Does Your Newsletter Need More Personality?

Your daily or weekly newsletter may be set up as a list of links right now, but many inbox competitors these days have grown much chattier and voice-driven. Should you follow suit?

In recent years, email newsletters have gone from purely professional platforms to a preferred medium for amateurs or solo entrepreneurs to attract readers to niches as diverse as Chinese politics and dust. (Literally, I’ve read newsletters about dust.)

I think the rise of these kinds of newsletters is largely a good thing for people who like reading, but their evolution creates questions about whether association newsletters need to adapt.

This is not a totally new phenomenon, and it’s seen some interest in associations already—five years ago this month, I featured an experimental effort by association consultant Jeff De Cagna to create a curated newsletter. But in those five years, a lot has happened to change the media landscape, turning the concept from emerging to mainstay.

In particular, services such as Substack, Revue, and the content management platform Ghost have emerged to give tiny niche newsletters a subscription-based business model. Substack has become something of a phenomenon in the writing community: Some of its largest paid newsletters make enough to be full-time businesses for their creators. And there have been some major newsletter-only success stories, including theSkimm, Morning Brew, and The Hustle, that borrow more from the more personal editorial newsletters than they do from the lists of links. (Newsletters are not immune to the economic tides, however—theSkimm recently announced layoffs.)

The result is that there are a lot more voices out there clamoring for a share of your 10-minute morning email scroll. And honestly, this could create problems for more spartan approaches down the line.

Many associations have likely invested a lot in tactics that get people to click links. It makes the results easy to track. But given the shift in the market toward chattier editorial newsletters, it’s worth questioning whether that remains the right long-term approach.

Voices Carry

For newsletters by more traditional organizations and brands, the secret to standing out given the added email competition may be to embrace some more voice-friendly strategies. A few ideas:

Give primary ownership of the newsletter to one person. For years, DC has been getting some of its hottest news from Mike Allen, the former Politico and current Axios reporter whose pitter-patter of reporting has come to define the way that many political types consume information in Washington. His style of newsletter-writing—and you can tell it’s him, right off the bat—is a model that associations might draw inspiration from, because many readers know it well. Other organizations, such as the nonprofit Poynter Institute, have followed suit with this strategy, making the voice the big star—in Poynter’s case, by handing its primary newsletter, The Poynter Report, to its senior editor, Tom Jones. (In many ways, it’s an extension of Poynter’s legacy on this front, as the longtime home of front-facing media blogger Jim Romenesko.)

Work on your voice-to-information ratio. In a blog post for the email newsletter provider Revue, writer Liza Jansen of the popular Dutch platform Newspresso [Dutch language] says that quippy comments shouldn’t come at the cost of brevity and information delivery. “Paragraphs in a newsletter, however, need to serve the reader by coming straight to the point,” she explains. “That’s because newsletters are not (yet) regarded as a go-to platform for long-form article reading, but rather for the consumption of news and facts in between work and to-dos.” Of course, some of that is also context—if you have convinced your readers to stick around for something long, they’ll stay with you.

Make sure the voice matches the content. These days, we’re dealing with a lot of heavy stuff in the news cycle—including COVID-19, stories of police brutality, and wide-scale protests—and it can often prove challenging to find the right tone to cover this information, especially if it’s not necessarily your focus. In a recent post about the COVID-19 crisis, Kelsey Bernius of SendGrid suggests taking a balanced approach. “Now would be a good time to adjust the tone and focus on the facts and developments within your control,” she writes. “But don’t over-correct so much and write in such a solemn or dire tone that you increase the recipient’s stress.”

Person or Institution?

One question I think will come up with an approach like this is whether the organization needs to take the lead or if an individual voice (an influencer, of sorts) is best for pushing the right tone forward.

This is ultimately a question that your organization will have to answer for itself, potentially with the help of an outside party. My advice, though, would be to consider how your audience reacts to messaging driven by authenticity. If they take that style of messaging seriously—and some sectors do more than others—that should be a factor in what you end up doing.

But a lot of newsletters have moved beyond being just a list of links—and they’ve found success by shifting from that model. Perhaps yours should, too.

(Marta Shershen/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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