platform for Email Curation
This idea of newsletter as conversation-starter is shared by Dave Verwer, the creator of the popular iOS Dev Weekly newsletter, which highlights key discussions for developers focused on Apple’s mobile platforms. In his case, however, it tends to be in the form of personal email discussions.
“I get many replies every week and while some are as simple as a quick thank you, others give opinions on the content, or suggest follow-up articles,” he explains.
The success that Verwer has seen with his own newsletter led him to create an email distribution service of his own called Curated. The paid service, which starts at $25 per month and has been active for the past year or so, makes it easy to collect links, offer up an opinion on those links, and email them to a broad audience. De Cagna is relying on the service to publish his Association Contrarian Report twice a month and credits Curated with making the process manageable for him.
While other such services, like TinyLetter and GoodBits, have gained notice for their dead-simple take on email newsletter creation, Curated’s approach is particularly notable for offering a visually striking look that’s not overly complex to customize.
“All I have to do is think about what I have to put in,” De Cagna says.
Unlike more traditional email marketing platforms like MailChimp or ExactTarget, Curated doesn’t push end users toward building their own templates. The strategy is akin to web platforms such as Medium or Tumblr.
“Publishers do get a few design choices and customizations, but it’s more about applying your brand or personality on top of the standard template,” Verwer explains. “Users get to choose colors, logos, background images, and that kind of thing, but it can still all be set up in a few minutes.”
I’m doing this because I have a sincere interest in pushing a different kind of conversation.
Wanna Make Your Own Newsletter?
Building a curated email under your own name—rather than under the guise of an organization—comes with a different set of needs than you might be used to in building association emails for marketing purposes.
Some thoughts on the matter from De Cagna and Verwer:
Take advantage of an existing audience. Verwer notes that many of his Curated customers have managed to build newsletters with as many as 20,000 subscribers—in part by taking advantage of their existing audiences in specific niches. De Cagna has similarly built his early reader base through his business relationships and recent speaking engagements.
The schedule matters. Often, the hardest part about writing can be jumping on the high horse in the first place. Consistency matters—if you know you’re sending out a newsletter once a week on a certain day, you can plan accordingly. “I have been publishing every single Friday for four years now, and with a less strict deadline, I am sure I wouldn’t have been able to keep up the regularity,” Verwer notes.
Find your own pace. De Cagna and Verwer have different working styles—Jeff says he spends six to eight hours curating and writing each issue, while Dave often adds to his newsletter when he finds interesting items via his aggressive Twitter-reading strategy. But De Cagna notes that, even though “the first few issues were a lot of work,” things have started to get a little easier as he’s learned to better read his audience and the approach required for the newsletter.
Should you advertise? It’s certainly a possibility down the road, but ultimately it should be a secondary concern to building an initial audience. Verwer, who has baked in advertising options on Curated, says he approached sponsorship slowly with iOS Dev Weekly—and suggests other newsletter creators do the same. “So, as a tip, I’d suggest not to rush it,” Verwer says. “Concentrate on making your publication successful first, and only then consider taking sponsorship. Always keep your focus on the quality of your links and commentary, though. That’s the key.”
A Way to Engage Your Community?
In the end, this kind of email-driven thought leadership could prove useful for building authority in a given community, as well as helping expand or create a community of your own.
De Cagna has started a private LinkedIn community for his readers to discuss issues raised in his report. And some other Curated newsletters, such as the auto-fanatic site Weekly Revs, have launched private Slack channels for their audiences to meet and mingle. Verwer has considered doing something similar, but ultimately he says that curation is a great way to get the engagement started.
“Conversation is a great way to keep on track with this, to find out where you’re doing a good job or whether you’re missing important content,” Verwer explains. “Ultimately, whether that conversation is on Slack, LinkedIn, Twitter, or anywhere else doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s happening.”
De Cagna, meanwhile, says it’s an approach that could carry water for association executives who want to dip their toes into the whole thought-leadership thing. He’s already helped the Canadian Society of Association Executives launch a Curated newsletter of their own, and he says it’s a great way for associations to experiment with their messaging.
That said, the shift in strategy can be a little tough to sell. “It’s not only an operational challenge, but a political one,” De Cagna explains.
But with so many emails hitting our inboxes on a daily basis, perhaps these discussions should be happening more often.
Maybe—once in a while, at least—the brand should take a back seat to a smart voice that represents its greatest values.